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September 1, 2014 9:05 am

How the Gaza War Has Affected the BDS Movement

avatar by Alexander Joffe

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Photo: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.


In August the Gaza war created a massive upswing in worldwide BDS activity. Economic boycotts of Israel were the most obvious, but impacts were also felt in politics and academia. Initial indications suggest it will be an exceptional year for BDS, especially in academia, and will include anti-Semitic violence and threats.


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Economic boycotts of Israeli goods leapt forward in August, particularly in Britain and Ireland. In one event, pro-Palestinian protestors attacked a supermarket in Birmingham, harassing shoppers and destroying goods. A Jewish-owned cosmetics store in Manchester selling Israeli products was also the target of repeated protests and threats. Police have now restricted the protests.

In central London, a supermarket preemptively removed kosher food displays while a pro-Palestinian protest was being held outside for fear of an attack. This was done despite the fact that kosher food is not exclusively produced in Israel. After wide condemnation, the supermarket later apologized and blamed an individual employee. Several other supermarket branches were temporarily closed in fear of violent protests.

The scene was repeated in Belfast, where pro-Palestinian protestors shouting “From the river to the Sea, Palestine will be free” entered a supermarket and removed Israeli goods. In Dublin “die-ins” were held at several stores stocking Israeli goods. One store preemptively posted a sign claiming that Israeli products had already been removed. Store management later claimed this had been done by without authorization. Another larger supermarket chain also removed Israeli products. Some of these boycotts have been in response to a BDS call from the Irish Mandate Trade Union. These boycott efforts apparently target all Israeli products.

Targeting Israeli products has been made easier by the widespread distribution of smartphone apps permitting shoppers to query databases regarding individual products. This expands on the longtime strategy of Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign of publicizing universal product codes (UPC barcodes) of Israeli products in order to target them. Use of such apps as part of “socially responsible” buying has become more widespread, including in the United States, further politicizing the act of shopping.

Many commentators have noted the acquiescence to threats, violence and overt anti-Semitism from anti-Israel/pro-BDS supporters, especially in Britain. Two additional incidents, however, point to the growing acceptance of anti-Israel discrimination by the British government. The first was a threat by Business Secretary Vince Cable to suspend export of weapons to Israel if a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas broke down. This effectively put the Business Secretary in charge of British foreign policy and gave Hamas a veto.

In another event, Labour MP Shabana Mahmood addressed an anti-Israel rally and called for protests against supermarkets “stocking goods from illegal settlements.” She also retweeted a BDS message calling for supporters to contact their member of parliament and to lobby for BDS. Mahmood later backtracked, claiming that she only supported labeling of products from Israeli communities in the West Bank. But her role on the Labour Party shadow cabinet raises serious concerns regarding that party’s position on BDS.

Despite the hostilities between Israel and Hamas, a British arms embargo has not been initiated. Spain has temporarily banned the export of weapons to Israel pending a reevaluation in September. The controversy over the apparent suspension of certain U.S. weapons transfers to Israel appears to be an unrelated, higher level political issue, but has been applauded by BDS activists.

Israel boycotts by European government remains a concern. In response to European Union (EU) regulations set to go into effect on September 1, Israel ended export of poultry and dairy products produced in the West Bank. The new EU regulations refuse to recognize Israeli agricultural inspections undertaken in the West Bank. Sources are divided as to whether the regulations specifically target Israel. The Israeli Agriculture Ministry has also warned farmers that they must keep lists of materials and products they use that originate in the West Bank and Golan Heights. Agricultural products produced from these materials will no longer be eligible for export to the EU.

Other BDS related protests in August included efforts to block the unloading of Zim Line ships (32% owned by an Israeli company) in U.S. ports. After initially targeting the wrong ship, protestors prevented a ship first from docking in San Francisco and then from being unloaded in Oakland for four days. Despite a similar protest a Zim Line ship was unloaded without delay in Tacoma. The local longshoreman union announced that it would not be pressured by BDS activists and a fight broke out when activists attempted to prevent longshoreman from entering the port.

Miscellaneous BDS news from the economic sphere includes a false press release claiming that Intel had abandoned its investment in Israel over the Gaza war. And the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) issued a statement calling for a boycott of Israel and demanding South African Jews “stop their Zionist propaganda in Cape Town, failing which we will boycott and call strikes at all of their member – and supporting companies and organizations.” The South African Board of Jewish Deputies has taken legal action against COSATU and its leader, Tony Ehrenreich. The union has a long history of threats and anti-Semitism.


BDS in academia had been on a slower track thanks to the summer recess but the Gaza war has seen a number of important developments that portend an active and violent school year.

Of direct relevance to students was an incident at Temple University where a Jewish student was verbally and physically attacked by an individual associated with Students for Justice in Palestine. The group later issued an apology, claiming the attack was not made by one of its members. Temple University claims to be investigating the incident.

BDS calls intensified in various academic settings. The executive committee of the American Studies Association (ASA), which in late 2013 endorsed BDS, called for the U.S. to end support for Israel. At the same time, Penn State Harrisburg has withdrawn from the ASA over its anti-Israel stance. BDS resolutions were also pushed by student groups in South Africa, Britain, and by a unionized group of graduate students in the U.S. The latter move met with public condemnations from groups opposed to BDS.

A group of more than a hundred Middle East specialists signed a letter calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that was published on the Arab Studies Institute web site. The letter endorses the Palestinian “right of return” and thus the destruction of Israel. Signers include numerous well-known BDS supporters. Another petition by a group calling itself “Historians against the War” also accused Israel of “war crimes” and demanded the U.S. withdraw support. The group was originally formed in 2003 in opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq but largely went into abeyance until this year. Observers have noted the historians’ stance objectively supports Hamas.

One unusual development was the withdrawal of a job offer by the University of Illinois to Steven Salaita, a prominent BDS supporter. Salaita had already resigned his previous job when the Illinois offer was withdrawn by the chancellor. The circumstances surrounding the decisionremain unclear but various academics as well as BDS supporters point to his anti-Israel stance, in particular his numerous and viscerally hostile tweets and publications.


In August, BDS also expanded enormously on the cultural front. In a well-publicized development, London’s Tricycle Theater announced that it would no longer host the annual UK Jewish Film Festival due to the fact that the festival received financial support from the Israeli Embassy. After widespread criticism, including the UK Culture Secretary, and the apparent realization that many of its supporters are Jewish, the theater changed course. This year’s festival, however, will be held elsewhere.

At the annual Edinburgh Festival, organizers canceled the performance of an Israeli dance company, claiming that the “logistics of policing and stewarding the protest” by pro-Palestinian groups would be unmanageable. As a protest against the exclusion, the dance performance was held outdoors. Another Israeli dance performance was canceled entirely.

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