An unprecedented attack on Israel by Hamas this month and the resulting escalating siege of Gaza has thrust the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, called BDS for short, into the spotlight again, as some wonder what they might be able to do to encourage a ceasefire and help Palestinians facing a looming ground invasion of the crowded Gaza Strip.
Just last year, a Pew survey found that some 84 percent of Americans had little to no awareness of the roughly two-decade-old campaign. Now, on social media sites such as X (formerly Twitter) and Tiktok, using the hashtag #BDSMovement, people are naming brands with ties to Israel and calling for boycotts: McDonald’s is being targeted after a location in Israel offered free food for the Israeli military, as are other global fast food chains such as Domino’s Pizza and Burger King. Some are boycotting Starbucks after the company sued its labor union this month over a union social media account posting support for Palestinians. Meanwhile, demonstrations organized by local BDS-affiliated groups are taking place around the world.
The renewed attention on BDS comes at a pivotal time for American public sentiment on Israel and Palestine. Here’s what to know about the controversial boycott.
What is BDS and how does it work?
At its simplest, BDS is a global nonviolent protest movement. It attempts to use economic and cultural boycotts against Israel, financial divestment from the state, and government sanctions to pressure Israel’s government to abide by international law and end its controversial policies toward Palestinians — policies now described by some human rights experts and legal scholars as apartheid.
BDS is a tactic, not an organization, so disparate groups take up their own campaigns that may focus on a slightly different set of targets, though all share a moral grounding and tactics of peaceful resistance. BDS takes direct inspiration from the South African anti-apartheid fight and the US civil rights movement, both of which effectively used boycotts. South African anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a spirited defender of the BDS movement, calling the parallels between apartheid South Africa and Israel “painfully stark.”
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Part of BDS’s directive is to shake up Western support of the Israeli government. It advocates for a “narrative shift on the question of Palestine, that would focus on the rights of Palestinians, a spokesperson for the BDS National Committee, which represents the group of Palestinian civil society groups that founded BDS, tells Vox.
The first international call to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel came in 2005 from that vast coalition of groups. At the time, more than 4 million Palestinian refugees had been displaced since the creation of the Israeli state, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Just a year before, the International Court of Justice wrote in an advisory opinion that the separation wall Israel built along Palestine’s West Bank — where illegal Israeli settlements continue to spread today — was a violation of international law.
“Trade unions, farmers unions, students and academics, artists, climate justice groups, Indigenous justice networks, LGBTQ+ activists, and many more groups have taken up the [BDS] cause,” the national committee spokesperson tells Vox. The BDS homepage identifies seven US advocacy groups aligned with BDS, including the Jewish Voice for Peace, Democratic Socialists of America, and the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Public figures who have expressed support for BDS include Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO), musician Lauryn Hill, and writers Sally Rooney, Naomi Klein, and Arundhati Roy.
What unites these groups and individuals are three core demands: that Israel end its occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; give full rights to the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. BDS’s approach ramps up from personal actions, like boycotting certain goods and companies, to global action calling on governments to impose sanctions and embargoes against Israel.
BDS’s boycotts have included not just Israeli products and companies, such as SodaStream, but also non-Israeli corporate giants the movement believes are complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. Different BDS groups around the world may list different companies and goods to boycott, but the BDS National Committee focuses on a few strategic targets at a time. Right now, it’s highlighting Hewlett Packard, an American company worth more than $25 billion that’s most known for its line of printers, because it argues that HP’s tech has aided the Israeli state in surveilling and restricting movement of Palestinians by implementing a biometric ID system. (In response, HP released a statement that it does “not take sides in political disputes between countries or regions” and that it “implements rigorous policies to respect human rights.”)
The BDS campaign has in the past persuaded several high-profile companies — perhaps most famously ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, but also French telecom company Orange — to stop selling in occupied Palestinian territories and, in the case of Orange, end its business partnership with Israel altogether. SodaStream, facing continued pressure from BDS and accusations of mistreating its Palestinian employees, closed its West Bank factory in 2014. Some BDS participants also boycott MoroccanOil, whose beauty products are manufactured in Israel.
Boycotts against Israel dig deeper than merely examining what consumers buy at the store. BDS asks supporters to abstain from Israeli cultural institutions, and even to refrain from working with Israeli universities and academics that it alleges help prop up dehumanizing narratives about Palestinians and the occupied territories. One oft-used BDS strategy is urging musicians, artists, and other celebrities not to visit Israel. Earlier this year, British singer Sam Smith canceled a show in Israel after BDS pushback. Other artists who have canceled or postponed performances in Israel include Elvis Costello in 2010, Lauryn Hill in 2015, and Lana Del Rey in 2018. Also in 2018, Lorde canceled a performance in Tel Aviv after activists called on her to join the boycott of Israel. (Eurovision, the multi-country singing competition, was a boycott target in 2019, the year Israel hosted. The event took place as planned.) In 2017, Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett pulled out of a trip sponsored by the Israeli government, citing Muhammad Ali as a role model who “stood strongly with the Palestinian people.”
The call to divest pressures companies to refuse to do business with Israeli companies firms, for investors to withhold their capital, and for banks and pension funds not to use customer money to invest in the Israeli economy. In the past, BDS has successfully pushed government pension funds in Luxembourg, New Zealand, and Norway to divest from Israel.
The “S” in BDS calls for sanctions against Israel, which include an embargo on providing weapons and military aid, and also a cessation of trade and diplomacy with Israel.
BDS advocates say this is a crucial moment to apply pressure on political leaders — especially the US government. “It’s our tax dollars and our US weapons,” says Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, a US advocacy group that has joined the BDS movement. The US has sent $158 billion in aid to date, according to a Congressional Research Service report, and the Biden administration recently proposed a $106 billion foreign aid package that would include $14 billion for Israel. Meanwhile, the White House has resisted urging a ceasefire. Recently, the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” in Gaza.
It’s unclear how much impact BDS has on the Israeli economy. A 2015 report from the global policy think tank Rand Corporation estimated that Israel’s gross domestic product would lose about $15 billion due to nonviolent Palestinian resistance, which includes BDS — but that’s still a tiny portion of Israel’s present-day GDP of over $500 billion. Bloomberg recently reported that foreign investment in Israel had fallen considerably in 2023, likely impacted by political and social turmoil in the country; the judicial overhaul supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s increasingly hardline, right-wing government led to mass protests from Israeli citizens earlier this year.
The controversy over BDS, explained
BDS has faced a deluge of criticism. One common argument against it, for example, is that it hurts Palestinians more than it aids them by further reducing jobs and other economic opportunities; similar arguments were deployed against boycotts and sanctions of apartheid South Africa.
Most of the criticism, however, centers on casting BDS as a vicious stripe of antisemitism. This argument connects condemnation of the policies of the Israeli state with hatred of Jewish people, despite the fact that many Jewish people and Jewish groups have denounced the government — particularly Netanyahu — and lifted up the cause of Palestinian rights.
Some BDS opponents argue that the movement calls for the de facto destruction of a Jewish state; the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights advocacy group, claims that BDS tries to “end the right to Jewish national self-determination on any portion of this contested land.” Others contend that BDS is antisemitic because it singles out Israel when other governments are worthy of similar human rights scrutiny; they say it expects Jewish people to adhere to a higher standard than other groups. (This, again, is similar to an argument lobbed at boycotts against South Africa.)
The Israeli government, for its part, has tried to crack down on BDS efforts since their inception. In 2017, it passed a law banning people who support boycotts of the country from entering Israel.
In 2019, the pro-Israel nonprofit Jewish National Fund filed a lawsuit against the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights using the Anti-Terrorism Act, a federal law under which victims can receive damages from groups found to have aided or abetted terrorism. It painted BDS participants as material supporters of terrorism led primarily by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2021, but such accusations of terrorism are “routinely the first question that’s asked upon Palestinians,” says Abuznaid.
In the US, 38 states have passed some kind of anti-BDS law, according to civil rights group Palestine Legal. In many jurisdictions, that means government contractors must sign a statement affirming that they don’t participate in boycott or divestment actions against Israel; such laws generally don’t affect individuals, though some could be used against independent contractors who support BDS in a personal capacity. Other states blacklist companies supporting BDS from receiving government contracts, or bar public pension programs from investing in BDS-aligned companies.
Some states have passed resolutions denouncing BDS for promoting antisemitism, claiming it inhibits peace in the Middle East or that it threatens the relationship between the US and a key ally. In a vociferous 2016 Washington Post op-ed, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo explained his signing of an anti-BDS executive order, writing, “New York stands with Israel because we are Israel and Israel is us.” Several states have divested from doing business with Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company Unilever for its participation in BDS.
Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, tells Vox that many of these state laws have been or are being challenged in court. “They have been struck down in many cases,” he says. “In other cases, litigation has caused the laws to be more narrowly defined.”
In 2017, 43 US senators proposed a bill backed by the lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee criminalizing support of BDS by up to 20 years in prison. In 2019, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a bill that would make it safer for states to impose their own anti-BDS laws. Neither made it through Congress, but Rubio reintroduced his failed bill earlier this year. These efforts have had at least some chilling effect. Airbnb, for example, backtracked on its decision to remove listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank after an Israeli class action lawsuit demanded compensation for the hosts whose listings had been removed.
At this very moment, Abuznaid says, the most urgent action isn’t a boycott — it’s to demand a ceasefire. About two-thirds of US voters now appear to be in favor of a ceasefire and de-escalation in Gaza, according to a recent poll of about 1,300 likely voters from left-wing think tank Data for Progress.
Both Shakir and Abuznaid believe that more Americans are starting to question their government’s role in Palestinian oppression. While the majority, according to recent polls, still support Israel more than they do Palestine, a recent CBS News poll showed that fewer than half of respondents wanted to send weapons and supplies to Israel. “They may not understand what BDS means,” says Shakir, “but they may be supportive, for example, of not having their tax dollars going toward funding weapons to the Israeli army.”