BDS: Nuisance or genuine threat?

The boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign is entering its second decade with little to show for itself beyond marginal support.

June 15, 2010 06:33
MEMBERS OF the Garda, Ireland’s police, protect Is

israel boycott groceries 311. (photo credit: AP)

Those involved with boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns targeting Israel like to use the 2005 call by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel as the start date for their “movement.” This is despite the fact that BDS and the “apartheid strategy” behind it (designed to have Israel replace apartheid South Africa as a global pariah) began in 2001 at the NGO meeting associated with the now-notorious Durban “anti-racism” conference.

The revised launch date for boycott and divestment campaigns serves two purposes: to portray a project that began as a coordinated effort by Arab and Western NGOs as “welling up from Palestinian civil society,” and to flush a series of BDS disasters that took place between 2001 and 2006 down the memory hole.

BDS first hit the media radar with a series of petition-driven divestment campaigns on American college campuses. While these succeeded in drawing attention to the BDS project, after nearly 10 years of effort not one college or university has divested of a single share of stock in companies identified by divestment advocates as supporting the Jewish state. 

Just as college administrations were condemning their efforts and anti-divestment petitions were outdrawing pro-divestment ones by 10 to one, BDS advocates were thrown a lifeline in 2004 when the Presbyterian Church in the US voted to begin a “phased, selective divestment” campaign against companies targeted by BDS activists.

FROM 2004 TO 2006, with the Presbyterians as an “anchor client,” BDS campaigns spilled out from college campuses to churches, municipalities, unions and other institutions. But as with schools, each of these efforts ended in failure, capped off by a rejection of divestment by the Presbyterian Church itself in 2006 when members voted 95 percent-5% to reverse their 2004 divestment policy.

Despite claims that some Israeli action would rekindle the divestment campaign at any moment (a tacit admission that the BDS program was in desperate need of rekindling), neither the 2006 Second Lebanon War nor Israeli electoral or peace-process politics seemed to provide the needed spark. It was not until Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was over that divestment again made headlines with a February 2009 announcement that Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school in western Massachusetts, had become the first US campus to divest from the Jewish state.

The trouble was, the Hampshire divestment story turned out to be a hoax, one which was followed by a year of similar fraudulent divestment stories related to investment firms such as the academic retirement giant TIAA-CREF or the UK’s Blackrock Investments. In each of these cases, BDS activists claimed that institutional investment decisions that had nothing to do with Israel or the Middle East were actually the results of their campaign’s efforts. Even after the organizations that were allegedly joining the BDS movement strenuously denied any anti-Israel implications in their buying and selling decisions, these organizations continued to be listed as divestment successes by anti-Israel activists.

Using small victories to build momentum for a political campaign is a time-honored tactic, but the use of hoaxes has only further diminished the credibility of a divestment “movement” that has spent close to 10 years achieving nearly no results. This decade of failure (capped off by a year of fraud) also closed many avenues that were once the focus for BDS efforts. For example, if college and university administrators were reluctant to take divestment action before 2009, the Hampshire hoax taught them the perils of even giving divestment advocates the time of day, which meant that BDSers had to find new targets of opportunity in 2010 when they decided to switch gears and try once again to achieve genuine vs. pretend victories.

DIVESTMENT HAS NEVER been about directly damaging the Israeli economy. Rather, it is an attempt to get the boycotter’s message that Israel is an apartheid state alone in the world as deserving economic punishment stuffed into the mouth of a well-known and respected institution such as a university, church or city. 

But with institutions like schools and churches increasingly resistant to the BDS message that divestment is an organization’s only moral choice, 2010 has seen a focus on softer targets such as cooperative stores like the Davis Food Co-op in California. As member-owned institutions, these organizations offered anti-Israel activists a window to try to place boycotts of Israeli products to a membership-wide vote.

Unfortunately for the boycotters, co-ops have ended up being not as soft a target as they might have hoped. The board of directors for the Davis co-op, for example, unanimously rejected boycott calls with an unequivocal statement declaring that accepting the boycotter’s demands would: (1) represent an acceptance of their questionable historical and political analysis of the Middle East; (2) require handing over co-op decision making to a group of unelected single-issue partisans; and (3) represent a violation of the principles around which the co-op movement was founded.

Davis set a precedent for other co-ops (such as Madison Market in Seattle) to reject similar boycott calls. But even before this year’s focus on cooperative food stores, boycott (the B of BDS) which involves telling people what they can and cannot buy has proven vulnerable to counter “buycotts.”  Such buycott campaigns in Canada, for example, succeeded throughout 2009 in increasing sales of Israeli products by thousands of percentage points. 

Student governments that are free to make statements on matters over which they have no control (like school endowment and retirement fund investment/divestment choices) became another soft target for divestment campaigns in 2010, especially in California where a series of divestment votes took place toward the end of the school year at UC Berkeley and  UC San Diego. 

As with previous campaigns that hinged on votes by representative bodies (like the Presbyterian Church), the UC Student Senate votes were marked by Byzantine politics and high drama, including long drawn-out meetings (some going all night) where divestment advocates were allowed to strut their case before captive audiences. But even in places where anti-Israel activists act as though they owned the campus (such as Berkeley), divestment still lost, causing Palestinian iconoclast Hussein Ibish to ask if you can’t even get a toothless, symbolic divestment resolution to succeed in America’s greatest stronghold of academic radicalism, where can it succeed?

With increasingly watered-down divestment resolutions only passing in very atypical schools such as Wayne State in Michigan (home to one of the nation’s largest Muslim student populations) or Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington (once attended by Rachel Corrie), BDS seems to be entering its second decade with little to show for itself beyond marginal symbolic support from obscure institutions or the occasional aging pop star.

This last group demonstrates a new tactic of anti-Israeli activists finding increasingly fewer mouths into which they can force their message.  For 2009-2010 were also years that saw an increase in disruptions of cultural events involving Israeli performers or Western artists planning to tour before Israeli audiences. Israeli musicians and dancers must now contend with the high likelihood that their performances will be protested or disrupted, just as Israeli political speakers have been harassed for years (especially on North American and European campuses). And Emeritus artists like Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen, Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Elton John and Rod Stewart have had to decide whether to spend their last performing years potentially dealing with loud protests at their concerts or simply cutting Israel out of their schedules. McCartney and Cohen found ways to perform in Israel that also underlined their sympathies with those who seek peaceful conflict resolution, the next trio backed away, and the final duo are scheduled to play in Israel as planned.

Like the 2008-2009 war in Gaza, the recent flotilla controversy has provided anti-Israel activists a cause to rally around globally which is inevitably accompanied by calls for action (and not just words) on the BDS front.  But, at least initially, BDS responses to the Mavi Marmara affair seem confined to the margins (a Swedish and Turkish soccer team refusing to play in Israel here, a Norwegian union calling for divestment there), with angry demands, such as calls to reverse Israel’s recent ascension into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), highlighting the gap between threats and deeds.

This ambiguous response to the flotilla underscores the question of where BDS (or indeed, the entire effort to de-legitimize the Jewish state) falls on the continuum between nuisance and genuine threat.  After all, during the decade when BDS has allegedly been on the ascendant, the size of the Israeli economy and exports have almost doubled, and the popularity of Israel with the US public has surged nearly 20 percentage points.  So the noisy and increasingly bizarre behavior of boycott advocates may represent little more than desperate attempts for backers of a perennial losing campaign to prove their political relevance.

At the same time, divestment has been highly successful in the past in building momentum behind a single victory, no matter how small or questionable.  Until such time as pro-Israel activists can figure out how to similarly capitalize on our own far longer and larger list of wins over the forces of BDS, we must continue to “man the walls” in an effort to deny BDS the significant wins it has yet to achieve.

The writer is a Boston-based activist who runs the anti-divestment Web site

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