Why the BDS Movement Is Such a Colossal Flop

The boycott movement's newest claims are the Presbyterian Church, Sinead O'Connor and Bill Gates. But there's no need to be worried.

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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A poster for the BDS movement in Sweden.
A poster for the BDS movement in Sweden.Credit: Jacob Rask, Wikimedia Commons
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

It looks like good times again for the boycott, sanctions, divestment movement. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is again voting on whether to impose sanctions, Sinead O'Connor may or may not be cancelling a performance in Israel and Bill Gates sold his shares in G4S, a European security company that provides equipment to Israeli prisons.

Even a loss for BDS like the vote of the Modern Language Association, an important U.S. academic group, can be seen as a victory of sorts. A resolution asking the State Department to pressure Israel to freely allow overseas Palestinian academics into the West Bank failed to muster the minimum percentage of votes needed to pass, but the movement did succeed in getting the issue on the agenda and a majority of votes were cast in favor.

As usual, however, with BDS appearances are deceiving. As The Financial Times wrote in a June 14 article "Orchestrated boycott of Israeli companies falter, " the last wave of supposed BDS achievements last winter turned out to be a lot about nothing. Here is why this one will end up being the same.

Lots of ado

No momentum: After a big hue and cry over Dutch pension fund PGGM and Denmark's Danske Bank making some tentative steps to divest, nothing else happened. ABP, the biggest Dutch pension fund, and a large Scandinavian investment house Nordea Investment Management have said they would not follow suit. The FT reported that a Dutch fund manager believed PGGM regretted getting into the battle and inadvertently becoming a poster boy for BDS. "I don’t think [PGGM] expected it to become a worldwide story," he said,

No fire, but lots of smoke: But PGGM probably didn't understand how the BDS movement's modus operandi: Take credit for any action if it can at all plausibly be connected with the boycott, dub it the beginning of a mass wave of divestment and barrage the media.

Thus, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Bill's private investment vehicle, Cascade Investment, reduced their stake in the G4S, the BDS movement was all aflutter. "Thanks to everyone who joined the campaign, signed the petition and participated in the protests," said War on Want, a British charity that bizarrely is engaged in fighting global poverty around the world, except in Israel/Palestine where it has joined the BDS drive with gusto.

But the foundation didn't divest its holding, it simply went down from a 3.2% stake to an undisclosed figure under 3%. Nor did the foundation ever say why it sold the shares, but a good guess can be derived from G4S's share price performance: The price plummeted the month before the foundation and Cascade bought the stock, but failed to recover much in the year following.

Prima facie, it appears Gates was hedging his bet by reducing the holding, not in response to protests and certainly nor because he wants to isolate Israel. After all, his company Microsoft has a large research and development center in Haifa, a technology accelerator in Herzliya and announced this month it was setting up a second one. Not to mention that the company itself does extensive work with the Israeli government and the army and is a serial acquirer of Israeli startups.

Poor choice of friends: Grocery cooperatives, leftish community activists and student councils at liberal universities are all happy to join the boycott. But BDS has failed to make headway with the people and organizations that count -- with governments, big companies, investors or opinion leaders.

The Financial Times story about the faltering boycott against Israel asked 15 of world's largest fund houses how they applied their ethical investment principles in the case of Israel's occupation, half declined to comment or said they had no view; the other half didn't answer at all.

Even the Presbyterian Church is marginal. It sounds like a pillar of the American establishment but, in fact, it has only 1.8 million or so members and the number is declining rapidly. A quick perusal of an anti-Israel screed called "Zionism Unsettled" shows that among some there is serious antipathy toward the Jewish state, but the church's broader membership has so far failed to support even the very limited divestment proposals brought to it, which strangely call for selling the church's stock in three American companies, rather than divesting from Israel.

No interest /commitment: The BDS movement hasn't come close to convincing the broad public that Israel deserves their special attention. In the Modern Language Association, it couldn't muster up enough people to vote yes this month for a mild resolution asking the State Department to pressure Israel to allow Palestinian academics into West Bank and Gaza.

Even among the best of its friends, few are willing to make any personal sacrifice for the sake of Palestine: BDSers never ask anyone student or coop shopper to actually boycott a product they actually use because they know it would fail. The people who can congratulate themselves by raising a clenched fist and vote to boycott Israel are almost always asking someone else to take a moral stance as is the case with the Gates Foundation. They are quite willing to demand their Gates or their university or some investment fund sell Israel-related stocks, but ask them to boycott Microsoft by not using Windows?

No chance: BDS likes to present itself as a moral stick swatting away at businesses and people who should know better than to be collaborating with an oppressive Israeli regime. But businesses know perfectly well what they would be risking by acceding to the movement's demands. The world is full of bad behavior, of which Israel is by no means the only or worst offender. If they concede on Israel where will that leave them vis a vis China, Russia and India, which all control disputed areas, or for that matter the U.S. government?

The Presbyterian Church is being asked to boycott HP, among other targets, because it sells hardware to the Israeli Navy and for use at West Bank checkpoints, and has done some business with Israeli settlements, all of which counts as complicity with the occupation.

But by that standard HP is complicit all over the world in human rights offenses. The company has billions of dollars in contracts with the U.S. armed forces, which have committed atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan and has a poor record in dealing with sexual harassment in its ranks. For years, HP's Chinese suppliers were apparently using forced student labor. In Russia, it is associated with a country that has invaded two neighbors, routinely violates human rights and enforces anti-gay legislation.

To say that of all the business HP does around the world, its dealings with Israel are those ones that deserve special condemnation. As the United Nations translator remarked last November after the General Assembly adopted nine resolutions against Israel, "There’s other really bad shit happening [around the world], but no one says anything, about the other stuff."

Protesters against the BDS movement during the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York. June 1, 2014.Credit: AP

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