BDS campaigner: “Israel no longer the attractive investment that it once was”
A report on the eight years of global victories since the launch of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement
Rush transcript: Michael Deas, Europe coordinator with National Palestinian BDS Committee
The Electronic Intifada: Let’s have you assess the last eight years of the BDS movement — how it’s grown since that initial call, and what it looks like now.
Michael Deas: What I think is really exciting is that BDS is now recognized as one of, if not the most important and effective tools of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. When the BDS call was launched in 2005, lots of solidarity groups and solidarity networks endorsed and took the BDS call as one of their main frameworks of action.
But those groups didn’t just endorse the call, they built BDS campaigns and the built effective BDS campaigns, and they went out and they won support for those campaigns — from trade unions and faith groups, and celebrities and so on. And what we have now is we have BDS winning huge amounts of support from those types of organizations like unions and faith groups and NGOs and political parties and so on, and BDS is increasingly being recognized in the mainstream media and elsewhere, as a key force and a key actor.
I think one of the main things that stands out about the growth of the BDS movement is that it really emerged all across the world as a result of grassroots organizing. Whether it’s things like artists, like Elvis Costello, or Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, refusing to play, or companies like Veolia losing millions of dollars worth of contracts because of its complicity with Israeli apartheid, all of these things in the BDS movement have become successful because of the work that’s been done by people giving up their time to organize at the grassroots level.
That’s really in contrast to Israel’s well-funded hasbara machine, and it means that we now have a movement with a lot of in-built strength and a lot of potential for continued growth and effectiveness.
EI: Well, Michael, you mentioned some of the key victories over the last eight years. Can you talk about some of the other ones that really stand out in this list that the BNC compiled of about 200 victories since 2005?
MD: Yeah, as you say, to mark the 8th anniversary of the BDS call, we just published a timeline of the growth of the BDS movement. It’s got more than 200 entries, and you can go check it out on the BDS website or on Electronic Intifada. But what was really amazing during the process of making it was to see the sheer quantity of different milestones that the movement has achieved, but also the breadth — so it’s not just students on campus, but also within trade unions, also within local communities. Israel is losing all the different types of international support on which it depends.
But I think it’s been especially exciting over the last couple of months, and just looking at things that have happened in the last couple of months gives us a good snapshot of where we are at the moment.
So in May, we saw the cancellation of Stephen Hawking, who was due to give a speech at an official conference in Israel. And that was impressive in itself in that our movement reached the stage of maturity where huge figures like Stephen Hawking are willing to come out and support, but it was also really exciting to see the amount of mainstream media coverage that it got. Because that really showed that BDS has now become a respected and accepted tool and actor.
Also in May, later that month, we saw the University of Sheffield in the UK become the first university to cut its contract with Veolia. Veolia, for people who don’t know it, is an outsourcing contractor that helps Israel run infrastructure contracts in its illegal Israeli settlements. And that contract in Sheffield that was lost was one of literally dozens of contracts that Veolia has lost as a result of grassroots campaigning in opposition to its support of apartheid.
And Veolia has now lost more than $20 billion worth of contracts, and Veolia’s been forced to admit the damage that the campaign has done, and make some announcements about intentions to pull out — whether it will or not is another matter, but what we’re beginning to see with Veolia and other companies is that we’re really changing corporate attitudes towards Israeli apartheid.
And the last thing that we’ll have to get up on the timeline was a story I saw in Haaretz today, about how some Israeli government leaders have been tipped off that European banks are now recommending divestment from any firm that’s involved in illegal Israeli settlements. And if you look at the list of shareholders for some of the big Israeli companies, it’s really interesting. If you look at the list of who owns shares in Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest weapons company, you’ll see that there are just one or two European banks left on that list of shareholders.
The campaigns that we’re creating means that Israel is no longer the attractive investment that it once was, and I think we’re at the start of a snowball moment.
I think it’s also worth looking at the role that solidarity and BDS is playing in public opinion. EI ran a story a few months ago about a BBC opinion poll, which showed that the US is the only western country where the majority still have a favorable view of Israel. And in the UK, 72 percent of the people hold a negative view of Israel. And it’s a similar picture across Europe and across the rest of the world.
And I think we can’t underestimate the role that solidarity grassroots campaigning and solidarity boycott campaigning is having and causing these changes in public attitudes.
EI: Michael, as a coordinator with the BNC, how do you and your colleagues see the BDS movement evolving over the next eight years?
MD: I think there are two or three things that we’re already starting to see the beginning of, that I’m really exciting to see the continued development of.
The first of those things would be the hard-hitting campaigns that are really capturing the public imagination, and we’re beginning to see that with campaigns like the We Divest campaign in the US, that are really well-presented, that are having dozens of people involved in the organizing, and thousands of people signed up in supporters and being aware of [it].
And we see that outside supermarkets in Europe, every Saturday, where we are asking people to boycott Israeli goods, and they’re telling us that they already are. And I think the challenge over the coming eight years is how we can crystallize some of that support and take some of the lessons from something like the We Divest campaign, about how campaigns can be really well-presented and really win mass support. So I think that’s one of the directions that we’d really like to see the movement heading over the years.
The other things that there’s a lot of excitement and potential around is increased involvement from big, mass civil society organizations. We’ve already got examples like the American Friends Service Committee or the Methodist Church in the US, these big faith organizations, or these big trade unions, that are moving from saying, okay, we’re happy to support BDS, moving into, we’re happy to to support and get actively engaged in building the boycott of Israel. And I think there’s huge potential in building these types of mass voluntary organizations that once they begin to become actively engaged will really win a mass amount of public exposure — and really start to build the effective boycott.
The third thing I think we’re really starting to see now is governments starting to take action against Israel. Governments in Europe have started to move to introduce special guidelines for how products from illegal Israeli settlements should be labeled. We’re seeing governments in New Zealand and Norway sell their shares in Israeli weapons companies.
And although these are only baby steps, governments have started to lose their fear about taking action against Israel. I think what we’ll see towards the end of this year and the beginning of next year is governments in Europe taking even bolder steps against Israel, and that will be really interesting to see how that goes as well.
So I think one of the ways in which I’ve been thinking and talking about the BDS movement recently is: phase one is complete. We’ve built a huge amount of awareness within the solidarity movement about the importance and effectiveness of BDS, we’ve developed some really, really successful campaigns.
And the challenge for all of us activists now is how can we build even bigger campaigns and get truly mass involvement in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.