BDS or normalization – which is winning?

BDS is clearly not succeeding, but its continuing anti-Israel activities may well be fueling the upsurge across the world of the age-old scourge of antisemitism.

 A BDS demonstration outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. (photo credit: Philafrenzy/WIKIPEDIA)
A BDS demonstration outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
(photo credit: Philafrenzy/WIKIPEDIA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

The BDS movement is an effort to mobilize world opinion in favor of delegitimizing Israel, branding it an apartheid state, and ultimately overturning it and establishing a Palestinian entity “from the river to the sea” – that is, from the Jordan to the Mediterranean. Normalization, on the other hand, is a positive effort to foster cooperation between moderate Arab states and Israel in order to promote growth and development across the Middle East, and to counter the threat to stability posed by Iran and its proxies.

The BDS movement

In short, BDS and normalization are at opposite ends of a spectrum. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement regards normalization as the ultimate sin against the Palestinian people. It believes any move toward peace or accommodation between Israel and the Arab world in general, or the Palestinian people in particular, serves to legitimize what it regards as Israel’s illegal occupation of the land once known as Palestine.

BDS sometimes describes itself as a “liberation movement.”

It denounces Israel as the oppressor of the Palestinian people, and categorizes Israelis as white colonizers with no connection to the region, who have moved in and dispossessed the native population. It advocates ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and also what it claims is Israel’s blockade of Gaza, by exerting the kind of global political and economic pressure used against apartheid South Africa.

A Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream delivery truck at their factory in Be’er Tuviya. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)A Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream delivery truck at their factory in Be’er Tuviya. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)


Normalization – the establishment of diplomatic relations between Arab states and Israel – began to blossom with the signing in August 2020 of the first Abraham Accords. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the one hand, and Israel on the other, reached a business-like agreement to cooperate across many fields including defense, security, business, agriculture, culture and sport.

The major innovative concept of the Abraham Accords was to dispense with the inflexible rule adopted by the Arab world since 1967, namely no recognition of Israel before a resolution of the Israel-Palestine situation. All the same, each of the four Arab signatories – the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – has reaffirmed its continued support for Palestinian aspirations, but not at the expense of a pragmatic relationship with Israel.

The life cycle of many enterprises can best be described as a parabola – an arch-like curve, like an object thrown high in the air which falls back to earth. From a slow start they often gain considerable momentum, reach an apogee, and then decline. There are some grounds for believing that the BDS movement is following this pattern. The movement is certainly still alive, and to an extent flourishing, but despite its claims to the contrary, it can hardly be described as succeeding in its objectives.

The birth of BDS

Born in 2005 in Durban, South Africa, the BDS movement is a combination of pro-Palestinian activists, university student bodies and professors, artists, academic associations, and affinity groups. In its first decade BDS grew rapidly in influence, penetrating university campuses across the free world, local governments, trade unions, churches, and even supermarkets and concert halls. It reached what seemed like a high point in 2015. Institutions and individuals were declaring support for BDS, and some were taking action. The so-called academic boycott – a determination by certain universities across the world to cease engaging with Israeli universities and academics — flourished. Some performing artists were dissuaded from appearing in Israel, and Israeli artists performing abroad were subject to protests and demonstrations.

This and related activity continues, and the movement claimed 2021 was its most successful ever.

“Solidarity with our liberation struggle was simply unprecedented in 2021,” BDS declared, and it lists 21 major achievements that year, among them the report by Human Rights Watch that denounced Israel as an apartheid state, backed by the report by Israel’s human rights organization, B’Tselem, titled: “This is apartheid.”

2021: Israel's unprecedented year of success

But 2021 was a year of unprecedented success for Israel. Israel exports grew by a massive 25% to $142 billion compared with 2020. The historic Abraham Accords, signed the previous year, were flourishing. Cooperative endeavors across a variety of fields continued to expand. Israeli tourism to the UAE was booming.

Following the war in May last year between Israel and Gaza terrorists, Ben & Jerry’s announced it would no longer permit its ice cream to be sold in Israeli settlements, but this is no longer the case. Unilever recently sold its Ben & Jerry’s business interests in Israel to Avi Zinger, the Israeli manufacturer, and the ice cream is now available both in Israel and the West Bank – a blow to BDS.

Many of BDS’s liberal-minded and left-wing supporters, especially churches such as the Presbyterian Church, the Church of Scotland and the World Council of Churches, subscribe to the campaign because they favor the establishment of a Palestinian state within pre-Six Day War borders. It is on this issue that support for BDS enters murky waters.

“Useful idiots” is a term often wrongly attributed to Lenin. It describes people who back a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause to promote it. The unpalatable truth is that many BDS supporters are, all unwittingly, the “useful idiots” of a movement that speaks with a forked tongue. Some adherents of the movement, especially those outside the Middle East, may indeed support the two-state solution. Its leading figures do not.

“Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti

For example, BDS co-founder and Tel Aviv University educated Omar Barghouti is on record as saying: “Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

Some BDS apologists are equally forthright:

  • Pro-BDS author Ahmed Moor: “BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.”
  • As’ad Abu Khalil: “The real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel.”
  • John Spritzler: “I think the BDS movement will gain strength from forthrightly explaining why Israel has no right to exist.”
  • BDS activist Anna Baltzer: “We need to wipe out Israel.”

In short, Barghouti’s purpose, and that of many leading supporters of BDS in the Middle East, is to eliminate Israel and convert the area “from the river to the sea” to a Palestinian sovereign state. Many BDS supporters across the world would not subscribe to this, were they aware of it. There is almost universal support for Israel’s right to exist within secure borders.

Since the heyday of BDS’s anti-Israel achievements in 2015, Israel’s circumstances have changed significantly. It has become one of the world’s leading developers and exporters of hi-tech. It has normalized its relations with four Arab nations by way of the Abraham Accords and more may follow. It has become an exporter of liquefied natural gas from vast reserves discovered in Israeli waters, and despite an intensive BDS campaign employing every device at its command, Israel organized and broadcast to the world a highly successful Eurovision contest in 2019, losing not a single artist nor a single radio or TV station along the way. Subsequently, a European Broadcasting Union poll of viewers voted it the best Eurovision production of the decade.

In the over-heated atmosphere of campus politics, Jewish pro-Israel and Palestinian pro-BDS clashes persist, but according to Foreign Policy, in the corridors of power and in the world’s boardrooms “BDS counts for nothing.” Far from divesting, investors in 2021 poured $21.5 billion into Israel’s health care and health tech sectors, more than double the previous record year, which was 2020. As for cybersecurity, in which Israel is a world leader, official figures show that 40% of global investment in cybersecurity is in Israel, and Abraham Accords countries are playing a significant part in this rapidly expanding investment in Israel.

Foreign Policy points out that scores of major international companies have operations and research and development facilities in Israel. The country has no automobile industry, but Israeli engineers are writing the code for General Motors-manufactured vehicles, and the future of self-driving vehicles is located in an office building in Jerusalem, at the headquarters of Israeli firm Mobileye.

The US administration, together with many organizations – Jewish and non-Jewish – perceive a clear antisemitic aspect to the activities of the BDS movement, and how it provides an umbrella for frankly antisemitic individuals and organizations. The movement itself maintains that it is anti-Zionist, but not antisemitic. It says it opposes “all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism.”

Since that is its declared position, BDS cannot claim among its successes what Deborah Lipstadt, the recently appointed US special envoy on antisemitism, recently described as “a perfect storm of antisemitism... coming from all directions.” According to a report published by the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, antisemitic acts around the world peaked in 2021.

So 2022 sees Israel thriving as a global hi-tech hub, becoming increasingly accepted in the moderate Arab world as an indispensable partner in cultivating and stimulating economic development in the region, and combating the existential threat posed by Iran and its proxies. In short, normalization is flourishing, and the Middle East as a whole is reaping its benefits.

Constantly pushing against this Israel success story is the BDS movement, seeking to blacken Israel in the eyes of the world by promoting what Natan Sharansky has dubbed: “the three D’s of the new antisemitism: Demonization, Double standards and Delegitimization.” BDS is clearly not succeeding, but its continuing anti-Israel activities may well be fueling the upsurge across the world of the age-old scourge of antisemitism.  ■