Boycott, divestment, sanctions

Page last updated 28 Mar 2016


JfJfP gives targeted support to the movement to pressurise Israel via BDS.

That means we consider issues to support and campaign on, on a case-by-case basis, focusing on those that have specific targets and specific outcomes we want to work for. We have termed this a ‘smart’ boycott approach. You can find a developed statement of our position here.

Our campaigns have encompassed those calling for the boycott of settlement goods; divestment from companies that operate in the occupied territories or sell equipment that is used in the occupation (specifically campaigning against Caterpillar, G4S and Veolia); boycotting arms sales to Israel; opposing trade fairs where settlement property is marketed; and campaigning for the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement until Israel respects the agreement’s human rights provisions.

Cultural boycott calls have traditionally been very contentious and we have not been predisposed to give support for a blanket boycott of cultural activities. It is a matter of specificities. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra visited Britain in 2012 and support for a boycott call was justified by the fact that the IPO proudly announces its partnership with the IDF under a scheme whereby special concerts for Israeli soldiers are organised at their army outposts. Support for ‘Showing Israeli Football the Red Card’ is justified by the day-to-day obstruction of travel, tournaments and the development of facilities for Palestinian footballers as a direct outcome of the occupation.

The accusation is often heard that BDS calls single out Israel, demonising it and discriminating against Jews. In other words that the call itself is antisemitic. These arguments are dealt with in a separate section BDS and antisemitism as part of our Is criticism of Israel antisemitic? discussion.

Not many people have tried to think through exactly what BDS is supposed to do and how it is intended to achieve its aims. An exemplary exploration of these issues is provided by Lee Jones in his article Sanctioning Apartheid: Comparing the South African and Palestinian Campaigns for Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions.

Recent years have seen an enormous expansion of BDS activity and, after a brief early history of BDS calls, we provide information about some of these campaigns:

A: Some early history
B: Settlement goods and institutions
C: Arms boycott

D: Boycott of companies profiting from the occupation (often expressed in divestment campaigns)
E: Academic and cultural boycott
F: Sanctions: the EU and Israel-Palestine

Our previous website had a  large number of links to debates and discussions about the early years of the BDS campaigns, particularly those relating to the debate about an academic boycott which raged in Britain’s university and college unions (Natfhe and the AUT, then amalgamated into the UCU). Large numbers of the original urls no longer work and we have not attempted to reconstruct the history here. Rather, we link to a few very early contributions to the boycott campaign, but mainly to issues that are current today.

For a full listing of UK campaigns on BDS, see the Boycott Israel Network website.


A: Some early history

1. Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel – Lebanon,
PSC conference, London, 30 Nov 2002

CBSI-Lebanon was a very early group active in the field. It was particularly thoughtful about the modes and meanings of an economic boycott. Kirsten Scheid’s presentation on behalf of the Campaign to the “What Future for Palestine?” conference, 30 Nov, 2002, London and the Campaign’s “Frequently Asked Questions” are included here.

“Our boycott works by making a declaration of what we find objectionable in each company’s practices. We classify the companies by their practices, explain the impact of such practices, and offer this information to our audience for them to evaluate. In this way, we both call on fellow boycotters to know exactly what and why they are boycotting, and we offer boycotted corporations a chance to recuperate themselves. In this way, also, we insist upon a rational, if passionate, character for our boycotting.”


2. PSC – Early boycott call, 2002


3. Sanctions against the Israeli occupation: it’s time
Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), Jan 2005

An analysis of various forms of sanctions and boycott calls against Israel.

“Sanctions, divestment and boycotts are absolutely legitimate means at everyone’s disposal for effectively opposing injustice. As penalties, protest, pressure and resistance to policies that violate fundamental human rights, international law and UN resolutions, they are directed at ending a situation of intolerable conflict, suffering and moral wrong-doing, not against a particular people or country. When the injustice ends, the sanctions end…”


4. The Case for Selective Sanctions
Henry Picciotto, Jewish Voice for Peace


5. The case for sanctions against Israel
Gerald Kaufman, Guardian, 12 Jul 2004


B: Settlement goods and institutions

A call for the boycott of settlement goods was made early on by Gush Shalom, the Israeli Peace Bloc. It produced a detailed list of all goods available in the shops that originated in the settlements, no small feat in that most such goods were not labeled in any way so as to recognise their origins as anything but Israeli.

This work was continued by Who Profits from the Occupation, “a research center dedicated to exposing the commercial involvement of Israeli and international companies in the continued Israeli control over Palestinian and Syrian land. Currently, we focus on three main areas of corporate involvement in the occupation: the settlement industry, economic exploitation and control over population”.

The work of ensuring settlement goods are labeled as such has had its greatest effect not at the consumer boycott but at the EU level where it has been recognised that the concessions made to Israel in the EU-Israel Association Agreement (see The EU and Israel-Palestine) do not extend to produce from the occupied territories which need to be clearly labeled and not passed off as Israeli. A 2013 Al Haq report Feasting on the Occupation: Illegality of Settlement Produce and the Responsibility of EU Member States under International Law stressed the importance of EU trade to the settlement enterprise.

In 2016 Gush Shalom launched a Settlement Products Wiki. “It’s goal is to organize and make available to the public, in the most systematic and up to date manner possible, information about the factories and businesses that operate in settlements beyond the Green Line (pre-1967 border) and the products that they produce.”


C: Arms boycott

1. Five reasons to stop US military aid to Israel

The Stop US Military Aid to Israel petition, early 2007, which was endorsed at the time by: Gush Shalom, International Solidarity Movement, Jews Against the Occupation, Nilemedia, Academics for Justice, Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Golshan Society, Matzpen, Palestine Children’s Welfare Fund, Palestine Right to Return Coalition, All About Palestine, Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel, Not in My Name, Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, News from Babylon, Boycott Israeli Goods, Jewish Friends of Palestine, Citizens for Fair Legislation…


2. Nobel peace laureates call for Israel military boycott over Gaza assault
Chris McGreal, Guardian, 28 Nov 2011

McGreal reports on the call for an international military boycott of Israel, following its assault on the Gaza Strip earlier that month, by a group of Nobel peace prize-winners, prominent artists and activists and their denouncing US and EU complicity through weapons sales.


3. Boycott Israel Network

The Boycott Israel Network has a page devoted to arms-related issues.


D: Boycott of companies profiting from the occupation

Who Profits from the Occupation mentioned above, is the go-to resource for information about companies complicit in Israel’s occupation.

Currently there are major campaigns, against G4S,Veolia, Ahava and Sodastream among others. The former are international companies, the latter Israeli. All profit from the occupation. Campaigns tend to take the form of boycotting their produce or services and calling on academic institutions and others not to hold their shares in their investment portfolios.


E: Academic and Cultural Boycott

1. Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel
Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, 6 Jul 2004

A small but vital adjustment to the statement was made on 28 Jan 2006 and is discussed in  The Palestinian Call for Academic Boycott Revised: Adjusting the Parameters of the Debate. It related to whether the original statement could be read as condoning a boycott of individuals or supporting “black-listing” or “political tests”, both of which are entirely incompatible with PACBI’s position.


2. The Engage website

This website was set up in opposition to the academic boycott campaign in British universities from 2004 onwards, campaigning as it sees it “against antisemitism and the demonization of Israel” in the belief “that most decent people don’t want to be involved with something that smells of antisemitism”. Quite why they claim the academic boycott is tinged with antisemitism can be followed up on their site. A lengthy, side-ranging and very helpful exchange between Martin Shaw (also opposed to an academic boycott but not on the grounds of its alleged antisemitism) and David Hirsh ranged widely over the contested issues and can be read in Antisemitism and the Boycott: An Exchange between Martin Shaw and David Hirsh.


3. Why Boycott Israeli universities?
British Campaign for Universities in Palestine (Bricup), Apr 2007

“The very thought of an academic boycott touches raw nerves – academic teachers and researchers are rightly sensitive about any restrictions on the free flow of ideas. To propose and campaign for an academic boycott of Israeli universities further raises hackles. Israel carries with it the history of the holocaust in which 6 million Jews perished at the hands of the most virulent form of anti-Semitism. Is not the proposal to boycott Israeli universities just another manifestation of that poisonous racism?

This pamphlet [aims] to explain

• how this situation has arisen and the nature of the proposed boycott
• why Israel
• the condition of academic freedom in occupied Palestine as contrasted with Israel
• the function of boycotts in general and the arguments for and against this particular boycott
• the way forward.”


4. Israel boycott may be the way to peace
John Berger and 94 others, Guardian letter, 15 Dec 2006

An early call for a cultural boycott of Israel. Berger elaborated his argument in a Comment is Free piece the same day, We must speak out. This produced a stinging rebuke a week later by Anthony Julius and Simon Schama entitled John Berger is wrong, asserting that “The call for a cultural boycott of Israel is banal, gestural and morally compromised”. Ran HaCohen in turn published a powerful response to them on the website, The Embarrassment of the Wretched.


5. The academic boycott of Israel revisited – again and again
JfJfP 16 -30 Oct 2010

There was an extended discussion of the issues around an academic boycott in 2010, occasioned by the University of Johannesburg’s ruling body discussing a proposal from the boycott campaign that it should sever its research links with Ben Gurion University. The thread here focuses on the developing debate between two of the clearest proponents of pro- and anti-boycott views, Ran Greenstein and Robert Fine.

As the debate developed, the discussion and disagreement broadened out from the academic boycott issue narrowly conceived to range widely – over the nature of Zionism as a national movement, the question of the nakba and the issue of ‘ethnic cleansing’, the extent to which Israel is being singled out, the nature of a ‘Jewish state’, and much else besides. None of these issues is new but the Fine-Greenstein exchange casts fresh light on them and approaches them in challenging and respectful ways. You can follow that debate in its entirety (make sure to follow the links in the 30 October 2010 Postscript at the end of the Introduction to the debate) as well as finding links to contributions by others.


Steven Salaita was dismissed by the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, unethically and unconstitutionally, from a tenured professorship only three weeks before his scheduled classes were to begin, for speaking out against Israel’s war and violence on Twitter. His case against the university still continues.

In this article he draws powerful lessons from how the boycott campaign has been opposed.


7. Cultural boycott – exchanges, in the Guardian, 2015

a) Letter: Over 100 artists announce a cultural boycott of Israel, 13 Feb 2015

b) Israel needs cultural bridges, not boycotts – letter from JK Rowling, Simon Schama and others, 22 Oct 2015

c) Cultural bridges with Israel have failed
a series of letters published in response to b) above, 26 Oct 2015

d) Academic boycott of Israel is misguided
further letters published 28 Oct 2015

e) Calls for an academic boycott of Israel continue to divide opinion
yet more, 2 Nov 2015


8. Dialogue vs. BDS? Responding to arguments against an academic boycott of Israel
Ben White, Memo, 06 Nov 2015

A comprehensive overview of the most common arguments advanced by critics of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign, and specifically its academic component, with White’s rejoinders.


9. BDS – against and for
Dan Rabinowitz & Nadia Abu El-Haj, Ha’aretz & Mondoweiss, JfJfP 11 Nov 2015

Dan Rabinowitz, professor of Anthropology at Tel-Aviv University, criticises the BDS movement as having a “narrative of Israel as a radically essentialized evil”, with dire consequences “for those most amenable to nuance and dialogue [who] must be the first to be boycotted.” Nadia Abu El-Haj, professor in the Departments of Anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University responds with a powerful critique of Rabinowitz’s arguments.


F: Sanctions: the EU and Israel-Palestine

See separate page – click on link above.


Contents of this section


a) Negotiating for peace
b) Palestinian popular resistance
c) Boycott, divestment, sanctions

Some early history
The campaign against settlement goods and institutions
Arms boycott
Boycott of companies profiting from the occupation
Academic and cultural boycott
Sanctions: the EU and Israel-Palestine

d) Israeli social movement opposition
e) Solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli campaigns and activities
f) Hamas’s strategy
g) The call for equal rights
h) Using International Law

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