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A Guide to BDS for the Rest of Us

There’s a lot of buzz around campus about BDS, but if you’re like me, you’ve tuned it out a bit. You know it’s got something to do with Israel and Palestine, and lots of people are really worked up about it, so that’s a hornet’s nest you don’t really want to disturb without being a little bit more educated and up to speed.

So here’s a guide to BDS at UBC for the rest of us.

What is BDS? Sounds vaguely kinky?

BDS stands for Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (hover for definitions). It’s a campaign that was started by a group of Palestinians who want to hold Israel accountable for “ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination, and military occupation.”

BDS has been applied in a bunch of different ways by a bunch of different institutions (schools and unions mostly). It should be noted that the upcoming AMS referendum question modifies the general BDS approach. The referendum question is:

“Do you support your student union (AMS) in boycotting products and divesting from companies that support Israeli war crimes, illegal occupation and the oppression of Palestinians?”

Does BDS have an end goal? Is it legit?

There are three overall main goals of BDS:

1. End the occupation that began in 1967.
2. Recognize the rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel
3. Enable Palestinian refugees to return to their homes

And yes: BDS might seem divisive, but it does have the full support of international law behind it. If you’re just looking at by-the-book laws, the Israeli occupation is illegal [1] [2] [3]. Things get complicated when you look at “legitimacy” in different lights.

What does this have to do with UBC?

BDS supporters wanted UBC to join the movement, and the boycott of products made by companies complicit in occupation seemed like the most realistic approach. It’s not exactly feasible for the AMS to challenge the Israeli government on the world stage after all. Supporters, with the knowledge that this may just be a symbolic move, want UBC to do it’s part.

In line with with the BDS movement, but not explicit support of BDS?

Essentially. Hover over those definitions again, and you’ll notice that the referendum question doesn’t call for a boycott of ALL Israeli made goods and it doesn’t mention sanctions.

Ok, got it. So who’s involved at UBC?

Lots of different groups, but the loudest ones are the UBC SPHR (Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights) and the Hillel House at UBC (a centre for Jewish students).

SPHR (among others) wants you to vote YES on the referendum, and Hillel (among others) wants you to vote NO.

Wait, does this apply to the whole school?

SPHR called for UBC to support BDS by approaching the AMS. So many acronyms. Still with me?
SPHR wanted a referendum question that asked if students would support boycotting certain goods and companies. If we voted yes, the AMS would have to comply. It wouldn’t bind UBC as a whole to anything, just the AMS. If we voted no, well, business as usual.

What did the AMS do?

It took them an all-night meeting, with presentations from Hillel, SPHR, and the Social Justice Centre, but the AMS Council voted to endorse, “Anything but a yes vote”. So we still have a referendum, and the referendum question will still be YES or NO, but the AMS officially suggests that you vote no or abstain.

As it turns out, the AMS currently has no investments in companies, nor do they purchase any products from companies which fall within the bounds of the BDS proposal. This was revealed by the AMS at that same, all-night meeting. So the referendum is largely symbolic and would be laying the framework for the AMS’s future actions.

This is obviously a messy debate. What are the bare-bones arguments on each side?

You’ve likely seen the “It’s about Hate” campaign around campus. Hillel calls BDS antithetical to freedom of speech, and counter-productive to goals of peace in the region. They raise concern with the idea that BDS support would undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel, contribute to anti-Semitism, and undermine Jewish people’s rights in their homeland.

SPHR and other BDS supporters want you to vote to support it because they say BDS stands for challenging and confronting settler colonialism, military occupation and apartheid, and falls in line with values of social justice and anti-oppression.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a binary debate. There are Palestinians who see BDS supporters as trouble-makers who aren’t interested in peace. Independent Jewish Voices, a group of Canadian Jews supports BDS, saying that it doesn’t threaten Israel’s right to exist, just challenges its system of oppression against Palestinians. Like I said, messy. To make a really informed decision, it’s a good idea to read up as much as you can.

When can I vote?

Voting takes place this week from March 23–27.  Log in on the UBC AMS website here with your CWL information, and click on “2015 – March – AMS Referendum” to vote!

But wait, I need more information!

The Talon has published tons of good stuff on BDS so far. Here are our links:

Calling All Students of Conscience: Vote YES on Israel Divestment

The Talon’s Statement in Support of BDS at UBC

Independent Jewish Voices: UBC students should support BDS

To Exist is to Resist: a look at Palestine solidarity activism at UBC

For other campus viewpoints, you might want to check the opinion section of the Ubyssey.



[1] Roberts, Adam. “Prolonged Military Occupation: The Israeli-Occupied Territories Since 1967.” The American Journal of International Law . Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1990). pp. 44-103. American Society of International Law. Web. 24 March 2015.

[2] Barak-Erez, Daphne. “Israel: The security barrier—between international law, constitutional law, and domestic judicial review”. Int J Constitutional Law. (July 2006) 4 (3): 540-552

[3] Benveniśtî, Eyāl. The international law of occupation. Princeton University Press. 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004. p. xvii.

Thanks very much to the collective for their help on this piece, especially Urooba, Josh, and Eviatar.