BDS: How Big A Threat?


BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, has been all over the media in recent days. The convening of an emergency session of Israel’s Knesset; a gathering of Sheldon Adelson, other mega-donors and dozens of Jewish organizations in Las Vegas; a spate of investigative reports and opinion pieces — all busy trying to assess how serious a phenomenon this is and the most effective ways to respond to it. Some suggest it is an economic and diplomatic “tsunami” poised to overwhelm Israel, an existential threat rivaled only by Iran’s nuclear weapons program; while others accuse both the left and right of completely blowing it out of proportion to serve their parochial political interests. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. 

The core mission of the BDS movement, sometimes made explicit but often hidden, is to delegitimize Israel and to isolate her economically and diplomatically. It completely ignores legitimate Israeli security concerns, and is not really in the business of advancing the cause of Palestinian statehood or changing particular Israeli policies.  In the end, its zero sum politics directed at hurting Israel does nothing to help Palestinians. In fact, successfully confronting and containing the one-sided BDS agenda will promote an atmosphere more conducive to peacemaking between Palestinians and Israelis. 

BDS advocates, drawn from the ranks of radical Muslim and far left groups, have had some significant successes in Europe, where Israel, sadly, has become one of the most unpopular countries in the world. In the United States, however, the effort to damage Israel’s economy using these tactics has failed dismally. Israel is second only to China in the number of foreign companies listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange. Its economy is robust, and looks to remain so for a long time to come. Public opinion also seems largely resistant to BDS activism. Polls continue to show Americans by a wide margin feel greater affinity for Israelis than they do for Palestinians and other Arabs. 

At the same time, there are trends that should ring alarm bells in Jerusalem and among Israel’s supporters here. The BDS movement is sophisticated and well funded. It seeks to target progressive religious and political elites, constituencies that appear vulnerable to misinformation and distorted messages depicting Israel as a wholesale violator of international law and human rights. In recent years, some mainline Protestant churches have taken up resolutions harshly and unjustly condemning Israel. And at its national gathering in June 2014, the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a resolution calling for divestment from several American companies doing business with Israel. 

Clearly, the academic community also has become a major battleground. Divestment resolutions have been adopted by a number of student government bodies. The stridently left-wing American Studies Association decided to impose a boycott on Israeli institutions, and other faculty associations have entertained anti-Israel initiatives. Israel Apartheid Week has been a fixture on campuses for many years. A small number of celebrities and entertainers have cancelled their appearances in Israel in recent years under pressure from the BDS movement. And this past year we witnessed attempts to stir up animosity in the African-American community toward Israel by drawing a parallel between Palestine and Ferguson.

The potential vulnerability of progressives to BDS messaging was reflected again in a recent poll conducted by Bloomberg that found Republicans feel more sympathetic to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than to their own president, 67 percent to 16 percent, while Democrats are more sympathetic to President Barack Obama than to Israel’s prime minister by a margin of 76 percent to 9 percent. 

Pro-Israel organizations should continue, and, hopefully, expand efforts to address challenges presented by the BDS movement.  Our response needs to be designed to win over mainstream progressives. Experience and research show that this requires engaging allies in this political space, and providing them with accurate information and compelling messages. It is simple. Progressives can speak more effectively to fellow progressives. Thus, the anti-BDS organizations on the Zionist left are crucial to our success, and they must be welcome to sit around our advocacy planning tables.

We have to acknowledge that the BDS movement is partly fueled by a growing perception that Israeli policy also is a barrier to Middle East peace. The 2013 Pew survey found that only 38 percent of American Jews believe Israel’s government was seriously pursuing peace with the Palestinians. It is reasonable to conclude that many non-Jews share such skepticism. This is a very big problem. In just two years, the occupation of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza will reach the half-century mark. It is one thing for people to believe Palestinians are being deprived of their state because of the demands of Israel’s basic security requirements. But it is very different thing if they believe the Israeli government is not making a good faith peace effort. If the latter view grows and takes root, the BDS challenges we face today are likely to get much worse. 

Obviously, Israel’s democratically elected leaders always must do what they think is in the best interests of their people, whether it makes them more or less popular at home or abroad. Given the regional upheaval, it is understandable that Israel would want to take any new steps on the ground carefully and incrementally. In addition, the stars also do not seem aligned for a conflict-ending comprehensive peace agreement with the Palestinians, who seem more interested in joining the International Criminal Court to pursue prosecutions of Israeli government and military officials than returning to negotiations. 

Yet, Israeli policies that are inconsistent with a long-term commitment to two states for two peoples undoubtedly do damage. They not only damage Israel’s image; more importantly, they undermine Israel’s ability to preserve its identity as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people. Restraining settlement activity especially beyond the blocs; helping the Palestinian Authority build its economy and national infrastructure; and testing opportunities opened up by the Arab Peace Initiative against the backdrop of regional developments favoring Israeli-Arab cooperation — these all would be constructive steps. 

Israel certainly is not on the precipice of losing America. But we cannot afford complacency.  With an Israeli government that would demonstrate more commitment to two states both in word and deed, together with smart Jewish community advocacy, BDS doesn’t stand a chance.

Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and currently serves as an advisor to the Israel Policy Forum.