BDS after the boycott
2016 may well be remembered as the year that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel finally died its death—in a clinical sense, at least.
Across the U.S., state legislatures are passing bills that will outlaw state authorities from investing public funds in, and entering into contracts with, companies and other entities that engage in a boycott of Israel. This doesn’t mean that engaging in a boycott of Israel is illegal, but for anyone who cares about their bottom line, the legislation should provide a powerful incentive against its adoption.
These anti-boycott bills should properly be seen as anti-discrimination measures, and welcomed on those grounds. No U.S. state should contract with entities that enforce discriminatory policies—and boycotting Israel in the expectation that doing so will contribute to the Jewish state’s demise is, by definition, an act of discrimination. Why should taxpayer funds subsidize such bigotry? Why should jobs and revenues be sacrificed in the promotion of hatred towards an entire nation?
As we’ve learned over several years, however, in the inverted world of the boycotters, this same hatred is regarded as love and this same discrimination is regarded as justified resistance. Hence the BDS movement’s depiction of the anti-boycott bills as a conspiracy of “special interests” aimed at crushing free speech for Palestinian advocates.
This is, of course, the sort of distortion that we have come to expect from the boycotters. The truth is that, unlike France, which in October 2015 determined that BDS, as a form of discrimination, is outlawed in speech and in action, in America the advocacy of a boycott of Israel remains protected speech. As the Lawfare Project pointed out in an incisive analysis of current objections to the anti-boycott bills, “Individual consumers, acting in their own individual capacities, cannot be punished for refusing to purchase Israeli products, regardless of motivation. Supporters of BDS are also free to stage protests, circulate petitions, and otherwise exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for boycotts of Israel, Israeli goods, and Israeli persons.” Further, with regard to the specific allegation that the anti-boycott bills violate the First Amendment, the Lawfare Project counters that the statutory prohibitions apply only to business conduct that is discriminatory, and not “advocacy, picketing, or other forms of speech in furtherance of boycotting.”
You have to imagine that, at a certain point, the smarter inhabitants of the BDS movement will figure out that they are campaigning for a set of demands that, in effect, cannot be implemented, because the sanctions that potentially come with implementation are too great. So where, then, will this movement go?
It will not, sadly, disappear. Instead, BDS will adapt. To start with, the movement can now portray itself as a victim, so expect to read lines like “Zionist oppression in Palestine has been extended to those of us in America who wage solidarity with the Palestinians under occupation.” What this means is that, rather than campaigning for the actual implementation of a boycott, the BDS movement will now campaign for the right to implement a boycott—in our understanding, an act of discrimination.
Simultaneously, those academics who have embraced the boycott of their Israeli colleagues will introduce the BDS movement to their students as a case study of a non-violent, socially progressive grassroots campaign that has been battered, mercilessly, by a conspiracy of unprincipled legislators, conservative media agitators, and intimidation on the part of the “Israel Lobby” (in the pejorative use of that term). Again, it will be presented as emblematic of Zionism’s international reach, from the refugee camps of Gaza to the state legislatures of middle America.
As a community, we would be sensible to try and understand how a movement like this can evolve, particularly when legal obstacles are placed in its path. For while the practicality of BDS will have been definitively checked, the ideological venom underlying the movement may well grow more intense.
Unable to attack Israel directly, the BDSers will turn increasingly turn their sights on the majority of Jews around them. (To a great extent, this is what they have always done, as the primary harm that comes with their efforts has typically been felt by local Jews, and not the State of Israel.) On college campuses, for example, events showcasing Israel or involving Israeli participants will find themselves more vulnerable. Numerous incidents during the last decade, in South Africa and Europe as well as in the U.S., have demonstrated that there is a corps of BDS supporters with few qualms about violence.
It might even be the case that the BDSers will conveniently park their First Amendment commitments, by trying to ban Jewish associations and societies unless these explicitly reject Zionism. For those who think that’s an improbable notion, well, it happened, in the British student movement during the 1970s. As Dave Rich argues in a superlative doctoral thesis on this under-analyzed episode of contemporary Jewish history, a general anti-fascist policy that “was intended to provide a practical tool for excluding racists and fascists from British campuses...came to be used to exclude Zionism.”
If this is, indeed, how the BDS movement twists and turns over the coming years, we shouldn’t simply assume that its appeal will fade as it becomes more transparently anti-Semitic. As to the really interesting question—whether those progressives who have made voguish anti-Zionism a part of their worldview will follow the BDS movement along this particular path—I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).