BDS Is a Political Funhouse but in Reality It's Going Nowhere

The reality around the boycott movement has been distorted beyond recognition - it’s neither anti-Semitic nor has any consequence, and certainly not worth the time of 435 Congresspeople

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BDS activists in Los Angeles, August 22, 2016.
BDS activists in Los Angeles, 2016. Credit: AFP / Robyn Beck
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Anyone needing proof of the sorry state of human reason can usually satisfy himself by perusing Trump’s tweets. But the president no longer has a monopoly on the absurd, which is now readily available in majestically worded Congressional resolutions filled with “whereas” clauses giving them the imprimatur of careful and considered thought.

Such is the case of the House resolution, passed by a lopsided 398-17 vote last week, expressing opposition to the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement.

We’ll get back to the resolution and the nonsensical controversy it has caused, but first let’s get real about BDS: It’s a marginal movement, popular in bastions of leftist political correctness such as college campuses and mainline church groups, and it's not even close to winning broad support in the United States or even in Europe.

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Actually, people don't even know what BDS is. Last month, a J Street survey of Democratic voters (the kind of people who would favor the movement, if you believe Republicans) showed that nearly 64% had never even heard of BDS. Another 27% claimed to have heard “a little,” but we can put almost all of them down as people too embarrassed to admit they're also clueless.

J Street didn’t ask how many of the respondents supported BDS among the less than 10% who knew of its existence, but I doubt they’d find a lot. The Americans who know about BDS are probably Jews who hate and fear it.

Considering the circumstances, having an august body like the U.S. House of Representatives take notice should be a godsend for BDS. But the movement is too marginal to make use of the free publicity, and the Palestinian cause as a whole has become hopelessly marginalized.

In America and Europe, Trump and the rise of populism are the major preoccupation of the center-left. A good leftist is presented with so many causes, including various boycotts, that only the most pro-Palestinian faithful are likely to heed the BDS call. The movement insists that it’s growing by the day, but the reality is that more Americans have doubts about the earth being round than have heard of BDS.

Thanks mainly to its high-tech industry, Israel has become a critical part of the global supply chain - mainly the research and development part - and the corporate world is doing more business with it than ever before. Without an economic boycott, all the declarations of student councils and pop stars refusing to perform in Israel don’t add up to a hill of beans for the Palestinian cause – they're just a passing headline before Israel is back to business as usual.

To its credit, having decided that BDS nevertheless merits attention, Congress voted for a quite reasonable resolution - so reasonable, in fact, that it’s hard to understand why it wasn’t attacked by Zionist fanatics as much as by BDS supporters. For starters, it doesn’t tar BDS with anti-Semitism or “demonize” it as BDS supporters are claiming. It recognizes the right to boycott, recalls the successful boycotts of the past and calls for a two-state solution.

The fact that the resolution is regarded as a win for Israel just shows how the entire BDS debate is an ideological and political funhouse where reality has been distorted beyond recognition.

Anti-semitism is the distorted mirror par excellence of the alterative reality the BDS debate inhabits. The movement straddles a fine line between left-liberal concerns over human rights and equality, and an anti-Israel stance that easily bleeds into outright anti-Semitism. While the official BDS website disavows anti-Semitism and never explicitly criticizes Israelis or Jews, it certainly demonizes Israel as a country. But not in a way that exceeds the normal bounds of radical politics.

The charge that BDS is anti-Semitic stems mainly from the fact that it singles out Israel. On the surface, this seems unfair: Saying that BDS ignores other, more severe violations elsewhere in the world is like accusing the American Cancer Society of ignoring those who suffer from heart diseases.

On the other hand, the glaring absence of significant boycott movements targeting other countries is suspicious. Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American congresswoman and BDS supporter, tried to wiggle out of that problem in a CNN interview by saying she’d happily sign up for a boycott of Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

If Tlaib were serious, she would do a simple Google search and find a few movements, even more marginal than BDS, that target the two countries. The problem for leftists is that their conscience tells them to go easy on non-European countries no matter how awful they are. Guilty feelings over colonialism and the risk of being seen as interfering white Europeans is too powerful for them to act forcefully.

In this context, Israel’s sin isn’t that it’s Jewish, but that it is regarded as white and European. That doesn’t mean that anti-Semites, who don’t regard Jews as either, don’t support BDS too. But BDS’s real problem is that the movement is going nowhere. Its friends and its enemies should recognize that and move on.

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