Renewing BDS in Canada and the US

Since 2005, when a coalition of Palestinian groups issued the call for an international campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, the North American public has become significantly more cognizant of the racist atrocities committed daily by the Israeli state – indeed, these are hard to ignore. Since the siege of Gaza began in 2007, Israeli assaults have killed approximately 4,500 Palestinians there, nearly a quarter of them children.1 In the West Bank, meanwhile, Palestinians remain subject to a strangulating military occupation, arbitrary detentions, house demolitions, and land confiscations.

Whereas at the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, the question of Palestine was seen as complex and polarizing, polls now show that two thirds of Canadians believe that sanctions are warranted against Israel, given its illegal oppression of Palestinians. Such a change in western public opinion could pose a significant threat to Israel, considering that sanctions are the most ambitious component of BDS’s strategic agenda.

Yet the BDS movement in Canada has failed to keep up with these gains in public awareness, and the Canadian state is in many ways doubling down on its support for Israel – a dynamic that echoes its reluctant participation in the embargo against apartheid South Africa.2 The straightforward reason for this distinction is the fact that the Canadian government maintains strong ties to Israel, which are rooted in some combination of its Washington-led foreign policy and the influence of the Israel lobby in both countries.

The Movement Must Remain Focused on the State

The challenge in this context is for the movement to stay focused on the objective of pushing the Canadian state toward sanctions, even though this is for now an uphill battle. Choosing in our day-to-day lives not to buy Naot sandals or Sabra hummus is worthwhile, but it nonetheless exerts a paltry level of pressure on the Israeli government in comparison to a severing of regular diplomatic ties and a full economic embargo. As in the South African case, positive change is only likely to emerge if the maintenance of regular relations is made conditional on Israel’s respect for human rights and international law.

This position is gaining considerable ground internationally. Last year, the governments of Chile, Ireland, and several municipalities across Europe banned the entry of products manufactured in the occupied Palestinian territories.3 While Israeli soldiers fired indiscriminately into crowds of protesters in Gaza, South Africa recalled its ambassador to Tel Aviv, and the UK Labour Party reaffirmed its call for the immediate suspension of arms sales to Israel.4

In Canada the story has been extremely different. Governments at multiple levels have attempted to undermine the movement against Israeli apartheid by adopting new resolutions that duplicitously expand the definition of anti-Semitism to effectively include anti-Zionism. The most dangerous of these is Ontario’s Bill 168, which is in the process of passing through the legislature with unanimous support, and which adopts a definition of anti-Semitism from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).5 This proscribes a variety of criticisms of Israel, including “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” (Pablo Rodríguez, the federal Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, has also expressed interest in the adoption of this definition as part of the government’s “anti-racism strategy.”) Yet without identifying the Jewish state as a racist one, it is frankly impossible to comprehend the pattern of displacement, killing, and harassment Palestinians have suffered from the moment of Israel’s establishment in 1948. It is impossible to understand the state’s stringent efforts to discourage intermarriage between Jews and Arabs, and it is impossible to understand its explicit policy of hafrada, or separation, between Jews and Arabs.6

Still, there are opportunities for the growing numbers of allied Canadians to change the current. Canada’s official stance on the conflict is more or less in accord with international law, and Ottawa does not technically recognize Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, or the settlements there. It is not hard to imagine that stronger mobilization within the NDP and Liberal party bases would influence their positions in the same way that has happened in many European parties.

The Struggle in the United States

The most important factor in Israel’s impunity is, of course, the diplomatic and economic assistance it receives from the United States – in particular its $3.8-billion in military aid annually. It is vaguely conceivable that stronger BDS-style action at the international level may sway this policy somewhat, but by and large it is clear that any truly effective mobilization must occur within the US itself. There too, the movement for Palestinian solidarity has experienced debilitating setbacks, with the passage of laws in at least twenty-seven states that are designed to penalize BDS supporters, including businesses and non-profit organizations. Last summer, Congress endorsed these draconian policies with a legislation whose very title implies the unbounded logic of US imperialism: the “Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019.”7 Now, in the aftermath of Bernie Sanders’s defeat in the Democratic primary elections, the path forward for the American left seems, in many respects, like an especially steep climb.

The BDS movement will need to regroup and strategize, and in the process may revisit the debate of the late-aughts on why exactly the US gives such massive and seemingly unconditional support to Israel. Is it rooted in the strength of the pro-Israel lobby, or in Washington’s own foreign-policy interests and imperialist strategy? The former position was elaborated by political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their 2007 book The Israel Lobby, which argues that the alliance with Israel has been so costly for Washington, both financially and diplomatically, that it can only be explained by the extraordinary strength of the lobby. The latter position, supported by Noam Chomsky and others, is that Israel offers a valuable base of US imperial power in the region, and additionally possesses a sort of cultural affinity with the US based in their shared identities as settler-colonial societies.8 In this view, the US supports Israel because the two states share the same foreign-policy objectives.

There is some evidence to recommend the “shared interests” perspective, but all of it comes with so many qualifications that it can hardly explain the remarkable persistence and extent of US support. At times when Washington ostensibly relied on Israel to stabilize regional crises, the crises themselves were, in fact, instigated by Israel, or Israeli intervention ultimately destabilized a situation, or the US was concerned about the threat of Soviet regional influence. From the Six-Day War of 1967 to the Jordanian civil war of 1970-71 to Israel’s invasions of southern Lebanon in 1978, 1982, and 2006 – none of these cases clearly demonstrate how Washington’s unconditional support for Israel still serves its interests to this day. There is, conversely, a history of Israeli betrayals of the US, from its unsanctioned weapons sales to its many attempts to spy on top US government officials – the most recent of which was uncovered only last year after surveillance devices evidently designed to spy on Donald Trump were discovered near the White House. In short, what David Mizner calls the “rationality of US support for Israel” comes with several asterisks attached.

The more important point is that those who take the shared interests approach spend considerable effort downplaying the effect of the lobby, and in doing so tread on extremely shaky ground. Making the case for its ultimate insignificance demands not only providing evidence of shared interests, but also evidence that lobbying in general does not appreciably impact policy in Washington – an argument that fails to materialize because all evidence suggests the contrary. At a basic level, it seems uncoincidental that the largest recipient of foreign military aid is aligned with the largest foreign-interest lobby – a lobby that now spends approximately three times more than gun-rights groups.9

It is true that it can, nonetheless, be difficult to empirically assess the influence of foreign-policy pressure groups, but we can gain a more quantifiable sense of the effect of lobbying if we look instead at business lobbies. One study on this, conducted in 2011, found that hiring a well-connected lobbyist is an enormously profitable investment, “comparable to the returns of the most blistering hedge fund.” Firms who lobby aggressively were even found to outperform an S&P 500 by eleven per cent per year.10 The lobby theory, in other words, deserves to be taken seriously, not because of how Zionism works, necessarily, but because of how Washington works in reality.

The upshot, therefore, is not that the American left needs to start a pro-Palestine lobby, but that it needs to fight the manifestly corrupt structure of government that has given vastly outsized political influence to the wealthy. It is hard to imagine how meaningful and positive change can possibly occur, on the Palestine file and many others, so long as that structure remains in place. Even those who take the shared-interests perspective would generally agree, I think, that American plutocracy must first be dismantled in order for our movement to democratically achieve a drawdown of military aid or, more ambitiously, the adoption of US sanctions on Israel. The socialist left must now either recalibrate its strategy of insurgency within the Democrats or undertake the difficult task of forming an independent third party that evades the network of Washington lobbies. In either case, the question of how to strategically undertake that fight deserves priority because it shapes the ground on which the game is played.

Staying Focused on the State

Both the means and the ends of the BDS movement have been criticized extensively, not merely by Israel’s defenders but also by some of its critics. It is true that the movement’s tactics can generate moral ambiguities, and that its objectives are ambitious. But these truths are simply reflections of the very real imbalance of power at work in the conflict and do not, in their own right, delegitimate the campaign.

It is demonstrative of this power imbalance that BDS’s long-term objective merely for the implementation of international law has been chastised as unrealistic. The movement’s original statement – which has, at this point, been endorsed by 173 Palestinian parties, unions, and other organizations – calls for the tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions to be maintained “until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by: 1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; 2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3) Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” (UN Resolution 194 was passed in December 1948 and stipulated that the Palestinians displaced in that year’s war “should be permitted to [return] at the earliest practicable date.”)

Although the BDS call does not explicitly endorse the one state solution, these second and third demands are certainly consistent with the demand for a single binational state – an objective that in my view deserves the support of the solidarity movement. Given the scope of ongoing atrocities, it may seem churlish to claim that the two-state solution is not enough, but the case for it is increasingly being made on strategic, not merely on moral, grounds. It is not as though a credible two-state solution has ever been offered and then rejected; on the contrary, with the ongoing expansion of settlements in the West Bank it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine with each passing year. (Moreover, polls show that Americans’ support for the one-state solution has grown significantly in recent years, to the point that it is now on par with two-state support.) Either solution would be hard-won. But there are strong reasons to doubt that a two-state solution will be a true solution, because the persistence of Jewish ethnocracy would also validate Israel’s designation of Arabs as its permanent enemy. In other words, there is no easy way to end racism, but it must be done in order for the conflict to end one way or the other; it is merely more likely to occur under a legal framework that inscribes equality rather than ethnocracy.

Both Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, another long-time critic of Israel, have offered only qualified endorsements of BDS primarily because they see the third goal as setting the bar so high that the movement will inevitably fail. Chomsky has downplayed the relevance of Resolution 194, making the peculiar case that it is merely a “recommendation,” in spite of its very clear phrasing as a resolution, and claiming that there is “no meaningful support for [the right of return] beyond the BDS movement itself.” Based on what he sees as the prevailing international norms, the only path “that has even a remote chance of success” leads toward a two-state solution. Insistence on the right of return is, therefore, “a virtual guarantee of failure.”

Similarly, Finkelstein has argued that the movement insufficiently heeds the fact of Israel’s legitimate sovereignty within its pre-1967 borders. Strategically, he claims, the movement can only expect a resolution grounded in international law, which stipulates that Israel’s military domination of the West Bank and Gaza must end, but that Israel itself, within its pre-1967 borders, should remain intact. “If you want to use the law as a weapon or as leverage, in order to reach public opinion, you can’t be selective with the law,” he has said in interview. “If you have the right to walk at the green it’s because you have an obligation to stop at the red. The law is a package deal, so if you want to use the law, the law also says Israel is a state.”

This approach may be the correct one for a precedent-bound jurist, but it is hard to see why the movement for justice in Palestine should adopt it. Indeed its shortcomings become increasingly clear the further we move away from its own narrow juridical parameters and toward the broader perspective of political struggle. First, it is true that international legal bodies have called for a two-state solution on several occasions, yet the ultimate legitimacy of Israel in its pre-1967 borders is not so firmly set in stone as we might suppose given that Israel vastly exceeded its original UN mandate in 1948. Second, remaining limited to juridical arguments, Finkelstein ignores the fact that any form of ethnocracy contradicts what is arguably the most constitutional document within international law: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its associated laws. Third, and most significantly, Finkelstein’s suggestion that the “law is a package deal” contradicts the very basis of democratic change. If we finally depart from the juridical perspective, then of course we can be selective about which laws we support; the history of the modern left has largely been one of fighting for good laws and against bad ones.

Critiques of the movement’s tactics are, in my view, even less persuasive. Chomsky has admonished that BDS “opens the door to the standard ‘glass house’ reaction: for example, if we boycott Tel Aviv University because Israel violates human rights at home, then why not boycott Harvard because of far greater violations by the United States?” Naturally, this very argument has been expressed by the outright opponents of BDS, who have taken umbrage in particular with the call for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. “Even Israeli academics critical of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians would presumably be subject to the boycott,” complains Rutgers professor Emanuel Goldman.

In fact, every version of this argument ignores, either deliberately or disingenuously, the careful distinctions made by the BDS position, which “rejects on principle boycotts of individuals based on their identity.” Hence, they stress, “Mere affiliation of Israeli scholars to an Israeli academic institution is therefore not grounds for applying the boycott.” Rather, an individual is subject to boycott if they are “representing the state of Israel” by deliberately denying or downplaying its crimes. At this level, they write, Israeli academics “should be treated like all other offenders in the same category, not better or worse.” Although I have myself been concerned at times that the boycott might result in poor decisions and alienating rhetoric, the fifteen-year track record shows that the movement has by and large avoided these pitfalls. We should, therefore, be more concerned with correcting false accusations like Goldman’s than with admonitions that such accusations can be made.

Still, the BDS guidelines are written primarily for small organizations, and although they express admirable nuance, it is worth observing that the question of where to draw the line can be a thorny one. At worst, the interrogation of anyone’s personal politics on Palestine can lead to petty, emotionally difficult, and sometimes fruitless conflicts among allies. This is another key reason for the movement as a whole to remain primarily focused on our governments’ own policies toward Israel. Boycotts, as well as divestment, are integral, but experience has shown that they cannot apply nearly enough pressure to change the Palestinian reality. Sanctions can.

Despite recent setbacks in Canada and the US, very real opportunities for a democratic sea-change now exist in both countries. A total of sixty-six per cent of Canadians believe that sanctions against Israel are a reasonable course of action, and – perhaps more significantly – that includes seventy-five per cent of Liberals and eighty-four per cent of NDP supporters. Polls show Americans are also increasingly critical of Israel, and while supporters of sanctions are, for now, a minority, at forty per cent, they are a majority among Democrats, at fifty-six per cent. The reality of Israel’s racist atrocities has been plain to see for quite some time now, and no argument, however clever, however cynical, can possibly justify them. As ever, the time for justice is now. •


  1. Fatalities during Operation Cast Lead.” “Fatalities since Operation Cast Lead.”
  2. Canada spent too long on the wrong side of apartheid.” See also Linda Freeman, The Ambiguous Champion: Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years.
  3. Chilean Congress Votes to Ban Products From Illegal Israeli Settlements, Irish parliament passes bill to ban Israeli settlement goods.
  4. 20 Highlights of BDS Impact in 2019.
  5. Bill 168, Combating Antisemitism Act, 2020,” “Contesting Bill 168.”
  6. Richard Falk, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.
  7. House passes bill opposing BDS, exposing divide among Democrats,” “US Senate Passes anti-BDS Legislation With Strong Majority.”
  8. US Foreign Policy in the Middle East,” “The Israel Lobby?
  9. AIPAC doesn’t contribute directly to candidates, Gun Rights: Long-Term Contribution Trends, Agribusiness: Long-Term Contribution Trends.
  10. Brad Plumer, “The Outsized Return From Lobbying: An analysis finds that the firms that spend the most on lobbying have outperformed the S&P 500 by 11 per cent since 2002.” Washington Post, October 10, 2011.

Niko Block is a Ph.D. student in political science at York University. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Jacobin, New Internationalist and Canadian Dimension. He blogs at and tweets @nikoblock.