New York, United States – Since January, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for the economic and cultural isolation of Israel until it complies with international law on Palestinian rights, has seen a lot of action.
In January, the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Pension and Health Benefits announced its decision to divest from five Israeli banks it said failed to meet its 2015 investment criteria based on human rights and excessive sustainability risks.
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According to the board, holdings in Bank Hapoalim, Bank Leumi, First International Bank of Israel, Israel Discount Bank, and Mizrahi Tefahot Bank were all sold because of their financial involvement in Jewish-only Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Al Jazeera approached Colette Nies, the managing director of communications for the board, who declined to comment further on the divestment and pointed to several press releases stressing that the Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant church in the US with 13 million members, is “not divesting” from Israel entirely.
A cultural matter
The board’s move was still greeted with excitement by BDS activists across the US, who see a changing tide in US activists’ fight for Palestinian justice.
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“When we started demonstrating in support of the Palestinian call for BDS, it was a real victory to get BDS mentioned in the press. Now, the movement is making a real impact,” said Ethan Heitner, a political cartoonist and activist, in an interview with Al Jazeera. He works with Adalah-NY, an all-volunteer collective that campaigns in support of the Palestinian call for BDS.
He sees, in the near future, an end to the Israeli occupation. “We’re getting closer every day.”
Adalah-NY is a coalition of organisations that has been campaigning against Israeli policies since 2006, when Israel was at war with Lebanese militants Hezbollah. The group is without hierarchy, and has been active in organising street protests and other campaigns.
For Heitner, artists are integral to advancing the movement: “Every cultural worker has a platform, and they speak at the level of narrative. They don’t speak the language of ledger books or profits.”
Adalah-NY has campaigned to make cultural workers and international organisations take a stand on Israeli human rights violations. For example, it was part of a large coalition campaigning against the actress Scarlett Johansson’s dual role as ambassador for Oxfam, a British rights group that works to find solutions to worldwide poverty and injustice, and spokeswoman for SodaStream, an Israeli soda company with factories in the occupied West Bank.
“Obviously, Johansson chose SodaStream but she was forced to make her priorities known,” Heitner said, referring to her decision to step down from her post at Oxfam after the group asked her to choose between advertising and human rights.
Now, Adalah-NY is focusing on the relationship between the billionaire diamond mogul Lev Leviev and the pop star Taylor Swift.
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A subsidy of Leviev’s Africa-Israel diamond company is known to have constructed settlements in the occupied West Bank, and has been accused of human rights violations through his company’s mining operations in diamond-rich Angola.
Swift was seen wearing Leviev diamonds in a September 2015 photoshoot for Vanity Fair. The singer hasn’t responded to BDS activists’ calls to distance herself from Leviev.
In response, members of Adalah-NY adjusted their nine-year-old protest outside Leviev’s New York location, singing versions of Swift’s songs with pro-BDS lyrical changes.
One of the reasons that the cultural boycott is so important for the BDS movement is that it hits home for the Israeli public.
“The cultural sphere is something very near and dear to Israeli society,” Heitner continued. “Every time an artist chooses to boycott … it causes Israelis to notice the creeping isolation surrounding Israel due to its human rights abuses.”
Vazquez told Al Jazeera that the “brutal, violent, nigh fascistic occupation of Palestine” had been tolerated for far too long.
The list of cultural workers who endorse the BDS movement is growing, with both internationally renowned and underground artists voicing their support for the boycott. Among them are filmmakers Ken Loach and Jean-Luc Godard, and musicians Brian Eno and Roger Waters. Others, such as Lauryn Hill and Stevie Wonder, have cancelled concerts after pressure from activists.
Vazquez sums this up matter-of-factly: “I’m pretty sure any reasonable person would protest [or] boycott Israel if the facts were put to them.”
The more than 200 Jewish-only settlements in the occupied West Bank, punitive housing demolitions, three wars on besieged Gaza that have killed thousands of Palestinians, limitations on freedom of movement, the chokehold on Palestinian water, among other things, were all in the rapper’s mind while discussing the boycott.
Vazquez said that cultural and academic efforts must be “part and parcel” of an economic boycott.
“The weapons, bulldozers, ammunition, walls, checkpoints, manpower, [and] bureaucracy that holds this system in place is funded largely by American and European corporations,” he concluded.
Anti-BDS legislation ‘ripe for challenge’
As BDS activists have seen gains, they’ve been met by pressure from American and European governments. The United Kingdom has announced a plan to forbid public institutions from boycotting businesses over ethical concerns.
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Last June, US President Barack Obama signed a law for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership law which included anti-BDS provisions that condition free trade agreements on the rejection of the boycott.
Representative Peter Roskam, one of the authors of the measure, said that it “will force companies like telecom giant Orange”, which announced its plans to withdraw from Israel and is partially owned by the French government, “to think twice before engaging in economic warfare against Israel”.
The Israeli government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Similar laws have been passed or are being debated in state legislators across the nation, including New York, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and South Carolina.
However, this sort of legislation is “ripe for challenge”, according to Omar Shakir, a lawyer and legal expert for the NYC-based Centre for Constitutional Rights.
“There’s a lot of grounds on which these measures could be attacked, including vagueness and violation of the first amendment,” Shakir continued, referring to the first amendment of the constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and expression, including political boycott.
Though Shakir concluded by saying that these laws could have a “chilling effect”, discouraging companies and individuals from taking a stand on the Israeli occupation, “the movement for Palestinian rights continues to grow. Unions, churches, and student bodies are all taking stands against investment in bodies that continue the occupation.”