Analysis

The BDS Movement Just Issued More Fake News

The claim that HSBC divested its holding in Elbit in support of Palestinian rights doesn’t stand up to the bank’s own statement

The Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufactured by Elbit Systems Ltd. stands on display at the company's booth during the Singapore Airshow held at the Changi Exhibition Centre in Singapore, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014.
Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

For a little while this week, I was beginning to wonder if BDS’ moment had arrived and that Israel would start suffering a wave of corporate boycotts and divestments.

It was a little hard to believe because Israel hasn’t done anything particularly egregious lately that would have aroused global public opinion.

But big corporations are increasingly being called onto to the political carpet and in the age social media, they risk being caught up in a PR nightmare when they do something wrong. You can’t ignore the uproar, so when it comes to issues that aren’t business critical, it makes more sense to back down than to fight. 

Airbnb’s decision to stop listing apartments and rooms for rent in West Bank settlements was a case in point. There were only about 200 listings – a tiny number even relative to the Israeli market, much less the global one, so the company’s decision isn’t going to exert any economic pressure on Israel or even on the settlements.

It wasn’t a moral victory for the BDS movement either because Airbnb refused to call its action a boycott of the settlements but a decision not to entangle itself in a divisive political dispute. A top Airbnb executive visited Israel shortly afterwards and even met with settler leaders. He said the company was sticking to its decision, but made clear it would continue doing business with Israel, including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

Airbnb could be dissembling in order to avoid lawsuits or losing its much more significant business inside Israel, but for BDS to claim a moral victory it would have had to get the company on board as a supporter of Palestinian rights. It didn’t, although you wouldn’t know that from the BDS propaganda.

Last week the BDS propaganda machine was back at work. This time the movement claimed that HSBC, the world’s seventh-largest bank, was divesting its holding in the Israeli arms maker Elbit Systems.

HSBC did divest its holding in Elbit. But it wasn't under the circumstances or for the reason that BDS implied.

Not 'because'

To the movement’s credit (or maybe because of the Christmas/New Year’s holiday), BDS hasn’t said anything about Elbit. But an ally organization called War on Want was crowing: “HSBC confirmed to campaigners that it has fully divested from Israeli drone manufacturer Elbit Systems, which sells weapons to the Israeli military used in attacks on Palestinians.”

Now, read that sentence carefully. Note in particular the word “which” that follows Elbit Systems and observe that it isn’t “because.”

That could be just careless writing, or it could be because War on Want knows the Palestinian issue wasn’t why HSBC divested from Elbit. But, what the hell, let’s take credit for it – we campaigned hard.

In fact, HSBC said in an email to me from Stuart Levey, HSBC’s chief legal officer and group managing director, that, “Our asset management business divested from Elbit based on our stated defense policy with respect to cluster munitions, not in response to any campaign.”

The reason for the divestment was because Elbit produces cluster munitions. Other arms makers, including those in the U.S., have been affected by the same policy. As Levey notes, HSBC has a banking operation in Israel.

In any case, the value of the shares it sold was $600,000, which is 0.01% of Elbit’s issued share capital. So, just like with Airbnb, there’s no economic impact and no moral statement either, at least vis-à-vis Israel and the occupation.

It could be that HSBC is being coy and simply wants to rid itself of demonstrations in front of its bank branches. But it’s not a moral victory for BDS if the bank denies that it acted for the stake of Palestinian rights. 

That hasn’t stopped the BDS movement and its friends from declaring “victory” without asking too many questions about what really happened. The claim may not true, but it will inspire activists to keep their work and live with the myth that the struggle is moving from one great achievement to the next.

The real issue is why anyone else should believe it. The Israeli government pretends to because it buttresses the right’s worldview of an Israel beset by enemies in the West bent on its slow destruction.  

The claim is so ridiculous that it seems a waste of words to point out that, for example, the supposedly Israel-loathing European Union is our biggest trading partner, gives Israeli products duty-free entry, allows us - to our immense advantage - to participate in science programs like Horizon 2020 and sends hundreds of thousands of tourists here.

What the EU doesn’t like is settlements. But, in an echo of the same kind of convoluted moral equations the BDS movement uses to turn anyone who does business with Israel into a Nazi, the right employs the logic that if you oppose settlements, you oppose Israel’s existence and that makes you an anti-Semite.

In an era when everyone is entitled to their own truth, right-wing voters buy the Israel-hating worldview as a fact. It happily gives them and the government carte blanche to ignore any and all criticism of Israel on the grounds that it’s all motivated by anti-Semitism.

There aren’t many BDS supporters in Israel, but Gilad Erdan’s Strategic Affairs Ministry spent 17% of its anti-BDS marketing budget in Israel in 2017  anyhow. That says a lot about whom the anti-BDS campaign is really for. Israelis on the left or right shouldn’t buy this propaganda any more than BDS supporters buy their movement’s. It’s all smoke and mirrors.