Is a boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement like the one against South Africa the best method for ending the occupation and resolving the conflict? 


Boycotts of Israeli institutions and products are becoming an increasingly popular form of resistance to the continuing Israeli military occupation amongst Palestinians and international peace and justice activists, including many Jewish critics of Israeli policy.  Many Palestinians and other supporters of Palestinian rights wishing to see an end to the occupation argue that an international boycott movement modeled on the South African boycott is one of the last resort options left to try and put pressure on Israel to change its policies and end the occupation because nothing else so far has worked, and the repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories seems to be getting worse rather than better, especially considering the destructive 2008-2009 Gaza assault and the more recent on in 2014.  These activists see boycott and divestment as a legitimate nonviolent means of pressuring Israel.  Some activists, however, argue that boycotts must be narrowly selective or they will be counterproductive.  And many supporters of Israel believe that boycotts against Israel are simply a form of anti-Semitism, partly because of the long history of boycotts against Jews, including in Nazi Germany.

The Palestinian-led global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against the state of Israel began in 2005 when over 170 Palestinian civil organizations called for the international community to divest from Israeli academic and cultural institutions in order to protest the ongoing occupation and put pressure on Israeli citizens and the government to take serious steps to end the occupation and recognize Palestinian rights.  The three stated goals of the BDS movement include the following:

  1. 1.Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and         dismantling the Wall;

  2. 2.Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality;

  3. 3.Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

The BDS movement includes an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions—rather than Israeli individuals.  The general rule for this BDS is patterned on the international boycott of South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, and proponents support boycotting any Israeli product, cultural or sporting event that either directly profits from the Israeli occupation or that is funded or sponsored by the Israeli government or official Israeli institutions.  So, if an event is sponsored by an agency of the Israeli government, then it would be appropriate for boycott, but an individual Israeli who is participating in an event that is not affiliated with or supported by an official Israeli institution would not be boycotted just because he or she is Israeli. The BDS website describes when a cultural product is appropriate for boycott:

Palestinians and many peace and social justice advocates around the world see the BDS movement as the primary nonviolent tool available to Palestinians and their supporters to resist the Israeli occupation.  Activists who support BDS argue that Israel has continued to occupy, oppress, and deny equal rights and self-determination to the Palestinian people, and have refused to end settlement construction, and yet Israel has continued to receive wide official international support, especially from western nations. All recent attempts at US-brokered peace talks have failed miserably. Thus, BDS activists argue, one of the few effective and ethical strategies left at this point is for the international community to begin to put direct pressure on Israel to change its policies.  BDS activists argue that Israelis need to feel there is a price to continuing the occupation.  Rather than the “price” of violent terrorist attacks, almost all Palestinians now support the nonviolent strategy of boycott as one of the most important forms of resistance to the occupation.

However, some Israeli and international peace activists argue that selective divestment from Israeli or international companies that support or profit directly from the settlements or the occupation would be more effective than a wider boycott of Israeli institutions.  They argue that a wider boycott against official Israeli economic, cultural, and/or academic institutions may backfire because it will cause most Israelis to feel more isolated and defensive, and that they may interpret a global boycott campaign against Israel as just another example of international anti-Semitism.  These critics of a South Africa-style BDS movement against Israel argue that while its aims are legitimate, it may be counterproductive because by making Israelis feel even more isolated and fearful, it may drive Israelis even farther to the right and farther away from peace, thus undermining the intention of the boycott.  Since the failure of Oslo and especially the terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada, many Israelis have become more and more right-wing (as the elections of Netanyahu’s Likud party and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu demonstrates), and some Israeli peace activists believe that a wide cultural and academic boycott will only exacerbate this troubling trend. 

Other critics of BDS argue that it harms “academic freedom” and “freedom of speech,” that it unfairly singles out Israel, and that by focusing on the right of return, the BDS movement’s ultimate goal is to implement a one-state solution that would “destroy” Israel as a Jewish state.

One common response that BDS supporters give to critics of a boycott of Israeli institutions is that Israel is effectively imposing a boycott against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza every day, so that it seems hypocritical for BDS opponents to say that a boycott will unfairly single out Israel or somehow deny Israeli freedom of speech--because Israel has been restricting the activities of residents of the occupied territories for years.  The democratically-elected Hamas government has been boycotted by Israel and the international community since they won the 2006 elections--with many of the elected Hamas representatives having been jailed by Israel after the elections.  Since Hamas took complete control of Gaza in 2007, and with Egyptian cooperation, Israel has imposed a harsh blockade, allowing only basic humanitarian necessities in, and otherwise severely restricting not only access to necessary goods and services, but also preventing Palestinians from leaving and only rarely allowing human rights activists and international politicians from entering Gaza.  For Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza, Israel often denies international travel permits for students and activists who are not security risks but who may have been openly critical of Israeli policy.  Israel has denied entry to international and U.S. academics, including Noam Chomsky, because they have been openly critical of the Israeli government.  The Israeli government has also arrested and detained several Palestinian nonviolent activists whose only crime was participating in and organizing nonviolent demonstrations.  Leftist Israeli activists have also been detained and interrogated for nonviolent activities.  For these reasons, not to mention the checkpoints, curfews, closures, home demolitions, and continuing land confiscations imposed on Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, complaints that a boycott of Israeli institutions is somehow “unfair” or inherently “anti-Semitic” ring hollow.

Palestinians and solidarity activists who have endorsed the full BDS Call emphasize the right of return as a sacred right under international law and the only way to address the injustices of the dispossession of over 750,000 Palestinians in 1947-1948, as well as the continued suffering of millions of these refugees and their descendants.  Neither the BDS movement nor the BDS Call takes a position on the final political outcome of the conflict and instead focus on a right-based approach grounded in international law and universal human rights. Thus, BDS activists include both supporters of a two-state solution and a one-state solution; as long as all three principles are recognized and endorsed, the final resolution could take a variety of forms.

Palestinians and their supporters do not seek the right of return in order to “destroy” Israel but rather to address the ongoing injustice of the occupation and suffering of Palestinians. Implementing the right of return in a way that would allow a significant number of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel would likely alter the demographic balance of the state, but it wouldn’t “destroy” Israel. Even if the return of a significant number of refugees did somewhat erode the Jewish majority within Israel, it would only bring the demographic balance closer to what it would have been under the 1947 UN Partition plan accepted by Israel—and if so many Palestinian had not been forced to flee and then prevented from returning in the first place. Even without the right of return, 20% of Israel’s population is made up of Palestinian citizens of Israel (also called Israeli Arabs). These citizens’ higher birthrate already makes the “demographic problem” something that Israel will have to come to terms with one way or another—even without the right of return.

Despite some disagreement over when and how to apply BDS, the global BDS campaign is gaining international supporters all the time.  Many organizations and institutions in Europe and the United States, including churches, universities, and other institutions have recently passed or attempted to pass resolutions that would initiate divestment from Israeli institutions or companies (often US-owned) that directly profit from some aspect of the Israeli occupation.  And many grassroots peace groups have begun promoting the boycott of products and companies that profit from or support the occupation, including Caterpillar, AHAVA, and Tribe and Sabra hummus brands.  Some European countries have begun demanding the labeling of goods produced in Israeli settlements so that consumers can decide for themselves whether to support settlement-made goods. 

In July of 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law that makes it a civil crime for Israeli citizens to advocate boycott, divestment, or sanctions against Israel, the settlements, or companies who support the occupation.  In addition to strong criticism from Israeli peace activists, this law has been condemned by many in the international community and in the US as undemocratic.  Even the American Anti-Defamation League has criticized the undemocratic nature of this law.  A few Israeli human rights organizations have filed lawsuits against this new law in the Israeli courts.

  1. For an exhaustive and well-researched list of Israeli and international companies that directly profit in some way from the Israeli occupation, see this site set up by the Israeli organization Coalition of Women for Peace:


  3. A list of over 25 Israeli, U.S., and international companies that directly profit from the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians as described by the United Methodist task force on Divestment:


  5. The Palestinian BDS campaign’s home page:

  6. BDS 101 presentation:


  8. Omar Barghouti on why Israel fears BDS:


  10. A response to the claim that the BDS movement unfairly singles out Israel from a BDS supporter:


  12. The US Campaign to End the Occupation briefly discusses the history of boycott’s as part of the history of peace and justice movements in the US:


  14. Article that addresses the critiques of BDS from some members of the Israeli left:


  16. Israeli professor Neve Gordon’s Op-ed on why he supports BDS, originally published in the Los Angeles Times:


  18. Another Israeli professor defends Gordon’s call for boycott and refutes the claim to academic freedom:


  20. Neve Gordon responds to misunderstandings of BDS:


  22. Naomi Klein on why she finally decided to support boycott:


  24. Gideon Levy of Haaretz on Israeli criticism of BDS:


  26. An Israeli organization that promotes BDS from within:


  28. Article about the recent attempt to divest from companies with ties to the Israeli occupation at UC Berkeley:


  30. An activist tries to explain misunderstandings about BDS:


  32. Piece by a Berkeley peace activist about why selective divestment is the right choice:


  34. Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom on why he supports a selective rather than general boycott:


  36. Article about Chomsky’s critique of BDS against Israel:


  38. Argument that favors boycott of the State of Israel in addition to settlement products:


  40. *Haaretz article on Israel’s denial of Noam Chomsky’s entry into the West Bank: