Think Again: Boycott’s bark is still worse than its bite

Five years after it formally got under way, street theater is about all there is to the global BDS campaign.

reading boycott 521 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
reading boycott 521
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
When the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee staged some street theater inside a Best Buy outlet two weeks ago, it could hardly have been aware of the multiple meanings to its performance.
A group of about 40 mostly young women gathered in the middle of the store and, to the music Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” urged customers to “Change what you buy, Pick a different phone, See it in the store, Just leave it alone, Motorola supports war crimes, Justice now in Palestine.”
Israelis and others familiar with the issues would no doubt be offended by the troupe’s half-truths and outright distortions. But, this being America – and just three weeks before Christmas to boot – most of the shoppers looked too preoccupied to pay much attention to the show.
In any case, the amateurishness of the production was such that Israel barely got a mention, except for one brief reference to “Israeli apartheid” before the music began. The St. Louis committee didn’t delegitimize the country as much as it delegitimized Motorola – and not for its big manufacturing and R&D operations here but for supplying equipment to the army. At least that was something the shoppers might have understood if it had been communicated better.
But, five years after it formally got under way, street theater is about all there is to the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.
The list of accomplishments the movement can point to is far smaller than the false alarms it regularly serves up even as the country has suffered some of its worst public-image setbacks.
The BDS movement repeatedly took credit for sell-offs of Israeli shares by college endowments, pension funds and other institutional investors this year. But, in fact, the sales were all connected with our admission to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and were undertaken for purely technical reasons.
The most dramatic calls come from the likes of student unions and church synods that don’t actually buy anything. The boycotts with any meat, such as the one called by British academics in 2006, more often than not get reversed. The last actual boycott of products dates from last July when Olympia Food Co-op in Washington state threw the weight of its two stores behind the campaign. And, that isn’t final. Olympia’s website contains a petition to “revise” its boycott policy.
The BDS threat has yet to emerge and may never, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fought.
The movement’s formal political program demands an end to the occupation, equal rights for Israeli Arabs and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Officially, the parve political agenda is designed to attract a broad base of supporters, but it also serves to obfuscate. Thus the handful of European government investment and pension funds that have divested from companies because of their alleged role in helping the occupation become linked with groups that question Israel’s right to exist or portray it as so wicked as undeserving a place in the community of civilized nations.
THE BLAME for the state of affairs falls as much on Israel as the BDS movement. In spurning the Obama initiative, we have let the current government mortgage the entire country to the settlements. Without any semblance of a peace process under way and no discernible protest from the public, the entire country becomes complicit in a campaign to take land and impose a regime in the West Bank that may not be apartheid but looks pretty close to the real thing to a lot of reasonable people. The apartheid label BDS affixes looks plausible.
That is why the BDS movement may ultimately succeed – although not in the way it dreams of. Israel is too amorphous a target for a boycott. For the most part, the important things it makes are hidden deep inside computer networks or other products, untouchable for a boycott. The irony is that even if a Best Buy shopper opted not to buy Motorola, he would inevitably be helping some Israeli company whose technology is embedded inside a competing phone. Teva Pharmaceuticals is a possible exception to this rule, but telling people not to take medicine because it is made here is a lost cause. That leaves BDS activists staging sitins at the London Ahava store or campaigning against packaged humous made by Strauss. It makes for unpleasant television, but it won’t bring down the economy.
In any case, a mass consumer boycott movement isn’t an easy thing to cultivate, even when the target is easy. Consumers won’t boycott because they love Palestinians but because they hate Israel. It’s true that we do pretty badly in opinion surveys, at least in Europe. But it is one thing to answer a pollster’s question about your feelings; it’s quite another to act on them by not buying a product you would like or paying a higher price. And if you’re not ready to give up on Ahava cosmetics, you certainly won’t refuse yourself a Motorola phone.
The real threat doesn’t come from consumer boycotts but from government-imposed sanctions. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, those have a pretty good record of success – about 34 percent historically, according to a 2009 study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. By the study’s reckoning, Israel is particularly vulnerable – a small country with a democratic government that will likely be targeted by its closest friends and trading partners, namely the US and Europe.
It is easy to see how such sanctions could emerge. On the one side, Washington, with Europe in tow, comes to regard us as a strategic liability; on the other, thanks to the BDS movement as much as to our actions, public opinion makes a subtle shift from friendly-neutral to neutral-hostile. Fighting the BDS movement may help delay that day, but it can’t substitute for an honest effort at peacemaking.

The writer is executive business editor at The Media Line. His book Israel: The Knowledge Economy and Its Costs will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.