Palestinian-Led Movement To Boycott Israel Is Gaining Support

‘Our South Africa Moment Has Finally Arrived,’ Says One Leader

By Gal Beckerman

Published September 16, 2009, issue of September 25, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Uzbekistan-born diamond mogul Lev Leviev announced late in August that his company, Africa-Israel, was drowning in debt of more than $5.5 billion that it could not repay. Over the next two days, shares in the company’s stock plummeted by more than one-third. It was relentless bad news for one of the world’s richest men. His holding and investment company had lost $1.4 billion since 2008, mostly due to failed real estate investments in the United States.

Watching Leviev’s precipitous downfall from the sidelines were pro-Palestinian activists. And they were cheering.

Though certainly not the cause of his financial collapse, for the past two years, these activists have singled out Leviev as one of their high-profile villains for his large contributions to West Bank settlements. And they have been effective gadflies. Several of the company’s major shareholders have divested their holdings from Africa-Israel after receiving complaints from clients. And at least two charities have declared publicly they will not accept Leviev’s contributions.

The pro-Palestinian activists are affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international coalition with the goal of isolating and discomfiting Israel just as South Africa’s apartheid regime was targeted in the 1980s.

Initiated by Palestinian groups in 2005 but strengthened by a network that takes in dozens of leftist organizations in Europe and the United States, the Global BDS Movement claims a number of recent successes. Especially in the wake of the Gaza incursion of last winter, groups associated with the boycott have now felt spurred to expand their efforts into even the sensitive realm of academic and cultural boycotts of Israel.

As Omar Barghouti, one of the Palestinian leaders of the BDS movement, told the Forward, “Our South Africa moment has finally arrived.”

Some major Jewish groups acknowledge BDS as a possible threat. “There are clearly a number of episodes building up here that would allow advocates of a boycott to say that slowly, slowly we are achieving what we want, which is the South Africanization of Israel,” said American Jewish Committee spokesman Ben Cohen. “I’m not sure that the increase in activity is quite as dramatic as some people would believe, but it’s clear to me that this discourse of boycott is being increasingly legitimized, and it would appear that some companies are responsive to it.”

The BDS movement is highly decentralized, with each group in the coalition allowed to choose its own targets as it sees fit. It has no articulated political vision. such as a one- or two-state solution to the conflict. The principles that guide the movement — as set out in a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions issued in June 2005 by a wide group of Palestinian civil society organizations — demand instead that Israel adhere to international and human rights law. The amorphous structure and broad goals appear to be responsible for many of the group’s appeal. But some who watch this movement closely contend that, in the end, even a “targetted” boycott is ultimately aimed at all of Israel.

The actual monetary impact of the movement is often unclear. But for activists seeking as much to affect Israel’s image in the public’s mind, money is not always the bottom line.

The campaign against Leviev is a good example. It was initiated by Adalah-NY, one of the handful of American groups in the BDS movement’s network. It was Adalah’s activists who chose to focus on Leviev’s construction projects in the West Bank and on contributions he has made to the Land Redemption Fund, which gives money for settlement development. Adalah-NY protesters first picketed the opening two years ago of Leviev’s diamond retail store, yelling at actress Susan Sarandon as she entered the Madison Avenue shop. Since then, the group has taken every opportunity to point out his connections to the West Bank settlements.

Lately, the fruits of this focus on Leviev have been piling up. On Sept. 11 TIAA-CREF, the giant pension fund, announced that it had divested from Africa-Israel last March after 59 of the company’s investors accused it of being “a company which violates human rights and international law.” UNICEF and OXFAM denied Leviev’s public claims to have given them generous contributions and added that they would not accept contributions from him because of his financial support for West Bank settlements. Also, in the past few weeks, a couple of Africa-Israel’s largest investors have sold their stock in Leviev’s company after receiving pressure from their clients. Most notable was BlackRock, the British subsidiary of the major Wall Street banking firm, which announced that it was divesting following concerns expressed by three client Scandinavian banks.

“Those aren’t small things,” said Andrew Kadi, a member of Adalah who is involved with the Leviev campaign. “People don’t completely grasp how serious it is when two of your top 10 or 12 shareholders divest. We’re talking about millions of dollars.”

Neither Leviev nor Africa-Israel responded to requests for comment.

Leviev’s trouble is just one of many recent signs of the movement’s higher profile. There was the protest joined by several celebrities in mid-September at the Toronto International Film Festival of the festival’s official cultural partnership with the city of Tel Aviv in celebration of the latter’s 100th anniversary. A few days earlier, Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben-Gurion University, wrote a controversial opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, endorsing the BDS movement as the “only way to counter the apartheid trend in Israel.” This past June, the French company Veolia Environnement SA abandoned its multibillion-dollar project to build a light rail train system in Jerusalem after pressure mounted in France from BDS-affiliated groups. The activists counted it as one more victory.

Ironically, Barghouti, who appears to be one of the movement’s chief strategists, is currently in a master’s degree program in philosophy at Tel Aviv University — even though he is one of the founding members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. He has been one of the activists strongly pushing the greater BDS movement in the direction of opposing any institution associated with Israel.

Asked about his affiliation with an institution he wants boycotted, Barghouti declined to discuss his personal life.

In an e-mail to the Forward, Barghouti emphasized that the BDS movement “does not adopt a particular political solution to the colonial conflict.” The main strategy, he wrote, “is based on the principle that human rights and international law must be upheld and respected no matter what the political solution may be. This was key to securing a near consensus in Palestinian civil society and a wide network of support around the world, including the Western mainstream.”

The exclusive focus on rights rather than on a political prescription for the conflict brings together both those who want to target Israel’s existence as a whole and those—mostly American activists—who stick to the more narrow issue of the occupation and settlement activity.

As far as Barghouti is concerned, BDS is a “comprehensive boycott of Israel, including all its products, academic and cultural institutions, etc.” But he understands “the tactical needs of our partners to carry out a selective boycott of settlement products, say, or military suppliers of the Israeli occupation army as the easiest way to rally support around as a black-and-white violation of international law and basic human rights.”

Cohen, the AJC spokesman, views this tactic as a transparent deception. “If you probe these groups a little deeper, you’ll find that really this is entirely ideologically motivated. They are just a bunch of radical groups that want to see the state of Israel eliminated,” he said. “That is the thread that unites all the disparate groups in the BDS movement, they all see BDS as a means to arrive at the goal of a world without Israel. I think that many people who might be troubled by Israel’s presence in the West Bank are going to run a mile when they see what the real agenda of these groups are.”

The activist group Code Pink: Women for Peace recently turned its attention to this type of targeted boycott, focusing on the cosmetics company Ahava. Based in the kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem, a settlement in the West Bank, Ahava was a convenient target for the group. After picketing stores that sold Ahava products — mostly mud masks and mineral salts from the Dead Sea — the Code Pink activists looked on with satisfaction as the company’s spokeswoman, “Sex and the City” star Kristin Davis, was dropped as an ambassador for OXFAM. The group gave its reasons in a statement, saying that it “remains opposed to settlement trade, in which Ahava is engaged.”

Nancy Kricorian, Code Pink’s New York City coordinator and the organizer of its Ahava campaign, dubbed Stolen Beauty, said that this push against the cosmetics company was effective precisely because it was tightly focused on a settlement operation. And yet, it also fell squarely within the guidelines of the BDS movement’s principles and objectives and was even cited by Barghouti as a successful model because it sullied Ahava’s name publicly.

Barghouti, Kricorian and other BDS activists attended the national conference of the U.S. Campaign to the End the Israeli Occupation, which took place on September 12 and 13 in Chicago. The organization is itself an amalgamation of dozens of smaller pro-Palestinian groups from across the country. Up until this conference, its BDS activity had also been narrowly focused on American companies involved in the West Bank. Specifically, they have targeted Caterpillar Inc. for manufacturing the bulldozers involved in settlement construction, and Motorola USA for the surveillance and communications equipment used by the Israeli army.

But according to David Hosey, national media coordinator for the campaign, the group resolved at the conference to extend its activities for the first time to the more sensitive cultural and academic boycott. Like many other pro-Palestinian activists, Hosey dated this willingness to increase boycott activity to the Gaza incursion of this past winter.

“It was a big shock to the system, and it caused a big sea change in what people were willing to do,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the national director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which, though supportive of the BDS movement, has not officially joined it.

Contact Gal Beckerman at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.