Israeli fears of BDS are exaggerated – for the moment

Contrary to what many believe, the movement in Europe actually has a hard time finding consumers ready to boycott Israel. But things can change quickly if the country is drawn into a new war.

A common mistake that Israelis (and Palestinians) make is to overestimate the importance of their conflict for ordinary people abroad, particularly in the West, as if all the people in Europe and the US actually cared about what is going on in the Middle East. The truth is that, and contrary to what many Israelis believe, most people in Europe don’t care about the conflict, simply because they have other things to worry about, like unemployment and housing.
I suspect many Europeans, like my mother, have great difficulty in differentiating between Israelis and Palestinians when watching the nightly news. The level of ignorance is probably even higher in the US; it would be interesting to know whether most Americans could point out Gaza and the West Bank on a map.
This indifference has serious implications for the BDS movement, which according to reports in the Israeli press is widely perceived to be gaining traction around the world, especially in Europe. The good news is that these fears are exaggerated.
Contrary to what many Israelis believe, the BDS movement in Europe actually has a hard time finding consumers ready to boycott Israel.
Take the example of Sweden, my country, which Israelis feel is hopelessly pro-Palestinian. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of Swedes are neither pro-Palestinian nor pro-Israeli. They simply don’t care about the Middle East.
In fact, and again contrary to what many Israelis believe, the pro-Palestinian camp in Sweden is very small.
The main pro-Palestinian umbrella organization, which also leads the Swedish BDS movement, is named “Palestina-grupperna” (meaning “The Palestine Groups”), and has about 1,000 members in a country of 9 million.
During the 35 years it has been active, it has failed miserably to reach out to the Swedish population beyond small circles of die-hard left-wingers, church synods, student unions and the like; all of which are weak consumer groups.
The fact that “The Palestine Groups” have problems reaching out even to Muslim communities is a telling example. This is not because they have done anything particularly wrong. It is because people in Sweden simply have little interest, and the same pattern can be seen elsewhere in Europe.
During my years as a student, I worked for the largest Swedish retailer – ICA – in the southern city of Landskrona. The city has a significant Muslim community, and the store where I worked was one of the city’s largest grocery stores and regularly sold Israeli fruits and vegetables.
During the four years I worked there (2004-2008), the word Israel was never mentioned by any customer, colleague or supplier.
WHILE THIS indifference is good for Israel at the moment, and works in its favor by preventing the BDS movement from getting stronger, the bad news is that these same forces – ignorance and indifference – can quickly be turned into a double-edged sword to hurt Israel. It’s worth remembering that everything has been put in place by the BDS movement: The networks of organizers and the lists of Israeli products are there. The only thing missing is the boycotters, who are scarce at the moment. But this can change.
If Israel is drawn into a new war with Hezbollah or (heaven forbid) with Iran, things could change dramatically. If Israel is perceived as the aggressor, which is not unlikely, and if these wars are as destructive as security experts predict, with thousands of casualties, skyrocking oil prices, turmoil on the financial markets, etc., Israel will likely be in serious trouble when it comes to global public opinion, which could lead to a massive upswing for the BDS movement.
Have no illusions. Just as few European consumers pay any attention when they buy Jaffa oranges, few will care if these are replaced by Maroc oranges. That is how double-edged swords work.
The writer is a PhD student at Lund University in Sweden. He’s writing his thesis about the role of the European Union in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.