When the Ben-Gurion Institute at the Sde Boker campus of Ben-Gurion University asked me to deliver a lecture relating to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and boycotts in general some six months ago, the organizers could not have foreseen that today’s presentation would take place at the back end of what has probably been the busiest week in years for boycott-related matters and headlines.
In the space of the past 10 days we have witnessed the attempt by the Palestinian football federation to ban Israel from world soccer, a motion passed by the national student executive in the UK in favor of boycotting any joint activities with their Israeli counterparts, and the statements by the CEO of the Orange International cellular phone company in support of withdrawing its activities from Israel.
From sport to academia to commerce, the BDS attempts have covered the spectrum of society. The government, the heads of the universities, along with the self-appointed defenders of Israel in the Diaspora, have woken up about five years too late, but the amount of noise they have made in the space of a few short days has certainly compensated for their lack of action.
The small group of faculty who, year after year, proposed boycott motions to the UCU in the UK, achieving almost no success whatsoever beyond the headlines afforded them by those who oppose them, must be rubbing their hands in glee at the victory they have achieved this past week – thanks to the hysterical and totally disproportional responses on the part of the Israeli government and Jewish leaders. BDS and boycotts have become the main topics conversation at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Herzliya Conference and at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York.
Some of these have been nothing short of hysterical.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has likened it to a new strategic threat facing Israel and has called for the establishment of a unity government. Chairman of the Labor Party Isaac Herzog has described it as a new intifada facing Israel. A noted right-wing journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, in an article entitled “Churchill was right,” has gone as far as comparing the situation to that which took place in Germany in the 1930s.
The government is prepared to sink NIS 100 million into combating BDS, to be coordinated by Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan. Two of the world’s wealthiest supporters of Israel – Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban – have put together their own private enterprise version, bringing together like-minded Jewish organizational leaders for a weekend of planning and fund raising in Las Vegas, aimed at bolstering the counter-boycott activities on American campuses where, it would appear, the threat is far greater than anywhere in Europe.
But the fact remains that Israel was not ousted from FIFA, even though the establishment of a committee to monitor Israel’s activities within this sphere was far removed from the victory which the Netanyahu government has blindly declared. The motion passed by the UK student union has almost no impact or significance other than the headlines accorded it by our responsive Israeli media. This was made clear in the statement of Universities UK, the umbrella authority of all of Britain’s universities, that they are totally opposed to any form of academic or scientific boycott and actively seek to strengthen and promote Israeli- UK scientific cooperation. And the CEO of Orange, Stephane Richard, appears to have no actual opinion of his own, quickly backtracking on his pro-BDS statements, made at a press conference in Cairo, and now preparing to visit Israel to make a public apology.
And despite the many cries of academics, there is no strong empirical evidence that their papers are not being accepted for publication or that they are not being invited to participate in conferences or sit on editorial boards because they are Israeli. Beyond the few incidents that do occur (and we should deal with these with all the severity that they deserve) it has now become a new mantra for academics whose promotions or tenure are delayed because their research and publications records are not yet deemed good enough to start blaming it on the boycott.
Israel continues to compete in the major soccer tournaments, Israel’s universities continue to enjoy strong, and even growing, academic and scientific links with their UK and European partners, while Israel’s commercial links in the field of technology and satellite communications remain among the most developed in the world and would not have suffered any major setback even if Orange had unilaterally abrogated its contracts.
While forced withdrawal from the corrupt FIFA organization would have prevented a great deal of continued heartache for the country’s sports fans, we can be proud of the country’s high scientific and start-up credentials, second to none on the face of the globe. The Youtube video which has been circulating for some years, advising all pro boycotters to stop using any goods or medical devices invented by Israeli R&D, is as true as it is humorous – the world has a great deal to thank this small country for in its disproportional contribution to technological and scientific development.
Even those few individuals or small companies that actually withdraw their support from the country or don’t attend a scientific conference in Israel are quickly replaced with the many other potential partners in Europe, North America and the growing Asian arena who are only too happy to do business with one of the world’s leading scientific and high tech societies.
There is no comparison whatsoever to be drawn between South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s with what is happening in Israel today. In the case of South Africa there was global support, not just by trade unions, sports teams and student unions, but by most governments, for a blanket boycott of the country because of its racist and apartheid policies.
Ironically, the attempt to boycott Israel has resulted in a host of government leaders, heads of universities and other public figures coming out with strong anti-boycott declarations, when otherwise they would have remained silent. It has also spurred on a host of new collaborative scientific projects between Israeli scientists and universities throughout the world which may not have materialized under normal circumstances.
Western governments have been unanimous in condemning all new manifestation of anti-Semitism. It demonstrates clearly the different environment in which Israel operates today as contrasted with the false and hysterical comparisons with Germany of the 1930s or South Africa of the 1960s and 1970s.
Instead of the current hysteria, what we need is a measured and realistic response which takes account of a multitude of factors, and not just those which are convenient for the political discourse of the present government.
While recognizing that BDS is fertile ground for the anti-Semites and the Israel delegitimizers of the world, we cannot use the argument of anti-Semitism as an excuse for avoiding other relevant issues. We cannot dismiss the Palestinian issue as though it has become totally irrelevant.
To simply repeat the mantra that it is all about anti-Semitism is as simplistic and detached from reality as it is to say that anti-Semitism does not play any role in BDS and that anti-Semites are not manipulating the critique of Israel’s policies to introduce their own sick minds into the process.
To create a hysteria that Israel faces an existential security threat from BDS, when for every one who wishes to boycott us there are 20 top scholars and high tech companies waiting to take their place, is equally detached from reality and only causes demoralization among those Israelis who rely entirely on the Israeli press and media for their version of world events.
To compare the current situation to that faced by the Jews and Europe in the 1930s is akin to denying the very existence of a strong and sovereign Israel which is capable of looking after itself and its diverse interests throughout the world. Such an attitude reeks of a Diaspora mentality which still hasn’t come to terms with the existence of Israel and plays into the very hands of the boycotters and the sort of headlines they wish to create. It is the “nebbich” mentality which has no place in contemporary Israel, as much as some Diaspora leaders would like us to think otherwise.
If and when we do ever resolve the conflict and the painful issue of the occupation, only then will we ever really assess the extent to which the attempt to boycott and isolate Israel is about delegitimization and crude anti-Semitism. Only when we remove the single major problem facing Israel vis a vis the international community will we ever be able to gauge the structural change in world opinion and the depths to which the “new” anti-Semitism has taken hold of feelings toward Israel.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.