California and the Global Fight Against BDS


Aaron Feigenbaum

September 25th marks a historic day for those fighting against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which encourages individuals and businesses to shun Israeli companies, organizations, and universities. Thanks to the efforts of the Israeli-American Coalition for Action, which led the anti-BDS push, Governor Jerry Brown officially signed AB 2844 into law. This comes about a month after it was approved by both houses of the California legislature.

Measure AB 2844 adds to the growing list of state bills designed to punish government contractors that refuse to do business with Israel. In California’s case, the language of the bill was toned down to refuse tax dollars only to those contractors that violate the state’s civil rights law while in the process of boycotting a country recognized by the U.S. government. In other words, companies are free to boycott whomever they wish but the state cannot contract with them if their boycott is discriminatory and out of line with state law. Thus, the language of the bill is designed to avoid any potential First Amendment lawsuits on the part of BDS activists.

Notably, Israel is the only country mentioned by name in the bill. Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), who first proposed the bill, sums it up by saying, “The bottom line is that the state should not subsidize discrimination in any form.” Groups supporting the bill include the Simon Wiesenthal Center, American Jewish Committee, and Agudath Israel of California. In addition to approving this new law, in 2014, Brown had also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu affirming the special relationship between California and Israel, as well as denouncing the BDS movement as “rooted in anti-Semitism.” Reacting to Brown’s signing, Janna Weinstein Smith, director of the American Jewish Committee’s L.A. branch, said “The bill sends the clear and unmistakable message that the state of California wants no part of the goals and tactics of the BDS movement.  Thanks to this legislation, those who wish to target Jews and Israelis for discrimination will not be doing business with the state of California.”

California was not the first to implement anti-BDS legislation, nor is it likely to be the last. Many other states have quite recently enacted similar legislation. Tennessee’s legislature started the movement in April 2015 with a very strongly worded resolution in which it states that the BDS platform “undermines the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, which they are fulfilling in the State of Israel.” However, unlike California’s bill, the Tennessee version has no legal weight. Earlier this year, the Virginia legislature passed a similar symbolic resolution denouncing BDS as “inherently antithetical and deeply damaging to the causes of peace, justice, equality, democracy, and human rights for all peoples in the Middle East.”

Other states like Illinois, New York, and New Jersey have passed measures this year that explicitly punish companies that support BDS. New Jersey in particular targets these companies in a way that no other state does by divesting state pension funds from them. Florida’s bill, passed in February of this year, goes a step further than its counterparts by calling for the repeal of the federal Customs and Border Protection’s “West Bank country of origin marking requirements,” which prohibits settlement products from being marked as “Made in Israel.” Including California, there are currently 15 states that have passed, if not enacted, anti-BDS legislation.

At the federal level, Congress early this year passed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, a huge trade and customs bill that includes a provision that conditions free trade between European countries and the U.S. on the rejection of BDS policies. However, in his signing statement, President Obama opposed the bill’s rejection of boycotts against Israeli businesses in West Bank settlements, noting that the U.S. is officially opposed to the existence of these settlements. While the signing statement has no actual effect on the law itself, it does touch upon a huge point of contention in the BDS debate: Is boycotting only those Israeli products made in West Bank settlements a form of discrimination?

product-in-the-eu-labeled-west-bank-israeli-settlement-produceOfficial European Union and U.S. policy is that labeling products as originating from West Bank settlements is not a form of discrimination and not the same as a boycott of Israel itself. Justifying the U.S. position on labeling, a State Department representative said, “construction, planning, and retroactive legalization of settlements” is illegitimate. The labeling requirement  elicited a forceful reaction from members of the Israeli government. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Israel is “unwilling to accept the fact that the E.U. labels the side being attacked by terror.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked went so far as to call the E.U.’s move as “anti-Israel and anti-Jewish.” Israeli officials also argued that the move was a slippery slope that could lead to a ban of all Israeli products.

Vineyards at Shiloh winery

The E.U. is Israel’s largest trading partner and accounts for about a third of Israel’s total trade. Although settlement goods amount to just over 1% of total exports to the E.U., the labeling requirement has had a very real impact on West Bank settlement businesses. For example, European sales at Shiloh, one of the West Bank’s largest wineries, have virtually dried up since the new policy as European importers are afraid to risk alienating their customer base. Many of these wineries and other West Bank settlement businesses are looking to Switzerland (a non-E.U. country), countries outside Europe, and the internet for new opportunities.

The E.U. has also targeted companies based in pre-1967 Israeli land for allegedly supporting settlement activities. For example, Luxembourg’s state pension fund targeted Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi and several other Israeli firms for “financing” or “supporting the construction of illegal settlements in occupied territories.” Danske Bank, the largest bank in Denmark, announced it would boycott Bank Hapoalim for funding settlements. The Norwegian government said it would no longer invest in two Israeli companies due to their funding of East Jerusalem settlements.

On the other hand, some European officials at the state and local levels have helped to hinder BDS. For example, the U.K.’s Cabinet Office Minister issued a measure intended to block extremist anti-Israel city councils from engaging in BDS activities. The mayors of Vienna and Munich both announced a ban on hosting BDS events in city-funded venues. Even Spain, just last year a bastion for BDS supporters, has turned against the movement. Thanks to the work of the Spanish pro-Israel non-profit ACOM, Spain has issued 24 rulings against BDS stretching across the local and federal levels. One of the most notable of these came in January when Spain’s Council of State ordered the government to compensate a West Bank Israeli university $107,000 for excluding it for political reasons from a state-funded science competition. In next-door France, many BDS activists have been convicted of hate crimes; Britain plans to pass its own BDS-related hate laws in the future.

Nevertheless, support for BDS in Europe remains extremely high. The Irish foreign minister recently said that BDS holds a “legitimate political viewpoint” and that the Irish government “does not agree with attempts to demonize those who advocate this policy.” Some stores such as KaDeWe in Berlin have refused to stock Israeli goods. At last year’s Rototom Sunsplash music festival in Spain, organizers cancelled the performance of Jewish-American rapper Matisyahu after he refused to sign a statement supporting a Palestinian state.

Where support for BDS remains even higher, though, is on college campuses, which are increasingly seen as the primary battleground between BDS supporters and pro-Israel activists. Academic boycotts of Israel are especially popular in the U.K. The British Association of Student Teachers voted to boycott Bar-Ilan University and the University of Haifa. (The AUT later rescinded the boycott. Reasons cited included damage to academic freedom and stifling dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.) Last year the School of Oriental and African Studies, considered one of Britain’s most prestigious schools, voted to boycott all Israeli academic institutions. Jewish students at the school say they feel increasingly isolated in a “hostile” anti-Israel environment. In 2013, under pressure from BDS groups, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking announced he was backing out of the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem.

pic2The story repeats itself across many American campuses. Earlier this year, the City University of New York passed a resolution supporting BDS. Weeks before the vote, a professor at the college claimed that killing Palestinians in Gaza “reflects Jewish values.” There are reports of Jewish students there being harassed, including one incident where a student was called a “Zionist pig.” Campus supporters of BDS, including the nationwide Students for Justice in Palestine, frequently rehash old anti-Semitic tropes and dress them up in the cloak of anti-Zionism. For example, in a case of what might be termed the “Blood Libel 2.0”, a Rutgers University professor accused Israel of harvesting Palestinian organs. At Michigan’s Grand Valley State University this year, swastika graffiti was found on doors of residence halls. The NYU branch of Students for Justice in Palestine hosted the extremely controversial Israeli academic Ilan Pappe, who has been widely criticized by his fellow academicians for his rabidly anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic views. Protestors at SJP rallies are frequently known to compare Israel with Nazism, Jim Crow segregation, and South African apartheid.

BDS on college campuses has created a climate of fear and hostility where honest, civilized discussion about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are drowned out by loud and abusive propaganda. Such was the case when Jerusalem mayor Nir Barakat came to speak at San Francisco State University and was interrupted by protesters shouting, “Intifada, intifada!”

BDS supporters routinely slander university professors who show the slightest support of, or even objectivity, about Israel. Take the case of University of Texas – Austin professor Ami Pedahzur, who was accused of starting a physical confrontation during a lecture about the origins of the IDF when it was actually the protesters who initiated it. Or take Professor Andrew Pessin at Connecticut College, who had to take a year’s absence after students misconstrued his comments about Hamas as being a smear against all Palestinians and reported him to the administration. Pessin says the students’ actions cost him a promotion.

On the other hand, Professor Steven Salaita was denied a job offer from the University of Illinois because of anti-Israel tweets he made, specifically one where he said, “If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being.” Supporters of Salaita argue that the university acted against the interests of academic freedom, but his opponents say his tweet shows that were he to be hired by the university, he would have created a hostile climate for pro-Israel students. In a statement, the university said, “Hate speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position, incitement of violence is never acceptable, [and] yes, there must be a relationship between free speech and civility.”


Milan Chatterjee

BDS’s reach extends all the way to our own backyard. At UCLA and other local colleges, it has intimidated pro-Israel students and staff. Milan Chatterjee, a pro-Israel Hindu and former president of UCLA’s Graduate Students’ Association, left the university last month to continue his law studies at NYU. Last November, Chatterjee had threatened to pull funding from a student town hall if pro-Palestinian groups used it to promote pro-BDS views. Chatterjee claims he was trying to maintain the association’s neutrality, but he was reprimanded by school officials and has been harassed by BDS supporters since then.


Letter sent by student association president Milan Chatterjee

In one of the most egregious examples of BDS discrimination and harassment at UCLA, when Jewish student Rachel Beyda was questioned during her confirmation hearing for the Student Council’s Judicial Committee, board member Fabienne Roth asked her, “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?” (Roth later apologized but this line of questioning nevertheless reflects a widespread view amongst anti-Israel groups that Jews hold “dual loyalties.”) The event caught national attention and came a few months after UCLA’s student government voted to boycott Israel. In all, there have been at least 70 testimonials from Jewish students across the UC system describing intimidation and hatred from BDS groups.

However, the influence of BDS on campuses is starting to wane. A recent report by the Israel on Campus Coalition notes that overall BDS activities across American campuses are on the decline while pro-Israel campus activity is significantly increasing. Anti-Israel activists are now turning to more visceral tactics such as heckling and disrupting pro-Israel rallies and guest speakers. In addition to legal pressure, the BDS movement is now faced with increasingly organized and passionate opposition. Just this past April, a huge international conference of over 50 pro-Israel groups as well as students, professors, and other interested parties came together in L.A. to discuss strategies against BDS. Much talked about during the conference was the unprecedented string of legal victories at the state and federal levels against BDS. In the words of Noah Pollak, director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, “Showing campus BDS activists that they can’t win on the higher level, that no universities will endorse BDS lest they end up losing state funds or otherwise break the law, demoralizes them.”

Another important theme of the conference was the need to maintain and forge alliances with non-Jewish groups. One of these groups is Christians United for Israel, who was represented at the conference by campus outreach director David Walker. Walker, an African-American, recently led a group of 35 African-American leaders on an investigatory trip to Israel. He reminded the audience of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strong support of Israel, as well as criticized BDS for making dubious connections between racial discrimination against African-Americans and the suffering of Palestinians. Wrapping up the conference, keynote speaker Alan Dershowitz, one of the country’s most famous lawyers and Israel supporters, had this to say: “I feel rejuvenated and optimistic that we will win this battle against BDS, when I see the passion, intelligence and love of Israel here.”

Indeed, if there is any hope of winning the ideological war against BDS, it lies in education, organization and effective strategy in the media, on campus, and in the legislature. California’s new ruling is just one more step on a long road towards an antidote for the poisonous atmosphere BDS has created.