Editorial: Confronting grievances behind BDS boycott campaign

There are blue skies over McGill, one of the many campuses offering courses on a host of topics this fall.

Events last month in Ottawa and at McGill University have rekindled debate over the decade-old campaign that promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) aimed at Israel and Israeli firms.

A motion introduced by the opposition Conservatives in Ottawa, supported by most Liberals and opposed by the NDP and Bloc Québécois, condemns “any and all attempts by Canadian organizations, groups or individuals to promote the BDS movements, both here at home and abroad.”

It passed 229 for, 51 against. At McGill, after two failed attempts in 2014-2015, a majority of students – a total of 512 who packed the Shatner Centre first approved a motion to press the university’s board of governors to divest from “companies that profit from violations of Palestinian human rights.”

The motion was defeated when it went to an online vote in which 2,818 said No and 2,119 said Yes – those who voted amounted to about one in four of 21,000 undergraduates.

The motion cited three firms: New York-based L-3 Communications, which makes surveillance and reconnaissance equipment used by Israeli forces, Mizrachi Tefahot Bank, which provides funding for construction of West Bank settlements, and RE/MAX, which sells property in West Bank settlements.

The initial vote result rattled some alumni, who complained to McGill’s administration, and local Jewish community leaders.

We do not advocate for or approve BDS. In particular, we oppose any boycott involving the exchange of ideas affecting the arts and the academy. We recognize that some BDS supporters would like Israel to disappear as a Jewish state, which is totally unacceptable. The BDS call for the right of return for Palestinian refugees would accomplish that goal.

However, we question the narrow focus and possible implications of the Parliamentary resolution.

We also urge those who, like us, admire much of what Israel has accomplished since its creation in 1948 to step back from any knee-jerk reaction and consider the serious grievances that are behind the BDS campaign.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion denounced the Conservatives for making support of Israel part of its “politics of division” – making it a wedge issue –, even though all three parties solidly support Israel and oppose BDS. Most Liberals voted for it, but three MPS – Larry Bagnell, Nick Whalen, and René Arsenault – voted No, and most significantly, one quarter of the Liberal caucus – 44 of 184 – did not vote. NDP leader Tom Mulcair showed courage when he said that the condemnation of groups or individuals who promote BDS implies a limit on free expression.

Dion told reporters there was no such intent. The McGill students’ society resolution resulted in a firestorm on social media. Concerned alumni who contacted the university and suggested they might withdraw financial support were told that if the motion gained final approval, the university would not change “its positions or practices.”

What is now a movement was launched eleven years ago. Its aims include pressure on Israel to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination and comply with international law, especially with regard to the building of settlements in lands occupied following the June 1967 war. It has gained traction as a non-violent form of protest.

Israel says the movement is rooted in anti-Semitism and its ultimate aim is to suffocate and destroy the Jewish state. Opponents say BDS is one-sided since it puts no pressure on Palestinian leaders to make compromises necessary for a peace deal. After all, they walked away from a favourable offer in 2008.

BDS supporters counter that Israel, not the Palestinian Authority, is the occupying power that has enabled the growing settlement enterprise, which now houses half a million Israelis.

The continued expansion of settlements is tantamount to Israel saying it will do whatever it wants on land captured in June 1967, even if this is seen as a de-facto negation of the two-state solution, since the settlements are only for Israelis in areas that would form a Palestinian state. The Fourth Geneva Convention on the Rules of War outlaws the resettlement by an occupying power of its own civilians in territory under its military control, but Israel insists the settlements are legal.

Some wonder why so much attention is paid to little Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. Why not boycott Russia, China, or Nigeria, for example, for their human-rights violations? The answer is that what happens in Israel, as the birthplace of two great religions, with Jerusalem the third holiest site in Islam, has a powerful impact on many of us.

The emergence of Israel and its extraordinary growth and prosperity in the aftermath of the Holocaust is a dramatic achievement. It has survived in spite of wars with much larger and more populous neighbours bent on destroying it. The resultant creation of more than 700,000 Arab refugees remains a festering issue, and some of the goodwill that Israel had enjoyed has eroded since 1967 as Palestinian nationalism deepened and they press demands for respect of human rights and a sovereign state.

Many students today identify and sympathize with the estimated 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank who are subject to administrative detention without charge, whose movements are restricted by Israeli checkpoints, and where they can face abuses and humiliations, well-documented by such Israeli human rights advocacy groups as Machsom Watch, whose female members monitor checkpoint activities.

The way to respond to BDS and other forms of protest is for the Israeli government to take concrete physical and diplomatic steps to stop settlement expansion and make serious renewed efforts to reach an accommodation with Palestinian leaders that can lead to Palestinian sovereignty.

Is it too late? Some, including New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, argue that the two-state solution is a pipe dream, that the peace process is dead, that Israel is determined to maintain ultimate control over all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Will the Jewish state continue to enjoy the same level of political, diplomatic, and military support if it ceases to be a democratic state with one set of laws for all living under its ultimate control?

Israel is rightly concerned by BDS and its impact, but the response of the Netanyahu government is on the level of appearances, not on building political solutions and confronting core issues. For example, Israel offered free ten-day trips, worth US $55,000, on first-class flights to Israel to nominees at this year’s Oscar’s Award Ceremony. The minister in charge says this will give high-profile Hollywood personalities a chance to visit Israel and see what is not
reflected in the media. In a second effort, according to the Times of Israel, Israel plans to appoint 10 coordinators to central embassies around the world to counter BDS advocacy.

A more effective response would be for Israel to return to serious negotiations – to insist on them – so as to pave the way for an end to the occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war and the alleged abuses and rights violations that nurture the call to boycott.

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