Politics & Policy


The movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel isn't selling.

Has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement succeeded in bringing the Zionist entity to its knees? Hardly. Despite incessant media reports that the BDS movement is gaining momentum, Israel’s economy and culture have continued to flourish.

BDS (that kinky-sounding acronym is an actual phrase used by the movement’s supporters) was launched in 2005 with the support of 170 pro-Palestinian organizations. The movement calls for a “comprehensive economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel.” The goal is to economically weaken the “apartheid” state of Israel, which is seen as colonial presence rather than as a legitimate nation.

While BDS has a vocal presence on U.S. college campuses, its first nine years haven’t produced many results. In 2005, the U.S. imported around $16.8 billion of Israeli goods. By 2013, that figure had risen to $22.8 billion, which accounted for one percent of all U.S. imports for that year. In the same time span, European Union imports of Israel goods increased from €9.7 billion to €12.7 billion. Trade between Israel and China has also continued apace.

“In just the last three months Israeli high-tech companies raised over $930 million in new capital,” Omri Ceren, a senior advisor at the Israel Project, tells National Review Online. “Meanwhile on the boycott side of things, you’ve got fringe activists trying to avoid buying Sabra hummus from Whole Foods.”

Nor does the cultural scorecard register many more points for BDS. True, some celebrities have refused to visit the country. Dustin Hoffman and Meg Ryan refused to show up to the 2010 Jerusalem Film Festival in the wake of the Gaza flotilla incident. Bono, Snoop Dogg, Elvis Costello, and Carlos Santana are among the artists who have refused to perform in Israel or have canceled tours.

The BDS website chalks up such refusals, and even statements of support, as “victories.” No matter, Israeli concertgoers can still see Neil Young and Justin Timberlake. The Pixies are still listed among BDS supporters for their cancellation of a 2010 performance, but here they are playing “Here Comes your Man” in Tel Aviv June 17. If Snoop Dogg counts as a victory for BDS, then these and all of the other concerts that regularly take place in Israel should all count as BDS defeats.

The boycott of Israel by academic organizations like the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association has likewise generated more buzz than impact. The life of the mind in Israel is anything but moribund. This year’s World Science Conference, which will take place during August in Jerusalem, is expected to feature no fewer than 20 Nobel laureates.

Much ado was made about Stephen Hawking’s politically motivated refusal to attend a conference in Israel last year. The British newspaper the Guardian covered the incident in an article called, “Stephen Hawking’s Boycott Hits Israel Where it Hurts: Science.” The article provides no evidence that Hawking’s media stunt harmed Israel or hindered the development of science there in any way.

Instead readers are told, “That the world’s most famous scientist had recognized the justice of the Palestinian cause is potentially a turning point for the BDS campaign.”

And again: “Hawking’s decision threatens to open a floodgate with more and more scientists coming to regard Israel as a pariah state.”

These statements tell us what the journalist thought might happen, not what had happened or what did happen. Few scientists are recognizable celebrities like Hawking. The expected level of participation at the upcoming World Science Conference suggests that few are willing to forego opportunities in order to make a political statement like Hawking’s.

The inefficacy of the BDS movement has frustrated vociferous critics of Israel. In a controversial interview at Imperial College London, American political scientist Norman Finkelstein said that while the BDS had some genuine victories – countable on two hands – the BDS movement is mostly for show.

“I’ve earned my right to speak my mind, and I’m not going to tolerate what I think is silliness, childishness, and a lot of leftist posturing,” Finkelstein, a harsh critic of Israel, said.

Another well-known critic of Israel, linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, sounded similar notes in a recent article for The Nation.

“Failed initiatives harm the [Palestinians] doubly — by shifting attention from their plight to irrelevant issues (anti-Semitism at Harvard, academic freedom, etc.), and by wasting current opportunities to do something meaningful,” Chomsky wrote.

While the BDS movement has not been an effective force, it nonetheless plays a significant role in shaping the public debate about Israel/Palestine through the use of extreme rhetoric, says Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The movement’s campus activities include observing and promoting Israel Apartheid Week, which compares Israel to the now-defunct racist regime of South Africa.

“I don’t think BDS is going to go away anytime soon, even though it continues to fail to actually have concrete results,” Segal tells National Review Online. “And the reason is because it is a way at the very minimum, to get people sort of involved in and interested in the anti-Israel movement. And if that’s all that it serves, that still enough and relevant enough for people to need to speak out against it.”

To put the BDS movement in its proper historical perspective, consider the storms Israel has already weathered. During the 1948 War of Independence, even the United States had an arms embargo on Israel. Defenders of the fledgling Jewish state had to rely on arms smuggled from Czechoslovakia as armies from five Arab states – who faced no embargoes – attacked, promising to push them into the sea.

Are they really going to worry about Meg Ryan not showing up to the Jerusalem Film Festival?

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado and a National Review intern. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

Spencer CaseMr. Case is a freelance writer and an international research fellow in the Wuhan University school of philosophy.


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