BDS' Real Threat: Instilling Fear in Israelis

We have nothing to fear from the boycott campaign or universal jurisdiction. But fear them we do.

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I doubt Rear-Admiral (ret.) Eliezer Marom has ever accompanied a guest from abroad through the security checks at Ben-Gurion International Airport. If he had, he probably would have been less anxious by the fairly routine questions he was asked on Monday morning at London's Heathrow Airport. By all accounts, he was subjected to little more than a few minutes of delay as the border control officials verified his details. It's unclear why he was subjected to a few more questions than most other arrivals, but as any frequent flier will tell you, this a completely normal occurrence. More than one person has said to me that despite British immigration not officially using "racial profiling," he may have been singled out simply because his Chinese-looking features (Marom's mother was from Shanghai and throughout his navy career his nickname was "Chiney") seemed incongruous with his Israeli passport. There is no dispute however that the questioning was entirely harmless. He wasn't asked about his military service and a few minutes later he was welcomed to the United Kingdom and sent on his way.

Marom however felt for a while that he was about to be arrested and quickly called the Justice Ministry department in Jerusalem that is in charge of defending Israeli officials at risk of criminal indictments abroad. Marom's distress signal put the department on high alert and by the time, a few minutes later, they realized that all was well with the admiral, the news had already been leaked to an Israeli website and began making the rounds: A former Israeli senior officer had been detained in London and not just any officer, but the man who had led the traumatic 2010 raid on the Mavi Marmara ferry in which nine Turkish activists were killed and dozens injured; a man who still has an arrest warrant looming over him in Turkey.

The saga of Marom at Heathrow was quickly over but it illustrates something much wider about the Israeli mindset. In the previous decade, the issue of Israeli politicians and generals being hauled in front of courts around the world was much more prominent. A special term was even coined for it – Lawfare. Conferences of Jewish legal experts were convened, task forces were created, pressure was brought to bear on governments of countries where pro-Palestinian activists were using and abusing "universal jurisdiction" laws to try and have Israelis put on trial. Ultimately the Lawfare campaign failed to achieve its stated intentions: no Israeli was arrested or indicted anywhere.

The worst case was one former general, Doron Almog, who in 2005 was warned not to leave the El Al plane at Heathrow because he faced the risk of being arrested. Almog returned home and that was that. Laws have been amended, foreign governments have given assurances and Lawfare is no longer much of an issue. But can it be said to have been a total failure if former senior officers are still visiting London and other foreign capitals on tiptoe?

BDS battleground

Today's battle is BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign being waged against Israel. Significant efforts are being invested by the government and pro-Israel organizations to fend off BDS. This week I discovered that in the Israeli embassy in London alone, there are two people (one diplomat and a local employee) whose full-time brief is to monitor and counter BDS attempts. Apparently the Foreign Ministry with its diplomatic corps is not enough and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has added fighting BDS to the responsibilities of Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz.

Has the boycott campaign actually caused Israel any real economic harm? Its meager list of much-trumpeted successes in getting companies and local authorities to drop Israeli products all together do not even amount to a pinprick to Israel's economy.

BDS has failed to create any form of pressure on Israel to change its policies. A week after Israeli scientists yet again won Nobel prizes and days after Facebook announced it was opening a new development center in Israel, any talk of academic or economic isolation of Israel sounds ridiculous. Yet it's not only generals and politicians who feel an unease landing in some countries, especially in Europe. You can hear that discomfort when talking with academics looking for a university for their post-doctorate year and business people trying to drum up interest in professional conferences.

I still believe that in the wider picture of economic development and scientific cooperation the damage is minimal, but the noise made by the Lawfare and BDS rabble-rousers has fed into an already existing atmosphere of suspicious paranoia which is causing much greater harm to Israelis than any boycott of Israeli produce at a British supermarket or decision by a professor, even one as well-known as Stephen Hawking, not to speak in Israel, can ever cause.

Israel has no reason to object to the principle of universal jurisdiction, whereby countries or international courts can put individuals on trial for crimes committed outside their usual jurisdiction -- after all, the Eichmann trial in 1961 was a unique demonstration of that principle. Neither has Israel any reason to fear that its officers or officials will be put on trial in democracies acting upon universal jurisdiction. As long as Israel's Supreme Court remains open to petitions against the decisions of civilian and military authorities and exercises its powers, no one can credibly claim that a foreign court has to intervene in Israel’s internal legal affairs. Universal jurisdiction can be applied only where it is proven that there is no legal authority with the power to serve justice. And as long as Israel’s economy and research institutes have so much to offer, no economic boycott will have much of an effect.

The real harm of these campaigns is that they fuel the siege mentality that prevents Israelis from embracing any real change in its relations with the "foreigners" within and with its closest neighbors. A nation constantly on guard from outsiders seeking to delegitimize its existence will never be capable of developing a more humane attitude toward refugees and migrants within its borders or overcoming the psychological barriers preventing it from reaching a realistic settlement with the Palestinians (even before we can confront the major obstacles the Palestinians themselves have).

We have to see these "threats" for what they are to be able not only to neutralize them but to prevent them from dominating our consciousness. Israel's economy is not about to be crippled by boycotts and IDF officers will not be languishing in foreign jails anytime soon. But Israelis have made themselves prisoners in their own minds and it's time to break the siege.

In this archive image from November 2012, protesters in Ireland call for a boycott of Israel following Israeli bombing of Gaza.Credit: AP

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