Modeled on the international campaign of economic and political pressure that helped bring an end to South African apartheid nearly two decades ago, the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories has notched notable victories of late.
Achievements include the announcement in April that the flagship London outlet of Ahava, an Israeli cosmetics company that reportedly manufactures its products in an illegal West Bank settlement, is losing its lease in response to years of protest. In February, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger joined a roster of artists honoring the boycott of Israel, including Elvis Costello, Dustin Hoffman, Gil Scott-Heron, Johnny Depp and the Pixies.
Defenders of Israel dismiss these victories as minor irritants, but the government has reacted with alarm. In February the Knesset gave initial approval to a bill criminalizing advocacy of BDS. Israeli commentators, including the influential Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, have called the BDS movement a “strategic threat” to the state of Israel. And the United States, Israel’s patron, has joined the chorus of critics. “When academics from Israel are boycotted — this is not objecting to a policy — this is anti-Semitism,” Hannah Rosenthal, the State Department’s envoy on combating anti-Semitism, said in an April 2 speech.
Rosenthal’s statement came right after the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem approved a long-delayed visa for Omar Barghouti, a leading figure in the BDS movement. Author of the new book, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, Barghouti was forced to postpone a tour of U.S. college campuses after his visa was held up for four months. In response an international campaign bombarded the consulate with phone calls
The attempt at scuttling Barghouti’s tour comes as no surprise in the context of increased U.S. and Israeli government scrutiny of the BDS movement’s growing popularity. Barghouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and award-winning journalist Max Blumenthal refers to Barghouti as “one of the BDS movement’s most effective strategists and promoters.”
I met up with Barghouti after his publisher, Haymarket Books, rescheduled his tour for April. Sitting in a crowded coffee shop in Manhattan, Barghouti talked about building on his experience as an anti-apartheid campaigner by focusing his attention on U.S. college campuses. “When I was in the anti-apartheid movement, we knew that we won when Columbia, Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, Princeton divested. That was the beginning of the end for the apartheid system in South Africa.”