Analysis: Is the BDS movement facing economic warfare?

The anti-Israel movement faces growing economic warfare against it.

A woman holds a sign during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin during the 2014 Gaza war. (photo credit: STEFFI LOOS /REUTERS)
A woman holds a sign during a pro-Palestinian demonstration in Berlin during the 2014 Gaza war.
(photo credit: STEFFI LOOS /REUTERS)
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is staring down the barrel of economic warfare with financial assaults on BDS, replicating in many ways the sanctions architecture imposed on Iran to compel a change in its behavior over its illicit nuclear weapons program.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s now-famous anti-BDS comment from last month – “It’s very simple: If you boycott against Israel, New York will boycott you” – harks back to the strategy targeting European companies conducting business with Iran’s regime.
European banks and firms faced being frozen out of the lucrative US market if they continued trade relations with Tehran.
Cuomo’s executive order to punish companies which have state business who are engaged in BDS is part and parcel of a broader campaign unfolding in US state governments to turn BDS into a pariah movement. Robust anti-BDS legislation in Illinois coupled with State Sen. Mark Kirk’s call for an investigation into German BDS bank accounts has played a critical role in disrupting BDS funding.
Commerzbank, Germany’s second- largest bank, pulled the plug on a BDS account last month, a first for Europe’s main economic engine.
However it is still premature to venture a guess if the Commerzbank closure will usher in account terminations among the scores of German banks that have financial relationships with BDS organizations.
While BDS is largely limited to academia in the US, Western and Central Europe is ground zero in the BDS pressure-point campaign against Israel.
New British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who is staunchly anti-BDS, fails to grasp the high-energy and well-organized BDS bandwidth in his backyard and on the Continent.
“I think there is some misunderstanding over here about it,” Johnson said last year. “The supporters of this so-called boycott are really a bunch of, you know, corduroy-jacketed academics.
They are by and large lefty academics who have no real standing in the matter, and I think are highly unlikely to be influential on Britain. This is a very, very small minority in our country who are calling for this.”
Without question, many British professors pioneered the academic-animated boycotts targeting Israel. Yet economic body blows to Israel are also emanating from the UK and the Continent. The world’s largest security company – the British-based GS4 – announced in March its departure from Israel. BDS rapidly claimed victory.
However, writing in Tablet in late June, Eugene Kontorovich, a law professor at Northwestern University School of Law who specializes in lawfare, said: “It turns out that one of the BDS movement’s biggest alleged successes is a colossal failure. Thanks to the new wave of state anti-boycott laws, it has emerged that far from boycotting Israel, the security giant G4S plans to continue doing business there indefinitely.”
The Illinois anti-BDS law reversed the G4S boycott of Israel, as Kontorovich wrote: “Illinois sent the company a notice that it might find itself subject to divestment by the state.”
Israel announced its opening salvo against BDS, particularly in Europe, to The Jerusalem Post in April. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said then: “We continue to urge all financial institutions to carefully consider the potential legal, reputational and ethical consequences of facilitating the activities of BDS groups.” Since Erdan’s shot across the bows of European banks to draw their attention to this issue, five financial institutions spanning France, Austria and Germany have terminated BDS accounts.
All this helps to explain that a multi-layered economic warfare campaign against BDS, which includes political, legal and financial pressure, can influence an astonishingly fast change in corporate behavior.
The questions for counter-terrorist officials and anti-BDS activists to examine are: which radical Islamic organizations and states have infused cash into BDS groups and their activities in Europe? It is worth recalling that Hezbollah’s so-called political organization remains legal in Europe (with the exception of the Netherlands). Germany’s new federal intelligence report from late June showed 950 Hezbollah members and supporters in the Federal Republic, as well as 300 Hamas members and activists. To better understand BDS and terrorism, the questions that surfaces are, what is the nature of the Hamas and Hezbollah funding sources in Germany? Exhibit A for the interplay between terrorism and BDS was the Austrian-Arab cultural center’s event with Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the US and European Union have designated as a terrorist entity.
Khaled is infamous for her hijackings, which included TWA flight 840 in 1969 and EL AL flight 219 a year later.
The Vienna-based cultural center advocates BDS, and Khaled defended the right to murder Israeli civilians during her April talk. As a result of the terror link, the Austrian bank Bawag shut the center’s bank account in June.
Terror finance and its links to BDS is a scarcely researched sector. Take the example of the Iranian regime-sponsored Blue mosque and its Islamic Center in Hamburg.
According to the daily Hamburger Morgenpost newspaper, the Iranian- backed institutions played a key role in the pro-BDS al-Quds day march in Berlin. The paper reported that Germany’s intelligence agency said approximately 200 people, who regularly attend services at the Blue mosque, participated in the protest calling for the obliteration of Israel. The head of the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH) is Reza Ramezani, a loyal disciple of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Hamburg Sparkasse bank provides an account to the IZH. While Germany and most European countries have not developed the sophisticated anti-terror finance operations that exist in the US Treasury department, the Federal Republic is capable of countering BDS funding streams tinged with terrorism. It is a matter of activating political will.
Germany’s neighbor France has invoked its 2003 anti-discrimination Lellouche law to squelch BDS campaigns, including the application of robust criminal penalties. In contrast to tough anti-BDS legal measures in the US, France, and in British city councils, German politicians reject penalties with teeth to stop BDS.
The journalist André Anchuelo surveyed German politicians from across the political spectrum in April. Writing in the German Jewish weekly Jüdische Allgemeine, Anchuelo reported that the Left Party MP Petra Pau said a law against Israel boycotts is “disproportionate.”
Her colleague MP Jan Korte said a law is “the wrong way” and wants more education. The Social Democrat MP and deputy chairwoman of the German-Israel parliamentary group, Kerstin Griese, considers the current legal situation sufficient.
The Christian Democratic Union MP Gita Connemann said an anti-BDS law would be “difficult” to enact because it might be unconstitutional. Municipal- funded BDS in Germany is prevalent.
The cities of Munich and Bremen, to name just two, allow BDS groups and activists to use city-funded buildings to promote BDS. The Bremen-owned Villa Ichon center furnished the BDS group Bremen Peace Forum with office space.
The group, which urges a boycott of all Israeli goods, marched through Bremen stores in November to seize Israeli products for opprobrium.
In April, the city council of Bayreuth – famous for its annual Richard Wagner opera festival – awarded €10,000 to the pro-BDS group Code Pink for its tolerance work and contributions to humanity. Code Pink immediately announced it would use the prize money to fund a pro-BDS conference in Europe to explain “how false allegations of anti-Semitism have been used to silence this criticism.”
Bayreuth is a textbook example for why economic warfare against BDS is in a nascent phase in Germany in particular, and Europe in general. External actors launched no offensive financial warfare against the Bavarian city and its assets in the US. Nearly half of the US states have passed anti-BDS legislation or resolutions
The key takeaway: The trans-Atlantic relationship will provide a bundle of opportunities to blunt BDS in Europe.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal