10 years later, how BDS became the politically correct way to delegitimize Israel
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10 years later, how BDS became the politically correct way to delegitimize Israel

Blurring the lines between opposing occupation and opposing Israel, the boycott and sanctions effort continues to make inroads, all the way to the 2016 US presidential elections

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

A Palestinian woman walks by a sign calling to boycott Israel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on February 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
A Palestinian woman walks by a sign calling to boycott Israel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on February 11, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

While still reeling from sporadic suicide attacks during the final stages of the Second Intifada, many Israelis a decade ago were also allowing themselves some tentative hopes for, if not peace, then at least more tranquility. Ariel Sharon was prime minister, and the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas was seen as more peace-minded than the late, largely unlamented Yasser Arafat.

Then, exactly 10 years ago, on July 9, 2005, as the final preparations were underway for the disengagement of Israeli settlements from Gaza, a collection of 170 Palestinian activists and organizations launched the first call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions from Israel.

The impetus of that first BDS call was ostensibly the lack of response by Israel and the international community a year after the publication of an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which stated that the portions of Israel’s security fence built on occupied Palestinian territory are illegal.

The security fence, an idea first floated in 1992 by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, was approved in 2000 by prime minister Ehud Barak. Its construction was fast-tracked during the Second Intifada and the fence, alongside wide IDF incursions into the West Bank, is widely credited with the dramatic decrease in suicide bombings, and thus the saving of hundreds of Israeli lives.

For the Palestinians, however, the fence is a humanitarian millstone, signifying reduced freedom of movement and lessened access to basic needs such as water sources. As stated by a March 2005 United Nations report, “It is difficult to overstate the humanitarian impact of the Barrier. The route inside the West Bank severs communities, people’s access to services, livelihoods and religious and cultural amenities.”

Palestinians protesting the security fence. (Illustrative photo: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Palestinians protesting the security fence. (Illustrative photo: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Much like in the first recorded organized boycott, staged in Ireland in 1880 against British land agent Charles C. Boycott, the Palestinian organizers launched the BDS initiative with a three-point platform. Called in BDS parlance its “three tiers,” the document asks “people of conscience” to force Israel to meet “its obligations under international law” by:

  • Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the security fence
  • Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality
  • Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194

The original document’s supporters included a large swath of Palestinian political parties, trade unions and organizations that “represent the three integral parts of the people of Palestine: Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation and Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

On the face of it, BDS is a nonviolent form of grassroots social protest: What is more natural than activists asking people to put their money — or not put their money — where their mouths are? Certainly for many who subscribe to the movement’s BDS methods, they are used purely in protest and as a criticism of the Israeli government’s policies.

What makes it so controversial — and insidious — is the self-stated goal of its tactics by some BDS movement founders and organizers: the end to the state of Israel.

Across the globe, from college campuses to supermarkets, communities are increasingly polarized into pro- or anti-BDS camps. And as of this week in Hillary Clinton’s flurry of strongly worded letters to Jewish leaders, fighting BDS is part of the 2016 United States presidential elections.

What is BDS? And why is it so scary?

A recent survey of the American intellectual opinion elite conducted by political consultant Frank Luntz found that although 60% said they were not familiar with BDS, once they had been briefed on the campaign, 19% of respondents supported it — 31% of Democrats and 3% of Republicans.

“Israel is already having trouble with BDS, and Americans don’t even know what it means. Can you imagine how bad it will get?” Luntz told The Times of Israel this week.

‘Israel is already having trouble with BDS, and Americans don’t even know what it means’

But supposing BDS does continue to catch on, a newly released report by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates it could cost the country some NIS 40 billion (over $10 billion) a year. Were the EU to boycott all Israeli products and stop foreign investments in the country, 36,500 people would be jobless in addition to the loss of revenue.

In an effort to partially waylay this worst case scenario, at the end of June US President Barack Obama signed the Trade Promotion Authority legislation, which contained provisions that make BDS rejection a priority for US negotiators on a free trade agreement with the European Union.

Such a step underlines the impact of a movement that originally had Jewish leaders shrugging and assuming it would quickly pass.

BDS activists rally outside a Woolworths department store (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
BDS activists rally outside a Woolworths department store (YouTube screenshot)

Ten years on, part of BDS’s staying power and success is through its eminent versatility. Although largely decentralized and grassroots by nature, Omar Barghouti is credited as one of the founders of the BDS campaign. He talked about the movement’s chameleon-like adaptability in a 2010 debate.

“BDS is not a one size that fits all. It’s context-sensitive. In every situation, we target companies that are complicit in Israel’s apartheid and occupation that we can win our battle against,” said Barghouti.

The BDS movement pushes for boycotts of Israeli products and institutions, divestment from companies and institutions “complicit” in the violation of Palestinian rights (i.e. with investments in Israel) and sanctions against Israel, such as pushing for the rejection of its membership from international forums, etc.

‘There’s a large segment of the movement, component of the movement, which wants to eliminate Israel’

Its triptych of goals, in particular the “return” of millions of “refugees” — most of them second, third and fourth generation descendants of former Arab residents of what is today Israel — necessarily rejects the two-state solution promoted by Israel, the PA, and most of the Western world through the negation of the essential nature of the Jewish state.

In a candid 2012 interview, long-time pro-Palestinian activist Norman Finkelstein denounced the “cult” of BDS and its three tiers.

“They know what the result of implementing all three is… there’s no Israel… But if you say it, you don’t have a prayer in reaching a broad public,” said Finkelstein.

“There’s a large segment of the movement, component of the movement, which wants to eliminate Israel,” said Finkelstein. The son of Holocaust survivors was once the darling of the pro-Palestinian circuit. Since this 2012 interview, he said in a New Republic interview this week, he has suffered complete ostracization.

(For a more systematic breakdown of the latent potential harm of the BDS movement, see pro-Israel American jurist Alan Dershowitz’s 2014 Haaretz article, “Ten reasons why BDS is immoral and hinders peace.”)

BDS: A matter of faith

Because of their ties to humanitarian work and the historic land of Israel, among the original signatories of the first BDS call were many interfaith organizations, including the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work, the Network of Christian Organizations, and the East Jerusalem YMCA. (The latter, part of the international YMCA organization, describes itself as “committed to making a difference in the lives of Palestinians who are being oppressed by a brutal military occupation.”)

The movement’s membership has blossomed significantly since 2005. Currently the international network of its supporters stretches from a lone Norway YMCA to multi-million dollar corporations, to college campuses and entire religious denominations.

Several attendants of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit form a prayer circle and sing for Israeli-Arab peace. Two are seen wearing shirts which read: 'Another Jew supporting divestment.' (screen capture: YouTube)
Attendants of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Detroit form a prayer circle and sing for Israeli-Arab peace. Two are seen wearing shirts which read: ‘Another Jew supporting divestment.’ (screen capture: YouTube)

According to Daphna Kaufman, the director of Policy & Strategy at the Tel Aviv-based Reut think tank, the appeal to human rights and nonviolent protest is a PR veneer. Reut has arguably been tracking, researching and writing on the BDS movement longer than any other strategy center.

“Overall, the danger posed by the BDS movement is that at its core it seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel’s right to exist, while in fact it has amassed broad appeal by blurring the lines between delegitimization and criticism of Israel’s policy,” said Kaufman this week.

‘At its core BDS seeks to delegitimize the State of Israel’s right to exist, while in fact it has amassed broad appeal by blurring the lines between delegitimization and criticism of Israel’s policy’

“While the leadership of the BDS movement seeks a ‘one-state solution’ that would mean the end of Israel’s political-economic model, many of its supporters do so in order to advance a two-state reality, which would anchor Israel’s existence side-by-side a Palestinian state,” said Kaufman.

Essentially, while pushing for peace in the Middle East and human rights for Palestinians, the grassroots protesters are not always aware of the end game of the BDS organizers. And who those puppet master organizers are, is not always clear.

According to Reut’s website, “The BDS movement evolves as a highly decentralized network. It has no central command-and-control, owner, or single group of funders. Its leaders do not have authority or exercise control over BDS activities, but they rather inspire it and allow its bottom-up organic growth.”

The settlement elephant

Indeed, the difference between a boycott of conscience and BDS is itself a gray area. For example, Americans for Peace Now, part of the outspokenly anti-BDS Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, calls for targeted boycotts of settlements.

“Publicly declaring an intention to ‘buy Israel, but boycott settlements’ sends a powerful message to Israelis living both in Israel and the settlements… We believe that activists who seek to focus boycott and divestment efforts squarely on the occupation and settlements deserve credit,” states the website.

In a 2009 interview with The Forward, BDS movement founder Barghouti supported these targeted boycotts as part of the larger strategy.

Many of Jewish Voice for Peace protests are BDS-driven. Here, a 'die-in' against Boeing in Seattle, July 28. 2014. (Alex Garland Photography)
Many of Jewish Voice for Peace protests are BDS-driven. Here, a ‘die-in’ against Boeing in Seattle, July 28. 2014. (Alex Garland Photography)

“The tactical needs of our partners to carry out a selective boycott of settlement products, say, or military suppliers of the Israeli occupation army as the easiest way to rally support around as a black-and-white violation of international law and basic human rights,” said Barghouti.

For Reut’s Kaufman, it is fallacious to say that since an organization is only targeting settlement products, it is not supporting BDS.

“In BDS efforts targeting products produced in settlements lies a paradox. On the one hand, such efforts distinguish between ‘legitimate’ Israel and ‘illegitimate’ Israel – thereby supporting Israel’s inherent right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state. On the other hand, it identifies with and as part of a movement that seeks Israel’s implosion, thereby strengthening that movement and further mainstreaming it,” said Kaufman.

And it is this mainstreaming that is most worrying to Jewish leaders, including executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents Malcolm Hoenlein, one of the recipients of Hillary Clinton’s anti-BDS letters this week.

“Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world — especially in Europe — we need to repudiate forceful efforts to malign and undermine Israel and the Jewish people,” wrote Clinton.

In an interview at The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office Sunday, Hoenlein said, “Calls for BDS are quickly moving towards anti-Semitism in the US.” He said his organization is fighting it in every sector of society, including “lawfare” teams tasked with supporting state and national legislation, as well as individual cases.

‘Calls for BDS are quickly moving towards anti-Semitism in the US’

“BDS is never about criticism of Israel,” said Hoenlein. It is, rather, he said, a way to attack the state. He asked rhetorically, if the concern is for human rights, why aren’t BDS proponents calling for boycotts against the daily atrocities in Syria, or against the massacres of the Yazidis by ISIS?

“BDS is not about protesting a policy, it’s about delegitimizing Israel using these issues. It’s a politically correct way of attack,” said Hoenlein.

Part of the conference’s national task force work is in pushing campuses — the institutions molding America’s future opinion elite — to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that includes the delegitimization of Israel.

On campuses, the conference is turning for support to faculty involved with the Jewish community, but also to donors and alumni who can effectively lobby the university presidents.

Hoenlein said many innocent students get duped into thinking BDS is not a violent movement. “But it does promote violence, and unemployment,” he said.

The pro-BDS Jewish student

There is a trend of Jewish students promoting BDS on campuses. Anecdotal evidence has pointed to a sometimes overwhelming Jewish majority at Students for Justice in Palestine meetings. In a recent speech on a panel about “What’s Next for Israel?” at the 92nd Street Y, journalist Peter Beinart cited these pro-BDS Jewish students as a permanent fixture.

Peter Beinart (photo credit: CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)
Peter Beinart (CC BY-ND Center for American Progress Action Fund, Flickr)

“Our tent, our Jewish community, our proverbial Seder table, is going to have to include the Jewish kids who are not Zionists, including the Jewish kids who are involved in the BDS movement. Because Jewish kids are overrepresented in the BDS movement. You may find that frightening beyond belief, you may find it terrifying. And I understand why you do, but it’s true,” said Beinart.

“Every generation hears the voice of Sinai anew. This generation – one way it is hearing it makes us radically uncomfortable… We are entering an era in which there is no longer going to be a Zionist consensus in the US, especially if Israel continues on its current path,” said Beinart.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel this week, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America Jerry Silverman said he would hardly call this a trend, rather “a very small minority.”

‘We have young people, young adults, whom I think believe in Israel and there have been connections created with Israel, but don’t always believe in Israeli policy’

“We have young people, young adults, whom I think believe in Israel and there have been connections created with Israel, but don’t always believe in Israeli policy,” said Silverman.

Based on the programs such as Birthright, or Masa, that bring significant numbers of young people to Israel, “there’s still that connection there, and one that I think is very strong, but I don’t think they agree with the policies,” Silverman said.

Hoenlein, however, is well aware of this trend.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (AP/Photo Gabriel Pecot)
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (AP/Photo Gabriel Pecot)

“We do not inoculate our kids” against BDS, anti-Semitism, and they “fall victim or feel intimidated,” said Hoenlein. Additionally, pro-Israel Jewish students are afraid to speak up for fear of isolation, he said.

“Part of the problem is they are not comfortable with the information,” said Hoenlein, who pushes for earlier Israel education and experiences.

“We need to start much younger, and make Birthright [ages 18-27] their second exposure,” he said. The Jewish community also needs to counter the early anti-Israel exposure children as young as seven see during unsupervised television viewing. “We’re poisoning our own kids’ minds,” he said.

Instead of creating informed individuals who can espouse and expound on their own ideologies, Jewish youth are too often still unsure what those ideologies should be.

“Jewish kids don’t have more information than the general public. This should be our first priority,” said Hoenlein. To this end, the conference has commissioned Israel’s Bar-Ilan University to generate a free informative and balanced online Israel education curriculum for public and private schools.

“You have to tell the truth. You can’t say that Israel is a perfect society, but must encourage accurate facts,” he said, citing for example that few talk about how Gaza receives 700 truckloads of humanitarian aid a day.

“Most Jewish teens are not anti-Israel,” said Hoenlein. “It is much worse than that. They are indifferent to Israel.”

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