A rational debate on BDS

“Boycotts divide people and that’s part of the problem, not the solution.”

Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13. (photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
Anti-Israel demonstrators march behind a banner of the BDS organization in Marseille, June 13.
(photo credit: GEORGES ROBERT / AFP)
BDS was back on the agenda this week, as Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan held a “top-secret” conference to discuss ways to combat the anti-Israel movement.
Journalists were not invited, but the secret wasn’t very well kept and details of the conference were leaked to the press with soundbites, slogans and all.
For example, “Boycotts divide people and that’s part of the problem, not the solution” and “The BDS movement is not about legitimate criticism.
It’s about making Israel illegitimate.”
A few months ago, a special unit was reported to have been set up inside the Research Division of Military Intelligence to monitor the activities of the BDS movement. Former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit has called for the spy agency to be involved in the fight.
And Sima Vaknin Gil, a former military chief censor, who was recently appointed director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, has said she wants to set up a “community of fighters.” The ministry, which is in charge of combating BDS, has an NIS 100 million budget to go “on the offensive against the boycott.”
Cloak and dagger operations, however, were not what was on the agenda in front of 150 Jewish leaders from around the world. What was discussed were issues such as detection of boycott threats, concrete steps to deal with threats to companies in or working with Israel, increasing pro-Israel activities online around the world, positive branding for Israel, bringing groups of influential people to visit Israel.
Discussion also focused on the need for a comprehensive strategy that coordinates all the efforts of governmental, nongovernmental and Diaspora Jewish groups combating BDS and the delegitimization of Israel.
All of these are, of course, critically important and the threat posed by BDS and efforts to delegitimize Israel should not be taken lightly. BDS is clearly anti-Semitic and without a doubt waging a war of legitimacy on the Jewish state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right that BDS “is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence.”
But a little perspective is in order.
While BDS has had some success in academic circles, against some consumer products, and some, mostly has-been, performers have canceled gigs in Israel, it’s economic impact has been so minuscule as to barely be measurable.
Since the BDS movement was set up in 2005, Israeli exports to Europe, where the movement is at its strongest, have nearly doubled. Even trade with South Africa, a BDS stronghold, where Israel is burdened in the theater of public opinion by its ties with the apartheid era regime, is booming.
Foreign investment in Israel has soared during that period and at the same time ties with China, India and the rest of Asia, where BDS is not an issue, are growing exponentially.
Israel has also had successes in countering the movement. Since the beginning of the year the UK has announced it is advancing anti-BDS legislation, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has said “authorities must change their attitude” toward demonstrations that call for a boycott of Israeli products. The Canadian parliament has passed a motion condemning BDS and in the United States the “Combating BDS Act” is in the works to support the rights of states to cut ties with entities that “boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel.”
Yet despite all this, BDS is being described in existential terms. Netanyahu has declared war on the movement and compared BDS to Nazi attacks on Jews and President Reuven Rivlin has pronounced it a “strategic threat of the highest degree.”
If the movement were to succeed in labeling Israel as an apartheid state, that would be a grave development, and the wind on US campuses is not blowing in Israel’s favor. But despite the hype there has been no major reversal and BDS has scored no significant victory that would change the playing field.
It seems BDS has become a political football used by various parties for their own means without any regard to changes in objective reality. The left has hyped statements that Israel could be vulnerable to international boycotts in the absence of a peace process, in order to push its agenda.
At the other end of the spectrum, some observers have noted that Netanyahu, following the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, is in need of a new existential fear and that by registering victories – against a threat that was never that great in the first place – he can show himself to be a strongman.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog has accused Netanyahu of failing to stem the tide and from the center, too, Yair Lapid, has been using BDS to prove his diplomatic credentials, as witnessed by his spat with Netanyahu this week over who got the London underground to take down anti-Israel posters that were there illegally in the first place.
But if Israel wants to combat BDS, then a rational and open debate on the real dangers posed by the movement is the order of the day, not secret meetings and calamitous forecasts.