Israel’s Fight Against BDS Is Keeping A Failed Movement Alive
The German parliament’s passage on May 17 of a non-binding resolution condemning BDS as anti-Semitic — which secured the votes of parties from the left, right, and center of German politics — was, in a sense, a victory for Israeli interests and the country’s otherwise-entirely redundant Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy.
When the ministry isn’t throwing away taxpayer money on superfluous conferences — at a time when Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomats are reportedly being squeezed until the pips squeak — Israel is succeeding in putting BDS on the international agenda.
Various U.S. states have passed laws far stronger than the German resolution that, to use Minnesota’s law as an example, prevent companies that participate in BDS from doing business with the state. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has also been going after BDS’s financial infrastructure, pressuring platforms like PayPal to close dozens of its fundraising accounts.
These are indeed victories, though only of a sort. For in its war against BDS and Israel’s delegitimization, Jerusalem finds itself trapped by an obvious contradiction, unable to stop fighting BDS — but strengthening the movement through its efforts.
Since BDS is a manifestly anti-Zionist political movement, Israel has no choice but to push back against it. Its aims, if their 2005 declaration is taken at face value, are quite clear: the end of Israel’s “colonization of all Arab lands” and the protection of “the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.”
Were such demands made concrete, Israel would cease to exist. Were BDS to become a broad-based movement underwritten by national governments, it could constitute an existential threat.
But, of course, it isn’t — and likely never will be. BDS is a failed political movement, and the Israeli government stalks a tiger that walks on paper feet.
While BDS supporters are still able to muster enough people to gather outside stores selling Israeli products, underwrite letters to the Guardian, or pressure this or that artist into not stopping in Tel Aviv on their world tour, these are but demonstrative acts that, together, constitute a carnival sideshow.
In fourteen years, BDS has failed to attract support beyond those who were already inclined to dislike Israel to begin with — those already engaged with placard-waving movements like Britain’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign — and has made no perceptible impact on the Israeli economy.
Indeed, a study conducted by the financial risk-management firm Financial Immunities found that the proportion of Israeli companies actually damaged by BDS was around 0.75%.
They calculated that, since 2010, BDS has reduced the turnover of all Israeli companies by a mere 0.004%. In that same time period, Israel has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants from the European Union for scientific research, engaged with Greece and Cyprus in regional energy development, and forged closer ties with, among others, India, all of which indicates BDS hasn’t hindered Israel’s diplomatic objectives much either. (Indeed, the only person who seems to hinder Israeli diplomacy is the Prime Minister himself.)
Ironically, the German parliament’s resolution is a helpful indicator of why BDS has failed. For one, it forbids lending financial support to not only any organization that calls for a boycott of Israel or supports BDS, but also those “that call Israel’s existence into question.”
In casting itself as an anti-Zionist movement, BDS made itself at its very inception beyond the pale to not only the State of Israel but also 95% of American and European Jews, as well as states like Germany for whom protecting Israel is a raison d’état. It also made itself irrelevant to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, which is, after all, a conflict of nationalisms whose resolution will be two states, not one.
But BDS has failed not only because of its aims but also because of its methods, which are indicative of the movement’s historical illiteracy, as the text of the German parliament’s resolution shows. They found the “patterns of arguments and methods of the BDS movement” to be “anti-Semitic” because the call to boycott Israeli goods is reminiscent “of the most terrible phase of German history. The ‘Don’t Buy’ stickers of the BDS movement on Israeli products arouse unavoidable associations with the Nazi slogan, ‘Kauft nicht bei Juden!’, scrawled upon Jewish-owned storefronts and shop windows,” the resolution contends.
The BDS movement views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a war between the powerful and powerless, occupier and occupied — which, of course, it is. But as Amos Oz once powerfully observed, it is at its core a struggle between two frightened and abandoned peoples, two victims, both of whom remain scarred by their histories.
“Europe, which colonized the Arab world, exploited it, humiliated it, trampled upon its culture, controlled it and used it as an imperialistic playground,” he wrote in “Between Right and Right,” “is the same Europe which discriminated against the Jews, persecuted them, harassed them, and finally, mass-murdered them in an unprecedented crime of genocide.”
The Palestinians remain a stateless nation of refugees that dreams, whatever one may think of those dreams, of its lost villages, but Israelis and indeed Diaspora Jewry remain a people shaped by the experience and memory of the ghetto, of pogrom, and of the Holocaust.
When a group of BDS supporters stands outside of stores selling Israeli goods and, as the German parliament added, slaps “Don’t Buy” stickers on Israeli products — in the German language, no less — how could the Israeli government, the German parliament, and German Jews not hear the reverberations of the Nazi cry, “Kauft nicht bei Juden”?
Not only, then, did BDS fail because of its anti-Zionism, but because it has no historical memory. BDS is totally insensitive to the Jewish experience.
The German resolution, then, clearly expresses the emotional and historical underpinnings of Israel’s desire to counter BDS with such passionate intensity — why President Reuven Rivlin would call BDS a “modern blood libel.”
Israel may have no other choice than to fight a movement that’s failed. But in fighting that movement, it is giving the kiss of life to a campaign that ceased breathing long ago. Whatever the actual existential threat to Israel is today, it is not BDS, a movement whose time has never and will never come.
Liam Hoare is a freelance journalist and critic based in Vienna.