Opinion Student Life

Why endorsing the BDS movement is not supporting the Palestinian cause

By Vanina Meyer

A Note from the Graduate Press Editorial Board: On Tuesday, April 27th, 2021, the Graduate Institute student body will be called upon to vote regarding whether to endorse the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Graduate Press, in its commitment to empowering all student voices and opinions, presents two perspectives on the forthcoming vote. These pieces, “Why endorsing the BDS movement is not supporting the Palestinian cause” by Vanina Meyer, and “Standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people: the BDS and Apartheid-Free Zones movements” by Ximena Osorio Garate and Massimiliano Masini, are being published in the spirit of allowing students to inform themselves about the vote, as well as providing a space for critical and constructive discussion.

Please note that the views, opinions, and assumptions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of The Graduate Press Editorial Board. Our mission is to provide a neutral platform for the student body to be able to engage in open dialogue on complex issues.

The BDS movement, “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions”, is a movement founded in 2005, which demands economic, academic, cultural and political boycotts against Israel, its citizens, universities, cultural institutions and other targets (celebrities, businesses, etc). 

This movement singles out and targets Israel in a discriminatory manner. It has been declared unlawful and forbidden in France (2012), declared as antisemitic in Germany (2019), Austria (2020), the Netherlands (2016), as well as in 33 states of the USA, among others. 

Politicians, Presidents, Prime Ministers have also raised their concerns about this controversial and discriminatory movement. To cite but a few: 

● During his presidential campaign, US President Joe Biden expressed his “efforts to oppose the delegitimization of Israel, whether in international organizations or by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement here at home”

● Former US President Barack Obama, in 2012, declared “When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to delegitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them”

● Former Spanish PM, Jose Maria Aznar explained in 2015 how “BDS is an unfair, discriminatory movement based on a moral double standard that is, in the final analysis, antisemitic”

● Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned several times the BDS movement explaining “It’s not right to discriminate or make someone feel unsafe on campus because of their religion and unfortunately the BDS movement is often linked to those kinds of things” (2019). 

Moreover, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Elimination of all forms of religious intolerance, Ahmed Shaheed, expressed concerns about the antisemitic and discriminatory aspect of the BDS movement. The Special Rapporteur “stresses that expression that draws on antisemitic tropes or stereotypes, rejects the right of Israel to exist or advocates discrimination against Jewish individuals because of their religion, should be condemned.” He further recalls that the Secretary-General has characterized “attempts to delegitimize the right of Israel to exist, including calls for its destruction” as a contemporary manifestation of antisemitism.”

As Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the BDS movement expressed, the movement is opposed to “a jewish State is any parts of Palestine” and “No Palestinian will ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” When in an interview for the New York Times in 2019, he was asked whether there should be a Jewish state, he replied “Not in Palestine”. 

Those are only a few examples highlighting how BDS is a controversial movement, spreading hatred against the state of Israel and against Jews. You can see how this movement is problematic, delegitimizing the right of Israel to exist and a striking evidence of the problem to endorse such a movement for the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA).

This motion therefore falls into contradiction with the values of the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA), as well as the Graduate Institute values of excellence, independence, critical thinking, diversity and engagement which make it a sustainable, equitable and peaceful environment.

What would this movement imply for us, students of the Institute? 

A systematic boycott of all Israeli academic and political institutions. This biased movement discriminates against students and scholars and would generate boycotts against the exchange of knowledge dear to our learning community. Although BDS claims that their academic boycott only affects institutions and not individuals, an institutional boycott de facto boycotts the students and scholars that call that institution home. This means that in the complex issue of the Palestinian cause – which is more than 70 years old -, we, students of the Graduate Institute, who dedicate ourselves to the employment of diplomatic solutions at all costs, are simply acknowledging that all Israeli citizens will remain exclusively and forever a part of the problem and could never be consulted for the emergence of solutions, simply because of their nationality and not because of their ideas. Fighting discrimination with discrimination does not seem like a sensible strategy for peace. According to a survey on “Young Jewish Europeans: perceptions and experiences of antisemitism” conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2019, 70% express that boycotts of Israel or Israelis are either ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ antisemitic.

BDS is not about showing efficient support to the Palestinian people, it is about targeting and disciminating Israel. This movement is divisive, against any attempts for peace. BDS is not a movement looking to achieve peace and find solutions, it focuses on unproductive actions. It is not through singling out, targeting and boycotting one country that the situation will improve. 

The BDS movement’s aim is to demonize and delegitimize the whole state of Israel instead of focusing on its current government’s policies. It has a biased and simplistic approach to the very complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Moreover, BDS campaigns exacerbate or give rise to tensions in communities as  we could see in universities campuses around the world. It can result in harassment and intimidation against Israelis, Jews or Israel supporters with a rise of antisemitic expression and acts. The Graduate Institute should not take that path: it would be counterproductive for everyone, and create an environment of division and hostility.

The Institute endeavors to be pluralistic, interdisciplinary, and open to the world, research, and academic exchange. Its mission is firstly to acknowledge and study the complexity of our world, and this vote would undermine such a mission by exposing only one perception of one of the most intractable modern conflicts. 

If the main purpose of this vote is to raise awareness about the conflict, then the BDS movement should not be endorsed. There is a fine line between awareness and activism, the issues raised in those two cases are very distinct because the first one deals with facts, whereas the other deals with ideology. An international Institute should commit itself to the first task because of its more complex character, requiring an emotional detachment to base our actions upon reason and not beliefs and claims that account for nothing less than partial blindness to a situation that involves so much stakes.

GISA’s role is to represent every student, so that they feel included. Their aim is to provide a safe space for students, so that they feel comfortable in the student community. Voting on a motion to endorse BDS is not representative of that vision. 

The GISA community always claims that the wellbeing of all students is of paramount importance. How does it stand when it is about academically boycotting one country among all the countries in the world? 

GISA, along with the student body, should stay impartial and neutral in this case. Instead of boycotting, sanctioning, and divesting from a democratic country for its governmental policy, we should inform and educate the students on these issues in a balanced and impartial way. If we, as international students from the Graduate Institute, can start making a change at our level, in a few years we will be able to give that impulse at the higher spheres. So let us not take the path for fear, and violence, but rather promote dialogue, communication, cohesion, coexistence and peace. 

If our ambition aligns on the objective of becoming future leaders, taking action is inevitable. However, it should never be done at the expense of a careful and balanced reflection. Boycotting, discriminating, targeting, and generating antisemitism on campus would only increase the polarity of international positions, which is the crucial fact that avoids the finding of a solution. 

The Israel-Palestine conflict is indeed very complex and has endured for decades, opposing different story lives, histories, emotions, hard feelings. So why should the student body take an absolute stand on such a sensitive subject? 

There are many ways to discuss the conflict and try to have a positive impact. We could promote reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians through constructive measures with initiatives to build bridges (like in the UK), promote dialogue, interactions and help both societies to reach peace. Educate ourselves about the conflict, take the class The Arab-Israeli conflict, have respectful intellectual exchanges, and respect each other’s right to free speech. If we start at the Institute, we can spread positive impacts across the International Geneva. Endorsing BDS is not the right solution. 

There are organisations working to “build bridges not boycotts” as well as “cultural bridges” and those should be the campaigns the student community votes to endorse.

Taking a broader perspective on the matter and having more knowledge in hands, we can all understand why GISA is not the place to endorse such a controversial and politicized movement.

As class representative, I am here to advise students and to support them the best as I can, and this motion is not in favor of any students. I encourage you to inform yourself, reflect on everything this motion would entail and make this process as democratic as possible by turning out for the vote on April 27th.

5 comments on “Why endorsing the BDS movement is not supporting the Palestinian cause

  1. Clare Maxwell

    I read this and I have three major misgivings as to whether these arguments have been made in good faith. The first over the assumption that a movement like BDS, which is Palestinian-led supported by a wide swath of Palestinian civil society, is a poor way to support Palestinian rights. At the basis of supporting rights is the support of political agency. BDS seeks to build grassroots power to combat businesses that directly profit off the occupation of Palestine (predominantly businesses that contract with the Israeli military, or those that work in Israeli colonies in the West Bank, whose existence are in violation of international law). BDS creates relationships between Palestinians, Israelis, and the international community that are grounded in a share sense of justice and dignity.

    Secondly, I urge everyone reading this to take the opinions of political leaders who have vested interests or are under pressure from lobbyists and donors to unilaterally support Israel. As an American, I am acutely aware that almost all elected officials in my home country are influenced by the political clout of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful lobbyist groups in the country, and by the military alliance between the U.S. and Israel (the U.S. provides more military aid to Israel than all other countries in the world combined). Thus, the opinion of a U.S. or NATO member president on the matter should always be seen through the lens of political interest and pressures, not as an impartial opinion on the most effective strategy towards human rights defense.

    Finally, I would urge us to support the right to religious freedom supported by secular governance. The criticism of Theocratic governance from BDS activists should in no way be construed as an attack on freedom of religion. In fact, doing so perpetuates the myth that human rights between Israelis and Palestinians is a zero-sum matter. BDS rather sets an example by declaring itself an intersectional organization, that opposes all forms of oppression, including antisemitism. By supporting equality under the law for all citizens of Israel, the end of the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and the right to return for Palestinian refugees who have been in political limbo for over 70 years, one is advocating for the equal rights of all peoples, and the strengthening of norms and protections for all oppressed people.

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  2. H. R. (DE)

    Thank you for this piece. It is unfortunately deeply ill-informed about the aspirations and goals of the BDS movement. The very point of BDS is not to single out Israel in an antisemitic move, but to historicize the violations of international and human rights law systematically committed by the state of Israel. BDS specifically and consistently refers to South African Apartheid as another example of an inhumane system where its tactics helped overcome injustice.

    The conflation of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Israel’ is an oversimplification of the BDS’ movements stance. Israel itself brands itself like this as of 1948, paving the way for significant issues with minority rights even within Israel proper. I recommend anyone interested in the links between anti-semitism and zionism the writings of Joseph Massaad.

    Finally, your piece is misleading on many counts. For example, you cite the EU FRA report (2017), but conveniently forget to mention that only Europeans identifying as Jewish were polled. This ultimately voids your point: Even within the European Jewish community, there is no consensus on BDS.

    I am glad our community gets to have a democratic vote on this issue. A say in our fate – something that Palestinians have consistently been denied for so long.

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  3. Massimiliano Masini

    The link concerning the fact that France declared BDS unlawful does not work. In any case, I feel it is important to mention that the European Court of Human Rights condemned France in June 2020 for sanctioning BDS activists without ‘any relevant or sufficient grounds’ (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-israel-court-idUSKBN23I1CQ). This is arguably a significant limit to the criminalisation of the movement in Europe.

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  4. “It has been declared unlawful and forbidden in France (2012), declared as antisemitic in Germany (2019), Austria (2020), the Netherlands (2016), as well as in 33 states of the USA, among others.
    Politicians, Presidents, Prime Ministers have also raised their concerns about this controversial and discriminatory movement.”

    This appeal to authority argument which you open your piece with actually undermines your position instead of supporting it.

    An analogy could be: Up until the 1980s, most governments and politicians did not support boycotting apartheid South Africa. Therefore, apartheid was okay (until it wasn’t when governments changed their minds).

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  5. Eva BENAZERAFF

    Thanks a lot for your contribution
    Very good and smart analysis

    Here is another proof if necessary :

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