When the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) hold their annual policy conference this week, they’ll be pushing Congress to support bills designed to “fight the boycott of Israel”. This campaign to combat efforts to “boycott, divest, or sanction” Israel (BDS) has become a full-fledged national movement with Aipac-supported initiatives moving forward in Congress and in two dozen state legislatures.
These bills are designed to punish any governments, businesses, organisations or individuals who boycott, divest funds or impose sanctions on Israel or products emanating from Israel or “Israeli controlled territories”.
This campaign should be opposed for many reasons. In the first place, it requires the US government to do the bidding of a foreign state. The bills closely track legislation passed in Israel in 2014. Making US government institutions into mere extensions of Israel’s Knesset is unbecoming and embarrassing. While Israel and its allies often complain about the UN being one-sided, they have turned Congress and now state legislatures into cheerleaders.
These anti-BDS bills also have the effect of making the US a collaborator in Israel’s violations of international law by protecting Israeli settlements that have been illegally placed on occupied Palestinian land. By conflating Israel and “the territories under Israeli control”, Congress and the state bodies that pass these bills are attempting to change US policy of not granting legitimacy to settlements built on land Israel seized in the 1967 war.
The Congressional bills specifically criticise the policy of the EU which has announced that products originating from the occupied territories may not be labelled “Made in Israel”, requiring them, instead, to be marked “Made in the Occupied West Bank”. By punishing this EU practice, the US legislation compromises trade relations with its European allies.
The opposition to BDS should also be seen as a violation of the right of individuals and organisations to pursue non-violent means of protest against behaviour they view, in conscience, to be immoral. The US supreme court has upheld this right to boycott during the civil rights movement. And in the campaign against South African apartheid, US lawmakers engaged in civil disobedience to force the US government to impose sanctions on the South African government.
If Israel’s settlement activity is a violation of international law, then what better recourse do opponents of this behaviour have than to non-violently boycott, divest from, or impose sanctions on those settlements, their products, and those who build them and invest in them? The argument made by Israel that BDS is “a unilateral act that runs counter to the search for peace” is laughable since BDS is nothing more than a response to Israel’s “unilateral actions that run counter to the search for peace” – namely, the confiscation of Palestinian-owned land, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the construction of Israeli colonies and roads on occupied land.
Finally, it should be clear that the anti-BDS legislation being supported by Aipac is nothing more than a brazen act of hypocrisy since it, in effect, imposes sanctions on those accused of boycotting, divesting from, or sanctioning Israel.
Even more hypocritical is the fact that Aipac is also strongly supporting a bill that includes a whole host of Congressionally mandated sanctions on the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, the UN and other international bodies should any of these entities pursue policies not to the liking of Congress. All of these had been pushed by AIPAC in past years.
As an example, Congress was forced to deny funding to Unesco when that body admitted the Palestinians as a member. And the Palestinian Authority is threatened with a loss of US financial support and the PLO office in Washington is threatened with closure if the Palestinians seek recognition as a member state in the United Nations or if they bring a case against Israel to the International Criminal Court.
More worrisome is the fact that as this anti-BDS campaign has gained steam, its proponents have become emboldened. The rhetoric they use has become increasingly harsh terming those who support BDS anti-Semites. A website has been created featuring the profiles of student activists who advocate BDS warning prospective employers about the dangers of hiring them upon graduation. And a new effort is under way to combat BDS on campuses by arguing that BDS is by definition a form of “anti-Semitism” that should be banned.
In the end, what is playing out is the abuse of power politics at its worst. Aipac do what they do, because they can. In the process they have put the US on a dangerous course, compromised America’s ability to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and threatened the rights of US citizens and US allies to dissent by peaceful means from policies they oppose.
Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa