Netanyahu’s Declaration of War on BDS Is Its First Major Victory

The fact that its BDS leaders object to Israel’s very existence doesn’t negate the direct contribution of Israeli actions to the movement’s recent surge.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.
A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.Credit: Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement has just scored a tremendous victory.

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issues a manifest in Jerusalem against the delegitimization of Israel and calls for a “wide front” to combat boycott, and then, within 24 hours, Sheldon Adelson convenes an emergency summit in Las Vegas to fight BDS on university campuses - as Nathan Guttman revealed in the Forward on Monday - BDSers can smugly tell themselves that they’ve finally made it. From a nuisance, perhaps even a danger, they have been elevated the status of existential threat, on a par, almost, with Iran and Hezbollah.

In Israel, the sudden upsurge of public alarm and media hype is connected, no doubt, to the near-death experience that Israelis went through on Friday as FIFA came perilously close to expelling them from international soccer. In Israeli political parlance, it also represents a certain switching of roles: Hitherto it was the left who was cast as Cassandra, issuing repeated warnings of impending condemnations and boycotts in the international arena, which the right shrugged off as no more than transparent political scaremongering. In a 2014 Peace Index poll published by the Guttman Center, 71% of left-leaning Israelis described boycott as a clear and present danger, compared with only 42% of those on the right. Now – perhaps in preparation for the post-Iran-nuclear-agreement era - it is the right that looks to turn BDS into a new rallying cry that proves that the whole world is against us, while the left will inevitably claim that this is a cynical ploy aimed at diverting attention from right-wing policies that are the root cause of Israel’s dismal situation in the first place.

In the United States, at least, the boycott movement has yet to register even one major achievement, outside of co-ops or supermarkets here and there, where the short-lived boycotts were mainly symbolic anyway. Student bodies in 29 universities have voted on divestment from Israel, with some measure of success for BDS, especially in California: not one academic institution, however, has decided or is even weighing to adhere to these decisions. Some states, such as Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee, have already adopted anti-boycott legislation, with several others expected to follow suit.

What is troubling for many Jewish Americans, especially parents to students, is the increasingly virulent debate on camps, which, in some cases, has deteriorated from criticism to loathing, from anti-Israeli sentiments in particular to anti-Semitism sentiments in general. Jewish students have also expressed apprehension about the hostility of lecturers, whose academic unions are increasingly preoccupied with arguments for and against boycotts. But contrary to the functionaries for whom this battle is also a livelihood, most parents don’t care so much about Israel winning or Palestine losing: they just want their kids to be left in peace so they can finish their degree.

There is no denying that the BDS movement is picking up steam. And Netanyahu is right in saying that those running BDS don’t object to Israel’s deeds but to its very existence. But his claim that Israeli actions and policies don’t nourish the boycotters, don’t facilitate its enlistment of new recruits and don’t make the defense of Israel that much harder is both disingenuous and childish. Regardless of background and cause, it’s hard to claim with a straight face that the cessation of the peace process, the death and destruction in Gaza, the campaign against African migrant workers, the Tel Aviv riots of Ethiopians, Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, and, perhaps, most injurious of all, his miserable appeal against Israeli Arabs on Election Day – that all these haven’t provided highly combustible gasoline to BDS propaganda in the past year alone.

And this, before we have mentioned the occupation, which will soon mark its 50th anniversary. Israelis and Americans have learned to conveniently repress awareness of the ongoing denial of political rights from the Palestinians or to view it as a force majeure. They can no longer fathom its malignant influence on young and impressionable hearts and minds that are looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from afar.

That does not negate the right or the duty of the government and its supporters abroad to fight BDS before it becomes a real danger – the question is what is the best way to go about it. The emergence of a controversial figure such as Adelson on the front lines, for example, cannot but paint the summit he is convening as a right-wing, conservative even Republican effort, even if other partisan figures, such as the pro-Democrat Haim Saban, are involved. According to report last week by Rosie Gray in Buzzfeed, Adelson and his wife Miriam are looking to appoint their favorite Rabbi Shmuley Boteach to lead legions of boycott-fighting students tentatively known as “Campus Maccabees”.

Adelson’s generous funding could ensure that such a group would be able to organize impressively massive events – like the one put on by the Adelson-funded Israeli American Council (IAC) in honor of Israeli Independence Day in New York on Sunday – but it would equally also deter moderate students from joining the cause. In several campuses, BDS campaigns have been beaten back only with the help of students identified with J Street U, whose parent group is ostracized and shunned by most of those identified with, or dependent on, Adelson.

In a May 29 article in JTA, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman warned against quick fix solutions. “This fantasy of a magic wand will sap the energy from what is truly needed: a comprehensive approach”. Foxman says the American Jewish community should “reward universities and institutions who stand up to the boycott” and work to deepen the trade, cultural and scientific ties between Israel and academic and other institutions. Foxman makes no mention of the fact that the Israeli government could take steps that could dramatically impact the fortunes of BDS, either because he doesn’t think this is the case, because he doesn’t think it is his role to say so, or because he is biding his time until the end of his 28-year stewardship of the ADL in July.

Benjamin Netanyahu with Sheldon Adelson, left Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau

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