Fighting against Israel apartheid: Why students should join the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) campaign

On Aug. 2, 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) withdrew its employment offer to Steven Salaita, a recently hired professor, after he posted tweets criticizing the state of Israel and, in particular, its attacks on innocent children during its 51-day assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014. In response to this horrendous act of censorship, Salaita pursued legal actions against UIUC. Over a year later, Salaita and the university settled the dispute at $875,000, a significant amount, although far less than the assumed total of wages he would have earned during his career as a tenured professor.

While Salaita’s case may be over for now, we can learn a great deal from it. Since his job offer was rescinded, Salaita has travelled extensively to raise awareness about the oppressive double bind his case represents. Salaita’s case is part of a larger movement on college campuses to regulate and repress freedom of speech, especially when it concerns activism and expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. While conservatives have argued in recent times that freedom of speech is “in danger” on liberal campuses, Salaita’s case exposes the actual threat of our present times:  administrator censorship of activist discourse. Through this case, Salaita’s college tours have allowed for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to grow and expand in campuses across the country.

The BDS movement began in 2005, when Palestinian civil society called for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law and human rights. In response to this call, a global movement began to hold Israel accountable for its ongoing atrocities and occupation of Palestinian land. In the past three years, the BDS campaign has received tremendous support and its efficacy is reflected in several successful boycott campaigns. One such win involved the French multinational corporation Veolia, which lost $4.5 billion after one of its contracts was terminated in response to heavy demonstrations against the company’s complicity in building illegal Israeli settlements. Another accomplishment was the initiation of the cultural boycott of Israel, which calls on artists to refuse to participate in events hosted or organized in Israel. Roger Waters, member of the rock band Pink Floyd, put it best when he said, “Artists were right to refuse to play in South Africa’s Sun City resort until apartheid fell … And we are right to refuse to play in Israel until the day comes – and it surely will come – when the wall of occupation falls and Palestinians live alongside Israelis in the peace, freedom, justice and dignity that they all deserve.”

An effective campaign poses an effective strategy. To endorse BDS is not to call for a boycott of Israelis, as is often wrongly understood, but to the institutions complicit in the sustenance and continuation of the occupation’s policies, militarization and funding. In other words, this is not a moralizing campaign, but a political one critical of the institutions which help build and maintain the Israeli apartheid state. Just last year, the American Studies Association joined the academic boycott of Israel because it acknowledges that, “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom afforded to Palestinians under the conditions of Israeli occupation” and that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights.”

The demands of the BDS movement are threefold. First, it demands an end to the occupation of land taken in June 1968 and the dismantling of the wall, which is still being built and  expected to reach a length of 405 miles (compare that to the 99-mile Berlin Wall). Second, it demands that Israel recognize the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Finally, it insists that Israel recognize the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The movement was championed by more than 170 Palestinian political parties and trade unions. The signatories reflect Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Palestinian citizens of Israel and refugees.

Since the Purple Bubble may seem far removed from the struggles that are part and parcel of Palestinian life, why should you care about BDS? How can you get involved if you are compelled to act in solidarity?

Because the BDS campaign is an effective non-violent tactic to ensure that Israel complies with international law, it is an important tool to utilize on college campuses. While some campuses have been able to go as far as to pass a vote for university divestment from companies who support Israel, monetarily or otherwise, others have begun smaller campaigns demanding campus dining halls boycott Israeli goods manufactured in illegal settlements. Here at the College, Students for Justice in Palestine are working on building a BDS campaign on campus. Joining BDS is a symbolic and material way to support the Palestinian struggle for justice being waged across the globe. If we take seriously the primary goal of our liberal arts education, which is to foster critical thinking to solve the problems of a globalized world, then we must acknowledge and recognize the forms of domination and violence being deployed against oppressed peoples around the world, including Palestinians, who continue to undergo unbearable suffering. But acknowledgement and recognition are never enough. BDS is the next step forward.

Sumaya Awad ’16 is a religion and history double major from Palestine. She lives in Morgan Hall. Brandon Mancilla ’16 is an English and history major from Queens, NY. He lives on North St. 


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