The Boycott Israel Movement's Small Victories Are Far From Sweeping Success

Although BDS activists have convinced many to cancel performances here, the movement has not been able to exert the economic pressure on Israel it wishes to achieve.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

American jazz musician Cassandra Wilson who decided at the last minute to cancel her planned performance at the Holon Women's Festival today joins a lengthening list of artists who have decided for political reasons to skip Israel in their concert tours. The BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement can chalk up another victory but while the cancellations have dismayed Israelis who hoped to see their favorite musicians perform live, the BDS central aim, to exert economic pressure on Israel, has so far not been achieved.

The BDS movement has improved its organization over the last year, with a close-knit network of dozens of local groups, from around the world, radical left circles and pro-Palestinian movements like The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel based in Ramallah, coordinating protests over the internet and social networks. Last month, a BDS "handbook" was published, titled "Targeting Israeli Apartheid," which tracks international corporations trading with Israel and recommending ways that activists can pressure them to cease their Israeli operations. But while the movement has managed to mobilize thousands of supporters around the world to send online entreaties that convince performers, many of whom see themselves as human-rights activists, to avoid Israel, the corporations and some of the more famous performers who are less exposed to Facebook campaigns, have been impervious. Despite the support of some prominent figures such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, the movement has not succeeded in affecting governments to limit their countries' commerce with Israel either.

An anti-Ahava activist in London's Covent Garden. Credit: Activestills

The BDS strategy of targeting Israel as a whole, rather than just the settlements across the Green Line, has made it a divisive issue also within the normally pro-Palestinian left. The official demands of the movement refer to end to "colonization of all Arab lands" without distinction, "full equality" for Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Even the Palestinian Authority does not officially support BDS, focusing instead on the settlements.

In recent days, the movement is in uproar over a video interview with Professor Norman Finkelstein, a severe critic of Israeli policies, who seemed to be breaking with the BDS strategy, if not with its ideals. In the interview, Finkelstein described the movement's rhetoric as disingenuousness, saying that "they don’t want Israel. They think they’re being very clever, they call it their three tiers – we want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel. And they think they’re very clever because they know the result of implementing all three is what? What’s the result? You know and I know, what’s the result? There’s no Israel." Finkelstein said that he had no problem in principle with that position, but that it would never succeed in convincing large numbers. "If you want to eliminate Israel that’s your right but I don’t think you’re going to reach anybody. I think it’s a non-starter."

Finkelstein said that to gain credibility, the BDS movement has to recognize Israel's right to exist, but said that many of the activists wanted to "wipe out Israel" and such a move would split the movement, which he likened to "a cult."
Following the interview, angry debates broke out on the dozens of websites devoted to BDS, with some admitting openly that they believed the movement's principles were incompatible with the existence of Israel and others writing that they would accept "a different Israel." The interviewer, a BDS supporter, initially posted the video on YouTube, but subsequently removed it on Finkelstein's request. It was reposted and has since been circulated on pro-Israel websites.

Finkelstein and his interlocutors probably were not aware, but a similar debate on the efficacy of the BDS campaign has been going on for some time within the Israeli Foreign Ministry and pro-Israel advocacy groups. Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), a series of events around the world, mainly on university campuses, trying to draw attention to Israel's "apartheid" policies and promote the cause of BDS kicks off next week and while in the past, Israel's defenders have tried to counter these efforts, even coming up with Israel Peace Week as an antidote to Apartheid Week, there is a growing feeling that BDS and IAW events attract few who are not already committed hardcore activists, fail to interest large mainstream news organizations and their high-profile web-presence does not reflect a widespread grassroots movement. The conclusion that the ministry and organizations such as ADL are beginning to come around to is that the best defense to the BDS campaign, is not an attack that will simply draw more attention, but disengagement and pro-Israel activities which are not seen as a direct response.



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