You may recall a media uproar some 15 years ago, that people with blonde hair would become extinct over the next couple of hundred years.
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The study, variously ascribed to the World Health Organization or “German scientists,” was based on a correct, but practically meaningless, fact that blondeness is created by a recessive gene.
So why did such reputable news organizations as the BCC and The Sunday Times pick up the story? How did Italy’s La Repubblica come up with such explicit details like, "According to the WHO study, the last natural blonde is likely to be born in Finland during 2202,” when they didn’t exist? As one editor put it at the time, “It was a fact too good to check.”
That wisdom could just as well apply to boycott, sanctions and divestment movement against Israel. It’s not that BDS doesn’t exist, but it has been given the kind of attention far, far out of proportion to the size of its constituency or its accomplishments.
BDS is a marginal phenomenon whose power base consists of college students, church and union activists, and academics in fields prone to left-wing posturing like anthropology and cultural studies. But it's is too tempting for some to see it as anything less than a threat to Israel’s existence.
So when foreign investment into Israel dropped 46% in 2014, the word went out – not just in social media but the mainstream press, too – that multinational companies were dropping Israel like a hot potato in the face of the boycott campaign.
Anyone who follows business trends in Israel could only laugh. Investment flows can fluctuate violently from year to year, especially for a small country like Israel. Even in 2014, the most likely reason investment fell was because the stock market was booming and instead of selling themselves to multinational corporations, as Israeli startups do most of the time (which is considered foreign direct investment), the startups opted for an initial public offering on Wall Street (which is not).
Sorry, is this explanation boring? IPOs, the stock market, high tech companies? That’s for the business pages. But everyone can understand a boycott, and unthinkingly interpret the drop in investment either as cause for celebration, and the imminent rise of a Palestinian state, or as reason to chew their fingernails as they ponder Israel’s impending doom. Which makes a better news story?
By the way, in 2015, the IPO market sagged and foreign direct investment into Israel rose 73%.
Honey, where's the steamroller?
A more typical BDS achievement occurred a couple of weeks ago, when some BDS activists in Vancouver, British Columbia, went into a No Frills supermarket and affixed labels to Pamper diapers and Coffee-Mate saying, “Warning! Made in Israel: A country violating international law, the 4th Geneva Convention, and fundamental human rights#BDS.” They were quickly removed.
Two things come to mind:
1) None of the products the activists labeled are actually made in Israel. This is a big problem for BDS. It has trouble finding things to realistically boycott, i.e., consumer products made in Israel that people can easily choose not to buy, and so has trouble directing its anti-Israel wrath. SodaStream fizzy-drink dispensers may not be essentials, but Intel chips are made in Israel. Is BDS ready to tell people not to buy PCs or smartphones?
2) Nobody pays attentions to labels. Just ask the U.S. surgeon-general.
But the most interesting aspect of this story, which got reported by the JTA and picked up in a host of media outlets, is that it was a story at all. If No Frills, which belongs to a major Canadian retailer, had decided to drop Israeli products or consumers were boycotting them in droves, that would have been a story. In this case, it was a case of minor vandalism.
The fact that BDS has little strength or support is a fact just too good to check. So, not only has it created a media phenomenon but a political counter-reaction that’s the equivalent of driving a steamroller over a shirt to get the wrinkles out.
Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban have entered the fray with their billions and political connections, as have well-heeled organizations like Stand With Us. Netanyahu has allocated 100 million shekels ($26 million) for an anti-boycott task force in the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
The big guns and the big money have resulted so far in six states and the Canadian parliament passing legislation boycotting boycotters. An anti-boycott provision even appears in U.S. trade legislation approved last year.
At Yedioth Aharonoth’s anti-BDS conference this week – another display of the steamroller campaign – not only did U.S. ambassador Dan Shapiro make an appearance but so did the European Union Ambassador Lars Faaborg-Andersen. The latter made for an interesting guest because the anti-BDS movement derives a lot of energy by insisting that the BDS movement and anyone, like the EU, opposed to West Bank settlements or critical of Israel are one and the same. BDS is the bad cop and the EU is the good cop, but they are all enemies of Israel in their own way.
No doubt that is a good tactic for raising money and energizing anti-BDS activists, but it’s dangerous one that creates enemies out of friends and gives the real BDS movement a weightiness it doesn’t deserve.
Faaborg-Andersen said quite explicitly, “The EU is against BDS. Our policy is totally the opposite – one of engagement with Israel.” But, of course, the good cop is supposed to talk that way; the anti-BDS people hate the EU for taking even the timid step of labelling settlement products as coming from the West Bank.
The steamroller of the anti-BDS movement will not only create new enemies, it will have the opposite effect it intends. Yes, BDS’ ranks are filled out by anti-Semites, hard-core leftists and Islamists, but the kind of people most inclined to support the movement – among them many young Jews – are attracted to it because they believe it is seeking justice for a downtrodden Palestinian people. To BDS’s core constituency on college campuses, the notion that big money and powerful politicians are fighting them will only enhance BDS’ aura.