BDS: “BS,” or a just cause?
Throughout history, boycotts have been used to bring about social and global change and fight injustice, from the Birmingham bus boycotts, to NBA fans recently threatening to boycott the Clippers.
Now, the country of Israel has become the target of a worldwide academic boycott.
The highly controversial Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions initiative has been voted on at universities across the globe, including several California universities including the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles.
According to www.bdsmovement.net, the website of the Palestinian BDS National Committee, BDS is defined as “the global movement for a campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.”
Peace talks between Israel and Palestine concerning issues such as BDS were suspended on Thursday, but the subject has been the talk of college students for months now.
On Feb. 25, UCLA voted on the initiative to boycott businesses that allegedly profit from the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Students from both sides of the issue endured 12 hours of debate before student government members reached a resolution on the bill. The hearing lasted until 6:30 a.m., for which hundreds of students remained.
One of those students was third year Santa Monica College student Mati Cohen, an aspiring UCLA transfer who attended in opposition to the bill.
“It was a good learning experience. I think it’s important for transfer students going to UC’s, or any other higher education schools, to know that there are groups like this targeting a particular community with the intention to demonize and defame under the guise of defense of human rights and national struggle,” Cohen said.
On the flipside of the coin was UCLA alumna Marjan Goudarzi, who attended the meeting in support of divestment. According to Goudarzi, the way anti-divestment students described the bill was flawed.
“Many anti-divestment people began framing the issue as an anti-Israeli bill,” she said. “However, the bill at UCLA is to divest from companies that are involved in the occupation of Palestinian land. It never once asked the university to divest from the cultural appreciation of Israel. It is a pro human rights bill.”
A concern of BDS is that it immediately alleges motives of anti-Semitism, but as Goudarzi believes, this idea is a fallacy.
“I believe that divestment is important and necessary,” Goudarzi said. “UCLA students should have a right to know that their tuition is going towards their education in a way that that does not violate the rights of those around the world.”
BDS is not merely a political or social debate. The religious implications of the initiative have had a forceful impact on Jewish and Muslim students on a deeply emotional level.
“I sat in that meeting and I cried multiple times,” Goudarzi said. “As a Muslim woman, I heard very hateful speech. I looked around the room and I thought to myself, ‘look at the hatred in here.’”
At UCLA, the initiative failed to pass with a vote of 7-5.
“Even though the bill did not pass, it opened a forum for [students] to demonize Israel, accuse it of crimes, and alienate the Jewish community, which has done more damage than the bill would have done if it passed,” Cohen said.
Rabbi Eli Levitansky of Chabad at SMC, also against BDS, described three aspects of the initiative that he considered problematic.
“If they were to pass the divestment, Palestinians will be losing out just as much as the Israelis,” Levitansky claimed.
He cited the recent BDS campaign that pressured actress Scarlett Johansson to discontinue her association with SodaStream, which has a branch in the West Bank, after her appearance in the brand’s commercial.
“These companies are also invested in the Palestinian territories, so by boycotting them, they are making it worse for the Palestinians as well,” he said.
According to Levitansky, the branch in the West Bank employs hundreds of Palestinians, and shutting them down would do more harm than good.
“If the point of the divestment is actually to ‘punish’ states that have human rights violations, then there should be the same movements invested in Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, almost every single Arab country or state," Levitansky said. "And yet, there is not one group which is coming out with the same initiative within these countries."
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expounded on this idea in his speech at this year’s Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in Washington D.C.
“The BDS movement is not about legitimate criticism, it’s about making Israel illegitimate. It presents a distorted and twisted picture of Israel to the naive and to the ignorant,” Netanyahu said at the conference.
The UCLA divestment vote has furthermore garnered feelings of resentment between Jewish and Muslim students.
In the official press release following the school’s BDS resolution, UCLA Students for Justice in Palestine remarked that, “denying the human rights of Palestinian students and their communities was an acceptable sacrifice in order to maintain a status quo that prioritized anti-divestment students' feelings over Palestinian students who suffer ongoing, everyday violence.”
Like both Cohen and Goudarzi, the UCLA SJP felt the hours of public commentary to be “painful,” but considered the discussion a necessary step in order to publicly expose their perceived denial of Palestinian security.
The BDS resolution passed at the University of California, Berkeley last year, gathering congratulations from supporters and an introduction of a new resolution by disparaged opponents that called for a two-state solution.
It is the stark contrast in opinion such as with the BDS issue that illustrates the existing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, leaving the political world to wonder if the historical struggle will ever be resolved.
While hearings such as the campus BDS conferences serve as an open medium to discuss both sides of this dispute, one must reflect on whether reintroducing the topic simultaneously makes way for further divide.
“Before people jump at trying to help humanity just because it sounds right, they should do the proper research about what is happening,” Levitansky urged. “It is very easy to play with people’s emotions, and people will sign many things without thinking because it feels right. But people need to know, especially students, that before they jump to conclusions they should do the proper research because what they are saying or signing is making an impact.”