Changing the Conversation on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Changing the Conversation on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

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Support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel is growing, generating great angst and solution-searching amongst Israel supporters – including pro-peace progressives – in the United States and elsewhere in the world.  From the Adelson-Saban summit earlier this year, which gave birth to a new anti-BDS organization (to be led by someone who for years headed a far right-wing, pro-Israel, Evangelical Christian operation), to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s letter to Jewish leaders, BDS is now being treated even by many pro-peace progressives as the new “existential” threat to Israel, despite the fact that the actual track record of the BDS movement, in terms of concrete impact, is thus far mixed.

The impact of BDS: underestimated or overblown?

Economically, the BDS movement has so far been largely unsuccessful in promoting wide-scale, economically-significant boycotts, divestment, or sanctions targeting Israel. Indeed, most of the economic victories the BDS movement claims have nothing to do with BDS targeting Israel. Rather, these victories have been limited to actions and policies – adopted by private sector companies, governments, some major faith-based organizations, etc. – targeted not at Israel but at settlements and the occupation. These include the decision by SodaStream to move its manufacturing plant out of the West Bank, the EU’s Settlements Directive, and the decision of the Presbyterian Church to divest from companies active in supporting the occupation. Importantly, virtually all such actions and polices, at least thus far, have been framed in terms of continued support for Israel and for continued economic activity within Israel proper, as defined by the 1948 Armistice line (the Green Line).

At a political level, the impact of BDS has been mixed. Israelis and supporters of Israel clearly perceive BDS as a genuine threat to Israel. In fact, today one of the most potent arguments that supporters of peace and the two-state solution can employ against the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his right-wing allies is to warn of the danger of growing BDS activism. However, concerns about growing BDS have thus far failed to translate into any discernible shift in the policies of the Israeli government away from policies that fuel BDS, or into a shift in the calculations of Israeli voters in favor of political leaders who support different policies.  Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu has to an impressive degree hijacked concerns about BDS to build support for settlements.  Netanyahu has accomplished this by arguing that there is no difference between BDS targeting Israel and similar activism targeting the settlements and occupation.  According to this formulation, all such actions are defined as equally anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and all such actions represent actions designed to delegitimize Israel’s very existence.  Thus, when the EU requires exports to Europe produced in settlements be labeled as such, rather than misleadingly labeled as products of Israel, Netanyahu suggests that this is akin to anti-Semitic sentiments in Europe in the tradition of the Holocaust.

Efforts to exploit concerns about BDS in order to garner support for settlements came to a head earlier this year, with legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress seeking to conflate Israel and the settlements. This legislation, which was introduced in several forms, seeks to make it part of U.S. trade policy to reject boycotts and other forms of activism that target Israel or “territories under Israeli control” (or “Israeli-controlled territories”).  During the debate over what supporters insisted on describing as “anti-BDS” legislation, members of Congress accepted without challenge the assertion that such legislation was necessary because European governments are engaging in BDS against Israel. They appeared uninterested, unable or unwilling to recognize the distinction between European policies related to Israel (no EU nation is engaged in BDS against Israel and the EU remains Israel’s largest trading partner), and European policies related to settlements and the occupied territories (like the EU settlement directive and settlement product labeling requirements).  After Congress passed a major trade bill that included this faux anti-BDS language, the Obama Administration issued a rare clarification of U.S. policy rejecting the conflation of Israel and the settlements. Perhaps this step was intended to lay the foundation for opposition to further attempts in Congress to use BDS as a pretext to legislate protections for settlements in the future. 

Finally, on the societal level, it is clear that the appeal of the BDS movement is growing rapidly in the U.S. and around the world. The appeal of BDS, and the growing effectiveness of its advocates, is being felt today in energetic activism on campuses across the country, in the embrace of boycotts by various academic and trade associations, and in the continued growth of boycotts of Israel by the entertainment industry, to name a few. The main reason for this is apparent: the actions, policies, and rhetoric of successive Netanyahu governments have sent a resounding message to the world that Israeli leaders and their voters are not interested in a negotiated two-state solution.  Indeed, it appears that grassroots support for BDS – its tactics, if not the organized movement itself – has grown to encompass increasing numbers of people who may actually consider themselves supporters of Israel but who no longer believe that Israel will stop building settlements and sincerely pursue peace unless it faces more coercive tactics and concrete consequences for its actions.  

In sum, the BDS movement has until now enjoyed very limited success in terms of mobilizing serious boycotts, divestment, or sanctions against Israel. Pro-peace and pro-settlements advocates alike are using the threat of greater BDS to try to promote their agendas, but have so far achieved little at the political or policy level. The only place where the BDS movement is showing real success is at the popular level. So long as Israeli policies do not change to convince the world that Israel is serious about peace and the two-state solution, the appeal of BDS will almost certainly continue to grow.

Misguided tactics: how not to respond to BDS

Part of the reason for the growing popular success of the BDS movement, in addition to the Netanyahu government policies of the discrediting of peace efforts, is the failure of progressive, pro-peace advocates to make an effective case against BDS. Indeed, the response to BDS by much of the progressive, pro-peace community has been not only ineffective but self-defeating.   Many opponents of BDS still fall back on oversimplifying and caricaturing BDS and its appeal, insisting that the BDS movement and all of its adherents are anti-Israel, quite possibly anti-Semitic, and interested only in delegitimizing and ultimately destroying Israel.   

This argument is years past its sell-by date.  Many BDS leaders, advocates and supporters may be motivated to a greater or less degree by anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic views. However, increasing numbers of people who today are moving towards BDS are motivated by neither. This includes both older pro-peace progressives who have become disillusioned with Israeli policies and younger progressives whose values shape their political views and activism across the board, including with respect to Israel.  Many of these progressives are concluding that as people of conscience, they can no longer stand by idly as Israeli policies disclose an ever-more pro-settlement, anti-two-state, pro-Greater Israel agenda, and as the U.S. and other nations appear impotent to challenge them. Absent other avenues for consequential action, these pro-peace, pro-two-state progressives are increasingly turning to BDS tactics, if not to outright support for the BDS movement.

Likewise, many opponents of BDS, including within the progressive community, seem to still believe that they can push back effectively at a societal level against BDS while ignoring or downplaying the role that Israeli policies and actions play in stoking support for BDS.  They are mistaken.  After almost 50 years of occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem – accompanied by almost 50 years of Israeli policies designed to sustain and in many cases expand and deepen the occupation at the expense of the Palestinians – BDS cannot be fought by simply defaming its supporters and ignoring or denying the legitimacy of many of their grievances.

An effective, progressive response to BDS

How, then, can pro-peace progressives respond to the BDS movement?

  • First, respectfully engage BDS supporters. Simply dismissing all those who support BDS as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic is not only unfair but also counter-productive. Progressive, pro-peace opponents of BDS should at every opportunity engage in dialogue with BDS supporters. Opponents of BDS must recognize that BDS supporters - just like themselves - are grappling with a complex, emotionally-charged issue. Open, respectful dialogue can enable BDS supporters to see those who oppose BDS in the same light. And while such dialogue will have little effect on BDS supporters who have strongly-held views that are genuinely anti-Israel and/or anti-Semitic, dialogue with other BDS supporters can lead to greater mutual understanding and respect. Perhaps it can even convince them to look at other options for protesting Israeli policies to which they object.
  • Second, face the facts.  Any effort to convince people, in the U.S. or any country, to reject BDS must start with an emphatic recognition and rejection of Israeli policies that are feeding much of the growth in support for BDS today, particularly those related to expanding settlements and deepening the occupation. It is simply not possible to credibly engage supporters of BDS, let alone make the case against adopting BDS tactics, if at the same time one fails to speak out and engage in other activism against pro-settlement, anti-peace policies and actions of the Israeli government. Denying or downplaying these Israeli policies and their impact will only discredit those making the case against BDS.
  • Third, endorse the one serious alternative.  Many progressives, both Jewish and non-Jewish, remain squeamish about engaging in or endorsing any kind of boycotts or other activism that involves concrete consequences for any Israelis – including boycott/divestment activities that focus exclusively on settlements and the occupation.  This is a mistake. Rejecting activism targeting settlements and the occupation leaves the door wide open for advocates of BDS against Israel and everything Israeli. It tells pro-peace progressives who hunger for opportunities for consequential activism against Israel’s anti-peace policies that they face a binary choice – boycotting Israel or, in effect, supporting settlements. Faced with this choice, some progressives are, unsurprisingly, choosing BDS. It need not be this way.  Endorsing boycotts and similar activism targeting settlements and the occupation offers progressives a third option, – one that enables them to express their anger and frustration over Israeli occupation policies, and one that has proven to be far more effective and consequential than BDS in both economic and political terms.
  • Fourth, reject efforts to conflate Israel and the settlements. The success of activism targeting settlements and the occupation should come as welcome news to those who are genuinely worried about BDS against Israel. It is clearly unwelcome news, however, for Netanyahu and other settlement supporters.  That is why they have long sought to conflate Israel and the settlements, in a cynical effort to exploit opposition to BDS in order to prevent pressure on settlements.  By failing to challenge the argument that Israel and the settlements are one and the same – logic shared, ironically, by hardliners in the BDS movement and pro-settlement Israelis – progressive opponents of BDS will only further alienate those who are not automatically inclined to support BDS but who staunchly oppose settlements and the occupation.  

 This article was published as a part of an hbs North America series on US-Israel relations. To read more from this series, click here

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