Why BDS Can't Win


A 2010 study by the Reut Institute reported that a well-organized, well-funded international network with hubs in key cities, such as London and San Francisco, was managing an international delegitimization campaign against Israel. The report led to the creation of a network of pro-Israel organizations to develop a response. Four years later, it is clear that it is not the Israel deniers but Israel’s supporters that are networked, well-financed and organized. Israel denial remains a serious concern, especially in Europe, but the fears engendered by Reut’s report were exaggerated because the detractors’ network has since been revealed as weak to non-existent, Israel’s supporters have mobilized effectively to thwart their initiatives, and the merits of their arguments cannot withstand scrutiny.


The effort to delegitimize Israel can be traced at least as far back as the UN’s infamous resolution equating Zionism with racism in 1975. The campaign was given new impetus at the 2001 Durban conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance where Israel was pilloried. At the parallel NGO conference hosted by the UN, the strategy for destroying Israel was laid out in the final statement, which called for promoting “a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel . . . the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.”


This declaration of political, economic and cultural war against Israel was largely ignored for the next decade until it began to gain traction with calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel that prompted the Reut report. Anti-Israel campaigns are now focused on convincing college campuses, unions, academic bodies, artists, and others to boycott Israel. Advocates call on institutions to divest from owning stock in companies that do business in or with Israel and, ultimately, they hope to impose sanctions on Israel comparable to those used against the racist regime in South Africa. BDS proponents seek to tarnish Israel’s image, isolate the Jewish state and, ultimately, destroy it. The fact that the founders of the movement are uninterested in peace or a two-state compromise, and seek to deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination they claim for the Palestinians, makes the BDS advocates Israel deniers. 


Israel deniers have established beachheads in a handful of places and continue a drumbeat of criticism of Israel aimed at eroding its image and weakening the bonds between Israel and its Western allies. It is true the BDS campaign has managed to harass and intimidate a handful of artists to cancel bookings in Israel, to convince some student governments on American and Canadian campuses to adopt divestment resolutions and to disrupt events featuring Israeli speakers and artists. Due to their repeated failures, they boast of these “victories” and conceal their inability to convince all but a handful of their targets to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.


How can we explain this? 


Perhaps the most important reason is that the diagnosis of the problem was incorrect; the Israel deniers are not well-organized, well-funded, or connected in a network. More important, their arguments do not resonate, especially when they are exposed as Israel deniers with no interest in the welfare of the Palestinians, peace, or human rights beyond the West Bank. Their goal is simple, the eradication of Israel. As Professor As’ad AbuKhalil explained, “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel….That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject. Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with the existence of the state of Israel.”


Buycott Not Boycott


Let us examine the record of the Israel deniers. The artist boycott has probably received the most attention because of the threats and intimidation used to discourage artists from performing in Israel. With the exception of Elvis Costello and one or two others; however, virtually all of the celebrities who boycotted Israel are marginal figures in the entertainment industry. By comparison, look at the caliber of people who have performed in Israel: Elton John, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and soon the Rolling Stones.


Detractors suggest that Israel''s policies have led to its isolation. It is no secret that most of the world is frustrated by Israel’s continued control over parts of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements; nevertheless, criticism of these policies has not impeded Israel’s international trade. 


The United States remains Israel’s largest single trade partner with imports and exports totaling $36 billion. If compared against the entire European Union, however, the United States falls to second as roughly one-third of Israel’s trade is with the EU. In fact, during the last decade of European complaints about Israeli settlement policies, trade with the EU has grown from 19 billion Euros to 31 billion.


A good example of the bifurcation between political grandstanding and reality is Norway, which in January 2014 announced it would exclude two Israeli firms – Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus – from its government pension fund due to “serious violations of individual rights … through the construction of settlements in east Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, imports to Norway from Israel totaled roughly $137 million, an increase of 1.6 percentage points more than the overall imports from other countries. 


In addition, Israel has steadily built strong business ties with Asia, which will overtake the United States as Israel’s second biggest export destination this year. China is already Israel''s third-largest trading partner, with the total volume of trade growing from a paltry $50 million in 1992 to more than $10 billion in 2013. 


Similarly, Israel’s trade with India has risen from $180 million in 1992 to more than $6 billion a year and relations are likely to improve further with the election of Vijeta Uniyal Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India. Writing in the Times of Israel, Vijeta Uniyal noted that more than 2,000 farmers from Gujarat traveled to Israel at their own expense each year to learn advanced farming techniques while Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat State (2002-14). “He welcomed Israeli companies to enter the water management and recycling sector in fifty cities in Gujarat,” Uniyal said. He created an industrial fund to promote joint ventures between Israeli and Gujarat-based companies. He is the first Indian leader to have actually visited Israel and has often expressed admiration for Israel''s achievements. Ideologically, Modi is sympathetic to the notion of the Jewish homeland.”


Israel has even managed to maintain quiet cooperation with the Persian Gulf states despite their rhetorical embrace of the Palestinian cause. These states typically place commercial concerns above politics; however, they now share Israel’s concern with the threat posed by Iran, which trumps the lip service devoted to the Palestinians.


International investors have not been scared off by the Israel deniers. They poured nearly $75 billion into various ventures in 2012, a 41% increase from 2010. Warren Buffet paid $6 billion to buy Iscar – his first major acquisition outside the United States. More recently, Pratt & Whitney spent several hundred million dollars to buy Blades, one of the world’s largest producers of machine blades. Among the more than 10,000 U.S. companies doing business in or with Israel are all the technology giants, including Intel, which recently announced plans to invest $6 billion in its plant in Kiryat Gat.


A History of Failure


The BDS crowd did not invent the idea of boycotting Israeli products; the Arab League has had a boycott in place since 1945 and look at what Israel’s “startup nation” has accomplished in that time. One dramatic failure was the campaign against Scarlett Johansson and SodaStream, which backfired because Johansson stood up to the bullies and refused to give up her position as spokesperson for the company. Moreover, when the allegations against the company were investigated, people learned that SodaStream’s factory is a model of coexistence in which dozens of Palestinian workers are employed and treated the same as Israeli workers. The company is located in Ma’ale Adumim, a town of roughly 40,000 people, just ten minutes from Jerusalem, that some regard as a settlement but nearly everyone, including the Palestinians, expects to be incorporated into Israel as part of any future peace agreement. The attacks on SodaStream and Johansson backfired as she courageously refused to be intimidated and the company began to draw interest from major drink manufacturers such as Starbucks.


BDS advocates suffered an especially devastating blow when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas publicly denounced boycotts in December 2013. Paradoxically, it is the Palestinians who primarily suffer from boycotts and it is no surprise they have little support outside a handful of islands of ignorance where radical college students comfortably reside 6,000 miles from the people who must live with the consequences of their actions. If they were informed, the Israel deniers would know that approximately 50,000 Palestinians now earn a living and feed their families by working in Israel, as well as in the Jewish settlements their leaders speciously claim are the obstacle to peace.


The Battle for Young Hearts and Minds


One of the principal battlegrounds are college campuses where many people fear the next generation is being conditioned to believe the calumnies of the Israel deniers. In response, an international team of scholars, professionals, lawyers, computer experts, and campus professionals have developed a network that has three principle objectives: to provide a rapid response to threats as they arise; to provide students with the information and support they need to preempt and defeat BDS initiatives and to encourage students to build coalitions and set a positive Israel agenda on campus. The team has shown an unprecedented willingness to cooperate and share information for the benefit of students. And this is only one of several formal and informal groups that have been established to address the problem of Israel denial. 


One resource for students and communities facing divestment and other challenges on their campuses is The BDS Cookbook (StopBDS.com), which is designed to teach students and communities everything they need to know about the issues relating to Israel denial. The ongoing level of concern with BDS is reflected by the growing number of visitors to the site. In the first five months of 2014, the figure doubled compared to the previous year. During the same period, the “recipes” from the Cookbook were accessed by students from more than 120 universities. 


No one likes to see any attack on Israel succeed but even those that have been called victories have been pyrrhic at best. Take for example the overly hyped decision of the American Studies Association to boycott Israel. Setting aside the blatant anti-Semitism of this decision to boycott only the one Jewish nation, the ASA vote has no practical impact. It cannot tell its members what to do so the vote is primarily a PR exercise by Israel deniers who had no intention of cooperating with Israel under any circumstances. Meanwhile, hundreds of American scholars continue joint research projects with their Israeli counterparts, developing new advances in the fields of agriculture, health, technology, and many more.


The ASA vote also provoked a backlash with more than 100 universities condemning the vote and several withdrawing memberships from the association and refusing to pay travel expenses to scholars who want to attend future ASA meetings.


Still, the ASA vote was a wakeup call for a pro-Israel community that has misinterpreted the campus threat as originating primarily from students. The real danger comes from professors who routinely violate their ethical requirement to provide a scholarly-based curriculum and instruction. Instead, they use their position of authority to commit academic malpractice and promote personal anti-Israel agendas that are often unrelated to the subject they are supposed to be teaching.


The most serious erosion of academic freedom occurs inside the classroom where professors often ignore the academic part of the term. A professor is obligated to teach only what they can demonstrate to be true or based on theories that can be justified by facts. Nevertheless, faculty have gotten away with abuses by hiding behind the shield of academic freedom, which has been so diluted as to have little or no meaning. 


Some professors and administrators mistakenly equate academic freedom with freedom of speech. Outside the classroom professors are free to speak their minds, but they also should be accountable for what they say. A professor appearing at a rally who made the type of bigoted statements toward Hispanics, African-Americans, women or gays that are routinely directed at Jews and Israel would face serious consequences that would not be protected by academic freedom. 


Faculty and administrators are very reluctant to challenge their colleagues, even when they are engaged in sophistry and politicizing their classes. This is slowly changing as the egregious behavior of some professors has galvanized scholars across the country to form groups aimed at restoring the meaning of academic freedom and holding faculty accountable for adhering to established standards of discourse and scholarship.


The Campus Divestment Campaign


Some schools will remain in session for a few more weeks and additional divestment efforts are in the works; nevertheless, the Israel denial movement on campus has been a colossal failure. Consider that there are approximately 2,000 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Of those, a total of 17 schools (<1%) considered divestment resolutions in the current school year. Thanks to the work of students, campus professionals and the network providing assistance, 12 (71%) resolutions were defeated (UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, New Mexico and San Diego State defeated resolutions twice) and only 5 were adopted (UC Riverside was defeated the first time and then it was adopted by one vote a second time).


Despite fears of a global network, the Israel deniers have mobilized support on only a handful of campuses outside California, which had votes on seven campuses. On the five campuses where student governments adopted divestment resolutions – like the handful that did so in the past – the chance of the administration acting on the votes is nil. In fact, university officials have repeatedly denounced calls to boycott or divest from Israel. Consequently, the Israel denial movement has had zero impact on the policies of universities toward Israel. To the contrary, many universities that have had active BDS campaigns, such as UC Irvine and UC San Diego, have greatly expanded their academic ties with Israel.


A disadvantage for the Israel deniers is also the fact that students are not completely oblivious to world events. They can see Palestinians being slaughtered by Syrians, and Muslims murdering each other throughout the region, so the plight of the Palestinians in the disputed territories is hardly the most serious issue on the world stage. The failure to speak out against the slaughter of Palestinians by their fellow Arabs has further exposed the Israel deniers’ hypocrisy.


Israel deniers have had no success with the general student body, which considers their tables, walls, guerrilla theater and hate weeks more of a nuisance than an education about Israel’s shortcomings. Consequently, they have turned to student governments where they can run for election and often win due to the general apathy toward the student government. In these forums, detractors need to convince only a handful of students to support their cause. Their “victories” are typically based on the votes of fewer than 20 council members; meanwhile, most students are unaware of what their representatives are up to, and would oppose their positions if they knew. For example, at Berkeley, one of the hotbeds of the BDS movement, the student government voted in favor of Israel denial this year on the basis of the opinions of 11 students out of a student body of nearly 26,000. 


The Israel deniers have become increasingly desperate because of their repeated failures whenever their opponents mobilize a strong response. This has led the BDS advocates to try a variety of underhanded tactics to sneak their agenda past the student government -- scheduling votes during Jewish holidays, at the end of year/semester, or introducing them at the last minute before a response can be developed.


In a recent admission of failure, a member of DePaul’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) – the principal student group promoting BDS around the country – advocates circumventing student governments and seeking support directly from the student body. By proposing a referendum, the hope is that students can “voice their opinions on the issue more honestly” and be “less susceptible to influence by lobby groups” (meaning those opposed to divestment). Not surprisingly, the wording of this referendum is problematic:


Through its mutual funds, DePaul University invests our tuition money in corporations that manufacture weapons and provide surveillance technology to the Israeli government. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Caterpillar profit from Israel’s violation of the human rights of Palestinians, African migrants, and other minorities within Israel. They violate people''s rights to life, movement, healthcare, education, and freedom

As students, staff, and faculty at DePaul University, we strongly oppose Israel''s human rights abuses and discrimination against the Palestinian people. We request that DePaul University uphold its Vincentian values by divesting from the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Israel deniers at UCLA have devised another tactic to avoid debating the merits of their arguments. SJP members launched a campaign calling for a Judicial Board investigation of student council members who have taken trips to Israel sponsored by Jewish organizations and demanded that candidates for student government positions sign a statement pledging that they will not go on any trip to Israel partially or fully sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee or Hasbara Fellowships. In yet another reflection of the anti-Semitic nature of the BDS movement, no pro-Palestinian, Christian or Muslim groups were targeted by the pledge request. The SJP’s objective is transparent; it wants to impede supporters of Israel from running for office and pack the student government with BDS advocates.


UCLA Chancellor Gene Block condemned the initiative as did the President of the University of California Janet Napolitano:


I share Chancellor Block’s concerns about students at UCLA who target any student seeking to participate in student government who has a relationship with, or wants to travel to, Israel on trips sponsored by certain groups. At the University of California, freedom of speech is a highly valued principle. Yet, other principles are also highly valued, including the principles of civility, respect, and inclusion, and should also govern our campuses. The actions of these students at UCLA violate these principles.

Israel Hate Weeks


Another source of tension are Israel Hate Weeks, festivals of lies that have proliferated around American and foreign campuses over the last few years. Campuses report they now typically have a few poorly attended events, which pro-Israel students have found attract even less notice if they are ignored. In fact, if not for the off-campus Jewish press and blogosphere railing about Hate Week, it would come and go with nary a trace. Unfortunately, some Jews aid the deniers by feeling the need to respond to every fabrication. Worse, many people unwittingly reinforce the Israel deniers’ message by using the "a" word to defend Israel against allegations its policies are similar to those of South Africa. The “a” word should never be used in the same sentence or reference to Israel because no matter how good the argument, the two words are going to be linked in the minds of some readers and listeners.


While Israel’s supporters are busy lamenting BDS, they often ignore the many positive programs put on by students that show a very different Israel from the one pilloried in the media and by Israel deniers. Pro-Israel celebrations such as Israel Peace Weeks are held each year on college campuses, but chances are you aren’t familiar with them because so much attention is given to the detractors. The truth is the quality and quantity of the anti-Israel campaigns can’t compare to the hundreds of events that attract thousands of students to Shabbat dinners, lectures, concerts and social activities. Compare, for example, the small group of Israel deniers who tried and failed to organize a nationwide BDS campaign with the AIPAC policy conference’s 1,000-plus high school and college student activists representing a rainbow coalition that is working to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties and build greater understanding of Israel on their campuses. If you add all the other programs and events put on by the vast array of organizations representing the range of Jewish opinion, you will have a much more accurate picture of Israel’s standing on campus.


Given the decades of anti-Israel propaganda on campus, there are legitimate fears that the incessant attacks will erode American support for Israel. This is one reason why the pro-Israel community should adopt a positive agenda and create its own drumbeat that highlights Israel’s virtues without fear of addressing its shortcomings in the proper context. One way to do this on a nationwide scale is to adopt the Israel Calendar (israelcalendar.org), or something similar, that offers campuses and communities a guide for programming positive Israel messages throughout the year.


The Growth of Israel Studies

It is also important to note that Israel deniers face a steep uphill climb with the American public, which sides with Israel over the Palestinians by roughly 4 to 1 and views the Palestinian Authority only slightly more favorably than Iran. Meanwhile, sympathy for Israel has been at record levels the last three years and has grown each decade. This suggests that while young people may question Israel, they begin to adopt the attitudes of their parents and grandparents as they age. 


The best way to ensure that young Americans appreciate the complexity of Israel is to ensure they learn about it through multiple lenses rather than solely through the prism of the conflict they see in the media. This can be accomplished by bringing the best Israeli scholars to teach at American universities, training graduate students to teach courses on Israel, expanding the number of Israel-related course offerings, creating minors in Israel Studies, supporting research in and about Israel, and funding centers and chairs of Israel Studies.


Prior to 1998, there were no centers of Israel Studies in the United States. It is only in the last 10 years that philanthropists began to recognize the importance of supporting scholars whose research looks at Israel through a variety of lenses. Though a handful are now investing in the field, those donors’ contributions are dwarfed by those of Arab and Muslim states and individuals, which total nearly $1.3 billion dating back to 1986 (92 percent of the donations were made after 9/11).


The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise has brought more than 100 visiting Israeli scholars to 68 different universities including Yale, Michigan, Berkeley and Stanford. The schools welcome these visitors because they have impeccable academic credentials and meet the university’s standards. These scholars typically express shock at their students’ lack of knowledge about the Middle East. Nevertheless, they report that in one year they make a tremendous impact on their students who, often, have never met an Israeli (or in some cases a Jew!) before. The scholars also help to shape the campus culture. Evaluating the AICE program, an investigator from Brandeis concluded: 


Israel has moved from its place as an isolated ‘extra-curricular’ topic into mainstream classrooms and core curricula. In addition, the way Israel is discussed on college campuses has shifted. AICE programs have succeeded in incorporating rigorous scholarship and debate into discussions on Israel that were previously dominated by polemical hyperbole. 


The visiting Israelis also plant the seeds for the growth of permanent courses, programs and chairs in Israel Studies. Imagine if the generous philanthropists who have built libraries, laboratories, medical, law and business schools, and Jewish and Holocaust studies departments at so many universities invested a fraction of their gifts to support Israel Studies. This investment in faculty will pay off exponentially by shaping the minds of students for decades and ensure that the next generation of Americans will be well-informed and not taken in by the Israel deniers. 




The Israel deniers have been successful in one regard. The BDS campaigns often provoke an overreaction by Israel’s defenders and force them to fight battles in multiple arenas at great cost of time, money and energy. Every divestment resolution a student government considers; entertainer who is pressured to shun Israel; and coop that considers boycotting Israeli goods sets off alarm bells that brings out the Israel Advocacy SWAT team. More judicious and strategic responses to the Israel deniers are sorely needed; care must be taken assessing if and when a reaction is warranted, and what type of action is most effective. Vigilance, education, research and quick reactions are still needed to deprive the Israeli deniers of oxygen.


Many people fear that any victory by the Israel deniers can lead down a slippery slope that ends in the ostracism and, perhaps, destruction of Israel. That is not going to happen. As Golda Meir said, “I understand the Arabs wanting to wipe us out, but do they really expect us to cooperate?”


Dr. Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author of the forthcoming "Death to Infidels: Radical Islam''s War Against the Jews."