How did the Israel boycott campaign grow in 2019?

A woman holds a sign at a protest

Boycott campaigns grew despite accelerated attacks and smears. (Joe Catron)

The outgoing year saw steadfast growth of the nonviolent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign aiming to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights.

There were significant BDS victories in 2019 despite accelerated smears, targeted attacks and outright attempts to criminalize the movement.

From the US to Canada to Europe, governments acquiesced to Israel’s years-long drive to conflate Palestinian rights activism with anti-Semitism in order to shut BDS campaigning down.

Investigative reporting in 2019 unmasked Israel’s anti-BDS efforts, exposing the networks of Israeli spies and high-tech surveillance funded and orchestrated by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

That government department is dedicated to a global “war” against BDS and attempts to conceal its involvement using front groups that “do not want to expose their connection with the state.”

In February, exposés in The New Yorker revealed that Psy-Group, a now-defunct Israeli private intelligence firm, was paid to spy on US students and activists engaged in BDS.

Confirming what The Electronic Intifada has been reporting for years, Israeli media reported in June that the Mossad – Israel’s violent spy agency – is also involved in the war against BDS.

But the pushback by Palestinian and international human rights defenders has been unwavering.

The year began with relentless attacks against Ilhan Omar, a US congresswoman who told the truth about the Israel lobby’s influence on US policy.

Omar was not only attacked by right-wing Republicans but by members of her own Democratic Party who continued to falsely accuse her of anti-Semitism for criticizing the US-Israel relationship.

Despite the smears, Omar introduced a resolution in July upholding the right to boycott and explicitly offered her support for BDS.

Omar’s refusal to remain silent about Israel and the right of civil society to engage with the growing boycott movement mirrored the resolve of activists around the world to amplify their campaigns.

Here are some of the top victories for Palestinian rights as covered by The Electronic Intifada in 2019:

Settlements faced legal, financial defeats

EU legal experts and the European Court of Justice ruled this year that goods from Israeli colonies on occupied Palestinian land must be labeled as originating from settlements.

This is a boost to efforts in Europe to restrict or ban trade in settlement goods.

In January, a bill to outlaw trade in goods from Israeli settlements was passed by the lower house of Ireland’s parliament, a major step on its journey into law.

By the summer, despite pressure to thwart the bill from Israel and its lobbyists – including some members of the US Congress – support for the bill has remained solid among elected representatives in Dublin.

In October, Norway’s capital Oslo banned goods and services from Israeli settlements from public contracts.

The left-wing political parties running the city committed to ensuring that public procurement does not include “goods and services produced on territory occupied in violation of international law.”

Similar to the landmark European Court of Justice ruling, the Federal Court of Canada decided in July that wines produced in settlements on occupied Palestinian land cannot be labeled “Made in Israel.”

In an affirmation of the right of citizens to engage in boycotts, the court found that people who wish to express their political views through their purchasing decisions “have to be provided with accurate information as to the source of the products in question.”

Immediately after the ruling, Israel lobby groups and the Israeli government began pressuring Justin Trudeau’s government to appeal, which it did in September. Activists and legal experts continue to fight the appeal process.

Major international corporations pulled out of lucrative bids to expand Israeli settler railways in May.

Israel is building the Jerusalem light rail to link settlements in the occupied West Bank to each other and to occupied East Jerusalem.

French train maker Alstom pulled out of a bidding consortium to expand the settler tramway, citing human rights concerns.

With the collapse of the bid involving Alstom, another European firm – Barcelona transit operator Moventia – was also forced out, because it was part of the same consortium.

Canadian engineering giant Bombardier had also pulled out of a bid to expand and operate the tramway – as did Australia’s Macquarie and Germany’s Siemens.

A Greek-led consortium also failed to put in a bid to expand the tramway, despite strong support from the Greek government. It had faced stiff opposition from Greek workers.

The winning consortium does however include Spain-based train maker CAF, but mayors, workers and activists in the Basque Country are still fighting to put a stop to any involvement in Israel’s apartheid railway.

Dumping Israel products

Corporations that do business with the Israeli army were dumped by a major trade union and a professional US basketball team, while UK activists shut down Israeli weapons factories.

Over the summer, Unite the Union – the second-largest British and Irish trade union, boasting more than one million members – resolved to end purchases of Hewlett-Packard products.

Commemorating five years since Israel’s 2014 attacks on Gaza – which killed more than 2,200 Palestinians including 550 children – activists in the UK held a three-day protest in early July.

They occupied the roof of the Israeli-owned Elbit-Ferranti arms factory in Oldham, near Manchester.

They demanded that the UK government impose an arms embargo against the company as well as close Israel’s UK-based Elbit factories.

Elbit is Israel’s largest arms producer. The company describes its drones as “the backbone” of Israel’s fleet.

The protest effectively shut down the factory’s operations for two days, activists say.

A month later, activists in Sandwich shut down an Elbit-owned factory for another two days.

And in Portland, Oregon, the Portland Trail Blazers basketball team ended its partnership with Leupold & Stevens, a gunsight manufacturer that supplies the US and Israeli armies.

The Blazers had come under pressure to cut ties with the Oregon-based company over Israel’s use of its equipment while killing and maiming unarmed Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

Over the summer, Palestinians organized international boycott campaigns calling on sportswear brand Puma to end its support for football teams based in Israeli settlements.

Anti-BDS laws challenged

In the US, while state and federal lawmakers pushed for draconian measures to shield Israel against boycott campaigns, civil rights defenders pushed back and won significant legal victories.

A federal court in Texas issued a temporary injunction in April against the state’s 2017 law that requires public employees and state contractors to certify that they will not boycott Israel.

The Texas law is part of nationwide attempts to stigmatize and outlaw BDS campaigns.

With the encouragement of Israel and its lobby, 27 US states have adopted anti-BDS measures.

The Texas ruling follows similar decisions by federal judges against anti-BDS laws in Arizona and Kansas, citing First Amendment violations.

Lawsuits are also pending against anti-BDS laws in Maryland and Arkansas.

A poll found that Americans overwhelmingly reject laws designed to punish BDS supporters. More than 70 percent opposed laws that target boycott activism as an infringement on the right to free speech.

Similar measures still pending in Congress face strong opposition from civil liberties groups.

In Canada, the Calgary city council rejected an attempt by Israel lobby groups to brand criticism of Israel, including boycott activism, as anti-Semitism.

The city leaders voted in November to amend a motion on fighting anti-Semitism that included language that could characterize Palestinian rights campaigning as anti-Jewish bigotry.

Students, academics undeterred

In the face of ruthless attacks by local and federal lawmakers against students – and state curricula that dare to mention Palestinian rights campaigns – campus and academic boycott activism continued to flourish in 2019.

In August, after a three-year battle, Fordham University students won a landmark legal victory against the university’s unilateral ban on a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.

After they tried to start the SJP chapter in 2015, students were subjected to a year-long investigation. They were questioned repeatedly about their political views, their affiliations and their opinions about BDS.

In February, there was a critical victory for academic freedom when a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the American Studies Association over its 2013 decision to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Students at Brown University in Rhode Island became the first at an Ivy League institution to pass a referendum calling for divestment from companies complicit in Israel’s human rights violations.

The Brown vote follows a similar resolution passed by the student government at Swarthmore College in early March.

In February, students at the University of Manchester in the UK crashed a board meeting to demand governors divest from Caterpillar, a company involved in Israeli war crimes.

Caterpillar supplies bulldozers the Israeli army uses to demolish Palestinian homes.

Cultural boycott picks up steam

Various artists not only dumped Israel gigs but resisted pressure to stay silent about Israel’s violence.

In June, American rapper Talib Kweli refused to cave in to demands from two German festivals that he denounce the BDS movement.

He was disinvited from the festivals because of his refusal to repudiate his support for Palestinian rights.

Kweli said that he would not “censor myself and lie about BDS for a check.”

Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, had passed a resolution in May falsely equating BDS with anti-Semitism.

The smear against a nonviolent movement that rejects all forms of racism prompted protests and calls by Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip to cancel performances in solidarity with Kweli.

People across Europe took action in response to the Palestinian call to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest that was hosted in Tel Aviv in May.

Dozens of LGBTQ groups had called for a boycott of Eurovision, and many hosted “apartheid-free” parties on Eurovision finals night as an alternative.

In the lead up to the contest, more than 100 French artists denounced holding Eurovision in Tel Aviv, citing Israel’s crimes, including the deliberate destruction in 2018 of Gaza’s main performance venue, the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center.

Dozens of veterans of the Irish movement against South African apartheid amplified calls on Ireland’s contestant, Sarah McTernan, to pull out of Eurovision. Activists in Geneva delivered a 136,000-signature petition against holding Eurovision in Tel Aviv to the headquarters of the European Broadcasting Union, the body that organizes the contest.

Eurovision failed to live up to Israel’s hopes that it would bring a tourism influx.

The expected flood of visitors to Tel Aviv failed to materialize and thousands of tickets went unsold, forcing promoters to give seats away.

And in June, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, George P. Smith, along with 19 other scientists signed a call on students and mentors to boycott July’s International Physics Olympiad in Israel, “to stand for human rights of the young Palestinian pupils and students, including their right to education.”

Here’s to the activism and victories in 2019, with more to come in 2020.



Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).