Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)


Stephen Hawking, how could you?


Earlier this week Stephen W. Hawking, the University of Cambridge physicist and cosmologist, has pulled out of a high-profile conference to be held in Israel in June in order to support an academic boycott of Israel.

The academic and cultural boycott, organized by international activists to protest Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, is a heated and contentious issue; having Dr. Hawking join it is, according to the New York Times, likely to help the anti-Israel campaigners significantly.

“Never has a scientist of this stature boycotted Israel,” said Yigal Palmor, the spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

Organizers of the fifth annual Israeli Presidential Conference, held under the auspices of President Shimon Peres, said they had received a letter over the weekend from Dr. Hawking, a longtime Cambridge professor, announcing his decision.

His reason? There is an academic boycott underway, particularly strong with academics from England, against participating with the Israeli academy.


It is part of a global movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or BDS against the Jewish State, ostensibly because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.  


You might remember that a proponent of BDS, Rachel Corrie, was killed a few years ago in Gaza when she personally stood in front of a tank to defend Hamas terrorists.


BDS is attempting to put a legitimate face on the Middle Eastern situation if you describe legitimate as demonizing Israel and the people of Israel.  


It is not about the government--it is about the people who go about making their daily lives in Israel.  BDS gets its inspiration from the movement during the apartheid era in South Africa.  They regularly make analogies about South Africa in describing the security fence in Israel as the “apartheid wall.”  Just comparing racial discrimination to a legitimate security need for the people of Israel shows you what BDS will do to make a point, and make it appear to be legitimate.


BDS is again in the news, especially in relationship to the academic boycott that is one of the more successful areas of BDS’ mission.  BDS skirmishes on college campuses, both here in the United States, as well as in England and other countries, as proxy battles for the inability for Israel to live safely within her borders in a neighborhood that is charitably defined as difficult.  


The website Global BDS Movement was “born out of the need to offer all those interested and  active in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement a shared space for information, analysis, exchange of ideas and experiences.”


The site is “overseen by the steering  committee of the Palestinian BDS National Committee and has been adopted as a tool of the  ICNP (International Coordinating Network on Palestine) to support efforts of networking and coordination. Currently, the BDS movement calls for academic, cultural, consumer and sports boycotts of Israel Divestment of “investments in Israel and companies supporting Israeli occupation and  apartheid,” Sanctions in the areas of cooperation agreements between Israel and other states; the cutting of “all ties between municipalities or regional councils and Israel at cultural, economic, and diplomatic levels” and cutting all military ties between Israel and the world.


BDS do not see these strategic difficulties.


They do not see Hamas launching missiles against innocent Israeli civilians.


They do not see Hezbollah, a client of Iran on Israel’s northern border and a friend to Syria’s Assad as a threat.


They do not see the instability of the Syrian civil war as a threat.


They do not see Iran as a threat.


No, their world view boils it down quite simply to:  support the Palestinians by having Israel boycotted, have entities like the Presbyterian Church in the United States divest from stocks of companies that do business in Israel, and sanction those who do not agree with them.


Recently there has been quite a bit of action on the BDS front throughout the University of California system--in Davis, Riverside and Irvine.  On each of these campuses, student governments have taken up the issue of BDS to either recommend adopting the BDS ideology or not.


In the first two weeks of March, student governments at two University of California campuses — UC Riverside and UC San Diego (UCSD) — voted to approve resolutions urging their campus administrations and the University of California as a whole to divest from companies doing business in the West Bank. UC Irvine’s student government passed a similar resolution, as did UC Berkeley.


Fortunately, these measures are unlikely to force the individual campuses or the University of California to take any action because of a UC policy limiting such action.  In its May 2010 “Statement on Divestment,” the UC declared that it would “divest from a foreign government or companies doing business with a foreign government only when the United States government declares that a foreign regime is committing acts of genocide.” The federal government has made no such declaration about Israel.


And what about what happened at UC Berkeley?  Was it BDS or something else?


UC Berkeley professor Ron E Hassner wrote that the student government at Cal “killed BDS.”


What?  How did they do that?


Hassner writes:  the resolution calling upon the university to divest from three companies that help Israel defend itself against Palestinian terrorism.


This particular bill stands apart in one significant way. In the past, all efforts to divest from companies doing business with Israel (the only state against which University of California students are calling for divestment) were authored by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction) movement, an international organization that rejects Israel’s existence and seeks to replace it with a Palestinian state.


At Berkeley, astute student leaders recognized BDS as the true author of the bill and refused to pass it unless the resolution explicitly denounced that movement.

And so it came to pass that radical anti-Israel students, at Berkeley of all places, were forced to insert into their bill, at five different places, language saying the resolution “does not support Omar Barghouti, the leader of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), and his end goal of a one-state solution that would replace the state of Israel.” His movement, they proclaimed, “calls on a cultural and academic boycott, which hurts more people than just policymakers, is counterproductive to academic and cultural growth, and is an inherently different tactic than divesting from companies.” And they reiterated that their actions “should in no way be misconstrued as support for any other goals or beliefs related to the BDS movement.”

This comprehensive rejection of BDS characterized not just the bill but also the speeches that preceded the vote. Amazingly, speakers from both sides of the aisle joined in condemning BDS. Even divestment supporters realized that distancing themselves as much as humanly possible from the widely-reviled movement was key to persuading voters. Student government president Connor Landgraf later echoed these sentiments in his wholesale denigration of the bill.

In an official statement, he cautioned: “The international BDS movement, which has been known to attach itself to this legislation, cannot and should not take this as its victory. In no way do I endorse the movement’s call for cultural and academic boycotts…”

For years now, the BDS movement in the United States has failed to enact any boycott against, or divestment from, Israel. Not once has it harmed Israel’s pockets or stature. Not once has it benefited Palestinians, let alone the cause of peace, because it rejects entirely the concept of peace between a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine. Two weeks ago, the student government of America’s most radical student body rejected it outright, explicitly and repeatedly. If it cannot succeed at Berkeley, how can it ever hope to succeed elsewhere? It cannot. Berkeley killed BDS.

Let us all hope that the good Berkeley professor is right--and instead of boycotts, divestments and sanctions we can all move forward and have productive political discourse that will move toward a more settled life for all who live in the region--Israelis and Palestinians.  For the sake of peace will be achieved only through actions that support strengthening all of the people in the region and the quality of their lives, and not in weakening them through boycotts, divestments and sanctions.

© 2017- 2019

Rabbi David Novak