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With All the Boycott Israel Talk, What Is BDS?

Scarlett Johnasson, John Kerry scare up controversy over Palestinian movement

Mike Coppola/Getty Images for SodaStream

Boycotting Israel is having a moment. During the Super Bowl, an ad aired starring Scarlett Johansson hawking water-carbonaters made by SodaStream, an Israeli company whose largest factory is in a West Bank settlement. (Since you’re reading this on the Internet, you can watch the ad now.) The ad led OxFam International, which is “opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements,” to pressure Johansson into resigning her honorary position with the group. On Saturday, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that Israel’s continued occupation is provoking more people around the world to support boycotts: “There’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied Sunday, “Attempts to impose a boycott on the State of Israel are immoral and unjust. Moreover, they will not achieve their goal.” Also Sunday, Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), published an op-ed in The New York Times explaining the movement’s goals.

But leave aside celebrity missteps and diplomatic intrigue. The term “BDS” is often thrown around even while many people do not know what it means, and while even more people do not understand its implications. That is a shame, as the term is only going to become increasingly prominent. Hopefully the following will help explain things, most of all whether supporting BDS makes you, for all practical purposes, an anti-Zionist.

“BDS is a form of nonviolent resistance and effective solidarity to achieve Palestinian freedom, justice, and equal rights under international law,” Barghouti told me in an email Saturday. The tactic, as pushed for by the organized movement, has three specific goals, according to Barghouti’s op-ed: “BDS calls for ending Israel’s 1967 occupation, ‘recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality,’ and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948.” (The quotation comes from a call for BDS published in 2005.) Barghouti clarified for me that the movement sees boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel as a means to the end of achieving those goals as opposed to an end in itself (though one can hardly blame Israelis for feeling as though such actions themselves de-legitimize the country).

It is worth noting that BDS is more expansive than calls to boycott just settlement-made products such as SodaStream devices. “Zionist BDS” (as author Peter Beinart has termed this latter tactic) restricts itself to West Bank settlements, which most of the international community considers illegal. This more limited movement’s goal is to end the settlements and the occupation itself in the service of creating a two-state solution of a predominantly Jewish Israel and a predominantly Palestinian Palestine—the same solution that the U.S.-backed peace process endorses.

The best argument for BDS is that it is a response to the occupation that originated in Palestinian civil society and is physically nonviolent. (This distinguishes it from a religious liberation, sometimes-violent movement such as that espoused by Hamas, which governs Gaza.) The best argument against it is that, at best, BDS is not clear about what its endgame is, and at worst its endgame would go well beyond ending the occupation and toward ending Israel itself—something supporters of a two-state solution should obviously want to avoid.

“BDS does not take any position on the political outcome or resolution of the question of Palestine,” Barghouti told me. Barghouti said he personally supports a single democratic state. That evinces a keen understanding of the movement, whose position on refugees almost forces it to oppose the continued existence of the Jewish homeland.

BDS is tied inextricably to the demand for the right of return for the roughly five million Palestinian refugees, most of whom descend from those created in and around 1948. Barghouti confirmed this to me, writing, “The BDS movement upholds the basic rights of all Palestinians, including the right of return.” Or, as he put it in one interview, “‘If the occupation ends, would that end your call for BDS?’ No, it wouldn’t. … The majority of the Palestinian people are not suffering from occupation, they are suffering from denial of their right to come back home.”

Practically, the return of all Palestinian refugees would almost certainly spell the end of the Zionist project. As prominent liberal Zionist Gershom Gorenberg has explained, “Implemented without restriction, [the right of return] would make a two-state solution meaningless, since Palestinians would reclaim property in West Jerusalem and throughout Israel, creating a new class of displaced Jews in a bi-national state. (When peace negotiators on either side are realistic, they dicker about what limited number of Palestinians would return to Israel, in a symbolic acknowledgment of the Palestinian tragedy.)” Similarly, the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now acknowledges that the Palestinians would “agree to find solutions for the Palestinian refugee issue largely outside the borders of the state of Israel” as part of a series of tough compromises by both sides on the path to a two-state solution. It is telling that both APN (the sister organization of a prominent left-wing Israeli group) and J Street are American liberal Zionist organizations that support a two-state solution and oppose BDS, while the more left-wing Jewish Voice for Peace supports BDS and is officially agnostic on whether there should be two or one states.

Is it possible to be in favor of BDS and in favor of Zionism? Well, anything is possible. One could support the tactic without sharing all of the broader movement’s goals; for example, one could advocate BDS solely in the hope of ending the occupation. (After all, as Barghouti noted in his email, it is so-called “Israel proper” that actually imposes the occupation.) And even if one does share all of the movement’s goals—including the right of return—one could conceive of a resolution to the conflict in which only a small number of refugees are allowed to return, in exchange for which the “right” is both recognized and agreed to have been fulfilled.

But in my opinion, that requires a sort of nuance—or maybe just strategic bullshit—for which large movements of people with historical grievances tend not to have time. In practice, based both on the preferences of BDS supporters (including Barghouti, a co-founder) and the movement’s tenets, BDS’s success is most likely to involve the end of the Zionist project. And what this means is that any BDS supporter effectively advocates a one-state solution, even if, should you put the question to him, he would tell you he would prefer two states.

Calls to boycott Israel will continue to grow unless there is progress made on peace. That will require substantial Israeli concessions, most of all retreating from the occupation. The most effective thing opponents of BDS could do is not simply to inveigh against it, as Netanyahu did. It’s to provide an alternative.

As for SodaStream? Perhaps it is a superior product. It is great that it pays its Palestinian employees substantially higher wages than they could receive elsewhere locally. But I personally would prefer to en-bubble my water with something not made in a settlement. As some members of Ms. Johansson’s own family might say: feh.

CORRECTION: This post read that Barghouti favors a "bi-national" state when it should have read "democratic."