Expressing support for Israel is one of the least controversial things an American public figure can do. The majority of Americans are sympathetic to Israel, pro-Israel group AIPAC is perhaps the most influential lobbyist organization in DC, and criticizing the Jewish state has long been a “third rail” for both Democrats and Republicans—mention you think Israeli settlements in the West Bank are maybe not the best idea anyone has ever had, and you’ll get zapped by 10,000 volts of strident criticism and accusations of being an anti-Semite.
In the past several months, however, the efforts of anti-Israel activists to portray the country as a pariah have broken through to the mainstream, making generic Zionism no longer the safe position it used to be and forcing Israel’s supporters in the US and elsewhere to respond to the boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Scarlett Johansson’s endorsement of SodaStream, a company that has a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, got a bunch of headlines last month, but a more politically charged controversy kicked off in December, when the American Studies Association (ASA), an organization of academics who study US history and culture, voted to boycott Israeli universities for being “a party to state policies that violate human rights.”
Lawmakers in New York and Maryland responded in February by introducing legislation to prevent taxpayer money from going to academic groups that boycott Israel. (Neither bill has gotten close to becoming law.) At the same time, a similar measure—called the “Protect Academic Freedom Act”—was introduced in the US House of Representatives after 134 Republican and Democratic congressmen signed a letter condemning ASA’s decision and accusing the organization of possessing “thinly veiled bigotry and bias against the Jewish State.”
The Protect Academic Freedom Act stalled, however, after a coalition of scholars, activists, and civil-rights organizations pushed back against it, arguing that the law would violate the First Amendment. The bill is so bad, a pro-Israel Democratic strategist told BuzzFeed, that even Jewish groups like AIPAC won’t support it.
Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human-rights activist who is one of the cofounders of the BDS movement, finds it comforting that pro-Israel legislators are embracing such extreme methods.
“Trying to pass laws through Congress that would delegitimize support for boycotting Israel is quite telling,” Omar wrote to me in an email. “It shows a heightened level of frustration, even despair, by Israel in its abortive attempts to rebrand itself and to win the battle for hearts and minds.”
The BDS movement began in 2005, with the goal of isolating Israel economically and protesting its occupation of territory seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The ultimate goal is to get Israel to change its policies, just as boycotts against South Africa in the 80s helped speed the end of Apartheid. The BDS argument that Israel is an oppressive colonial state has been strengthened in recent years as Israel’s government has moved sharply to the right (an ideological transition mirrored by AIPAC), and UN investigators have accused Israel of human-rights abuses against Palestinians in Gaza.
In Europe—where negative attitudes toward Israel are much more common than in the US—efforts by human-rights organizations and trade unions have persuaded some investors to cut ties with Israeli companies that profit from activities in occupied Palestine. In January, the Netherlands’ largest pension-fund management company severed relations with five Israeli banks because of their investments in the illegal settlements; that was followed by the largest bank in Denmark's decision to blacklist Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s biggest bank, over similar concerns, as well as Luxembourg’s government pension fund's motion to boycott several Israeli companies. Around the same time, Norway announced that its state-owned investment fund wouldn’t be investing in two Israeli construction companies, because of their involvement in building illegal settlements in East Jerusalem.
“The biggest hindrance for peace talks and for a political solution is the spreading of the illegal settlements,” Liv Tørres, the general secretary for Norwegian People’s Aid, a humanitarian organization that lobbied for the Norwegian boycott, told me. “This is an issue of respecting international law and finding a political solution to the one conflict that has been unsolved and is lying there like a sore aching point for the rest of the world.”
Shahar Azani, the Israeli consul for media affairs in New York, told me the issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem “needs to be decided,” but he emphasized that the settlements are often used to obscure the real issues, like Palestinian hostility toward Israel.
“Unfortunately, there have been numerous attacks from the Palestinian and the Arab side against Israel,” he said, noting that Hamas—a group that has said it wants to destroy Israel—took over the Gaza Strip after Israel withdrew its settlers in 2005. “So the ordinary Israeli tells himself, when we take our people out without a final agreement, we allow ourselves to be exposed to tremendous risk.”
Far from taking anyone out, the Israeli government recently announced plans to build 1,400 new homes for settlers in Palestinian territory, despite protests from many world leaders that new settlements would endanger ongoing peace talks between Israel and Palestine. It's still not safe for US officials to speak out against the Jewish state, however. In early February, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Israel could face further boycotts if the two countries fail to reach an agreement, prompting immediate criticism from Israeli officials and American Jewish organizations, which suggested that Kerry was encouraging Palestinians to favor boycotts over negotiations. Yesterday, Kerry spoke at an AIPAC policy conference and emphasized that he didn’t support the BDS movement, saying, “ For more than 30 years, I have staunchly, loudly, and unapologetically opposed boycotts of Israel.”
Meanwhile, Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly convened a meeting with senior ministers several days after Kerry’s remarks to discuss ways to combat the growing threat of boycotts, including suing companies that boycott those who do business in the settlements and encouraging anti-boycott legislation in “friendly” countries. (Calling for boycotts against Israel is already illegal within Israel thanks to a law passed in 2011.)
Though legislation targeted at academic boycotts smells too much like a violation of free speech to become law, famed trial lawyer and Israel booster Alan Dershowitz argues that the Constitution does not protect economic boycotts. He told me that Congress could theoretically pass a law to prevent companies that participate in a boycott of Israel from doing business in the United States.
“You can make boycotts illegal, actually criminal, for American companies: Let’s assume that Arizona has a law passed in which businesses can boycott gays. The federal government could make that illegal,” he said. “To me, this is analogous to the legislation boycotting gays or boycotting blacks or boycotting any other protected group.”
The United States already has anti-boycott laws in place. In 1977, Jimmy Carter made it illegal for American companies to participate in the Arab League boycott against Israel (some companies did business in the Arab world anyway and just paid a fine). Although that boycott has almost disappeared—Syria and Lebanon are the only countries that still enforce it—it does set a precedent for outlawing boycott efforts that are not sanctioned by the government.
Dima Khalidi, the director of Palestinian Solidarity Legal Support, an activist group, disagreed, telling me that boycotts that are enacted to bring about political change are unquestionably protected by the First Amendment.
“Like the boycott campaigns against Jim Crow in the southern US, or against the South African apartheid regime, the BDS movement involves nonviolent campaigns by ordinary people to pressure governments to redress a grave injustice,” she wrote in an email.
The BDS movement is clearly making waves, as demonstrated by the impact it had on SodaStream. The Israeli maker of carbonation machines got a lot of bad press after Scarlett Johansson had a public falling-out with the UK-based charity Oxfam over her endorsement of their product, and SodaStream’s stock dropped last month to its lowest point in years, possibly as a result of that controversy and the threat of continued boycotts against the company.
“The mainstream messaging of that story, at least in the UK, was that here is a celebrity forced to pick between a respected development NGO and an Israeli company. And the idea that those two are incompatible,” said British author and pro-Palestinian activist Ben White. “And it means that people will think twice about opening one’s own business or entity to that kind of reputational risk.”
Alex Ellefson is an intern at VICE.