Reaction

Of all the accusations made against the BDS project on this site (that they represent a militant propaganda campaign masquerading as a “peace movement,” that they manipulate and exploit civic organizations for their own gain with no regard to whom they hurt, etc.), the one that stands out as the most easily measurable is simply that BDS is a loser.

After all, we are now entering the 11th year of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project and, despite tireless campaigns on campuses across the country, the number of schools that have divested from Israel stands where it did a decade ago: at zero. Once supportive churches flee from their program, municipalities kick them down the stairs, and even tiny victories (like the one coerced from a single food co-op) simply immunize similar organizations from being manipulated into the boycott fold.

Keep in mind that all of this has happened in a decade where not only has Israel’s economy (the target of boycott and divestment campaigns) doubled in size, but other divestment campaigns (such as ones targeting Iran and Sudan) have both gotten off the ground and won impressive victories (real ones, not the pretend ones fraudulently lauded by the campaign to similarly divest from Israel). So by any objective standard, the equation of “BDS = Loser” is hard to refute.

Which is why BDSers regularly retreat to their own definitions of “victory,” in which everything they do (including losing) is re-defined as a win. “We may have lost the vote, but we started the conversation,” is a frequent formulation heard at the end of the umpteenth BDS rout, even if this “conversation” tends to include the boycotters simply carrying on their usual talk with each other (regarding Israeli crimes and unvarnished sin) while the rest of us carry on a different conversation about what cynical jerks the BDSers are, coupled with joy at seeing them get the boot again and again.

There is one argument they make, however, that carries a bit more weight regarding the “movement’s” effectiveness: that the reaction of the Jewish community to their efforts proves that BDS is having an impact.

It cannot be denied, after all, that many Jewish institutions (such as JCPA, AJC and even the Israeli government) have pushed the campaign against the “de-legitimization” of Israel (of which BDS is a part) to the top of the community agenda. Major reports are published on the subject. National events take place to discuss it. Resolutions are passed condemning it. There is even a multi-million dollar effort to create an organization to fight it. So how can I claim that a project that gets so much attention is a loser?

This is actually quite a strong argument, and given that this BDS backlash involves numerous individuals and organizations making political decisions, one that cannot be answered definitively. However, as someone who has put a fair amount of effort into participating in (and hopefully cultivating) this backlash over the years, I can offer a few alternative theories as to why so much effort is being made to defeat a campaign that is already losing.

First. historical: When BDS first came on the scene in the early 2000s, it took most of us (individuals and institutions alike) by complete surprise. So a certain amount of over-reaction since divestment’s attempted resurrection in 2009 might simply be the case of people not wanting to get caught flatfooted again.

Second, emotional: Campaigns which target Jews for economic punishment have a resonance that go back a long time and have never led to anything other than disaster. And despite efforts to claim BDS is only targeting Israel (not Jews) or “the Occupation” (not Israel), at the end of the day if an academic boycott ever got passed anywhere (to cite one example), it would not be all Israel students and professors that would be impacted, just the Jewish ones.

Third, institutional: Larger organizations (particularly well-established ones) tend to value internal cohesion and perceptions of strength. And thus they try to avoid issues that could divide their constituencies or battles they stand a chance of losing. Which is why embracing the fight against BDS is a winner for these groups, given that the “movement” is so universally loathed that the chance of splitting the community over it is small. And the fact that BDS has proven such a loser means that participating in the fight against it will likely place you on the winning side (a preferable home for both individuals and institutions).

Finally, strategic: As noted above, the resources the Jewish world is marshalling are targeted at the broader issue of “de-legitimization,” of which BDS is simply one aspect. And the bulk of this de-legitimization effort doesn’t come from people trying to bully Israeli cosmetics off of store shelves, but from wealthy and powerful governments manipulating international institutions (such as the UN) to declare any Israeli action (if not the country itself) as criminal. It comes in the form of efforts to exclude Israelis (and only Israelis) from global political, economic, and academic bodies, or to leverage ambiguity in national or international law to harass Israelis at home or abroad (otherwise known as “lawfare”).

Within this broader de-legitimization campaign, BDS is actually the weakest link (as demonstrated by its almost universal failure). So by wrapping the hugely unpopular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project around the neck of the entire effort to brand Israel an illegitimate state, the fight against BDS offers a way to de-legitimize the entire de-legitimization effort.