On Saturday, Israel released a blacklist of groups that are part of the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS). Twenty groups appear on the list, including Palestinian diaspora and solidarity groups, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (USCPR), Code Pink, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and, notably, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
The response was swift. The blacklisted groups responded as one might expect. But so did others who have been very clear in their opposition to BDS.
The New Israel Fund, for example, staunchly opposes BDS, but its CEO, Daniel Sokatch said, “The Netanyahu government’s Entry Law, which is a travel ban that uses blacklists and litmus tests to bar visitors from entering Israel based on their beliefs, flies in the face of the democratic principles enshrined in Israel’s declaration of independence.”
Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America stated on his Facebook page that, “On the substance of the issue, I think the Israeli government is well within its rights—and possibly in the right—in barring JVP leadership and key activists from coming into Israel.” But Kurtzer went on to say, “(Israel’s) approach now… galvanizes much more support for a polarizing organization from people who don’t even support it because it becomes a symbol for a set of ideas that it doesn’t even itself endorse. I don’t see the logic behind it: it is just shortsighted and counterproductive political theater.”
More to the point, Yousef Munayyer, the president of USCPR, stated on the organization’s website, “We wear this designation as a badge of honor. When Israel, which aims to portray itself to the world as liberal and democratic, blacklists activists dedicated to nonviolent organizing and dissent, it only further exposes itself as a fraud.”
It is hard to argue with Munayyer’s characterization. The BDS movement is non-violent, and the basis for its calls is international law. These are inconvenient facts for Israel, but they are facts nonetheless. One may disagree, as I do, with the strategy employed by the BDS movement. But the right of global citizens to organize boycott campaigns is not suddenly nullified because the targeted party thinks it ought not be boycotted.
Guy Ziv, the director of the Israel National Security Project, described Israel’s actions in a tweet as, “Illiberal. Counterproductive. And just plain silly.” Indeed, as I have pointed out, BDS has done very little to move the needle on Israeli policy or on international policy regarding Israel’s occupation. In over 12 years since a wide swath of Palestinian civil society groups issued the BDS call, the occupation has tightened, global inaction has continued, the situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza has deteriorated markedly, and hope for an end to the Palestinians’ plight has dwindled to invisibility.
All of this leads to the question of why Israel would do this. The ban on entry for BDS activists doesn’t only apply to Israel, but in practice to the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well. To what end did Israel do this?
The groups that Israel banned will, understandably, claim that this shows the power of the BDS movement. In the long run, they may be proven correct. But for now, the movement’s lack of economic or political impact casts a very long shadow of doubt on that claim. Not only does Israel feel secure in its occupation, the U.S. government remains so fanatically devoted to Israel that even the Netanyahu government must try to restrain it. But much more than that, Israel recently saw Denmark cut funding to some Palestinian groups, following close on the heels of Norway. And despite the uproar over Donald Trump’s reckless announcement regarding Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia is continuing to work with the United States to press the Palestinians into an unfavorable peace agreement.
That hardly paints a picture of a global movement that is changing things. So is this move by Israel “just plain silly” or “shortsighted” and “counterproductive?”
To some extent, this is so. The Israeli penchant for short-term political gain is certainly playing a role here. Gilad Erdan, the minister for strategic affairs, is positioning himself as the defender of Israel’s “legitimacy,” hoping to take that spotlight when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally departs office and the leadership of the Likud coalition. Erdan holds several portfolios and is undoubtedly a key Likud figure, and this will help cement his public status.
But the entire anti-BDS campaign is much bigger than Erdan. The efforts include an annual budget of some $25 million, and a campaign on US campuses funded by right wing, pro-Netanyahu financial magnate Sheldon Adelson.
The BDS Boogeyman
The broader motivating factor for Israel is that it needs an enemy. Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and even Iran cannot be credibly posited as existential threats to Israel. They can all be threats, of course. They can carry out violence against Israeli civilians, and there are various political issues on which some can challenge Israel. But Israel is much too powerful militarily to be threatened by any of these groups physically.
There has been a long-term effort to establish the premise that solidarity with the Palestinian cause is not just anti-Israel but anti-Semitic and that it is committed much more to destroying Israel than to getting Palestinians the rights to which they are entitled. In recent years, this idea has been expanded to protect not only Israel proper but its settlements throughout the West Bank.
The umbrella term “de-legitimization” is used to tar all pro-Palestinian efforts as really being about destroying Israel. These “de-legitimizers” can even be Jewish, as would purportedly be the case with Jewish Voice for Peace. But whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Pagan, atheist, or any other category, the motivation is, at its root, Israel’s destruction.
This framing has met with some significant success outside of Israel. The wave of legislation in the United States that seeks to stifle the right to boycott Israel, normally protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, is a prime example. And within Israel, anti-BDS feeling is overwhelming.
The specter of Hezbollah in Syria near Israel’s borders has not yet produced an incident, though it might. The so-called “knife intifada” is receding into memory and even the much-feared “explosion” over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has not produced much for Israelis to fear. So, Israel apparently feels the need to bring up BDS again.
Is BDS a Threat?
Right now, the BDS movement can point to some isolated victories. Some groups from other social movements have endorsed it, as have some political parties and churches. There have been a few cases of businesses moving out of the West Bank, although groups that would not be considered part of the BDS movement can justifiably lay claim to some of those successes. And of course, there have been some high-profile celebrity cancellations of appearances in Israel and statements of opposition to Israeli policies.
But overall, these things fall far short of anything that can truly impact the occupation, as the facts on the ground amply demonstrate. Does that mean BDS is a failure, nothing more than an Israeli strawman propped up to frighten Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state around the world?
Israel is certainly using BDS for those purposes. Also, Israel’s massive overreaction to BDS is not because it’s afraid of the movement, but because it wants to raise a frightening specter. Israel makes the case for itself as victim by cultivating the image of the “only democracy” in a totalitarian region, constantly besieged by reactionary and Judeophobic forces.
But that doesn’t mean that, in the long term, BDS is not making a difference. Although some, myself included, disagree with the precise strategies most BDS groups have employed, the movement is still affecting the discourse around Palestinian disenfranchisement and lack of rights in a more effective way than past efforts.
The BDS movement is employing the language of rights, rather than the language of diplomacy. Given the apparent failure of diplomacy to bring an end to the occupation, the emphasis on Palestinian rights, rather than territorial or political claims, is becoming much more powerful.
For 50 years, Israel has grown more and more comfortable with its occupation. Unlike most occupying powers, it does not foot the bill for supporting the people under its occupation. Rather, the United States, the Gulf States, and Europe have largely paid those costs. Israel, meanwhile, has comfortably expanded settlements and walled off the Gaza Strip, weathering little more than a few moderately harsh words from the international community. It has found ways to establish relations with countries it once fought in wars, while clandestinely working with other Arab states that can’t afford to be seen as completely abandoning the Palestinians.
But that comfort zone could well be threatened in the coming years by a nagging reality: Palestinians were dispossessed in Israel’s creation and then further dispossessed and occupied in Israel’s greatest military triumph. Since then, Palestinians in Israel have lived first under martial law, then as second-class citizens who, today, are constantly face the threat of losing even that citizenship. And millions of Palestinians have lived for 50 years in the West Bank and Gaza without knowing any of the rights that Israelis take for granted.
That’s a comfort zone BDS is increasingly challenging. Israel’s behavior is also bringing moderate voices more forcefully into this difficult discussion. Over time, if Israel continues its present course of tightening its grip on the Palestinians and digging in its heels against compromise and peace, the conversation will become more difficult, and less to Israel’s favor. This latest incident makes that shift even clearer. That’s what BDS can do in the long term, and Israel’s own policies will only accelerate that trend.