Opinion

Israel’s ‘1984’ Moment in the War Against BDS

The boycott movement has done no harm of any consequence to Israel, but it seems some people need a deadly enemy

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan / American student Lara Alqasem.
Moti Milrod, Twitter

One of the most intriguing characters in George Orwell’s “1984” is Emmanuel Goldstein. He is the principal enemy of the state, whose organization “The Brotherhood” is responsible for anything and everything that goes wrong. Lest anyone should forget that, Goldstein is the object of the daily program “Two Minutes of Hate.” Goldstein himself never appears in the book except as an image on the ubiquitous telescreen. In fact, Orwell hints that Goldstein may not even exist, except as an instrument of state propaganda.

That is Orwell’s dystopian Oceania circa 1984. In Israel circa 2018, we don’t have Big Brother and Thought Police agents, but we do have Gilad Erdan and the Strategic Affairs Ministry. Their Emmanuel Goldstein is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

This week he gave us a “1984”-lite movement, when he said he might reconsider the fate of Lara Alqasem – an American student who’s been denied entry into Israel for her alleged BDS activities – if she is prepared to publicly declare that BDS “is illegitimate and [that] she regrets what she did on this matter.” And voilà, we have our prospective Winston Smith too.

The BDS movement against Israel isn’t wholly imaginary – far from it. But neither is it the ferocious enemy that Erdan and a network of organizations have turned it into. BDS propaganda is often ugly, and its anti-Israel propaganda relies on exaggeration and sometimes outright lies. But in no way does it pose anything even remotely resembling a threat to the State of Israel.

But BDS is too good an enemy to be ignored. Too many people on the Israeli right need something to justify taking extreme measures to fight it – like the ban on BDS supporters entering Israel based on the flimsiest of allegations, and as a tool for bludgeoning the left. In the case of Alqasem, her links to BDS, as “documented” on the Canary Mission website, consist of attending one event in 2016 and a long list of anti-Israel (or, in many cases, pro-Palestinian) rhetoric from the University of Florida arm of Students for Justice in Palestine, a chapter she led for one year. On that basis, Erdan has declared her an anti-Semite bent on harming Israel.

But what harm do Alqasem and student BDS activists like her really do?

The answer is virtually none. Where BDS could be truly harming Israel in a way that demands the government do something is in business. If BDS’ dream of convincing companies not to do business with Israel succeeded, our economy would be in serious trouble because it relies so heavily on international trade and investments.

Nothing like that has happened, though, and if you read between the lines on the BDS movement’s own website, you can see that firsthand. It gladly reports on the most marginal shows of support (“Palestinians Thank Prof. Cheney-Lippold for Refusing to Be Complicit in Academically Whitewashing Israeli Apartheid”; and “Artistic Director of Portuguese National Theater Joins Cultural Boycott of Israel”). But when it comes to the business boycott, it doesn’t even have that.

In that context, you may be amused to know that SodaStream, the Israeli maker of home carbonated-drink dispensers, is still being boycotted by the movement. Amused, because not only has the “boycotted” company seen its sales grow by more than 60 percent in the last three years (nearly all of it overseas), it was also acquired in August by PepsiCo, which apparently didn’t give the boycott a second thought.

Boxes containing SodaStream products in a London shop, August 2016.
\ SIMON DAWSON/ REUTERS

BDS has been somewhat successful in convincing performing artists not to appear in Israel, and has been much more successful in winning support from student bodies, left-leaning church groups and some labor unions. But none of this constitutes an existential or any other kind of threat to Israel that demands the measures Erdan has taken.

It hurts to see a respected academic or a favorite pop star decline to visit Israel – but it’s emotional hurt, not a real one, and it doesn’t happen very often. By most measures, Israel’s standing in the world has improved in recent years. We participate in everything from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, to the European Union’s Horizon 2020 R&D program to the Eurovision Song Contest. We have powerful friends in China and India. If we’ve lost the support of a college student council in the United Kingdom, it’s not the work of the Israeli government to deal with that.

The excuse for the phony war against BDS is that it is anti-Semitic, supports terror and seeks Israel’s destruction. Erdan himself made the case for all this in a report on the BDS “Hate Net” he presented at a press conference in June. What did he find? Some 300 organizations calling for a boycott of Israel and 42 “prominent” ones that “generate hatred of Israel.”

But look carefully at that list of 42 groups. Eight of them are based in the West Bank and Gaza, and three more are elsewhere in the Middle East. Nearly all the others are local BDS committees in the United States and Europe, with a handful of left-wing groups like Code Pink and the American Friends Service Committee.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry's "Hate Net," purportedly showing links between BDS organizations, June 2018.
Strategic Affairs Ministry

This hardly constitutes a global threat to Israel. Most of these are marginal organizations with little impact on public opinion, and even less with governments or business. The Hate Net report tries to magnify their importance by presenting a web of connections between them that seemingly spans the world. But the fact that the Chilean BDS group (yes, one of the 42 “prominent” organizations) has links with Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel in Ramallah seems perfectly reasonable and hardly speaks of a deep conspiracy.

Erdan’s Orwellian performance this week, which was probably aimed at Likud voters more than slaying any BDS monster, is doing more harm to Israel’s image than Lara Alqasem and her fellow activists could ever dream of doing.