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What Is BDS? Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Explained

Is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement an international campaign to boycott Israel over its alleged harsh treatment of Palestinians—or the latest political battle in Washington?

It could be both, which makes this complex topic that has been protested on college campuses and debated in Congress, both fascinating and baffling, depending on whom you ask.

What is BDS?

BDS is a 13-year-old movement created by nearly 170 Palestinian civil society groups citing the Civil Rights Movement, and actions to end apartheid in South Africa.

The BDS movement wants Israel to stop occupying the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights. It is encouraged by the unanimous United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which includes the United States, from 1967 calling for Israel to withdraw from "territories occupied in the recent conflict."

Supporters believe that this movement is a non-violent approach to protesting Israel's military rule over occupied territories, while Israel believes the goal of the campaign is to delegitimize the state and eventually eliminate it altogether.

BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti has said in the past that, “Most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

The BDS movement is attracting more headlines as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government banned Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, the first two Muslim women in Congress, from visiting the country because of their vocal support of BDS.

Tlaib had asked Israel to visit her 90-year-old grandmother who lives in the West Bank, promising to respect any restrictions and to not promote any anti-Israel protests.

However, when Israel accepted her proposal, she rejected the country's invitation. Tlaib's grandmother, Muftia Tlaib, told Reuters that "Trump tells me I should be happy that Rashida is not coming. May God ruin him."

This scenario led talk show host Bill Maher to make critical statements about the movement.

"It's a bullshit purity test by people who want to appear woke but actually slept through their history class," Maher said on his HBO "Real Time with Bill Maher" show Friday night. "It's predicated on this notion, I think—it's very shallow thinking—that the Jews in Israel, mostly white, and the Palestinians are browner, so they must be innocent and correct, and the Jews must be wrong.

"As if the occupation came right out of the blue, that this completely peaceful people found themselves occupied."

Tlaib responded the next day, tweeting that maybe folks should boycott Maher's show.

"I am tired of folks discrediting a form of speech that is centered on equality and freedom. This is exactly how they tried to discredit & stop the boycott to stand up against the apartheid in S. Africa," Tlaib said. "It didn't work then and it won't now."

Where does the U.S. stand on the BDS movement?

The BDS campaign hopes to separate Israel from other countries internationally with the theory that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is comparable to apartheid in South Africa more than three decades ago. It's become an issue in the U.S. Congress as in July the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan measure condemning boycott Israel movement. While the South African government supports BDS, the U.S. joined Canada and Germany, which also adopted similar anti-boycott Israel measures.

The U.S. vote came under the backdrop of President Trump taking aim at Tlaib, Omar, and fellow congresswomen Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The president accused them of being anti-American and suggested they should “go back” to their home countries.

The congresswomen fired back and said they would not be silenced for their views.

According to an overview on the website, bdsmovement.net, BDS is a global grassroots movement that attracts the likes of "unions, academic associations, and churches."

"BDS upholds the simple principle that Palestinians are entitled to the same rights as the rest of humanity.

"Israel is occupying and colonising Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes," the site said. "Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law."

The site goes on to say that in the 13 years since the BDS began, it is "having a major impact and is effectively challenging international support for Israeli apartheid and settler-colonialism."

However, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has said the BDS campaign is "rampant with misinformation and distortion."

What do Tlaib and Omar think about BDS?

Tlaib and Omar's support of BDS has not waned, despite their fellow congressmen not agreeing with their stance.

Shortly after she was elected to Congress last year, Tlaib, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, said she supports the BDS movement.

"I want us to see that segregation and how that has really harmed us being able to achieve real peace in that region," Tlaib told The Intercept. She also reportedly skipped a trip to Israel, preferring to go the Israeli-occupied West Bank instead.

And, while she was campaigning for her current congressional seat, Omar tweeted last August that she supports a two-state solution.

"The Jewish people have a right to safety and Palestinians have a right to their homes," Omar said. "Conflict must be resolved through a lens of justice and for all of this to happen, all voices must be brought to the table."

Also, prior to the House vote last month, Omar rejected the resolution and Israel's motives in support of BDS.

"We should condemn in the strongest terms violence that perpetuates the occupation, whether it is perpetuated by Israel, Hamas or individuals," said Omar, according to The New York Times. "But if we are going to condemn violent means of resisting the occupation, we cannot also condemn nonviolent means."

At a news conference Monday in St. Paul, Minnesota, the congresswomen criticized Israel, Netanyahu, and Trump for not allowing them to visit the Jewish state. 

Tlaib got emotional recalling her visits to Jerusalem as a child.

"As a young girl visiting Palestine to see my grandparents and extended family, I watched as my mother had to go through dehumanizing checkpoints - even though she was a United States citizen and a proud American," Tlaib, fighting back tears, told reporters.

Regarding her Palestinian grandmother who she planned to visit on the Israeli trip, Tlaib said that her grandmother told her that "I’m her dream manifested. I’m her free bird so why would I come back and be caged and bow down?"

Omar then interceded on her colleague's behalf.

"What I tell Rashida all the time is that you don’t ever allow people to enjoy your tears. I say that all the time," Omar said. "There are so many people invested in our pain, in our struggle, in seeing us broken."

Omar also said that the U.S. has a constructive oversight role to play as it gives Israel more than $3 billion in aid each year.

"This is predicated on them being an important ally in the region and the only democracy in the Middle East. But, denying a visit to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally," she said.

Additionally, Omar encouraged her congressional colleagues to visit on their behalf.

"Meet with the people we were going to meet with, see the things we were going to see, hear the stories we were going to hear," she said. "We cannot let Trump and Netanyahu succeed in hiding the cruel reality of the occupation from us."

Is there any financial impact from BDS?

As the voices are getting louder surrounding BDS, a study conducted by the Brookings Institute concluded that unless there are official sanctions by Israel’s biggest economic partners, BDS is unlikely to create a major impact.

The study said the legacy of the Arab boycott for decades has left the Israeli economy adept at dealing with boycotts such as the BDS.

Israeli exports have evolved into being more unique and of higher quality, which implies that Israeli products cannot be substituted easily by consumers.

"This means that successfully boycotting Israeli exports would be much harder today," the study said.

Furthermore, the study also said given the basic structure of the Israeli trade, any threat to the Israeli economy is "a far cry" often described by both supporters and detractors of the BDS.

"More than anything," the study said. "This is a cultural, psychological battle, not an economic one."

This story has been updated to clarify United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and to add a statement by Omar Barghouti.

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