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BDS: 6 questions about the movement boycotting Israel

Sarah Judith Hofmann sb
December 1, 2017

After a Roger Waters concert was boycotted by a German broadcaster due to his support for the BDS movement, debate has raged about Israel boycotts by celebrity musicians. Sarah Hofmann reports from Tel Aviv.

An Egyptian shouts anti-Israeli slogans in front of banners with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logo
An Egyptian shouts anti-Israeli slogans in front of banners with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logoImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Nabil

BDS stands for "boycott, divestment, sanctions." But what does it mean exactly?

Behind the acronym is the idea of putting Israel under international pressure to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories. BDS says it was inspired by the movement that promoted the international isolation of South Africa in the 1980s, a campaign which partly led to the ending of apartheid.

According to BDS supporters, the State of Israel is responsible for the oppression of the Palestinians through an "apartheid state" that can be compared to the one that segregated the black and white population in South Africa. They add that Israel can only continue its policy of "colonialism" if it receives international support. Israel, however, vehemently rejects the idea that it promotes apartheid policies in the Palestinian territories.

Berlin Demo Al Quds Tag Israel Boykott
T-shirt of a BDS supporter in BerlinImage: Imago

BDS hope to isolate Israel via boycotts, divestments from Israeli companies, and sanctions, which could include an arms embargo. The movement also demands the official exclusion of Israel from international organizations — from the UN to the world football body, FIFA; and calls for a boycott aimed to stop people buying products from Israel (especially those produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank).

In addition, BDS calls on academics worldwide to reject invitations to Israeli universities, and petitions artists to stop performing in Israel or in festivals sponsored by the State of Israel.

Read more: Anti-Israel musicians boycott Berlin music festival

Which artists boycott — and which don't?

BDS has a number of prominent supporters. Desmond Tutu, Angela Davis, Naomi Klein and Judith Butler, directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, musicians like Kate Tempest and Roger Waters.

Others strongly resist BDS, including musicians like Nick Cave and band Radiohead. The latter stated in November that he only decided to play in Tel Aviv after he was harassed by BDS supporters. "So really you could say in a way that the BDS made me play Israel,” he said.

Who is behind BDS?

According to BDS, in 2005 a total of 170 Palestinian civil society groups joined the movement. But BDS is not only based in the Palestinian territories, acting internationally, with offshoots in Britain and Germany, for example.

Israeli non-governmental organization NGO Monitor criticizes this model: "It's an amorphous organization. It is extremely decentralized in every possible way," says Olga Deutsch, an NGO Monitor spokesperson.

Omar Barghouti, one of the co-founders of BDS, counters such claims by pointing out that BDS is indeed a global movement but is managed by a Palestinian central body.

"We have a very strong anti-racist statement that we have adopted since last year," said Barghouti. "If any group that claims to be part of the BDS movement violates any of the stipulations in the anti-racist statement, we immediately distance ourselves from them."

München Veranstaltung der Organisation BDS
A very sensitive topic in Germany: At a 2015 BDS talk in Munich, a host of the event tried to rip away the microphone of a member of the Jewish communityImage: picture-alliance/Pacific Press/M. Trammer

Is BDS anti-Semitic?

While there is no binding international definition of anti-Semitism, the German government recently approved an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition which states: "Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews... Manifestations might include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity."

The definition adds however that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."

According to the US Department of State, anti-Semitic is anyone who denies the Jewish people the right to self-determination.

NGO Monitor believes that elements with BDS do oppose this right, if not overtly.

"If you check their website, they don't say that they oppose a Jewish state," says Deutsch of BDS. "But some of their activists do promote a one-state solution and deny the Jewish people's right to self-determination." She goes as far as to claim than these activists are "promoting blatant anti-Semitism" and are "glorifying terror."

Barghouti counters that Israel criticism should not be equated with anti-Semitism. "Conflating boycotts against Israel with anti-Jewish racism is not just anti-Palestinian," he says. "It is also anti-Semitic, because it assumes that Israel and all the Jews are one and the same. There is an enormous diversity among Jewish communities and many young Jews, especially in the US, support BDS for Palestinian rights." 

Roger Waters has been supporting BDS for years. Why is German media boycotting him now?

A petition to western Germany broadcaster WDR caused them to cancel the broadcast of a Roger Waters concert in Cologne next year due to claims he is anti-Semitic.

Such accusations have grown, not only because Waters is a prominent BDS supporter, but because balloons in the shape of a pig adorned with the Star of David (the symbol of the Israeli state) were released at Waters concerts, which some have perceived to be anti-Semitic.

Read more: Calls to boycott Roger Waters due to anti-Semitism

Roger Waters
The co-founder of the band Pink Floyd is a BDS supporterImage: Imago/ZumaPress

Waters has countered, saying that several political and religious symbols had been used on such balloons at concerts since 2010, including a Shell Oil, McDonald's and Mercedes logo. 

Waters himself has always rejected allegations that he is anti-Semitic. In 2013, he wrote in an open letter on Facebook, that "To peacefully protest against Israel's racist domestic and foreign policies is NOT ANTI-SEMITIC."

But German sensitivity to the issue was raised when activists waved "Boycott Israel" signs in front of German department stores that stocked goods made in the occupied Palestinian territories, for evoking memories of National Socialism — anti-Semitic signs such as "Do not buy from Jews" appeared in the shop windows of Jewish businesses during the Kristallnacht of 1938, for example, part of a broader Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. 

Deutschland Geschichte Bildergalerie Juden in Berlin SA Hetze 1938
Nazi signs saying "Don't Buy from Jews!"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

How is BDS perceived in Israel?

For the current Israeli government, BDS activists are a red rag. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said he would forever fight BDS because the boycott movement was aimed, not at Israel's actions, but at its right to exist.

According to a recent report by the Israeli daily Haaretz, a bill has just been tabled in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, which severely punishes any call to boycott  Israel. Activists calling for such a sanction could go to jail for up to seven years, or up to life imprisonment if they have demonstrably harmed the state. But NGO Monitor criticizes legislation that restricts the right to freedom of expression. They argue that the only way forward is a genuine dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.