The BDS Monster Is Dying. Why Does Israel Keep Reviving It?

The groups on the government’s blacklist are obsessed with Israel, but between the lines they are saying the boycott movement is going nowhere

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A Code Pink protest in Washington, DC, on July 29, 2009
A Code Pink protest in Washington, DC, on July 29, 2009Credit: Karen Bleier, AFP

What is it about the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement that seems to unhinge everyone?

It’s no surprise that a movement with almost nothing to show for its 10 years of activism wants to exploit any opportunity that arises to insert itself into the news cycle. The more remarkable thing is that the Israeli government insists on giving a marginal phenomenon the opportunity, as it did with the release of its BDS blacklist.

The BDS movement cries that Israel's blacklist is an affront to democratic values and free speech. It is, but only in a minor way: It involves 20 groups, most of them tiny, and will affect maybe a few score people around the world.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, of Jewish Voice for Peace, was tripping over herself on this, contending on the one hand that Israel is “seeking to intimidate and coerce us into silence,” while acknowledging that all the organization’s work is done in the U.S. and that if anything, membership was growing as a result of the blacklist.

Israel's insistence of raising the profile of the BDS movement isn’t in its own interests, but it can’t seem to help itself. The Israeli right is hungry for mortal enemies and its leaders (who, alas, control the country) are happy to satiate their deepest desires, especially as election time seems to be drawing closer.  With all the rockets coming out of Gaza, Hamas would a good choice for mortal foe right now but the logical outcome would be a war, so why not pick a toothless enemy?

Last week the government approved a plan setting aside $75 million for a nonprofit organization to fight BDS. And now we have the blacklist.

“We have shifted from defense to offense," Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan said, justifying the move. "The boycott organizations need to know that the State of Israel will act against them and not allow [them] to enter its territory to harm its citizens."

The rising tide that isn't

What harm? There is no “rising global tide of support for BDS,” as Vilkomerson insists. Her own organization’s website is all the evidence you need.

In its section on BDS, it targets – of all things – SodaStream, the fizzy-water systems maker that packed up and left the West Bank in 2015 but which JVP lamely says is now “stealing Palestinian land” inside the Green Line with its new factory in the Negev. It also has a section devoted to stopping G4S, even though the global security company sold its Israel unit six months ago.

JVP isn’t alone is waging a nonsensical boycott, as the websites of the bigger groups on the blacklist show. 

The American Friends Service Committee also highlights SodaStream, as does Code Pink. While about it, Code Pink also targets Airbnb, the real estate agency ReMax, and the cosmetics company Ahava, as if boycotting these businesses, which are minnows in the Israeli economic constellation, would bring Israel to its knees.

The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Committee has a petition for supporters to sign demanding the Irish building materials company CRH divest its 25% stake in Israel cement company Nesher. Problem is – it did that two years ago. The websites also highlight some bigger fish like Hewlett Packard and the TIAA-CREF pension fund, but bottom line is they demonstrate how moribund the entire BDS campaign is.

These organizations don’t take the trouble to research what companies are really active in Israel and contributing to its economy, and don’t bother to bring their websites up to date because: 1) It would be a waste of time, as they know the BDS movement isn’t effective, 2) There are far too many companies in Israel to realistically impose an effective boycott -- and the list is constantly growing.

Can you imagine how depressing it would be for a BDS webmaster to be constantly adding new businesses to boycott, and only once or twice a year posting some minor victory when a student council votes to boycott Israel, only to be met with deafening silence from the administration and board of trustees? Better to concentrate on other things.

Which, indeed, they do. AFSC and Code Pink have tacitly admitted that BDS isn’t working, but they are obsessively interested in Israel and the Palestinians. AFSC’s website highlights five key issues, of which only one isn’t a U.S. domestic issue and that’s Israel-Palestine.

In a world of violence, abuse, racism and countless other ills, AFSC’s ethical- investment screening tool given you two options – American prisons and Israel/Palestine.

Code Pink does much the same. Of four highlighted issues on its website, three have to do with Israel. It has sections devoted to Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, but its stand on these trouble spots is that we have to learn to talk and understand each other. It (anachronistically) urges supporters to send sympathetic tweets to Syrians in Aleppo but refrains from saying who’s responsible for the atrocities or calling for a boycott of Assad, Iran or the Russians.

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach accused Lorde of anti-Semitism for cancelling her Israel concert, but it isn’t anti-Semitism that animates Israel boycotters. Israel has become the bete noir of the global left because it’s perceived as white, European and pro-American. If you’re all these things, you’re the enemy, and there’s nothing you can do change it, certainly not by banning BDS activists.