40 years after the US formally criminalized the participation of US citizens in economic boycotts of the state of Israel, Americans remain strongly divided on the question of the BDS movement, which seeks to protest Israeli behavior in the occupied territories through boycotts, divestment, and sanctions.
While there were some ad-hoc boycotts against Israel even in the years before its formal founding, including a 1945 Arab League call to boycott anything that might lead to the realization of the Zionist ambition, the BDS movement began growing in earnest around the 1967 war, and 1973 Yom Kippur War.
A new poll from Israel’s Channel 2 found that one third of Americans continue to support the BDS movement, even though participating in it is technically illegal. The poll also claimed 62% of Americans believe that any participation in the BDS movement is automatically “anti-Semitism.”
That’s certainly been Israel’s talking point, with Ambassador Danny Danon declaring exactly that during a conference at the UN General Assembly, which sought to discuss how to clamp down on pro-BDS sentiment at American college campuses.
Danon insisted that recent efforts by the UN to set up a database of businesses operating in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were overt racist that “encouraged the boycott of Jewish companies.”
Interestingly, if it actually was overt racism, in the US it wouldn’t be illegal, as the anti-boycott laws and the Office of Antiboycott Compliance broadly target boycotts against Israel as a state, and even then only as it relates to Arab League calls to boycott them over the abuse of Palestinians. The law does not ban boycotts of Jews as an ethnic or religious minority.
Rather, the anti-boycott laws reflect the efforts of US politicians, from the late 1970’s through today, to suck up to the powerful pro-Israel lobbies, even if the law is practically unenforceable and overtly hostile to free speech.
In theory, this law requires all Americans to submit quarterly reports of every single time they’ve been asked to take part in or express support for the boycott of Israel, though naturally virtually no Americans do this and in practice the Office of Antiboycott Compliance is far too small to field 300 million reports from Americans four times a year.
In practice, this ban has only meant a handful of fines doled out in any given year, usually to shipping companies which agreed not to use an Israeli-flagged ship to transport goods to a country that doesn’t let Israeli-flagged ships dock there.
In 2015, only a single warning letter was sent by the entire office, which warned that a company had affirmed in an export document that the goods they were to export were made in the US and not in Israel. The office told them they’re not allowed to inform the would-be recipient of that fact.
Individual Americans, then, are de facto free to engage in boycotts against Israel with little to no fear of government retaliation, and major private organizations in the US routinely debate openly about divesting their investments from Israel on moral grounds.
While the BDS movement has continued to exist throughout this entire period, it clearly picks up pace during objectionable acts by the Israeli government, in particular during the nation’s many, many wars against its neighbors, or following major settlement expansions.
As Israel continues to shift rightward at a growing pace, this issue is likely to become a larger one, with the American public seeing the actions of the far-right government as increasingly objectionable, even as the Israeli government itself becomes more shrill about stifling international criticism, and more willing to turn unquestioned support for Israel into a partisan issue in the US.
The test case for this is the European Union, where Israel has been loudly and repeatedly picking fights with European bureaucrats over issues surrounding even labeling of goods made in Israel’s illegally occupied settlements, and has had Israel pushing the US to try to condition EU trade deals on them ending such action.
While BDS is more prevalent in Europe than North America, it has picked up considerable pace in the US as well, with many college students likening it to the similar moves against apartheid-era South Africa, a comparison which itself sparks no end of Israeli complaints.
Israeli officials continue to marvel at the growing momentum of the BDS movement in the US, but are ignoring the obvious correlation between their own increasingly hawkish rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of American students who are willing to stand against it.
Jason Ditz is the News Editor for Antiwar.com.