Let’s Take A Deep Breath on BDS

Blog Post

Yair Lapid, Israel’s former Finance Minister, told a hawkish “pro-Israel” gathering in New York that the leaders of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement (BDS) are anti-Semites and their followers are “bleeding heart, so-called intellectuals.” Lapid went on to say that European citizens and American students “…are cheering for the people and values that brought 9/11 to this country. You are supporting people that kill gays and suppress women.”

Mutual Demonization

Lapid is far from alone in elevating the movement to a threat on par with Israeli descriptions of Iran. Whether it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu placing a high-ranking Likud Member of the Knesset in charge of battling BDS or grandstanding on the issue by prominent members of Congress, the “threat” of BDS has never seemed greater.

A BDS protester in Melbourne, Australia in 2010

The hyperbole around the issue has never been greater either. All of it is transparently overblown to anyone who actually knows the various players in this game. The BDS movement is not made up, as Netanyahu’s Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked stated, of radical Islamists, anti-Semites and naïve fellow travelers.

I have known many BDS leaders for many years, as I have also known many of my fellow two-state supporters. I understand their motivations. I disagree often with BDS leaders, but I have never known most of them to wish for violence of any kind, express support for al-Qaeda or ISIL, or express animosity towards Jews as Jews. Many of these folks are, indeed, anti-Zionists, and support a single democratic state in all of what they call “historic Palestine.” I disagree with them on that point, but my disagreement does not mean they hate me, or I them.

That doesn’t mean there are no anti-Semites in the BDS movement. Any pro-Palestinian movement is naturally going to attract those who wish to hide their anti-Semitic agenda under a more acceptable cloak. This small minority within their ranks does not define them.

Unintended Consequences

Israelis, and too many of its supporters, continue to bury their head in the sand about Israel’s diminishing standing in the world. The blame is on Palestinian public relations, the reach of the BDS movement, global anti-Semitism, or their own failure to adequately explain their position to the world. The one thing it never is, according to the Netanyahu government and too many “pro-Israel” groups around the world is Israeli policy.

Part of avoiding the policy debate is presenting Israel as a country constantly facing imminent destruction. While Israel faces very real threats to its citizens, it has not faced an existential threat in a very long time. Iran has never been that, as many Israeli security experts have confirmed. If a deal limiting its nuclear program is finalized, the world is unlikely to buy Israeli complaints that Iran could ever “wipe Israel off the map.” So, BDS is being primed for the role of menacing villain.

For their part, the BDS movement seems to be feeding eagerly on Israeli public relations. Despite having had no discernible impact on Israel’s economy or its determination to maintain its occupation, they are trumpeting their success.

One can understand this, of course. Bibi needs the perception of an existential threat to bolster his politics of fear, while the BDS movement, a grassroots movement with little financial backing, needs to demonstrate its own effectiveness. These tactics, however, are damaging hopes of progress toward a resolution of this vexing conflict.

By avoiding moves to end its 48-year old occupation and exaggerating the BDS threat, Israel is actually proving that only substantive pressure will convince it to end the occupation. This is a point on which the BDS movement and I agree; I have argued for decades that the biggest obstacle to ending the occupation is that Israel, in this regard a country like any other, is expected to take what it perceives as a huge risk without any pressure. The occupation’s Jewish BDScosts are largely covered by the European Union, United States and some Arab states, and despite the terrorist attacks Israel still occasionally endures, almost exclusively in the form of sporadic rocket fire from Gaza, the Palestinians have few means to pressure Israel. This is the logic behind the PLO’s international campaign, which must be understood as distinct from BDS.

Israel is running other risks as well. By conflating so many actors and actions with BDS tactics and movements, it risks galvanizing a much harsher opposition than it has seen in the past. Domestically, this false image of BDS is already being used to push the right wing’s assault on democracy even further, while reinforcing the Israeli sense that the “whole world is against us.”

The Effect of BDS

The fact is that any effect BDS has had on Israel’s economy is imperceptible. The economic issues Israel faces have no connection to any drop in exports or loss of investment. That does not mean it never will, but it does mean that the hysteria about BDS is way out of proportion with its impact to date. So, we are left with the most right-wing government in Israeli history governing a country whose citizens, even the majority that still supports a two-state solution, believe that ending the occupation carries major security risks. That is a country that will not change its policies absent significant pressure.

If we accept that self-evident fact, we confront the fact that many people and groups who do not wish to be associated with the BDS movement, its leadership and some of its specific goals have for years avoided any sort of organized economic action against Israel’s occupation. While one can hardly blame the BDS movement for this (in no way have they acted to prevent more moderate groups from taking actions aimed strictly at the occupation), it is an unintended consequence of their activities.

Netanyahu has taken full advantage of the political void this opens up. When the European Union wants to enforce existing laws that distinguish between products made in Israel and those from the settlements, it is considered a “sanction” against Israel; i.e. the “S” in BDS. As a result, liberal Zionist, centrist and many progressive groups avoid any hint of economic action against the occupation.

Groups like Americans for Peace Now (APN), one of the very few who are standing up to call for boycotting settlement products, are not getting the support they need. Yet the few instances of divestment or refusal to do business in the West Bank (most of which were not attributed to the BDS movement by the organizations that took such actions, some of whom even explicitly stated that they were not acting as part of that movement) have all been firmly rooted in opposition to the occupation. They have not been connected to the other conditions of the BDS movement’s call to action, regarding Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

The Need for Economic Action

It is unfair, however, to expect the BDS movement to abandon its tactics because they are being used to scare more moderate peace groups away from action. Instead, it is the responsibility of moderates, two-state solution supporters and those who support Israel but loathe the occupation to stand up for our beliefs. Let the BDS movement do what it is doing. If you are really worried that BDS will “de-legitimize” Israel with rhetoric, then counter it with a principled, pro-Israel stand for Palestinian rights and statehood and an end to the occupation.

The distinction that Netanyahu and his cohorts in AIPAC and in Congress are trying to blur must be sharpened instead. The settlements are not Israel. They are an immoral and illegal enterprise that should not be supported — through tax dollars, investment or purchases. From such a position, classifying corporations that are profiting from the occupation, especially American ones as “socially irresponsible” can be supported on a pro-Israel basis. From that position, groups can stand up for Israel and support Israelis who are working to end the occupation, and combat the discrimination against Arabs that has become so bitter in recent years.

That is also a pro-Israel position from which Americans can demand that our government name the settlements the illegal enterprise they are, and treat them accordingly. It is a position from which one can promote a secure Israel within the Green Line that can, at long last, find some peace in that tumultuous region. It just has to stop denying millions of Palestinians their basic rights and any hope for the future. That, not Netanyahu’s demagoguery, is truly pro-Israel.