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Bienstock ’20: Understanding BDS beyond the headlines

In recent years, the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has grown among critics of Israel and its policies. At the same time, opponents of the movement have gained media and political prominence. Pundits have gone on at length about the movement’s supposed extremism, its “one-sidedness” and especially its alleged antisemitism. Politicians have fumed about the movement, propelling dozens of states to pass legislation that attempts to outlaw BDS. Congress even briefly considered an ill-advised and certainly unconstitutional bill to criminalize supporters of the movement.

As students, professors and staff on college campuses around the world have embraced BDS, university administrators, including Brown president Christina Paxson P’19, have gone out of their way to publicly condemn them and the movement they support.

Yet amid this clamor, many people pay remarkably little attention to what the BDS movement actually is; in the process, they ignore the voices of the Palestinians who called for the movement and the experiences that led them to do so.

Today, on Nov. 18 at 7 p.m. in Friedman Auditorium in the Metcalf Research Building, Brown Students for Justice in Palestine and Brown Jewish Voice for Peace are proud to be hosting a panel for community members to learn about the BDS movement beyond the headlines. The panel includes BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, Jewish Voice for Peace co-Executive Director Rabbi Alissa Wise and Palestinian American feminist activist and organizer Linda Sarsour. These three speakers are among the most prominent voices within the movement for justice in Palestine, offering vital perspectives representing their diverse work of building global solidarity with Palestinians through BDS and other campaigns. We want to start a genuine discussion about BDS and explain why we’re proud to support it.

The BDS movement was launched in 2005 by an absolute majority of Palestinian civil society groups. Inspired by the successful movement to boycott apartheid in South Africa, BDS called for people, companies and governments around the world to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel until it stops denying the fundamental human rights of Palestinians, particularly their rights to freedom of movement and self-determination.

In that vein, BDS has three demands, each targeting the oppression faced by different groups of Palestinians: First, Israel must end its military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, where Israeli soldiers inflict extreme violence upon Palestinians and deny them of their most basic rights. Second, Israel must end its system of racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. And lastly, Israel must recognize the right of Palestinian refugees — and their descendants — to return to their homeland, from which they were violently expelled. They currently are forbidden from returning simply because they are Palestinian.

These three demands really amount to one: recognition that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.

Globally, BDS has won the support of labor unions, religious organizations, student governments and academic associations. Before the movement, discussions of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” erased Palestinians voices and misrepresented Palestinian resistance as merely one side in some kind of age-old intractable sectarian strife. BDS has begun shifting the focus of these conversations to simple questions of human rights and is generating grassroots pressure to win freedom, justice and equality.

This movement’s success has prompted backlash from many people. Beyond the United States, Israel itself is spending millions — $72 million in 2017 alone — to attack BDS, pushing to outlaw it while simultaneously surveying and intimidating activists and banning them from entering the country, including the occupied territories. Canary Mission, an online blacklist that disproportionately features black, brown and Muslim students  and academics critical of Israel, has sought to silence BDS activists by threatening their careers. Moreover, projects like Canary Mission perpetuate a distinctly Islamophobic narrative that presumes Muslim activists to be antisemitic until proven otherwise. In some cases, activists have been detained and interrogated by law enforcement about their profiles on the website. Apparently, nonviolent boycotts for human rights are dangerous.

Critics of BDS rarely actually deny Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and the state’s violations of the Palestinians’ human rights, which the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and countless journalists and scholars have documented. Instead, defenders of Israel’s racist policies attempt to shift the conversation away from the country and toward BDS, accusing the movement and its supporters of “singling out Israel”— in other words, of holding the country to an antisemitic double standard. They ask BDS supporters, “of all the countries that violate human rights, why do you advocate only for a boycott of Israel?”

This line of question is a time-honored strategy used to silence participants in social movements who seek to build or enact solidarity through boycotts. When local activists ask supporters across the country and around the world to help their campaigns through a targeted boycott of their oppressors, they do not demand a singular focus on their subjugation to the exclusion of that of all other people. For example, in the successful global anti-apartheid movement targeting South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, Black South Africans called on activists to boycott the country and its products not because they expected others to believe that all suffering elsewhere in the world was unimportant, but because they believed outside pressure would be an effective means of ending their oppression. And though eventually the movement won, many racist critics still asked why antiracist activists “singled out” the apartheid regime.

As with that boycott, in the case of BDS, the answer is simple: Palestinians have asked the world to boycott only Israel because Israel is the country that, enabled by international support, singularly denies their freedom. To accuse Palestinian of "singling out" Israel is yet another means of denying their very existence, and fails to recognize how the lived experiences of Palestinians served as the impetus for BDS to target Israel with its organizing work. For students at Brown and people around the world to accept their call to boycott isn't for us to "single out" Israel, but rather to support an oppressed people who have asked for our solidarity in their campaign for justice.

Palestinian people urge everyone around the world to recognize their humanity through their calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions. We hope that the Brown community will join us tonight to learn about BDS and how our campus can support the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.

Ben Bienstock ’20, a member of Brown Students for Justice in Palestine and Brown Jewish Voice for Peace, can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to



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