by Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace
In 2009, I was living in Tel Aviv during Operation Cast Lead. During that offensive, Israel killed about 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza. When small numbers of us went out into the streets to protest the war, we were often pelted with eggs or attacked by passersby. When I dropped my children off at their preschool, parents chatted as if nothing unusual was going on. When they asked me what was wrong, I would tell them I was deeply upset about what was happening just 40 miles away. Their response: awkward silence, or an angry defense of Israel’s actions.
I wanted to take concrete action to bring about freedom and full rights for Palestinians. So I embraced the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The non-violent effort, started in 2005 by a broad coalition of Palestinian civil society organizations, is a call for solidarity from the international community until Israel complies with international law and ends its violations of Palestinian rights. It’s hard going though — the governor of my own state, New York, recently condemned BDS in a unilateral executive order.
Seven years later, there have been two more horrific assaults on Gaza. About 500 Palestinian children were killed in 2014. Even when there are no intensive bombing campaigns, Palestinians in Gaza live under siege. West Bank residents are severely curtailed by Israel’s matrix of control in the area, including checkpoints, administrative detention and home demolitions. Inside Israel, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship live in a system of unequal laws and rights. Outside of Israel, refugees cannot return home.
Of course, during this time there have been attacks on Israeli civilians too. These are a horrifying symptom of ongoing occupation and repression, as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai pointed out after a recent attack in Tel Aviv killed four Jewish Israelis.
I believe that Israel won’t change its policies until outside pressure becomes impossible to ignore. BDS is a powerful way to encourage the state to act. And during my time with the movement, we’ve had growing success. Mainstream churches have divested from companies profiting from the occupation. Dozens of American campuses have passed divestment resolutions. More than 100 artists refuse to perform in Israel, and multinational corporations like G4S and Veolia have withdrawn from the Israeli market.
During this time, there’s also been a shift in public opinion. A 2015 Brookings Institute poll found that 49 percent of Democrats support imposing economic sanctions against Israel over settlement construction. A Pew poll released last month found that for the first time, liberal Democrats were more sympathetic to Palestinians than to Israelis. In May, the research firm Ipsos found that one-third of Americans support the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel until it respects Palestinian rights.
But our efforts have been threatened here in the United States by a nationally coordinated, well-funded strategy financed by the Israeli government and advocacy organizations. Over the last year, 22 states have introduced or passed anti-BDS legislation. Many of these measures make it illegal for states to do business with companies that support BDS. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has escalated that strategy with a draconian executive order that would create a blacklist of companies and organizations that choose not to invest in Israel or that advocate for BDS. Cuomo’s executive order circumvented the state legislature, where opposition from supporters of Palestinian rights and free speech, including many members of Jewish Voice for Peace, had successfully stalled the anti-BDS legislation in committee.
This is wrong. It’s not discrimination to hold a state accountable for its violations of international law and human rights abuses. The state of Israel is not the same as the Jewish people.
My daughters who I dropped off at preschool in Tel Aviv in 2009 are now middle-schoolers in Brooklyn. If as Israeli citizens they choose someday to live in Israel/Palestine, I hope it will be a place where all people, Jewish and Palestinian, can live in equality and freedom. I believe that BDS is the best tool that we have to make that vision a reality. We will look back on the attempts to legislate against BDS as the last desperate attempts to shield Israel from much-needed pressure to change its policies. Cuomo is standing on the wrong side of history.