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...