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Palestinian workers in the West Bank SodaStream factory in January 2014: The company has since been forced  by BDS to relocate to the Negev (© Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

When, in the early 2000s, Arab activists called for a boycott of the Jewish state, it wasn’t especially high on the Israeli agenda. After all, Israel was busy subduing the second Intifada, constructing a security barrier to stop terrorists from getting into Israeli towns and cities, and preparing to pull civilians and the military out of the Gaza Strip. Fast-forward to today, however, and a significant proportion of Israeli diplomacy and pro-Israel advocacy around the world is dedicated to battling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. BDS is a diffuse movement — mostly confined to Europe, North America and South Africa — that advocates boycotting Israelis and their nation’s institutions, urges states to sanction Israel, and pressures corporations to divest from the country. Meanwhile, opposition to BDS unites Jews and Zionists, regardless of differences of opinion over Israel’s foreign policy, more than most other issues. Whence, then, did BDS arise, and why? Has it been successful, and what does it say about its supporters? Does it justify the attention Israel and others afford it and, crucially, can it be defeated?

BDS is often dated back to July 2005, when more than a hundred Arab organisations, principally in the West Bank and Gaza, called for a boycott of Israel. But that declaration was in fact the culmination of several years of agitation. Omar Barghouti — widely considered to be the founder and face of BDS — was among several Arab activists to call for such a boycott a year earlier in Ramallah. Earlier still, in April 2002, a letter was published in the Guardian that called for an academic boycott of Israel. It garnered more than 700 signatures (although a counter-petition on the internet boasted more than a thousand), and by October 2002 divestment petitions were circulating on more than 50 campuses in the United States and elsewhere.

It was in 2001, however, that the idea of a broad boycott of Israel really took off, at the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in September. That conference, then and since dismissed as a farce, attempted to equate Zionism and racism (echoing the infamous UN General Assembly resolution in force from 1975 to 1991), leading to the withdrawal of the Israeli and American delegations and ultimately to the collapse of the conference’s credibility. (The ground for the conference was laid at a preparatory gathering in February 2001 in Tehran.) Regardless, a “Durban strategy” emerged from the conference that recommended “a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel” and “the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, and the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel”. It was Durban I, as the conference came to be known, that also helped to popularise the portrayal of Israel as an apartheid state.

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Avinoam Ben Dor
December 23rd, 2015
9:12 AM
Thank you for publishing this information. I was not aware of the extent of the BDS movement. It is the duty of every Jew and Israeli to fight this evil Anti-Semitic movement with everything we have because it is poisoning the minds of students and brainwashing them in the West. Self hating Jews and Israeli Leftist NGOs are not making it any easier but with God's help we will overcome and expose them all. Please keep me updated.

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