Opinion |

Mike Pompeo, Messiah of the BDS Movement

The Israel boycott movement is a dismal failure, but the hard-right in the U.S. and Israel is determined to keep it alive. And Pompeo has excellent reasons to join this illusory crusade

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: He knows the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel is an illusion. But he also knows 'fighting BDS' is profitable, financially and politically
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: He knows the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel is an illusion. But he also knows 'fighting BDS' is profitable, financially and politicallyCredit: POOL/ REUTERS
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A colleague working for an Emirati news organization arrived this week in Israel on the first commercial flight from Dubai to Tel Aviv. Before her arrival, we exchanged ideas for stories she wanted to cover while she was here, and I tried to provide her with phone numbers of useful contacts. Just the normal procedures of two journalists from different countries helping each other out.

Only once, as we were texting, I thought for a moment how unthinkable all this would have been but a few months ago. And now it all seems so natural.

That thought occurred to me at the same time as I had just finished reading last week's press statement made by U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headlined "Identifying Organizations Engaged in Anti-Semitic BDS Activities."

It’s not that I was expecting much from a statement made by a politician who is not only Pompeo by name, but insufferably pompous by nature, but what struck me is that whoever wrote it for him had actually used the word "global" to describe the BDS campaign, no less than five times, and even capitalized it: the Global BDS Campaign.

What global campaign? How is BDS, outside the feverish imaginations of a few of its meager band of supporters or of paranoid right-wing nutters, in any way global?

The so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel is the most failed, overhyped and exaggerated campaign in the first two decades of the 21st century. If it at all exists outside the media’s imagination and in the Facebook or Twitter accounts of keyboard activists who literally have no power to boycott, divest or sanction anyone, a minor creed in the cultural and identity shadow wars on the internet and a tiny handful of campuses in the west.

Demonstrators wear shirts reading 'Boycott Israel' in Paris, France, Dec. 9, 2017. Credit: AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu

Fifteen years after the first "call" for BDS was made in July 2005, even before Israel’s "normalization" agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were announced, to the deafening silent approval of the rest of the Arab League, it was clear that BDS had failed to create even the slightest dent in Israel’s economy or acceptance around the world.

Not only had BDS failed on every front, with the minor exception of bullying a handful of singers and academics not to take part in concerts or conferences in Israel, but the 15 years of the BDS campaign had seen an unprecedented surge in Israeli trade and broadening of its foreign relations. If anything had gone global during the decade and a half since BDS was launched, it has been Israel.

The eagerness of Arab countries to "normalize" their ties with Israel is further proof, if any is needed. As is the support among Israel’s Palestinian citizens for the agreements with the UAE and Bahrain: 60 percent according to Yusuf Makladeh of the Statnet Institute (36 percent of Arab-Israelis are opposed).

It has little to do with politics or where anyone stands on the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s simply a fact. The attempt to boycott Israel has spectacularly failed to gain regional, let alone global traction.

I’ve explained before why BDS is and was always bound to be an abject failure and why it was never going to catch on like the boycott movement of Apartheid South Africa that it imitated. This had as much to do with the changes in the global economy and Israel’s place in it, than the inherent ideological and political failings in the BDS concept.

I’m not even going to get in to the boring debate of whether or not BDS is antisemitic. The short answer to that is while BDS doesn’t exist, antisemitism is real. I’m more interested now in why it’s the hard-right in the U.S. and Israel which seems most eager in keeping BDS alive.

Mike Pompeo is no fool. He knows all this. After all, he has played a key role over the last couple of years in the various courtships between Israel and Arab countries. He was there on Sunday night at the meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman. So why is he so eager to big up BDS?

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani after their trilateral meeting in Jerusalem.Nov. 18, 2020Credit: Menahem Kahana,AP

It's because "fighting BDS" is an illusion of its own. Only unlike BDS, it is an illusion fed by figures in power in Washington and Jerusalem and sustained by government and private funding. Israel has a whole ministry devoted to "fighting" BDS and there are no shortage of those "fighters" online, some who even get paid for their "work." Many of those involved in the counter-campaign are perfectly aware that they are making money out of a myth, others are simply dim-witted and deluded. And it’s not just about the money.

BDS is a useful foil for the right-wing in Israel which needs to continue maintaining a siege mentality among Israeli citizens, even when it’s abundantly clear that the regional state of siege is collapsing. The right, even when it’s actually signing agreements with Arab governments, still needs an existential enemy, and BDS saves it the necessity to invent one from scratch.

If there are any Israelis actually fighting BDS (not that it’s necessary), it’s not the politicians or hasbarists of the right, but the mainly left-of-center businesspeople and tech entrepreneurs who have spent the past three decades hardwiring Israel in to the global economy.

But for a certain type of American Jewish organization and philanthropist, so lacking in imagination and independent thought that they need to subcontract their Jewish identity to Israel, BDS provides a "battle" in which they can easily take part.

Pompeo, who isn’t Jewish but who has been preparing to run for the Republican nomination in 2024 since being appointed State Secretary two and a half years ago, has latched on to BDS as well, in a naked appeal to the Jewish donors whom he hopes will finance his campaign. Other Republican politicians insist on breathing life in to a stillborn movement by passing ridiculous anti-BDS measures, stifling freedom of irrelevant speech.

BDS has proven such a dismal failure that even the western media has largely tired of covering it. Even the most credulous journalist has their limits when faced with reality. Among what passes as the progressive left, it has slipped so far down the list of ideological priorities that only a tiny bunch of obsessives still bother tweeting about it.

But they can still derive some comfort that thanks to the likes of Pompeo and his right-wing Jewish supporters, it will continue to exist as a "global" force.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

United Arab List chairman Mansour Abbas in the Knesset on Monday.

Arab Voters Will Decide if Israel's Far-right Wins Power

נתניהו עם כיפה שחורה על הראש נשען בשתי ידיו על הכותל

Israel Is Heading for Its Most 'Jewish' Election Ever

FILE PHOTO: A Star of David hangs from a fence outside the dormant landmark Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood in 2021.

American Judaism Is in Decline. That's Great News for American Jews