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Vision: How Flash Mobs and Lady Gaga are Energizing Protests for Palestine

Boycott Divestment Sanctions, a non-violent Palestinian-led protest movement, is showing how enthusiasm and new media can drum up power within an activist movement.

Not long before Christmas, in a Best Buy in a St. Louis mall, 86-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein performed a synchronized song-and-dance number to the tune of “Telephone,” rocking black pants and a turtleneck in lieu of Lady Gaga's metal-studded bra and crotch cover. Epstein, along with a cohort of mostly young women, urged the bewildered holiday shoppers to “hang up on Motorola,” a company that sells Israel surveillance equipment used in the Occupation. "Aiding in apartheid and being sneaky/tell us what you're doing with your technology," they sang.

On YouTube, the Lady Gaga parody became something of an instant classic in a small but burgeoning activist video genre. “I had always wanted to be a part of a flash mob,” explained coordinator and co-lyricist/choreographer Banan Ead, a 32-year-old Palestinian-American, remembering the fad’s heyday a good half-decade ago.

Flash mobs were the pre-YouTube brainchild of former Harper’s editor Bill Wasik. In June 2003, an email invite brought 200 people to a Manhattan Macy’s, where they converged around a giant carpet, telling clerks they lived together in a commune and were shopping for a “love rug.” Soon, flash mobs were like Starbucks: everywhere. Wasik had set out to make a grand joke of hipster conformity, calling his creation “an empty meditation on emptiness.” While the original flash mob was essentially an apolitical situation comedy, today it is enjoying a revival as a movement builder.

The cause is Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS), a non-violent, Palestinian-led movement inspired by the campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Launched in 2005 by a call from Palestinian civil society groups, in the wake of the 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, BDS is gaining traction both globally and within Israel.

The demands of BDS are threefold: a withdrawal from the Occupied Palestinian Territories; the right of return for Palestinian refugees (in accordance with UN Resolution 194); and an end to legal discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel.

As with any non-violent movement, its power and promise can be gauged by the backlash. In February, the Knesset passed an initial reading of a bill criminalizing support of BDS in Israel. Last November, the Jewish Federations of North America, the oft-arbiter of American Jewish discourse on Israel, launched a $6 million campaign against BDS, calling it “an existential danger” to the Jewish state.

The fear of BDS is palpable, and for good reason: it’s working. Practically every week brings news that yet another company has pulled out of business dealings with Israel due to political pressure. Last week it was Deutsche Bahn, a major German company that pulled out of a planned high-speed railway project that will cut through the West Bank.

The real genius of BDS is its big tent appeal: supporters might choose to stick to boycotts of consumer goods made in settlements (e.g. SodaStream); some might launch divestment campaigns aimed at companies involved in the Occupation; or others might support the “full call,” which asks artists and academics to boycott Israeli institutions (as opposed to individuals) that have not hopped on the BDS bandwagon. Notable full BDS supporters include Pink Floyd, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Naomi Klein, and Judith Butler. "If you only want to boycott an egg, we want you to boycott an egg,” Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, told the Nation, explaining BDS’ grabbag of tactics.


Not all BDS flash mobs involve singing and dancing, but many are parodic rewrites of pop songs. Last year, the BDS group Adalah-NY sang “Don’t Put a Ring on It” at Lev Leviev’s Madison Avenue storefront, letting blood diamond shoppers know the company also builds settlements. In March, Adalah-NY channeled Journey in Grand Central Station with “Don’t Stop Boycottin’”—replete with a marching band and an impressive array of synchronized arm pumps and spin-clap moves. (“[‘Don’t Stop Believin’] has become an uplifting anthem of hope to many different people of differing backgrounds, beliefs, and circumstances,” Journey wrote of itself, in a copyright infringement lawsuit filed shortly thereafter.)