by Anna Isaacs
Barely a decade old, the acronym BDS has already accrued enough political clout to be broadly condemned by presidential candidates. Well on their way to ubiquity, the controversial initials—which stand for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—are still, in many ways, shrouded in confusion.
The characterization of Israel as an apartheid state, to be compared with and targeted like South Africa, gained some traction from a 2000 speech by a University of Illinois law professor and during the 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, when an NGO declaration controversially promoted it. With Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s encouragement, calls for divestment from Israeli companies spread to dozens of American college campuses, including Yale, Harvard and MIT, and some city governments, including Berkeley and Ann Arbor. In Ramallah, Palestinian human rights activists began to organize around the concept, soon forming the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
In 2005, 171 Palestinian groups representing refugees, West Bank and Gaza residents and Israeli citizens signed onto a call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions—a name chosen after much discussion. “At the time, we debated among ourselves whether or not the name and acronym of the movement we were about to launch should focus on the rights that we are pursuing instead of the strategies that we are adopting to achieve those rights,” says Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and cofounder of BDS. “Focusing on Freedom, Justice, Equality, our motto, would have made the acronym FJE. But we ultimately decided to go for BDS to emphasize the South Africa-like strategies that we need to promote to isolate Israel’s regime to compel it to recognize our rights under international law.” Plus, BDS—which a colleague coined while working on its central text—“had a catchy ring to it,” he says.
Each letter denotes a longtime method of applying political pressure. Official BDS movement text says that “Boycott” targets products and companies “that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights,” as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions; it also urges artists not to exhibit or play in Israel and businesses not to stock Israeli products. (Academic and cultural collaboration, according to the movement, is a way to “rebrand” and erase Palestinian oppression.) “Divestment” targets corporations “complicit in violating Palestinian rights” by urging their exclusion from portfolios and pension funds. And “Sanctions” are said to be an “essential part of demonstrating disapproval for a country’s actions.”
“It is no coincidence that the ‘S’ follows the ‘B’ and the ‘D’ in BDS,” Barghouti says. Only bottom-up grassroots efforts can compel “complicit” governments to impose sanctions, he explains. “This requires a lot of boycott and divestment pressure first.”
The acronym and the movement—which says its goals are to end Israel’s occupation of “all Arab lands” and dismantle the West Bank wall, ensure “full equality” for Palestinian citizens of Israel and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes—took off slowly. Under the Palestinian-led BDS National Committee, its reach grew in the wake of the 2009 war between Israel and Gaza. “BDS” began to crop up in church petitions and food co-op meeting agendas. Among the first was Washington’s Olympia Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions coalition, which successfully pushed for the city’s Olympia Food Co-op to stop selling Israeli products in 2010.
It was around this time that the acronym began to feature in national media. The first New York Times usage appears to be in a September 2010 column by Robert Wright of the New America Foundation that urged Palestinians to pursue nonviolent protest: An update to the column pointed out that “There is a large and growing Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions Movement (B.D.S.) being promoted by Palestinian civil society…” In March 2012, author Peter Beinart penned a Times column calling for a “Zionist BDS” that would target only settlement-made goods. That same month, the first Times news story to mention BDS reported on a debate embroiling Brooklyn’s Park Slope Food Co-op over whether to strip its shelves of Israeli goods.
In a New York Jewish Week column last year, writer Nathan Jeffay decried the catchiness that Barghouti notes, calling it intentionally vague, Western-oriented “branding that is cleverly done with an acronym.” “When we use an acronym without explaining it,” he wrote, “we’re saying that every informed person should’ve heard of it, and instantly affirm its importance.” Calling it an “anti-Israel boycott” instead, he says, might make its progressive appeal less sticky.
Outside acronym-fluent Washington policy circles, BDS doesn’t mean much to the average American, says Mitchell Bard, executive director of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, who has led some of the institutional efforts against BDS. But for many American Jews, the acronym alone is enough to spark instant angst. “There’s a widespread fear about its goals and corrosive impact wherever it appears,” Bard says.
The pithy ambiguity that Jeffay notes with dismay may have another effect. Many anti-BDS American Jews don’t know the basic facts and key issues of the BDS call, says Peter Beinart—only the acronym and its alleged synonymity with anti-Semitism. But tagging BDS as shorthand for Jew-hatred both delegitimizes it and galvanizes opposition. Beinart says the three letters currently occupy “the central Nazi or Amalek or Hamas role” as the principal nemesis for Jewish institutions and their funders now that Iran has receded from the news.
Of course, BDS doesn’t quite have a monopoly on the three letters in that order. They keep company with Buddhist tradition (the “Three Jewels” of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha), professional tooth-pulling (Bachelor of Dental Surgery) and winged insect enthusiasts (the British Dragonfly Society). Columnist and former psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer may well miss the days when conservatives glommed on to his 2003 neologism for pathological dislike of the then-president. “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” he wrote, is a case of “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush.”—Anna Isaacs