Anyone trying to make sense out of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and its effectiveness must have had a headache last week.
The statistics were bewildering, for one thing. On the one hand, there was a poll showing that 33% of Americans and 40% of Brits think boycotting Israel is “justified.” On the other, Bloomberg News offered up a series of economic data points demonstrating that the boycott was having no discernible effect on the Israeli economy: High-tech exports climbed 13% last year and foreign investment in Israeli tech companies reached its highest level in decades, for example.
On the political front, there was the anti-BDS conference at the United Nations, sponsored by the Israeli UN mission and a host of Jewish organizations, where speakers railed against BDS and the anti-Semitism they accuse of driving it, and engaged in strategies for fighting it. But then you had the CEO of SodaStream, the maker of fizzy-drink machines often held up as BDS’ No. 1 victim, saying on the conference's sidelines that the BDS scare was a fake.
“The current Israeli government cultivates the Israel-Palestine conflict in all its forms and grasps onto the BDS movement because perpetuating the conflict and the boycott movement strengthens its hold on power,” Daniel Birnbaum told the financial daily Globes.
One luminary, and a lot of fuzzy thinking
Thank heavens for Birnbaum, the sole source of reason last week. He was a badly needed analgesic amid all the headache-inducing noise being made, ironically not by the BDS movement but by pro-Israel forces manning the front lines against it.
Take that poll ostensibly showing widespread support for boycotting Israel.
I know it's hard to believe, but hundreds of millions of Americans spend days, if not weeks, without thinking about Israel at all, and when they do their feelings aren’t strong enough to fit into a binary question: “Would you define yourself as pro-Israel or Anti-Israel?”
Yet the poll, by the international polling organization Ipsos, found that 81% of the respondents in America (and even 67% of Israel-hating Britain) called themselves “pro-Israel.” At the same time, the poll found that a third of Americans thought supporting a boycott was theoretically justified, and 24% said they would actually support actions leading to a boycott.
So are there millions of Americans who say they are both pro-Israel and also support boycotting it?
Mind you, such creatures exist in places like J Street, but to suggest that their numbers are big enough to manifest themselves in an opinion poll is ludicrous. But drill down a little and it’s easy to see why such numbers surface.
Respondents were not allowed to answer “I don’t know” or “refuse to answer,” so naturally a large percentage said “yes” when given a binary option of supporting or opposing a boycott or being pro- and anti-Israel.
Intel vs Intel?
In any case, if a quarter of Americans and a third of Britons really supported a boycott of Israel, we'd be in a lot of trouble. There would be mass rallies in front of shopping centers, products would molder on store shelves and pension funds would be dropping Israeli stocks like a hot potato. Yet nothing like this is happening.
Bloomberg’s economic data are a little misleading. For instance, it focuses on 2015 figures, which show that high-tech exports grew in the double digits. But Bloomberg neglects to mention that overall exports were down 7%. Moreover, Israeli exports, including tech exports, have been falling sharply in recent months.
Still, Bloomberg’s figures on foreign investment are correct, and no serious analyst thinks the decline in exports has anything to do with BDS.
Israeli exports are dominated by a few companies, including Intel and Israel Chemicals. Since Intel Israel’s exports are destined for other parts of the company, dropping Israeli products due to BDS would mean that Intel Philippines has decided to boycott Intel Israel. Or it would mean that Indian and Chinese farmers are so disgusted with Israel’s human rights record they refuse to buy fertilizers containing Israel Chemicals’ potash. (The fact is, ICL's exports are down because potash prices are in a slump.)
Measuring BDS' real impact
A better barometer of BDS’ impact would be SodaStream. The company remains a target of the movement even after it closed its West Bank factory, yet its first-quarter sales rose more than 10%.
Meanwhile, Volkswagen, a company that would be as sensitive as any to hostile public opinion on Israel, announced last month it was investing $300 million in the Israeli ride-hailing app Gett and becoming a strategic partner.
So, if BDS is having so little impact, why are forces being mobilized to fight it?
That's where Birnbaum hits the nail on the head. Right now the Palestinians are quiescent; the Arabs are fighting each other, not Israel (even the Islamic State hasn't been issuing many blood-curdling threats against the Jewish state), and the Iranian nuclear threat has receded into the background. But Israel’s right wing and its allies abroad need an enemy to confront and confirm their worldview that Israel is always beset by enemies motivated not by human rights concerns but by anti-Semitism.
BDS is the perfect target. It’s a small but voluble movement, and many (though by no means all) of its supporters stray into the realm of anti-Semitism. The battle is played out in an easily manipulated virtual world of social media, opinion polls, hysterical rhetoric and an occasional celebrity who refuses to perform in Israel.
In a real war you can count bodies, land conquered or lost, and buildings destroyed. In the BDS war, assessing the threat, or the lack thereof, is more difficult.
Both BDS and (strangely enough) its opponents have a common interest in playing up the damage. And so the anti-BSD forces gather at the United Nations, vowing to bring out the heavy artillery to bombard a mouse.
“We will fight them on campus, we will fight them in the courts of law, we will fight them in the halls of the UN,” vowed a Churchillian Danny Danon, Israel’s representative to the organization and one of the sponsors of last week’s conference.
But the fact is, the war, such as it is, is nothing more than skirmishes on college campuses and a few bastions of geriatric leftists active in grocery co-ops, labor unions and mainstream church groups. The mice can only be flattered by all the attention.
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