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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. 

  • Arno Rosenfeld

    I think this was a very even-handed overview of a tricky subject and no doubt will be useful to many students. I just wanted to raise one issue with how you frame the explanation of BDS demands. You say the first demand is for Israel to “End the occupation that began in 1967.” If the boycott was simply an attempt to end the occupation of the areas occupied in 1967 the movement would have the support of not only basically the entire international community but even most North American Jews as it would essentially be endorsing the two-state solution: A state primarily for Jews in pre-1967 Israel and a state primarily for Arab Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

    But the actual set of demands released by the BDS movement has the first demand as, Israel “Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall.” “Arab lands” can easily be, and is by many if not most Palestinian solidarity activists and liberation organizations, interpreted to be not just the West Bank and Gaza but all of Israel including within its internationally recognized boundaries meaning the movement’s demands well-exceed the framework Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating within. This is also problematic because if a key and valid complaint of Palestinian solidarity activists is that defining Israel as “Jewish land” is ethnocentric and racist, defining the same land as “Arab lands” is likewise problematic.

    • evelyn

      hi thanks arno! i wrote this with /very/ little prior knowledge (as is probably obvious), so i basically just took the full BDS statement: “Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall” and distilled it down to what i thought was the overall message. i wonder if you could suggest an edit i could add- maybe some hover text that expands on your point in a short n sweet way, or a link to more info?

      • Arno Rosenfeld

        Hm, I was just going off the “Call for BDS” on their official website ( doesn’t mention 1967 at all. But now I see here they specifically reference 1967, so that’s interesting. I’ve seen it described in different ways in different places, but apparently I spoke (well, commented) too soon!

  • Student

    In other words, vote no. It’s messy; it’s divisive; it’s has a political agenda beyond rainbows and posies and is only thinly veiled under the guise of social justice. This neo-progressive social justice movement is turning everything into a dichotomy.

    • Ralph

      Nope actually voting Yes is the right thing to do here, it is about social justice and im not entirely sure what neo-progressive is but I think it may be a genre of music

      • BDS hypocrite

        BDS would be more credible if any of its supporters actually cared about the Palestinians.

      • Student

        I made up neo-progressive and have the foresight to see that it’s going to be a “thing”. I see the hegemony of neoliberalism infiltrating progressive discourse and social justice activists eating it up without critically examining what it actually means for people who are actually oppressed. Things are turning into dichotomous arguments between black and white “right and wrong”. Look at your own comment, “actually voting Yes is the ‘right’ thing to do here,” as if there’s some easy solution that only an nincompoop wouldn’t understand. The regurgitation generation is truly worrying, as critical thought falls to the wayside in favour of the adoption of neoliberal socialism.

  • disqus_UzfRBjq1sz

    wait wait wait “ethnic cleansing” you guys do realize that there are arabs in the IDF who fought in the Gaza war? I mean I know you lack the ability to actually be journalists as shown by your serious doctoring of facts to make your point, but even in your heads you have to realize how unbelievably disgusting and fictitious that statement is.

    • evelyn

      that’s not me as a journalist doctoring facts, that’s me literally pulling a direct quote from the BDS website. the sentence is a link.

  • Lior Bar-El

    Hey, thanks for writing this up, I agree with Arno Rosenfeld (below) that it’s a nice summary of a complicated debate. I’m a little remiss that the only links to information at the end are from UBC… If anyone is looking for outside sources, I really like what Peter Beinart has to say, and I think other people like what Omar Barghouti has to say, about this subject.