The movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel — long painted as a fringe group by the Israel advocacy community — is seeking to wrap itself in the mantle of the mainstream American left. At the movement’s first-ever national conference, presenters and attendees compared BDS to the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, the Cesar Chavez grape boycott and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, from which it draws inspiration.
They also worried about how to brand themselves in easily accessible sound bites.
“Palestine has to become part of the American vocabulary in the way Americans learn about and digest information, like in the kinds of magazines you read in the laundromat,” said Sarah Schulman, a professor of English at the City University of New York who spoke at the conference, held at the University of Pennsylvania the first weekend in February. “We have to brand BDS as something alive, progressive, increasingly available, with a human face, something Americans can relate to.”
But Penn’s Israel advocacy community greeted all this with a cold shoulder. Rather than protest the event, Rabbi Mike Uram, director of Penn Hillel, urged the group’s pro-Israel member organizations to steer clear of the program, lest they legitimize the BDS movement by drawing attention to it.
“On Penn’s campus, people don’t know what BDS is,” Uram said. “To engage in a conversation is to raise them to a level that they are not at.”
“Spending our time and resources and efforts standing outside, protesting the event, says that this is mainstream political discourse,” added Noah Feit, a sophomore who is president of Penn Friends of Israel. “We decided not to stage a protest, because we prefer not to legitimize radical political discourse. We think there are better and more effective forums to express our opinions.”
This contrast — a nascent pro-Palestinian movement craving legitimacy, with the Jewish establishment ignoring it — was a surprising outcome of what some had expected to be a volatile few days on an Ivy League campus with a large percentage of Jewish students and graduates. Area Jewish leaders had signed on to advertisements decrying the conference; some criticized the university for even allowing it to occur.
For the Israel advocacy community, BDS represents a threat to Israel’s sovereignty as a Jewish state. The movement was founded by Palestinian civil society organizations in 2005 after the International Court of Justice, the judicial body of the United Nations, deemed Israel’s separation barrier to be illegal. The barrier, which Israel justifies as a security measure, departs at numerous points from Israel’s pre-1967 border to take in land deep in the occupied West Bank. BDS centers on three demands: an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories and the dismantling of the barrier, the recognition of rights of Palestinians living in Israel proper and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.