Stop Talking Up the Boycott

Only a few years ago, anti-boycott activists were cold-shouldered by the Israeli government. Now Israeli ministers have gone to the other hysterical extreme on BDS.

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It appears that Israel’s political leadership has finally woken up to the potential threat posed by the growth of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. In fact, it appears to have gone from one extreme to the other.

As somebody who has been at the vanguard of the fight on this battlefront on the assault upon Israel’s legitimacy for many years, I can’t help but notice a certain irony.

In 2006, when the (unsuccessful) campaign to institute an academic boycott of Israel first emerged in some UK education unions, we struggled to get any interest or support for our counter-efforts from the Israeli government and the upper echelons of Israel’s higher education system. In fact, we had to travel to Israel and convene a meeting of leaders of Israeli universities to convince them to oppose boycotts against their own institutions.

While eventually they came on board, many senior figures claimed that boycott campaigns would have no impact whatsoever. Others suggested that it was a positive development that might assist their Diaspora fundraising campaigns.
Now, it seems that BDS is one of the hottest issues on Israel’s political agenda, spawning masses of seminars, extended articles and news reports and in recent weeks, commentary from leading politicians culminating in a special Prime Ministerial meeting on the topic being called and subsequently cancelled.

However, much talk surfacing in Israel over the past few weeks on this issue has been unhelpful and frustrating for those of us working on the front line to oppose BDS. To be clear – the threat and potential dangers to Israel of an intensification of boycott-type activity should the current Kerry peace initiative collapse, are real.

They must not be underestimated. Thanks to the efforts of officials like Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Gideon Meir at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, strong working partnerships now exist between Israel's government and Diaspora communities to prepare for and combat these possible developments. But exaggerated and simplistic statements only encourage BDS activists, create unearned publicity for their actions and give credence to their disinformation. Commentary that claims that momentum is on the boycotters’ side becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that undermines our ability to counter BDS.

In reality, as it stands today, BDS efforts have been a colossal failure. Increasingly, political leaders and opinion elites understand that at the heart of the organized BDS campaign sits a fundamental opposition to Israel's existence as the Jewish nation-state. They see that boycotts undermine efforts to build bridges and cannot sit together with promoting a two states solution. This is why BDS has yet to accumulate significant victories.

Looking beyond the rhetoric and spin, the ugly truth of what we have fallen into the trap of describing as ‘BDS’ becomes clear. The reality of much of what passes as "BDS" today is threefold.

First - harassment, intimidation and mud-slinging by a miniscule number of anti-Israel zealots. They interrupt cultural events, intimidate and bully artists intending to perform in Israel, and harass of retailers and companies doing business with Israel.

Secondly, in a few cases, these zealots have successfully forced their agenda on that of much larger bodies, the majority of whose membership is opposed, apathetic or disengaged.

And thirdly, perhaps the most serious and complex manifestation, the growing desire of European governments (or more accurately some within European Governments) and EU institutions to turn long-standing opposition to Israel's presence in the West Bank into concrete actions – often motivated by a genuine belief that this is the only way to get the current Government of Israel to listen.

Until now the impact of the first two types of challenges has been almost nil. Successful Israeli cultural events take part throughout Europe, Israeli products, including those of companies targeted by the BDS campaign such as SodaStream are being sold at record levels and high-profile artists increasingly appear in Israel.

When institutions or associations have adopted BDS measures, we have often reversed such decisions, particularly when the wider membership of such bodies is allowed a say. Even when policies are passed they are rarely implemented. Ironically, boycott decisions have sometimes led to strengthening of ties to Israel.

The recent American Studies Association BDS policy was only backed by 16% of the total membership (around 800 people). In response, over 200 leading universities, as well as academic associations ten times larger than the ASA, firmly rejected the boycott. Academic connections between Israeli universities and those in North America and Europe continue to grow, nurtured by Ben Gurion University’s Professor David Newman who has led this work.

Similarly business ties between Israel and Europe continue to grow. Trade between Israel and the UK has reached record highs, and there is no sign that consumers have stopped buying Israeli goods.

The third dimension of the problem – the growing desire of European governments – is both real and significant. It is not rooted in the traditional BDS campaign, but from a sense that Israel’s government is not listening to them on the settlement issue.

Nevertheless, the BDS movement provides a catalyst and political hinterland for this tactic. The recently published EU guidelines (which a senior UK government minister described to me using the terminology of “boycott”) might be only the beginning; more measures are already being formulated in Brussels, together with more pressure for EU member states to adopt them domestically. (The recent divestment tactic adopted by a Dutch pension giant, based on their government’s advice, is an example of this trend.)

Of course, the central EU measures are currently framed as "settlement sanctions". Other BDS attempts increasingly attempt to project as "BDS-lite", only homing in on settlement produce and suchlike. In most Diaspora communities opposition to BDS is a "big tent", not just because this makes tactical sense, but because all parts of the Zionist political spectrum understand that not only do all forms of BDS harm the prospects for peace, but that the stated aims of the BDS movement, articulated by their leaders like Omar Barghouti, make it clear that settlement BDS is only a step towards a full boycott.

Whilst a pure settlement boycott may sound noble, the reality is that those involved in promoting BDS have more sinister motivation. It was set out clearly in a recent BDS policy debate at a leading UK trade union when the representative of the BDS movement explained that if a shipment of tons of goods from Israel arrived at the docks, and dock workers found one small packet of herbs from Efrat in the corner of a single container, the entire shipment would be considered as contaminated by settlement produce and workers would be expected to refuse to unload it under the "settlement BDS" policy he was supporting.

However, measures by European governments and institutions such as the guidelines and product labeling are not complete boycotts and sanctions on Israel and shouldn’t be clumsily lumped in with them. However, the aforementioned Dutch example demonstrates how easily settlement boycotts, even when Government backed, quickly spill over into wider BDS activity.

The BDS challenge is complex. If Israeli leaders are serious about confronting it they must desist from the temptation to use the issue to play to the galleries of the Israeli electorate. Such rhetoric is often counterproductive and ultimately finds its way into the discourse of the BDS campaign itself.

However, one of the heartening things about opposing BDS is that on this issue Israel does not stand alone. In the UK we have found surprising and diverse allies prepared to stand up for Israel’s right not to be discriminated against in this way, and to call out the anti-Semitism that is an almost inevitable consequence of a campaign that seeks to discriminate against the Jewish nation state and its supporters.

The single most useful thing that Israeli leaders can do to help mitigate the BDS threat is to relentlessly highlight Israel's desire for peace and its solid commitment to the formula of two states for two nations, and articulate a clear vision of what peace could look like and how it might be attained. This will help drive a wedge between those who support "settlement sanctions’ and the hardcore BDS campaign itself.

Hardline rejectionist statements from members of Israel's governing coalition fuel the diplomatic isolation and marginalization of Israel in the international arena. Similarly, remarks by Israeli leaders regarding BDS which generate hysteria and lack factual basis only harm efforts to counter the BDS movement around the globe.

Jeremy Newmark is the former Chief Executive of the UK’s Jewish Leadership Council and an advisor to British politicians and NGOs. He headed the successful campaign against a proposed academic boycott of Israel in the UK and was one of the founders of the Fair Play Campaign Group, which works to oppose anti-Zionist activism.

In this archive image from November 2012, protesters in Ireland call for a boycott of Israel following Israeli bombing of Gaza.Credit: AP

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