Comparing BDS’s Failure Against Israel to the Stunning Boycott of Russia

After attacking Ukraine, Russia has been hit with punishing sanctions that the anti-Israel boycott movement can only dream of. What made the difference?

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a currency exchange office in central Moscow on February 28, 2022
A currency exchange office in central Moscow at the end of February, since which time the ruble has collapsedCredit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV - AFP
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

This kind of boycott has to be the wet dream of every committed BDS activist: Ikea and H&M closing all their stores in the targeted country. Big energy companies like ExxonMobil divesting their local holdings, Airbus and Boeing cutting off supplies of spare aircraft parts, and Apple pausing sales of its products. International sports organizations canceling local events and Eurovision kicking out the offending country from its annual competition.

Better yet, it all happened in the space of a few days amid a wave of public moral outrage, thereby compounding the economic and moral impact.

For BDS, a boycott like this against Israel is a dream; for Russia, it’s the unpleasant reality it has woken up to mere days after it invaded Ukraine.

The sanctions have been an enormous success not just because they are being imposed so widely (even neutral Switzerland has come on board) but because they have been fortified by grassroots anger and disgust. Even bartenders are refusing to serve vodka.

There has never been a boycott like it, not at the height of the campaign against South African apartheid, not against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, not against Iran, Venezuela, or North Korea.

It is true that businesses have little choice but to fall into line with the sanctions the United States and Europe have imposed, but they have done it with unusual verve. They know where the public stands and have no reason not to get some PR mileage out of it. Thus, Apple could write, “We are deeply concerned about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and stand with all of the people who are suffering as a result of the violence,” making no bones about which side it stands on in the conflict. Having Apple on your side is as good as it gets.

Without a doubt, the sanctions are going to take a terrible toll on the Russian economy. Goldman Sachs has cut its forecast for Russian gross domestic product this year from 2% growth to a 7% decline. Even if Putin and his inner circle don’t really give a damn, they are not going to be having a happy year ahead of them. If Israel were to ever be hit by measures on the scale Russia faces, the impact would be many times greater.

How did Russia feel the sting of the sanctions so fast and furiously when the anti-Israel BDS movement has struggled for nearly two decades without achieving anything like it?

Playing the racism card

Naturally, BDS supporters say it’s just another instance of racism: white, European Ukrainians elicit Western sympathy in a way that "non-white" Palestinians can’t. The decision to impose boycotts and sanctions on Russia is part and parcel of the same racism that has Europe welcoming Ukrainian refugees and hailing armed Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion while in the past rejecting Middle Eastern refugees and condemning Palestinian violence, they say.

The racism card is an easy one to play as long as you pick your facts carefully. For example, the flip side of the West’s support for white Ukrainians is the condemnation of white Russians, which undercuts the racism argument. They in turn may complain that the antagonism is motivated by anti-Russian sentiment, like as Israeli warriors against BDS claim that BDS is about antisemitism not Palestinian rights.

But the racism card is better left not played. Racism may be a factor, but it is certainly not the major one. Rather, the critical factor is that governments are behind the move.

A woman holds a sign reading "Welcome" as people who arrived with the Allegro train from St Petersburg, Russia were welcomed and handed flowers at the central railway station in Helsinki, Finland, on Credit: EMMI KORHONEN - AFP

That’s been BDS’ problem from the get-go: it hasn’t been able to get a single government to act, apart from a few symbolic European Union measures against West Bank settlements.

If the EU, and even better the United States, hadn’t imposed sanctions on Russia, appeals to businesses, artists and consumers to mount their own boycotts would have come to nothing, certainly not in real time. A government can order banks and businesses to cut off ties with a country in a flash. A grassroots movement can stage demonstrations and pressure businesses on social media, but that takes a lot of time and effort. Rallying a critical mass of consumers is even tougher.

Without a doubt government support is crucial, but moral outrage is also a factor in the success of Ukraine’s pleas to punish Russia. It’s complicated, but it is safe to say that Ukrainians have earned more of the West’s attention and pity because Russia acted so aggressively against a country that had done nothing to threaten it.

Worse still, Russia is waging war in Europe, which is needless to say, of great concern to Europeans. It invaded a country that while far from being a perfect democracy was enough of one to arouse sympathy.

As much as the Palestinians like to think of themselves as plucky fighters for human rights and against oppression, much of the world doesn’t quite see it that way. Ukraine never lobbed rockets at Russia or dispatched suicide bombers to Moscow. Palestinians and their supporters may see rockets and stabbings of civilians as legitimate resistance but for many people, it’s tit-for-tat violence that doesn’t arouse much empathy. Both sides are killing each other.

Ukraine’s sanctions problem is of a different order – an embarrassment of riches. It has been so successful in winning the West’s sympathy, if not the world’s, that the sanctions regime threatens to boomerang back on the sanctioners themselves. The world economy is already feeling the impact of record-high energy prices and rising costs for agricultural commodities and will eventually suffer shortages and lower economic growth.

In the end, the success of sanctions may come down to who blinks first in the face of economic pressure: Russia or the West.

Western governments can count on moral outrage for only a limited time before public opinion recognizes the cost of doing the right thing and moves on to other things.

The BDS movement can at least take pleasure in knowing that if it ever were so successful in getting boycotts and sanctions imposed on Israel on such a scale, the global fallout would be negligible. Politicians wouldn’t come under pressure from voters to call the whole thing off.

But there will almost certainly be a downside of Russian sanctions, in the form of the public’s bitter regret that they were imposed at all. At that point, BDS’ wet dream will be further from reality than ever.

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