BDS and the Morality of Boycott
December 2, 2020

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently branded the movement to boycott Israel as antisemitic, it was the culmination of an effort by Israeli and Zionist groups that is almost as old as the movement itself. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which began formally with the campaign launched in 2005 by organizations of Palestinian civil society, has been vilified from its inception as immoral, illegitimate, and antisemitic.

Though the BDS campaign was launched in Palestine by grassroots organizations, the intended target audience was in the West, since that is where boycotting Israel is most feasible and most likely to be effective. This explains why the movement has come under such intense attack in the US, Canada, and Western Europe. Over the past decade, BDS has come to occupy a curious position. It has gained a large number of adherents in universities, labor unions, leftist political parties, and other sectors, yet it is delegitimized in most official forums, and increasingly outlawed in some jurisdictions. 

Though the effort to brand the non-violent protest movement as immoral is clearly motivated by those who would deny Palestinians the right to self-determination, the charges against it are serious and cannot go unanswered. What, then, are the main criticisms of BDS on purportedly moral grounds, and is there any substance to them?  Is there any merit to the claim that the call to boycott Israel violates basic moral principles?

Boycotts can be judged to be moral or immoral based either on their ends or their means, or both. For instance, one could rightly boycott racists on account of their reprehensible views, or one could wrongly boycott a race or religion simply due to bigotry. In the first case, the ends are morally legitimate, whereas in the second they clearly aren’t. As for the means, being largely voluntary, boycotts typically fall under the rights of individuals to procure goods, engage in cultural or academic exchange, or express themselves as they see fit. Since individuals don’t usually impose such actions on anyone, the means they adopt are usually morally permissible.  But like any social or political activity, boycotts might occasionally adopt immoral means to achieve their ends, and when they do, they can be rightly faulted on that basis. Thus, the moral rightness of boycott movements depends primarily on the ends they aim to achieve and secondarily on their means of doing so. 

Before addressing the question regarding the morality of BDS, it is worth bearing in mind that boycotts have been, and still are, widely utilized in the West and beyond. In the United States, for example, there are almost daily calls to boycott particular individuals, businesses, corporations, and even entire states. In one well-known case, a boycott was initiated targeting the state of Arizona because of the passage of Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, which allows state law enforcement to determine an individual’s immigration status during routine police stops. The bill was widely perceived to discriminate against immigrants, particularly those coming from Mexico. The boycott was not just undertaken by individuals, but also by organizations and even some local governments across the US, which banned their employees from travel to Arizona or from doing business with corporations headquartered there. That boycott, which persisted for several years, was widely perceived to have been successful and to have been instrumental in convincing other states not to pass similar legislation. 

Given the prevalence of boycotts against a variety of targets, the extent and vehemence of opposition to the BDS campaign on moral grounds is particularly surprising, since one sometimes gets the impression that the boycott of Israeli institutions is unprecedented or exceptional. Boycotts are a ubiquitous political tactic and their moral credentials are rarely called into question when used in other contexts. Having said that, there would appear to be five main attempts to argue that the boycott campaign, as applied to Israel, is immoral. The first two concern the means adopted by the movement and the rest concern its ends, or alleged ends.


First, some critics claim that the BDS movement curtails academic freedom and freedom of speech, since it prevents Israeli academics, intellectuals, artists, and others from expressing themselves. This criticism seems to deliberately misrepresent the movement’s tactics, since BDS is aimed explicitly at institutions, not individuals. It is true that on occasion, a boycott of Israeli institutions may lead to individuals not being represented at certain international events, such as when a music festival decides to boycott a state-funded Israeli orchestra, or when an academic conference is cancelled because it is co-sponsored by an Israeli university. Such acts may harm the interests of Israeli individuals who were scheduled to perform or speak at these events, but does that mean that these individuals’ freedom of speech has been restricted? It is clear that Israeli intellectuals, artists, and others have many opportunities to express themselves in their own country and elsewhere, where they are afforded various means of doing so. By contrast, Palestinian intellectuals and artists do not enjoy the same freedom of movement, and their access to international fora is severely curtailed due to the Israeli occupation. If individuals miss certain opportunities to present their work, that is certainly not tantamount to silencing them or denying them their right to express themselves. This means that BDS cannot be considered to violate the rights of individuals, even though it may sometimes harm the interests of some Israeli individuals as a result of a boycott of institutions with which they may be affiliated.

Second, it is sometimes argued that the boycott movement is counter-productive and harms the Palestinian cause, since engagement and dialogue are preferable to economic or cultural pressure. It is also alleged that the BDS movement may make Israeli civil society more radicalized and more intransigent, and indeed, that Israeli academics and cultural figures, who are disproportionately affected by BDS, are those most in need of engagement rather than boycott by Palestinian civil society. In response, it ought to be mentioned that the BDS movement arose from the ashes of various attempts to form dialogue groups and establish forums for cultural exchange between Palestinian and Israeli society. It was also launched in the aftermath of the failure of various political initiatives and attempts at a negotiated settlement.  All these efforts, which reached their peak in the 1990s and early 2000s, failed miserably to achieve any concrete results concerning Palestinian rights and sovereignty, and indeed the situation that has prevailed after these various initiatives has been worse in many ways than it was before them. It is safe to say that Israeli society is more extremist on the question of Palestinian rights than it has been at any time in the past several decades. Even in academic and cultural circles, where a majority tends to voice its opposition to the occupation, resistance has been largely ineffective when it comes to influencing the Israeli political establishment, despite strong links between academic and political institutions in Israel. Perhaps more to the point, any call for dialogue in the midst of a deadly military occupation is not productive, since there can be no meeting of equals where there is such a power asymmetry. It may even be immoral, since it expects the victim to put up with injustice rather than resist. A boycott campaign is one of the most peaceful means of resistance available to members of Palestinian civil society and their supporters.

Third, when it comes to the movement’s ends, BDS has been criticized on the grounds that it is hypocritical, since boycotts should be aimed at more egregious violators of human rights, such as North Korea or China, or indeed the United States, which has engaged in the military occupation of Iraq, among its many other documented human rights violations. The response to this charge is that boycott is a tool to achieve a moral outcome, not an end in itself. There are indeed countless other crimes in the world, and there are doubtless worse rights violations than those committed by Israel against the Palestinian people, but a boycott is not always the most effective means to counter and redress such violations. For instance, there would be no point in trying to boycott North Korea, since it is already isolated from most of the rest of the world and does not participate in international cultural or artistic forums, due to the severe economic sanctions imposed upon it by the United States and European Union. Meanwhile, it is simply not feasible for the United States to be boycotted by its own citizens, and it is extremely unlikely that a boycott by non-citizens would lead to the desired result because its formidable economy would not be affected by a boycott movement. Boycott is efficacious only in those cases where it is likely to lead to the desired outcome. Israel is such a case since it is a state that relies crucially on the West for economic, cultural, and other forms of support. The extent of Israeli entanglement with and reliance upon North American and Western European societies is unrivalled by any other state outside the West, and an effective boycott may well have an impact on its conduct and begin to exact a price on its military occupation, which has gone on for over half a century. Even if a boycott is not comprehensive, as long as it encompasses a number of important sectors in the United States and other countries, the impact on Israel will be (and perhaps has even begun to be) palpable.  Hence, there is no comparison between boycotting Israel and boycotting North Korea or even China in terms of the likelihood of achieving moral goals. Another problem with this criticism is that it is a clear case of “whataboutism.”  Critiquing BDS by claiming that there are worse human rights offenders than Israel is like defending a rapist by saying that that there are murderers on the loose.

Fourth, a charge that is often heard among critics of the BDS campaign is that it aims to delegitimize Israel, or indeed, calls for Israel’s destruction. This criticism seems to deliberately misrepresent the political aims of BDS, since there is simply no basis in its stated goals for making this charge. The only way that such an association can be made is with reference to the aims set out in the call for BDS, which spells out three political goals for the movement: ending the occupation (of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights), granting full citizenship rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and respecting the right of return for Palestinian refugees (in accordance with UN General Assembly Resolution 194).  Some might claim that the second and third goals are tantamount to the destruction of Israel, since giving non-Jewish citizens of Israel full political rights would erase the Jewish character of the state, as would respecting the right of return. But this is simply the demand that Israel be a state of all its citizens – in other words, a liberal democratic state. This misrepresentation of the goals of BDS is clearly designed to raise bogus apocalyptic fears, but the only thing that the BDS campaign could rightly be charged with aiming to delegitimize or destroy is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and its apartheid-like policies and practices.

Finally, this brings us to the charge that has just been formally made by the Trump administration, namely that the BDS campaign is antisemitic, which is a view that has also been voiced by such supposedly enlightened liberals as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This is surely the weakest and least defensible charge against the movement, yet in some ways the most notorious and perhaps the most oft repeated. Here again, there is nothing in the stated goals of the BDS campaign that would justify a charge of hostility or prejudice against any ethnic or religious group. The methods and instruments of the campaign do not call for boycotting Israeli institutions just because most of the individuals working in those institutions are Jewish in ethnicity or religious affiliation. This objection is often heard whenever one protests Israeli policies or practices in international forums, since Israeli spokespersons are quick to respond by saying that such protests are tantamount to an attack on the Jewish people or religion. Such charges are very seldom legitimate and have the effect of shutting down any discussion of Israeli conduct towards the Palestinians. They arise partly as a result of Israel’s own identification of itself as the state of the Jewish people, which is by no means universally accepted among Jews, particularly non or anti-Zionist Jews. Indeed, there are numerous signs of growing disaffection with Israeli policy among Jews outside Israel, many of whom have even voiced support for the BDS campaign, such as the organizations Jewish Voice for Peace and Independent Jewish Voices. Hence, the claim that BDS is antisemitic in terms of its ends or means cannot be taken seriously.

Some of these objections to BDS on allegedly moral grounds may not appear to be worth discussing in any depth, but there are two reasons for responding to them. One is that despite their moral bankruptcy, many of them are in wide circulation and have a pronounced influence on the uncommitted public, since pro-Israel voices tend to drown out the opposition in most mainstream Western forums. The second is that proponents of the BDS campaign often focus on tactics and political strategy and rarely dwell on the moral basis of the movement. An attempt to respond to its critics on moral grounds may have the effect of reminding advocates of its moral underpinnings and of generating broader support for Palestinian rights. 

About The Author: 

Muhammad Ali Khalidi is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and has worked on philosophical aspects of the question of Palestine.

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