(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s been 10 years since anti-Israel activists meeting at the now-notorious Durban I conference kicked off their campaign to “brand” Israel as an “apartheid state” through a program of boycott, divestment and sanctions. As this project enters its second decade, however, the big news surrounds not BDS itself, but the fight against it.
Until recently, the fight against BDS projects has largely been ad hoc, with informal coalitions emerging to fight attempts to get boycott or divestment resolutions passed at institutions such as Harvard and Berkeley, the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, or US cities such as Somerville, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington.
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While the organized Jewish community played a part in these battles, the key role in successful efforts was played primarily by members of these institutions, who rejected efforts by boycotters to import the Arab-Israeli conflict into their organizations.
This year marked the first time substantial online resources became available to rival the considerable lead BDS activists have enjoyed on the Internet. A group of academics and students put together “The BDS Cookbook” (www.stopbds.com) featuring a wealth of resources for students and others dealing with boycott and divestment activities in their communities.
A new BDSIsrael site (www.bdsisrael.com) builds on successful counter-boycott programs (called Buycotts) which have become widely popular in North America.
StandWithUs (www.standwithus.com/divestment) provides help and support to those fighting divestment campaigns on campuses and beyond. And my own Divest This blog (www.divestthis.com) recently released a new manual providing practical advice on fighting BDS.
BEYOND THESE grassroots efforts, at the start of the year the Jewish Council for Public Affairs unanimously passed a resolution denouncing boycott, divestment and sanctions activities – reflecting a rare consensus among mainstream Jewish organizations regarding what falls outside the realm of legitimate criticism of the Jewish state. This consensus was backed by action when the Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with JCPA, announced plans to create a new Israel Action Network that will focus on the broader efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state (of which BDS is just a part).
Considering the fact that boycott and divestment has enjoyed virtually no successes (economic growth and investment in the Jewish state have both exploded during the very decade in which BDS has perpetually claimed to be on the march), it is worth considering why this has become such a mainstream issue over the past 12 months.
One explanation is emotional. Given the history of anti-Jewish boycotts, it should come as no surprise that the reaction to a campaign targeting Jewish individuals and organizations would be both negative and visceral.
While BDS activists routinely break into song and dance claiming that their efforts are only directed at “the occupation,” the nearly infinite elasticity of that term contradicts claims of innocence regarding anti-Jewish bias. To cite just one example, the academic boycott of Israeli universities pushed particularly hard in the UK claims to target only Israeli institutions and not individuals. But when such boycotts get put into practice, it has been actual Israelis (although just the Jewish ones) who have had their papers rejected or placements denied at graduate programs.
A second explanation of the new-found enthusiasm for standing up to BDS is based on experience earlier in the decade, when divestment campaigns caught Jewish organizations largely off-guard. Given how even a temporary BDS victory (such as support for divestment by the Presbyterian Church between 2004 and 2006) can “anchor” other boycott and divestment projects for years, recent emphasis on vigilance can be seen as a sensible desire to drive instead of be driven by events.
In addition to the wreckage boycott and divestment fights tend to leave in their wake within civic organizations, these battles also tend to distort debate, creating an environment in which Israel’s guilt is assumed; only the question of punishment is deemed worthy of discussion. So getting ahead of the BDS curve also provides a way for Israel’s supporters to not cede the language of debate to those trying to brand Israel an “apartheid state.”
This last point is particularly important, given that BDS is simply one part of a broader effort to question Israel’s legitimacy as a state or portray any effort the country takes on its own behalf (whether militarily, politically, diplomatically or even culturally) as illegal, abnormal or otherwise illegitimate.
Efforts to have Israeli political or military leaders arrested if they travel abroad and other forms of “lawfare,” or ongoing efforts to limit Israel’s entry or role in international organizations are all part of this broader campaign to portray it as “beyond the pale.”
WITHIN THE context of this broader campaign, BDS activists are not the small voices in the wilderness they claim to be, but are actually allied with wealthy and powerful states that dominate organizations like the UN.
Given how little influence even the best-organized “civilian” political
groups can have over the decisions of state actors and international
bodies, the fight against BDS (which targets civic organizations such as
schools and churches by trying to get the apartheid message to come out
of the mouth of a well-known institution) turns out to be the one area
where Israel’s supporters can have an impact.
And the impact of exposing the unpopularity of calls to boycott or
divest from Israel and defeating BDS activities again and again helps to
expose (and delegitimize) the entire program to delegitimize the Jewish
The writer is a Boston-based activist who runs the antidivestment
website www.divestthis.com and has recently published Divest This! A
Practical Guide to Ensuring the BDS Program’s Second Decade of Defeat.