A defeated sanctions vote in the US should worry Israel

Mainstream US civil society institutions now routinely debate Israeli oppressive policies towards Palestine.

A protester holds a handmade sign at the concluding rally in Columbus Circle, demanding an end to US support for Israel [Getty]
A protester holds a handmade sign at a rally, demanding an end to US support for Israel [Getty]

Sometimes a slim defeat is also a step on the road to victory. This may be the case with the razor-thin defeat last week of an American Anthropological Association motion to sanction and boycott Israeli academic institutions that subjugate or exploit Palestinians.

While the motion to boycott complicit Israeli institutions lost by a vote of 2,423 to 2,384, in the larger struggle for Palestinian rights this probably marks a turning point, according to discussions I have held in the United States this week with some AAA members.

The AAA vote and the three-year process that preceded it included a detailed study by an appointed task force of its members that concluded: “We find that the policies and practices of the Israeli government place significant limitations on academic freedom and have led to substantial deprivations in the health and welfare of Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, as well as within Israel itself.”

Is ‘BDS’ a threat to Israel?

It recommended a range of possible actions, including sanctions, reflecting the continuing historic shift in global responses to Israel’s occupation policies.

The single biggest change is that mainstream American civil society institutions now routinely and publicly debate Israeli oppressive policies towards Palestine, and discuss motions to sanction Israel for those policies, while aiming to promote justice for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Hardline Israelis

Central to today’s activism is the decade-old Palestinian civil society initiative called the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel that seeks its compliance with international law and Palestinian rights.

READ MORE: ‘Ramadan Tov’ – How to stop funding Israel’s occupation

Hardline Israelis rightly worry that such moves increasingly echo the 1980s anti-apartheid movement that challenged white supremacy in South Africa.

More troubling for Israel are the political demographics that were so evident in this AAA vote and others like it among mainstream US churches, unions, and academic associations ...


More troubling for Israel are the political demographics that were so evident in this AAA vote and others like it among mainstream US churches, unions, and academic associations: the younger, more ethnically diverse, and more active and progressive members mostly support sanctioning Israel for its subjugation of Palestinians, while pro-Israeli support increasingly is confined largely to older, predominantly white Americans who tend to follow Israel’s lead on such issues.

Time is with justice for the Palestinians and equal rights for both peoples. A majority of Americans, polls confirm, share this desire for their government to be even-handed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A dozen mainstream American churches, unions, and academic associations in the past four years have voted for boycotts and sanctions of Israeli institutions that subjugate Palestinians. In the previous half-century, even discussing the Palestine rights issue in public was virtually impossible.

“The pattern has become clear,” one university professor who is active in BDS initiatives told me on Monday. “At first an organisation’s members refuse even to discuss Israeli policies and their impact on Palestinians. Then the matter is discussed by the membership, but voted down. And after two or three years of more public discussion by all sides, it is voted on again, and approved. We expect the same thing to happen with the AAA vote and other academic associations that raise this issue.”

Israeli soldiers block Palestinian BDS protesters from advancing near a southern West Bank village [EPA]
Israeli soldiers block Palestinian BDS protesters from advancing near a southern West Bank village [EPA]

Public debate 

Seven American academic associations have supported BDS actions, and others are debating the matter. The lesson, activists say, is that Israel ultimately loses when the public debates the facts about Palestine-Israel.

That public debate now occurs regularly, mainly because during the past 68 years the world has seen the facts of Israeli statehood and settler-colonisation, and Palestinian disenfranchisement, exile, or occupation. 

Israel’s days of expecting automatic mass support for its position in the US seem to be coming to an end. Israeli policies today are openly debated, mainstream organisations support BDS, and even a serious presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, has called for a more even-handed US policy on Israel-Palestine.

READ MORE: The BDS question at US universities

The AAA and other associations use boycotts to express their opposition to unethical or illegal behaviour by corporations (Coca Cola) or even states (Arizona, Illinois, Georgia).


The US government and individual states sanction and boycott other nations (Russia, Iran, Cuba, Sudan) for their political behaviour.

So people increasingly ask why Israel should be exempt from public discussion of its behaviour towards the Palestinians.

Ironically, even some politicians who wholeheartedly support Israel may see their decisions backfire on them, and promote greater, rather than less, debate about Israeli policies. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order last week saying the state would boycott any institution that boycotted Israel.

Free speech

Seven states have already legislated laws prohibiting a boycott of Israel, and others are considering such moves. Cuomo’s decision sparked widespread media debate about whether it violated the constitutional guarantee of free speech, including a New York Times op-ed by a Jewish American who opposed Cuomo’s move as being hypocritical, constitutionally suspect and inappropriate.

The United Church of Christ  also quickly criticised Cuomo’s move for infringing the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech, noting that it and other churches have often “actively supported human rights campaigns, sometimes through consumer boycotts and even divestment of companies that have profited from injustice …”

Last summer, the United Church of Christ called for divestment and boycott of firms that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.    

Like the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, the struggle to counter Israeli subjugation of Palestinians through boycotts and sanctions is steadily picking up steam, and has moved from the fringes towards the mainstream of American public politics. If I were Israeli, I would be worried, too.                                                

Rami G Khouri is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at Harward University Kennedy School. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.