Putting on the pressure for peace


In the past two weeks, I’ve been to three protests, a march and two vigils in Toronto condemning Israel’s military operations in Gaza.

I’ve been inspired by people of Arab, Jewish and many other backgrounds banding together – in the rain on July 19, and the thousands who came to Queen’s Park July 26 and Dundas Square July 30.

Although the July 26 protest was characterized by some as a “pro-Hamas rally” (a reference to the militant group in Gaza firing rockets into Israel), many of them were peace activists.

Among them was a daughter of Holocaust survivors who told me the lesson her parents taught her was “Never again… for anyone.”

What is happening in Gaza has become all too familiar. In late 2008, when Israel launched a similar military assault, Operation Cast Lead, I went to protests in New York, where I lived at the time. The violence seemed so excessive that, as a Jew, I felt a need to publicly condemn it.

And yet, when I arrived at the first of the more recent protests, I felt a sinking feeling: another bloody war in Gaza, another futile shaking of fists at an Israeli Consulate.

What was the point, really?

At each of the demos, leaflets outlining the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel were being handed out.

The BDS movement proposes boycotting Israeli products, the severing of ties to Israeli institutions and sanctions. It calls on universities, unions and religious organizations around the world to withdraw their investments in Israeli companies and institutions.

“We’re not going to achieve justice and peace just by demonstrating every time there’s a bombing,” says Aidan Macdonald, an organizer with the Toronto chapter of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.

A particular point of contention is the campaign’s accusation that Israel practises apartheid.

Palestinian activist and Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid co-founder Rafeef Ziadah is unequivocal on this point. International law, she says, “defines the crime of apartheid as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons… systematically oppressing them.'”

This is not just the opinion of the BDS movement. When Bishop Desmond Tutu visited the West Bank, he said the situation there is “much like what happened to us black people in South Africa.” Journalist Chris McGreal wrote in Britain’s The Guardian of the 8-metre high wall Israel erected along the West Bank that “there are few places in the world where governments construct a web of nationality and residency laws designed for use by one section of the population against another. Apartheid South Africa was one. So is Israel.”

Not surprisingly, Israel vehemently opposes the apartheid label. D.J. Schneeweiss, Israel’s consul general in Toronto, calls it “complete BS. The apartheid slur is about scoring points in a propaganda war against Israel,” he says.

Schneeweiss also characterizes BDS as a radical and ineffective fringe movement.

“I’m not aware it’s getting any kind of traction beyond those closed echo-chambers,” he says.

Despite the support of a number of prominent figures, including Toronto’s Naomi Klein, questions are now being asked by other high-profile pro-Palestinian figures about the campaign’s demands. Is the effort, now in its 10th year, helping the Palestinian cause?

Noam Chomsky, who articulated some reservations about the BDS movement and tactics in an article in the July 21-28 issue of the Nation, observes that it is incapable of making a significant impact on Israel economically and politically, in part because “sanctions, or state actions [against Israel] are not on the horizon.”

BDS advocates then criticized Chomsky, who clarified in an online response on the Nation’s website that he supports consumer boycotts and divestment campaigns in principle. But he argues that BDS’s unrealistic demands – specifically allowing Palestinian refugees to return to the homes they were forced to leave in Israel’s wars – distracts attention from the current plight of Palestinians.

Chomsky reiterated in an email exchange with me that sanctions are key and that “far more energy should be devoted to developing public support for the most significant sanctions, for which a basis has long existed, as I’ve discussed: an arms embargo.”

Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Jerusalem Fund and its education program, the Palestine Center, agrees with Chomsky to an extent. But he thinks the philosopher-activist is overlooking the importance of the conversations BDS is igniting in Europe – for example, the EU directive against partnerships with Israeli businesses in the West Bank.

“These, I think, get closer to the ‘S’ [sanctions] that Chomsky wants to focus on,” Munayyer says.

For others in the movement, whether BDS can impose actual economic hardship on Israel is beside the point.

“It’s an awareness-raising exercise,” says Nadia Abu-Zahra, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of International Development and Global Studies. “Success or failure should not be measured by whether it is actually having an economic effect.”

Alan Sears, a Ryerson professor of sociology specializing in social justice movements and a member of Faculty for Palestine, a network of Canadian academics who support student-led Palestinian rights activism on campus, reminds naysayers that it was Palestinian organizations that first called for BDS.

“I don’t think it is the role of international solidarity to tell Palestinians to settle for less than what they themselves define as fundamental rights,” he says.

BDS is gaining more momentum, especially lately, than Schneeweiss may want to recognize. Its growth in the last few months is undeniable. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sold its shares in G4S, a British security company providing security services and equipment to Israel. Both the Presbyterian and the Methodist Church in the U.S. have divested from companies that sell equipment used to facilitate Israel’s settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Closer to home, the United Church of Canada recently voted to endorse a boycott of products made in the West Bank.

The Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid has held regular information pickets outside the downtown Bed Bath & Beyond store to inform customers about Israel-based carbonated drink maker SodaStream.

That company made headlines earlier this year when its celebrity spokesperson, Scarlett Johansson, refused to stop endorsing the product despite pressure from the global aid and development organization Oxfam, for whom she served as an ambassador. The dispute caused her to step down from that role.

Bed Bath & Beyond offers no information about whether the campaign is affecting its sales of SodaStream products. I contacted several other local retailers of SodaStream products, including Staples, Walmart and Canadian Tire, to ask if they’ve observed a drop in sales. Only Canadian Tire offered a comment, but it would not divulge sale figures.

In a carefully worded email, the company’s communications adviser, Jessica Culp, says the company is “committed” to “ethical business practices.” SodaStream Canada ignored repeated requests for comment about BDS.

One store in Canada, Ottawa’s terra20, has pulled SodaStream products from its shelves.

Pamela Tourigny, the retailer’s communications manager, tells me, “SodaStream gained worldwide attention in recent months, causing terra20 to become aware of concerns held by a number of individuals and groups with regards to SodaStream operating a production facility in a West Bank settlement, a disputed territory.”

Meanwhile, Hudson’s Bay Company which sells products from the Israeli cosmetics company Ahava, which are made using resources manufactured in the West Bank, withdrew the products from shelves in 2011 but now sells them again.

Since 2013, the Ryerson Students’ Union, the York Federation of Students and University of Toronto’s Scarborough Student Union have all passed motions endorsing BDS, including an academic boycott of Israeli universities.

Ryerson University says it “does not support the motion and it has no standing with the university. We are a scholarly community whose academic mission is for ideas. This mission cannot be carried out without unequivocal support for the underlying values of academic freedom and freedom of speech.”

University of Toronto Scarborough offered a similar statement in defence of academic freedom, while York offered that it “uses best practices in developing its policy on investments… built on advice from major investment consulting firms.”

Sears is skeptical of Ryerson and other universities’ justification of academic freedom.

“This is an institutional boycott of institutional links… it does not impede the travel of individual academics, so it doesn’t totally cutoff discussion,” Sears says.

He adds that, “We’ve seen in Israeli institutions, everything from the geography department creating new Hebrew names for Palestinian villages to architecture departments planning settlements. To simply use the language of academic freedom to separate those institutions doesn’t do justice to the reality of their role.”

Israel clearly takes the threat of BDS seriously. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year assigned responsibility for fighting BDS to his Strategic Affairs Ministry, and the Knesset passed a law, now before the Israel High Court, making promotion of a boycott of Israeli products within the country illegal.

Max Blumenthal, a fellow at the Nation Institute, notes in his investigative book, Goliath: Life And Loathing In Greater Israel, that Israel has invested copious funds and time in counter-BDS PR campaigns, or hasbara, (“explanation” in Hebrew), as many refer to it, organizing conferences and utilizing think tanks to paint BDS as anti-Semitic.

The Liberal and NDP leadership’s repetition of Israel’s “right to defend itself” talking point while the Harper-supported assault on Gaza and its rising civilian death toll continues shows the effectiveness of Israeli hasbara. Some 500 Canadian academics, lawyers and community leaders published an open letter in the Globe and Mail on July 24 criticizing all three party leaders for their “partisan position” on the conflict.

Israel’s overall approach seems to be on the one hand to call BDS irrelevant, and on the other to call it a dangerous, anti-Semitic movement.

Schneeweiss wants to assure me that BDS has been “a failure. It’s been around for 10 years and yet Israel’s economy and Israel’s acceptance in the world and Israel’s involvement in key international organizations and institutions continues to intensify.”

Yet he also warns me that BDS is “a front for a deeper, darker agenda,” which is to “eradicate the state of Israel.”

To him, the aspect of BDS that reveals that hidden agenda is the movement’s third demand: the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The right of return, which is recognized by international law, just might be the most contentious issue when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Even those who are vocally critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and aggressive military campaigns against Gaza are divided on it.

I observe to Blumenthal that among Palestinian rights activists/intellectuals I’ve spoken to, the divide over BDS seems to fall along generational lines. For example, he and Canadian journalist/activist Klein, who were born in the 70s, fully support it, and Chomsky and others who are decades older are opposed to varying degrees.

“There’s a total generational shift among diaspora Palestinians and among Jews in the West,” says Blumenthal. “We saw the first invasion of Lebanon when we were kids. We saw the inception of the peace process and the first Intifada [uprising]. We saw the peace process become a recipe for deepening the occupation. [Israel’s] Operation Cast Lead (the Gaza war of 2008-09) was the breaking point for many of my generation.”

Munayyer shares the sense that “there are discourse changes that haven’t been translated into policy changes yet.”

But when I ask Blumenthal if he feels optimistic about BDS forcing Israel to significantly change its policies in, say, the next couple of decades, he’s pretty frank. “No. But I don’t say I’m pessimistic. There’s no excuse not to do the right thing, even if you don’t know the outcome.”

What’s clear is that BDS is getting people talking, and it has Israel’s attention, and that’s more progress than we’ve had for a long time.


2005 The year the movement was launched by Palestinian civil society groups.

170 Number of Palestinian organizations, including trade unions and political groups, involved in the movement.

Inspiration The tactics that many credit with helping end apartheid in South Africa.

Demands Ending the occupation of Palestinian land occupied in June 1967 dismantling of the “apartheid wall” around the West Bank full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel the right of return for Palestinian refugees who lost their homes in Israel’s wars.


2011 Closure of Israeli cosmetics company Ahava’s flagship London, UK, store University of Johannesburg severs ties with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.

2012 Caterpillar in the U.S. is removed from MSCI-ESG’s ethical investment index for its work in the West Bank SodaStream closes EcoStream store in Brighton, UK, which has been regularly picketed.

2014 Turkey announces plan to suspend military relations with Israel.

Artists who’ve boycotted Israel

Bono, Snoop Dogg, the Pixies, Elvis Costello, Cat Power and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard.

Compiled by Jacob Scheier

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto



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