The Boycott Movement Is Losing the Battle - for Now

Its victories are symbolic while its failures are concrete. But that doesn't mean that it's not capable of inflicting psychological pain.

Let's be simplistic and boil down a complicated issue like the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel into a scorecard. Let's tally up the BDS movement's successes and failures over the last few weeks.

We'll give BDS five points for persuading the American Studies Association to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Give it another four points for the United Church of Canada's call to boycott products made in West Bank settlements.

It gets nine points for the decision of Dutch water company Vitens to pull out of a partnership with Israel's water company Mekorot, just six weeks after entering into it. Award it three more points for the UK Trade and Investment Agency discouraging companies from doing business with Israeli firms located in the West Bank.

Total: 21 points.

Now let's deduct for failures. This week four major port operators, including three European companies, bid to operate marine terminals in Israel. Deduct 10 points for BDS.

Israel was admitted to the European nuclear research consortium CERN as its first non-European full member. Deduct eight. Take off another eight points for the Irish company Covidien offering to buy the Israeli medical device company Given Imaging; another six for Apple's buying PrimeSense, a high-tech startup; and another five for Carefusion, a San Diego company, buying 40% of Caesarea Medical Electronics – deals adding up to more than a billion dollars.

The Dutch company that produces the hit TV series Big Brother is investing in one of the Channel 2 television franchisees. Deduct six more points. Subtract another 10 points for smaller deals: Japan's Toshiba, and the U.S. companies Harris Broadcast and Marketo.

Total deductions: 53.

Boils down to money

We'll call the agreement Israel reached with the European Union's Horizon 2020 program neutral. The EU kept a provision about its settlement boycott into the agreement but was still very much determined to get Israel into the program, which will benefit researchers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

You might find that hard to believe, given the attention Israel boycotts have given (Google News brings up 28 pages of news items for the month), but the BDS movement is deep in the red so far for December.

Where BDS needs to be hitting hardest - if it wants to have an impact - is in business. That's why our impromptu scoring system weighs heavily in favor of business deals over declarations by church groups and academics. It also awards or deducts more points for actions in support or in defiance of the boycott by Europeans, given the continent's greater coldness to Israel compared to the United States.

Israel who?

The great majority of boycotters are engaged in political posturing. They have no connection with Israel and aren't making any sacrifices by severing their ties. By the same token, they are not inflicting any material pain on Israel either. Even the ASA had to explain to its members in the FAQ of its website why it was troubling itself to declare a boycott given that is has "such little contact with Israel or Israeli institutions."

Moreover, the declarations don't amount to much even if you think they will be enforced. The ASA only boycotts institutions, not individuals. The United Church of Canada is only boycotting settlement products. Good luck trying to find any in Canada.

The UK trade agency discourages companies from doing business with settlers, though it doesn't bar them. But there are few companies of any consequence over the Green Line anyway.

Even the EU ban incorporated into the Horizon 2020 accord is so convoluted as to render it nothing more than symbolic.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investment in Israel stood at $9.4 billion in the first 10 months of the year, matching the total for all of 2012 and like to exceed 2011's $10.8 billion. The Export Institute forecasts Israeli exports will grow just 2.5% this year, less than half the pace it forecast at the start of 2013, but no one thinks that has anything to do with the boycott. Exports to Europe were up 4% in the first nine months of the year even though the shekel has made Israeli products less price competitive and the European economy is in the doldrums.

What our points system fails to do is capture the potential Zeitgeist of the boycott movement. Business is powerful and its money talks, but it can easily lose out to an idea whose time has come. Companies that may be eager to trade with and invest in Israel could easily succumb to a tide of public opinion that condemns it.

The situation at the U.S. hasn't come close to that and it probably isn't as close in Europe as it seems. But that doesn't mean Israel's public image won't eventually reach that critical red line.

In the meantime, the impact of decisions by performing artists, scientists and academics to boycott Israel can't help but hurt the Israeli psyche. Even if the likes of Roger Waters portray Israel as a fascist state, merrily engaging in death and oppression, the fact is it's a democratic, free and relatively liberal entity that is very much a part of the world of open societies. Isolation would hurt it profoundly.

How would it feel to be an Israel professor at some academic get-together, shunned and standing alone in a corner with his white wine and cheese while members of the ASA are chatting with their peers from Chinese universities (that cooperate with a government ban on teaching certain subjects like The Great Leap Forward and firing faculty who criticize the government), or Russian institutions (which operate in a quasi-police state that has massacred Chechens), or with Iranians, Syrians, Egyptian and Saudis? It would feel absurd, but it would have to sting.

Multiply that by scores of times in the form of cancelled concert dates and lectures, and the psychological sting grows a thousand-fold. Stephen Hawking's decision not to give a lecture in Israel means little in dollar terms but it sends a lot louder message than Terminal Investments Limited's angling to operate an Israeli port.
 

A New York protester calling for a boycott of Israel.
AP