Rebecca Vilkomerson thinks that BDS is both legitimate and effective

Posted: March 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 21 Comments »

Earlier this week, an Israeli security company named Hashmira has announced it will stop supplying equipment to the West Bank. Hashmira is owned by Danish giant G4S, which was under considerable pressure due to its projects in Israel. This was another success for the boycott campaign, which seems to gain momentum, especially when it targets activities directly involved in the occupation.

The Boycott is extremely controversial in Israel. While there is some tolerance, especially on the left, for the boycott of the settlements, supporting the BDS is a political taboo. Furthermore, a new Knesset bill would make it illegal for Israelis to support all kind of political boycotts against the occupation.

I would like to bring here things said by Jewish Voice for Peace’s Rebecca Vilkomerson during J Street’s panel on BDS. Rebecca makes some very good points, especially with regards to the nature of the boycott as a none-violent, grassroots action (Bernard Avishai, who also spoke at the J street Panel, makes the case against BDS here).


I want to take a moment to make sure we all are clear about what BDS is.  BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. It’s a Palestinian led, globally active, non-violent movement in support of equality and freedom for the Palestinian people.

As Kathleen mentioned, I lived in Israel from 2006 to 2009.  My husband and children are Israeli, so obviously I am deeply invested in what will happen in Israel.  I actually learned about BDS largely through Israeli activists and friends, who had increasingly come to support it, especially in the wake of the Gaza War. I find it to be the most hopeful strategy that we can engage in — a way to act on principles of equality and human dignity that I value as a Jew and as a human being.

In the last month or so, three events, in particular, have reinforced this for me.

1) The Palestine Papers revealed that the “peace process,” which has been going on for 19 years now, is bankrupt.  The U.S. is not an honest broker, Israel is not willing to compromise, and the PA is too weak to fight for Palestinian rights, willing to make enormous concessions –which still were not considered enough by Israel.  Throughout this almost 20 year process the settlements have grown enormously, creating de facto bantustans that make a two state solution hard to imagine.

2) The U.S. vetoed a resolution at the U.N. which was an exact reflection of its own foreign policy.  The U.S. is simply unwilling to use any of the many tools it has at its disposal to force Israel to stop violating international law, to stop violating human rights, and to stop violating U.S. policies.  Obama stood in Cairo and said that settlements must end—and yet he has proven that in this case he believes only in words, not action.
Frankly,  we need to be realistic about the current power dynamics.  The strategy of relying on governments –our government—to bring about change on its own has shown itself to be completely ineffective.

3) In contrast: the Arab uprisings. Many of us watched in awe as Egyptians took to the streets in their millions, to non-violently call for freedom, democracy, and dignity.  Now from Bahrain, to Libya, and Yemen, thousands more are doing the same.  Last night, Mona Eltahawy’s call for solidarity for Arab struggles for freedom and dignity got a standing ovation.  The Palestinian BDS movement is part and parcel of the Arab Spring sweeping the region, and deserves the same respect.

So on the one hand we have government-driven processes that have shown themselves to be corrupt and hypocritical, and on the other we have a movement rooted in civil society, in principles of non-violence, which draws on the long and noble history of BDS efforts against apartheid, for civil rights, for many other righteous struggles.  These are the tools of our heroes—Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez.

BDS is an opportunity for each of us, personally, to act on our values.  To express, directly, our support for freedom, democracy and dignity.   It can create—is creating—the pressure that will eventually be much more successful than current lobbying tactics have been to create a true change in U.S. foreign policy, to create the conditions for negotiations that are between equals.

I want to highlight just one company that is being targeted in a global boycott campaign as an illustration.
Veolia is a French company, one of the largest in the world, which manages transportation systems, waste systems, and water treatment around the world (including here in D.C., where it manages the bus lines).  It operates a land fill in the West Bank (using Palestinian land and resources to serve the settlements), runs bus service to the settlements on road 443, which was built on Palestinian land but is only open to Israelis, and had a contract to build and manage the light rail to connect West Jerusalem to the settlements around it, effectively annexing Palestinian territory.

Veolia has been the target of a boycott and divestment campaign worldwide , and as a result Veolia has lost literally billions of dollars in new contracts.  In June, 2009, Veolia announced that it was withdrawing from its contract to build the rail, though it is still managing its implementation, and continues to lose contracts because of it.

The campaign against Veolia is a great example of why BDS is so exciting and so effective:

It works.

It educates people about the way corporations are implicated in the settlement project and in building and expanding the infrastructure of occupation

It enables people to take action once they understand what is happening—Veolia is in local communities all over the country, collecting garbage, operating buses and trains, and all over the country people are organizing campaigns  in their own cities and campuses to build the pressure on Veolia to stop profiting from the Occupation.

This is just one example.  One of the strengths of the BDS movement is that it is both loose and broad, all sorts of campaigns and targets fit within it, depending upon local priorities and conditions.

BDS movement is inspired by a call that was put out by Palestinian civil society in 2005, but it is a very diverse movement of acts of nonviolent resistance occurring every day in ways big and small.

Some just do it quietly by bypassing settlement goods at the store-which is common in Israel among my friends and family, and I would guess in this room. Israeli artists boycott performances in Ariel, and U.S. artists, like Steven Sondheim, Tony Kushner, and Mandy Patinkin, support them. Some picket in front of stores, or ask artists not to play in Israel, or like JVP, focus only on companies that profit from the Occupation.

We have groups in Israel like Boycott from Within, that have been supporting the full Palestinian call, and groups like Peace Now that ask supporters not to invest in the occupied territories.. Here in the U.S., Meretz USA, recently put out a statement supporting BDS in the occupied territories.

It really varies and not everyone agrees on every campaign. But we all have in common a belief that Israel must abide by international law, must be a true democracy for all of its citizens, and cannot continue to subjugate another people.  That stand for democracy and freedom is what motivates the BDS movement, just as it motivated the movement for civil rights in the U.S. in the 1960s, and what we are seeing today in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

One of the beautiful things about watching those movements unfold has been watching people under dictatorial regimes who suddenly found the courage to take their governments, and their lives, back.  The BDS movement strives to fulfill these same basic human needs and in the same spirit of non-violence.  After years violent attacks on civilians that were rightfully condemned, how could we not respect and encourage these non-violent means, that bring together Palestinian, Israeli, and international activists in common cause?

It is very encouraging to have this conversation in a Jewish space. It’s great that J Street has rejected the attempts of right wing groups to split progressive Jews from one another, and is not following the lead of groups like Hillel (and Ameinu, if I want to be brutal!), that are creating political litmus tests for inclusion in the Jewish community. Its exciting to be able to sit together and have this discussion about tactics—there should be room for all of our approaches.

But is also of utmost importance to recognize that to have this conversation only in this space is not enough.  Many of us in this room have been to Bilin or Sheikh Jarrah.  These places are inspiring, because though led by Palestinians, as is appropriate since it is the Palestinian’s struggle to be free, they are joint Palestinian-Israeli efforts. In those places you can imagine a future in Palestine and Israel where all people are free to be full citizens, and where life is richer for everyone for it.

One of the strengths of BDS is that it actually requires conversation and coordination. So as a next step, I would put out a plea and a challenge that we not have this conversation only among Jews, but respect the agency of Palestinians in this struggle.  They are the ones most affected, they are the initiators of the call, and they need to be able to represent themselves in this debate.

More on BDS:

Roi Maor: BDS is ineffective.

Joseph Dana and Max Blumenthal: BDS targets the right group in Israeli society.

Video of the BDS debate in Princton. Debating: Max Blumenthal, Rebecca Vilkomerson, Dan May, Daniel May.

21 Comments on “Rebecca Vilkomerson thinks that BDS is both legitimate and effective”

  1. 1 maayan said at 4:43 pm on March 17th, 2011:

    Libya has shown the farce of “international law,” of its keeper, the UN, of its messengers like HRW, Amnesty and of course Goldstone and Dugard. It has revealed the emptiness of the anti-Israel rhetoric and the disproportionate emphasis on Israel when there are literally hundreds of millions of people suffering under brutal, hateful, primitive, racist regimes.

    And yet, we have Jews among us who continue to seek to undermine Israel. That’s what BDS is, nothing more. Rebecca Vilkomerson has to lie about the Palestine Papers to make her point. She has to lie about the position of the US to make her point. She dares to compare the situation in the Arab countries where they have uprisings to Israel – democratic and where an Arab judge can put a Jewish president in prison.

    The Palestinians need to want peace, before Israel can give them peace. The Palestinians need to accept at least one deal offered by Israel before the blame about the conflict can be laid at Israel’s feet. The Palestinians need to negotiate before somebody can come to complain about needing to pressure Israel. BDS is nothing more than an attempt to weaken Israel and strengthen those who seek to destroy it. It is a clear attempt, by the way, to seek a single state that would erase the Jewish state in the long run, nothing less.

    One day, a serious reporter or historian will study this movement carefully and will reveal that it is nothing more than another propaganda effort by the Palestinian leadership. Sure, it is carried forth by useful serfs like Naomi Klein and Rebecca Vilkomerson, but it is simply a weapon of war against Israel wielded by one of its enemies. When you support BDS, you support Israel’s enemies and their ambition to destroy the Jewish state. This movement has nothing to do with peace or with justice. People who seek peace and justice press those who would run away from deals (the Palestinians) to sit at the table and close an agreement.

  2. 2 noam said at 6:07 am on March 18th, 2011:

    @Maayan: It always comes down to the same point with your comments: You think that if the Palestinians don’t accept whatever Israeli offers them (it seems that this is your interpretation of negotiations) they lose their right to freedom, and have to live under Apartheid-style occupation at the West Bank.

    My view is different: The Palestinian deserve full rights now, and the burden of finding a political settlement is on Israel. If Israel is indifferent to it – like the current government is – the outside pressure is more than justified.

  3. 3 Tom Mitchell said at 6:01 pm on March 18th, 2011:

    How did she lie about the U.S. position regarding settlements?

  4. 4 maayan said at 12:45 pm on March 19th, 2011:

    “The U.S. vetoed a resolution at the U.N. which was an exact reflection of its own foreign policy. ”

    Not true.

    Noam, sorry if I repeat myself. It’s only because groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and other BDS advocates repeat their lies regularly. At other times it’s because pro-Palestinians also repeat themselves. In fact, the truth is there is much more pro-Palestinian repetition of themes than I could ever hope to counter. Apartheid, anyone?

    As for your views on Palestinians and negotiations, apparently you think it’s okay if one side continues to stonewall on key issues in every new negotiation. If the bottom line is that they refuse to accept Israel as a Jewish state and continue to seek to take it over by the ballot or the bomb, then there is no reason for Israel to give up anything further. What it has already given up has only cost it – 50 mortar rockets in Israel today and recently an Iranian minister visiting the Lebanese/Israel border tell the tale.

    If the Palestinians do not wish to be under occupation, they need to give up something, don’t you think? Full rights are lovely, but why should Israel risk its citizens’ lives? Do you think that when 50 mortars land on Kfar Saba, that you will be satisfied that the Palestinians now have sufficient freedom? Please don’t say it won’t happen, because all the evidence indicates it will happen.

  5. 5 maayan said at 7:21 am on March 20th, 2011:

    I’ve given more thought to your two key points:
    1. [If]” Palestinians don’t accept whatever Israeli offers them (it seems that this is your interpretation of negotiations) they lose their right to freedom, and have to live under Apartheid-style occupation at the West Bank.”

    2. “The Palestinian deserve full rights now, and the burden of finding a political settlement is on Israel.”

    If I understand, since the burden of finding a solution lies on Israel, then Israel must accept whatever the Palestinians demand. Isn’t that the logical outcome of what you’ve stated?

    Here is a simple question. The wars and this conflict were foisted upon Israel. You can go back to 1920, to Haj Amin al Husseini, to the ’47 fighting and the ’48 war, to the terror attacks from Egypt in the ’50s that led to the Suez operation, to the belligerence leading up to the ’67 war including Jordan’s joining of the war after being warned to stay out, to the attack on Yom Kippur in ’73. 1982 is more complex, but there’s no question that Palestinians in Lebanon were sending rockets into Israel’s north. The war of 2000 is a Palestinian war against Israel. 2006 takes place after Hizbullah attacks Israel.

    According to you, however, the burden of finding a resolution lies with Israel and since the Palestinians have not been satisfied with Israeli offers, it is their right to refuse such offers until Israel hits the right formula.

    Doesn’t this seem highly illogical to you?

  6. 6 noam said at 7:49 am on March 20th, 2011:

    Mayaan – by now I know you have a fair knowledge of regional history, so you probably know that most of the wars you mentioned weren’t just “an Arab attack on Israel”, but a much more complicated story [foreign interests in 56', Israeli expansionism in 67', ignoring the peace offers before 73' etc]. you might not agree with this narrative, but I’m sure you know of it’s existence, so let’s save ourselves the historical debate.

    As for your argument asking what should Israel do if the Palestinians don’t want to sign an agreement – the answer is simple: find ways to end the occupation unilaterally (or with the help of the international community) by either making the Palestinians its citizens or withdrawing from the occupied territories. as I said, this is a question of human rights, not of peace or diplomacy.

  7. 7 Tom Mitchell said at 9:39 am on March 20th, 2011:

    I’m somewhat between you and Ma’ayan on this issue. Israel isn’t obligated to withdraw militarily until a peace agreement is signed. But it should end settlement efforts. It isn’t necessary that Arabs recognize Israel as a Jewish state, only that they halt offensive hostile military actions against it. After all, the U.S. doesn’t make its military opponents recognize that the U.S. is “the land of the free and the home of the brave” after they lose wars. The more Israel introduces these absurd demands the more it muddies the waters as to who is responsible for the continuation of the conflict.

  8. 8 Tom Mitchell said at 9:42 am on March 20th, 2011:

    You didn’t answer my question, you just made another assertion. Maybe the Right feels that the continued assertion of dogma equals truth, just like religious leaders.

  9. 9 maayan said at 9:59 am on March 20th, 2011:

    Noam, of course every situation is more complex than a several word description. The macro, however, is accurate: Israel has been under siege and surrounded by enemies from different directions since the beginning of this conflict.

    More to the point, you didn’t address the logic – or rather, the lack of it – in your position.

    Israel entered and conquered the West Bank in a war initiated by Jordan. This is incontestable. The West Bank was a conquered territory with no provenance other than what the League of Nations ordered the British to do with it, which is create a “home” for the Jewish people in it.

    Despite these simple and incontestable facts, Israel has made offers to the Palestinians that would relinquish most of this territory to them. The Palestinians have rejected these offers, while continuing to battle Israel in different ways and without acquiescing their hostile intentions (we know this from the last Fatah congress).

    According to you, all of this is immaterial because there is a human rights problem. Therefore, Israel should unilaterally destroy its raison d’etre by going for an Arab majority within its borders, or do what they did with Gaza and simply leave.

    Destroying Israel’s own status as a Jewish state is an unreasonable demand, Noam. I’m sorry, but the Jewish people have a right to self-determination.

    That leaves unilateral exit as the other possibility. The problem is that we now have two previous unilateral Israeli exits without agreements, one in Lebanon and one in Gaza. Both have turned out rather badly for Israel and have opened the door to Iran which has made both proxies for its anti-Israel plans.

    Since you can’t guarantee that the same won’t happen tomorrow in Judea and Samaria, and since negotiations will never proceed if Israel gives up its key leverage, I fail to see how you can demand what you demand from Israel. Furthermore, since your position is entirely unreasonable regarding Israel, as I’ve just shown, how can you justify “outside pressure” like BDS?

  10. 10 maayan said at 10:26 am on March 20th, 2011:


    First, let’s look at the current administration:

    ““We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” she told the UN body after casting her vote.

    “Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.”

    However, in a conference call with reporters following the vote, Rice noted that US policy since 1980 had been not to term settlements “illegal.”

    The US was unwilling to sign off on a legally binding resolution that gave such a designation, but it had offered a compromise that still criticized settlements.”

    And now let’s look at the previous administration:

    “As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities. ”

    And the administration before that:

    “Here they are. First, I think there can be no genuine resolution to the conflict without a sovereign, viable, Palestinian state that accommodates Israeli’s security requirements and the demographic realities.

    That suggests Palestinian sovereignty over Gaza, the vast majority of the West Bank, the incorporation into Israel of settlement blocks, with the goal of maximizing the number of settlers in Israel while minimizing the land annex for Palestine to be viable must be a geographically contiguous state. Now, the land annexed into Israel into settlement blocks should include as few Palestinians as possible, consistent with the logic of two separate homelands. And to make the agreement durable, I think there will have to be some territorial swaps and other arrangements. ”

    I can go back further, but the crux of the matter is that only one US administration agreed with the UN resolution deeming the settlements “illegal” and that was Carter’s. Since then, every US president has made sure to differentiate between the question of legality and legitimacy. The consensus has been that Israel will keep the large blocs near the Green Line, pretty much like the offers made by Barak and Olmert.

    Rebecca Vilkomerson is lying.

  11. 11 maayan said at 9:57 am on March 21st, 2011:

    Oh, and Tom, I know this is going to shatter your world-view, but I don’t belong to the Right. I believe in a two-state solution, in peace with all of Israel’s neighbors, in trying to end the presence of Israeli soldiers among Palestinians at the first possible instance, in the Gaza disengagement, in a non-discriminating Israel toward its Arab population and in a non-discriminating Israel toward its non-Orthodox population.

  12. 12 Tom Mitchell said at 8:39 pm on March 22nd, 2011:

    I think she was more guilty of hyperbole than of lying. The U. S. State Dept. has always held that they are illegal under international law, which coincides with the position of the JAG advisor to the IDF before the 1967 war because any settlements involving land confiscations and displacement of the original population are illegal under international law. This is true if the territory is disputed as well until the dispute is resolved. Since Carter the administrations haven’t said this because it antagonizes Jerusalem and causes problems politically at home.

    She may not have not what the Obama administration’s position was on the legal issue because the administration was being quiet about it while emphasizing its objection to settlements as an obstacle to peace more than any administration since Carter.

  13. 13 maayan said at 5:08 am on March 23rd, 2011:



    Look, read the Bush letter carefully. It is explicit and it could not have been written if it did not meet US legal standards. And it isn’t true that since Carter American administrations have spoken differently because of antagonizing Jerusalem. It’s not as if Bush Sr. had any trouble antagonizing Jeruasalem. What happened was that Reagan explicitly rejected Carter’s position and that view has dominated US administrations since. Except, perhaps, for the current administration and even this adminstration has Rice “…noted that US policy since 1980 had been not to term settlements “illegal.”

    Rebecca Vilkomerson is lying.

    Also, let’s face it, if the settlements were the obstacle to peace, then Hamas would be governing Gaza quietly with good relations directed at its Jewish neighbor.

  14. 14 maayan said at 5:09 am on March 23rd, 2011:

    Sorry about the typos and grammar, I’m tired.

  15. 15 Tom Mitchell said at 2:39 pm on March 23rd, 2011:

    I never claimed that the settlements were THE obstacle to peace–they are one of many obstacles.

    You say you support the two-state solution, which version: a) that of Sharon and Netanyahu where the Palestinians get half or less of the territory of the West Bank; or b) one in which they get the equivalent in territorial terms of what Jordan had west of the Jordan from 1949 to 1967?

  16. 16 maayan said at 4:29 pm on March 24th, 2011:

    I propose neither. I am willing to accept Barak’s offer at Taba and am willing to consider Olmert’s offer in 2008. What Jordan “had” for 19 years has no meaning to me – and it means nothing to the Jordanians as well since they gave up all claims on the area they named West Bank. Let me be clear also that the parts of eastern Jerusalem that have substantial meaning to Jews, namely the area at the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter and other parts of the Holy Basin stay with Israel. If I consider Olmert’s plan, it is only with absolute safeguards against the Palestinians trying to assert any claims in these areas. Let me also be clear that I don’t think Judea and Samaria, by rights, belong or should belong to the Palestinians. I am willing to give them up for an end to conflict and nothing less.

  17. 17 Tom Mitchell said at 2:22 pm on March 25th, 2011:

    Israeli governments have through their past practices already primed the Palestinians to expect to receive all the territory back. Begin returned all of Sinai to Egypt. And Rabin agreed to return all of the Golan to Syria–although Barak later went back on that deal. The Palestinians now don’t expect that they should get anything less–although they have accepted a sort flexibility about the exact course of the borders.

    Most Palestinians would also probably not accept that Israel proper belongs to the Jews by rights. So there is a certain symmetry in your logic.

  18. 18 maayan said at 5:22 pm on March 25th, 2011:

    Egypt actually controlled the Sinai. Syria actually controlled the Golan (and what Rabin offered is arguable, as is laying the blame for later talks between Israel and Syria at Israel’s feet – the Syrians wanted access to the Sea of Galilee, even though they never had such access previously). The Palestinians never controlled anything. They also don’t intend to stop at 1967 lines.

    My logic is rather simple. In the 19 years when Arabs controlled eastern Jerusalem, Jews had no access to some of the most important sites in Jewish history. This can’t happen again.

  19. 19 maayan said at 5:23 pm on March 25th, 2011:

    Hey Noam, apparently you and your friends at 972 will get what you wish for:

    I’d wish you a mazal tov, but I’m a little nauseated right now.

  20. 20 Naftali said at 12:29 pm on April 7th, 2011:

    The lie that is JVP and the like. When I first came across the JVP site several years ago, I thought, great, a Jewish voice for peace. Having served in the IDF myself in combat, I know how ugly war is. I know how people are fed up that they, and their sons and now grandsons are going to war. I know how much Israelis want peace. We know the costs. Not only that, I want the same for the Palestinians. They are our neighbours and they have been screwed. Not by Israel, but by their leaders and so-called friends in the Arab/Muslim world. Peace between us will be a huge benefit to everyone.

    I soon discovered however, that JVP is a sham.

    They are all about DEMONIZING Israel. I saw one of their people on video standing with a Starbucks coffee in her hands, smiling in front of a room full of Christians thanking them for boycotting Jews. Disgusting.

    The vast majority of Jews and Israelis do not support JVP or people like them. However, they dare to call themselves progressives, as if all the rest of us are idiot Neanderthals.

    My mother was an Auschwitz survivor. To me, JVP is the same as the Juden Polizei that helped the Germans in their work.

  21. 21 noam said at 2:56 am on April 8th, 2011:

    @Naftali: All Holocaust and/or Nazi Germany references are not allowed in comments to this blog, unless the topic is mentioned in the post itself.

    see here

    please refrain from using this terminology in the future.