To fathom the potency (or lack thereof) of the BDS movement targeting Israel, the diverging and converging paths of its activity in the US and EU can be quite telling.
First, the divergences: Buoyed by the infamous 2001 UN Durban “anti-racism” conference in South Africa, ferociously anti-Israel mini-movements became the norm in Western Europe. Nearly 15 years after the conference, large sectors of European Muslims and hard-leftists, bolstered by an indifferent mainstream society, have turned BDS into an assault on Israel’s legitimacy.
The economic damage done to Israel by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is rather insignificant thus far. Rather, BDS is about lethal force. In short, the extremist core of the movement seeks to dismantle Israel. The British poet W.H. Auden understood where movements animated by a fundamentally irrational ideology lead: “When words lose their meaning, physical force takes over.”
As the late Dr. Robert Wistrich, the former head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University, explained to this writer, there are still “countervailing forces” in the US to blunt efforts, especially on the grassroots level, to turn Israel into an abnormal state.
But the lack of civil society resistance to the ad nauseam attacks on Israel within Western European countries is disquieting. The challenge for anti-BDS activists will be to sway the vast number of undecided, largely apolitical constituencies in Europe.
As the Jerusalem-based watchdog NGO Monitor has documented, European governments have pumped tens of millions of euros into NGOs that support various forms of BDS. The mushrooming industry of BDS-animated NGOs in Europe is not matched in the United States.
A growing rift between American and European labor movements as regards their attitudes toward Israel has unfolded over the last decade. One extreme example was the left-wing Italian Flaica-Uniti-Cub trade union calling for a boycott of Jewish-owned stores in Rome because of Israel’s 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead to stop Hamas rocket fire into its territory. While major trade unions in the United Kingdom and Ireland have waged a BDS campaign against Israel, more than 30 unions in the United States (including those representing teachers, the United Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, the Change to Win coalition of American labor unions, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists) joined a Jewish Labor Committee campaign in 2007 to oppose boycotts of the Jewish state. The UAW overruled in December a resolution by its local union of California teaching assistants to boycott Israel.
All of this helps to explain that organized labor in the US remains largely free of anti-Jewish boycott measures. To be fair, The Jerusalem Post learned this week that the German teacher’s union GEW pulled the plug on a BDS talk with a Palestinian official in Hamburg. German unions, in sharp contrast to their counterparts in other parts of the EU, have not capitulated to BDS activity.
The lessons of the Holocaust appear to be alive and kicking within Germany’s labor movement. The legendary former head of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), Michael Sommer, played a key role in laying the anti- BDS foundation. Speaking at a joint Histadrut and DGB event in Berlin in 2009, he voiced his opposition to boycotts against Israel.
The 800-pound gorilla in the room that separates Europe from the US is the Holocaust.
The Shoah still informs large segments of Europe’s psychology – and frequently in a pathological way. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s play The Garbage, the City and Death, written in 1975, neatly captures an aspect of Europe’s preoccupation with Jews: “And it’s the Jew’s fault, because he makes us feel guilty because he exists. If he’d stayed where he came from, or if they’d gassed him, I would sleep better,” said one of the characters.
The transformation from “It’s the Jew’s fault” to “It’s Israel’s fault” is part and parcel of the BDS movement in European discourse.
To discern the role of this form of guilt-defensiveness anti-Semitism depends on the context and motivations of the BDS advocates.
The EU directive to label Israeli products from the settlements was initiated by an Austrian, Christian Berger, the EU’s policy official for the Middle East and North Africa, and secured the support of the overwhelming majority of foreign ministers. The EU labeling policy is not part of BDS, at least according to the EU, which formally opposes boycotts targeting Israel.
Some origins of the policy can be traced to legislative initiatives in Germany.
By way of background, in 2012, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany submitted legislation in the state parliament of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to demarcate Israeli products. In the following year, the powerful German Green Party introduced a legislative initiative, which was eerily similar to the neo-Nazis, in the Bundestag to label Israeli products.
Thus political parties helped to lay a legislative foundation for targeting Israeli merchandise with product labels.
The neo-Nazis in Germany advocate a full boycott of Israel. As a result, the labeling system could be viewed as a deceptive nascent phase in a slippery slope campaign to impose a full BDS program on Israel.
There have been no comparable pro-BDS congressional, state government, or local council measures in the US. In fact, the converse is true.
LET’S TURN to where the US and Europe converge on BDS. The US Congress and a ballooning number of state governments (e.g., Illinois, South Carolina, Florida) have passed anti-BDS resolutions and legislation. Some of the measures have real teeth and would involve punitive measures targeting EU governments for boycotting Israel.
The UK’s Cabinet Office minister, Matthew Hancock, announced a measure to block militant anti-Israel city councils from launching BDS activity. Last month, the Spanish municipality of Aviles expunged a BDS motion. After the pro-Israel group ACOM initiated legal action against the city based on an anti-discrimination law, the municipality walked back its BDS motion.
The social democratic mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter, declared in November his opposition to providing municipal space to BDS activities. The directive, however, remains a paper tiger because the city’s cultural minister, Hans-Georg Küppers, continues to permit BDS activities in municipal-funded facilities.
In Vienna, the office of the social democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, told the Post last week that he wants the city-subsidized Amerlinghaus cultural center to cancel BDS events scheduled for March. The Austrian parliament promptly terminated a podium discussion with BDS activist Hedy Epstein and a conspiracy theorist, Heather Wokusch, who suggested that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks. Austria, like Germany, has no legislation barring BDS.
By contrast, the French government has a robust anti-discrimination law that covers full-blown boycotts targeting Israel. The French, however, are in a kind of split-personality mood. President François Hollande’s government energetically supports labeling of Israeli products and other unilateral penalties against Israel. Put simply, the French posture could help accelerate the slippery slope of anti-Israel activity into more BDS actions.
BDS can spread in Europe like wildfire. Consequently, one barely puts a BDS defeat in the rearview mirror before a new BDS action appears on the scene. Legislative and political measures will certainly help stem the flow of BDS. In the final analysis, however, if pro-Israel groups and local Jewish communities can bring about a radical attitudinal change within large swathes of the indifferent masses to stop the BDS program in Europe, there might be a sea change in public opinion.
If the unrealized potential of broad-based European pro-Israel views could be set in motion, it would create an additional convergence with American society.The writer is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.