How BDS is Part of the Problem

I have been asked by parents of university and college students since the protest movement began several weeks ago about the nature of the Boycott, Divestiture and Sanctions movement (BDS) given the parents’ confusion about what it stands for and what it intends in the long term. Many of their college-age children find BDS appealing and their parents are worried. They asked me not only about BDS but what I recommended they should say to their children. On this matter, I believe that the relationship between parents and their children ought to be their first priority. If it means that parents simply listen and support their kids’ passion and their anger and grief over the tragic loss of life and injury in Gaza (and October 7 in southern Israeli villages), then I recommend that they simply listen and hold their thoughts to themselves.

As a college student myself during the Vietnam era, my mother never argued with me if she disagreed because she understood how passionately I was against American involvement in Vietnam and about my fear of being drafted and sent to fight there. She supported me and often I never knew what she really thought about the issue, though I knew generally that she was against the war too. In time, I came to appreciate the way she handled this difficult interaction between us and I love her for it to this day long after she died.

However, here in this blog I want to clarify what BDS is and what it is not. If parents choose to share this with their college age children, fine – but they should do so only if they think their kids will receive it well parents will not alienate their children. Young people change and evolve through the years, as do their parents, and as the dust settles from this awful war, the hostages are returned to their families, the killing stops, massive humanitarian aid flows into Gaza, and the healing begins, perhaps more content-based conversations within families can take place, as it should.

What is BDS and why am I categorically opposed to it?

There is, arguably, only one good thing about BDS, and that is that it purports to be a non-violent pro-Palestinian movement. Beyond that strategy of non-violence, however, it is anti-Israel and I believe antisemitic . To understand why, knowing the historical context in which BDS emerged is necessary.

BDS was founded in 2005 by Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian-American, who recognized after the failure of the Oslo Accords, subsequent Palestinian suicide bombings and the murderous 2nd Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005), western sensibilities were deeply offended and he recognized that there was a void in the struggle for Palestinian statehood that needed to be filled with a non-violent alternative to war and terrorism.

BDS is modeled after the anti-Apartheid movement and conflates the Palestinian plight to that of South African blacks. BDS’s positions call for a withdrawal from the occupied territories, the removal of the Israeli separation barrier in the West Bank, full equality for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, the right of return of Palestinians to their homes, divestiture of international companies from doing business with Israel, boycotts of Israeli manufactured goods, and the cessation of formal relationships between American and Israeli colleges and universities.

Those strategic goals need to be unpacked, but first, more historical context is necessary.

In 1947, the United Nations proposed in the British Mandate over Palestine a partition plan for two states, one Jewish and one Arab, as a solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict. The Zionist movement accepted the proposal and the Arabs rejected it. The violence between Jews, Arabs and the British had intensified to such an extent that Great Britain, the Mandatory power that had taken control of Palestine from the Ottomans after the close of World War I, decided to withdraw entirely from the region and leave it to be fought over between the Jews and the Arabs.

On May 14, 1948, Britain left Mandatory Palestine. David Ben Gurion, the leader of the Zionist Executive and World Zionist Organization (the pre-statehood national institutions of governance over Jewish affairs in Palestine and linkage to the international Zionist movement) declared Jewish statehood. The following day, eight Arab countries’ armies attacked the infant Jewish state with the intention to destroy it and “push the Jews into the sea.” When the fighting ended in 1949, an armistice agreement was signed and the new State of Israel’s borders were expanded far beyond the UN Partition plan of 1947. Jordan took control of East Jerusalem, the Old City and the West Bank of the Jordan River. Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert. Syria controlled the Golan Heights. Israel took control of the heavily Jewish population centers along the coast and in the Galilee, the Negev desert, and West Jerusalem. The young State of Israel then went about establishing a Jewish and democratic state that included the remaining Arabs as citizens (though treated as 2nd class citizens), absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and the Arab world who fled antisemitic persecution in their host countries after the establishment of Israel and left behind virtually all their property.

The Arab world did not accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state nor peace. Rather, it regarded Israel as a colonial foreign element and an oppressor of indigent Palestinian Arabs. The Arab world remained committed to the destruction of Israel. Six hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs fled into neighboring Arab countries and settled in refugee camps in Syria, Jordan and the Gaza Strip as well as in countries around the world. The same number of Jews were forced to flee their home Arab countries. Most came to Israel as new immigrants and were absorbed and granted citizenship.

In 1967, the surrounding Arab nations tried again in war to destroy Israel but failed in six days of fighting. At the end of the battles, Israel’s borders had expanded dramatically to include East Jerusalem, the Old City, the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Golan Heights, a strip in southern Lebanon, and the Sinai Peninsula.

Between 1967 and 1973, Arab Fedayeen from the Gaza Strip, where many Palestinians had fled after the 1948 and 1967 wars, attacked Israeli southern kibbutzim, towns and villages in what is called the “War of Attrition.”

In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur attempting “to drive the Jews into the sea,” but after 20 days of fighting, Israel was successful in battle again and expanded its borders further to include a strip of land on the western side of the Suez Canal and a parcel of land in Syria. In a separation agreement negotiated by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Israel withdrew from Egypt and from Syria to the post 1967 borders.

Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat decided following the 1973 war that enough was enough, and with the United States as his ally, he led Egypt to forge a peace agreement with the State of Israel in 1978. Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula with its oil fields and Israel military bases to Egypt in a land for a “cold” peace agreement that has held ever since. Peace followed in 1994 between Jordan and Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), led by Chairman Yasser Arafat, agreed to enter into peace negotiations with Israel that began the Oslo Peace Process in 1993, but the march towards an agreement was up-ended when a right-wing orthodox Jew assassinated PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Following Rabin’s death, Hamas and other extremist Muslim Palestinian groups took advantage of Israel’s vulnerability and sent suicide bombers from the West Bank and Gaza into Israeli villages, towns and cities to murder hundreds of Israeli civilians.

US President Bill Clinton attempted to revive the Oslo peace process at Camp David in 2000, but Arafat insisted that Palestinians had the “individual right of return” to their former houses and villages and he refused to sign an agreement claiming that the deal was weighted against the Palestinians. This, despite Israeli PM Ehud Barak (the most decorated soldier in Israeli history at the time) offered the most generous terms any Israeli Prime Minister and government in Israeli history had ever offered the Palestinians before. With the failure of this effort, the 2nd Intifada (“uprising”) began and continued until 2005.

Two more serious efforts to arrive at a two-state solution were made in 2007 between Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in 37 secret negotiating sessions, and again in 2014 led by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Each effort was unsuccessful, the second of which did not succeed because PM Benjamin Netanyahu was against two states for two peoples and consistently torpedoed all progress to an agreement.

In 2004, as a consequence of Palestinian violence against Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and Hamas suicide bombers exploding themselves and murdering hundreds of Israeli civilians in Israeli cities, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israel troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip leaving the Strip entirely under Palestinian Authority control, to be taken violently in 2007 by the Islamic extremist organization Hamas in a military coup de etat against the Palestinian Authority. All PA leaders were executed by Hamas.

With the overwhelming support of Israeli citizens, PM Sharon ordered the construction of a security fence built roughly along the 1949 armistice lines with the sole purpose of preventing suicide bombers from entering into Israel and murdering Israelis. The fence has been largely successful in that not one suicide bomber successfully infiltrated Israel from the West Bank or Gaza Strip since the construction of the fence, until October 7th.

That’s an overview of the background necessary to contextualize the demands and purpose of BDS.

BDS is part of an international delegitimization campaign against Israel that has replaced the Arab wars meant to destroy the Jewish state. BDS’s call for the end of the occupation is not just intended for those lands taken by Israel in war after 1967, but after the 1948 War as well. BDS considers all the land from the “river to the sea” to be “occupied” by Israel – that is, the entire State of Israel.

The “right of return” is not intended only to the future Palestinian State. BDS intends the right of return to be to all of Palestine including the State of Israel. That demand is impractical because so many of the Palestinian homes and villages no longer exist and the Palestinians who once lived in those homes and villages are no longer alive to reclaim them. The Oslo Accords, the Clinton parameters, the Olmert-Abbas and John Kerry negotiations all recognized the right of the Palestinians to return to the future State of Palestine, not to Israel with perhaps a limited number of Palestinians permitted to live in Israel in the interest of family reunion.

BDS frames the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a colonizer-colonized, oppressor-oppressed, and a racial conflict between foreign white European Zionists and Middle Eastern Palestinian Arabs. It denies the national rights of the Jewish people to a state anywhere “between the river and the sea.” Though BDS calls Zionism a white European colonial movement, there is massive literary and archaeological evidence that proves the existence of Jews in the Land of the Bible consistently from antiquity. The majority of Jewish Israelis today come not only from Arab lands, but from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Though there is racism in elements of Israel’s population, including in the current Israeli government amongst the right-wing super-nationalist supremacist settler movement, Israel is not a racist nation as was the former Apartheid South Africa. Nor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict really about race at all. It’s about territory and national rights. In the case of Hamas, it’s also about Iranian centered Islamic extremism against Israel and western liberal civilization. The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that two peoples claim the same territory as their national home.

Since 1967, Israel consistently has been willing to compromise land for peace, except during the years of PM Netanyahu’s leadership. Yair Lapid, the current leader of the opposition party in the Israeli government, stated publicly that he supports a two-state solution as do many former top intelligence and military leaders and currently a sizable minority of the Israeli population that recognizes that the only just solution to the conflict is the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state next to Israel.

BDS does NOT support two-states for two-peoples. It wants one state from the river to the sea, and equal rights for Palestinian Arabs, which spells the end of the Zionist project.

There are many internal challenges facing Israel including how effectively to deal with the growing separatist ultra-Orthodox community, the unfair 2nd class treatment of Palestinian-Israeli citizens, the often harsh military occupation of the West Bank and mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs living there, the growing settler enterprise in the West Bank among whom are many violent Jewish settlers, and the lack of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel is not a perfect democracy just as the United States is not a perfect democracy. Each nation’s Declaration of Independence is an aspiration document towards which each society has struggled over the decades to concretize those just aspirations into policies and law.

BDS’s intent is to end the Jewish State of Israel demographically. Its goals are unrealistic and its characterization of Israel as a foreign colonial element in the heart of the Islamic Middle East is wrong on the merits. It has become popular amongst the far progressive left intersectional movement in the United States that brings together vulnerable groups of people into a coalition fighting on behalf of each other’s rights (e.g. feminists, peoples of color, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and the poor, etc.). It projects those groups’ antipathy to racism, classism, sexism, and colonialism falsely onto Israel and aligns itself with the Palestinians against the Israelis based upon those false parameters as applied to Israel.

BDS is part of the problem and as it grows beyond its 200 estimated chapters in the United States, it becomes more of a problem for anyone hoping for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. College and university students who unwittingly support BDS without understanding what BDS really stands for and what is its significance as part of the international delegitimization movement against Israel are aligning themselves not only with the anti-Israel movement but with antisemitism too which denies the right of the Jewish people to a state of our own in our historic Homeland.

About the Author
John L. Rosove is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles. He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street and a past National Chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). He serves as a member of the Advisory Council of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. John was the 2002 Recipient of the World Union for Progressive Judaism International Humanitarian Award and has received special commendation from the State of Israel Bonds. In 2013 he was honored by J Street at its Fifth Anniversary Celebration in Los Angeles. John is the author of 3 books - "From the West to the East - A Memoir of a Liberal American Rabbi" (2024), "Why Israel Matters - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to the Next Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Revised edition 2023), and “Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove” (2017). All are available at John translated and edited the Hebrew biography of his Great Granduncle – "Avraham Shapira – Veteran of the Haganah and Hebrew Guard" by Getzel Kressel (publ. by the Municipality of Petach Tikvah, 1955). The translation was privately published (2021). John is married to Barbara. They are the parents of two sons - Daniel (married to Marina) and David. He has two grandchildren and he lives in Los Angeles.