OpinionBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Is the BDS movement on the rise?

According to the BDS movement’s Palestinian branch, the impact of the movement “is increasing substantially.” Many pro-Israel sites and organizations agree, but how accurate is this prognosis?

A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via  Wikimedia Commons.
A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.
Hillel Frisch
Hillel Frisch
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the Arab world at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

There are two basic dimensions to the efficiency of an organization—its popularity and its impact. In the case of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the desired impact is to harm Israel.

With the aid of Google Trends, one can assess the the organization’s popularity, in the United States and elsewhere, by exploring whether Google searches for the BDS movement have increased over time.

The graphs since 2004 clearly indicate that the movement’s popularity has risen in both the world at large and the United States specifically.

This chart plots the growth in searches for the term worldwide:

Growth in searches in the United States (see the next chart) reveals a similar pattern:

In both cases, the rise is moderate from 2008 to 2014 and then significantly higher from 2014 to the present. The peaks are relatively aligned, an indication of the validity of the data.

The division into two distinct periods reflects that the common perception of the movement’s growing popularity is correct. Since 2016, growth appears to have slowed considerably, but has hardly reversed itself. After all, the high point—the score of 100—occurred in 2018.

Though Google Trends does not provide the absolute number of searches for the BDS movement, the fact that Israel is the country with the highest number of searches, with a score of 100, would indicate a relatively small search count. After all, Israel has a small population relative to most countries, and that population searches in Hebrew for the most part.

Still, 35 cases, overwhelmingly states, registered a significant amount of data (expressed by degree of shading) for this term in English. This suggests that while BDS might not rate many searches, those interested in the movement are spread across the globe. The countries can be seen in the following map generated by Google Trends when searching for “the BDS movement”:

Generally speaking, searches reflect positive interest in the term being searched. Citizens in Arab states are more likely to search for Arafat than Rabin, let alone Begin. Internet users in Scandinavian states will tend to search for both. African states with large evangelical populations, like Uganda and Ghana, will show high scores for searches for Begin, significantly lower scores for Rabin, and almost no searches for Arafat.

To develop a strategy with which to fight the BDS movement, it can be useful to note where it is popular, less popular and insignificant.

Two considerations are critical in measuring the popularity of the movement. Most important is to zoom in on the major English-speaking states. Then one must take into consideration not only the absolute scores in these countries but the interest in the movement relative to population size. As the following table shows, searches in New Zealand equaled those in the United States, though the latter’s population is 70 times that of New Zealand. The multiple of interest for New Zealand is therefore 70 times that of the United States.

Searches for “BDS movement”:

Country Absolute Score Multiple of interest compared

to the United States

New Zealand 53 70
Ireland 63 56
Sweden 15 9
Canada 59 10
Australia 24 6
South Africa 35 4
United Kingdom 24 2
United States 53

One can clearly see that relatively speaking, interest in the BDS movement on a comparative basis is lowest for the most important two countries, the United States and United Kingdom, significantly higher in Australia and Canada, and extremely high in New Zealand and Ireland, small and relatively unimportant countries known for their anti-Israel bias.

A search for the phrase “boycott Israel” generates almost the same order of relative interest as for the BDS movement, as one can see from the table below. This corroborates the relationship between anti-Israel bias and relative interest in the BDS movement. Ireland, New Zealand and Norway top the list and Australia and Canada are in the middle. On the bottom are the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Degree of interest in the phrase “boycott Israel”:

Country Absolute Score Proportionate Interest Compared to the U.S.
Ireland 43 94
Norway 20 66
New Zealand 19 63
Denmark 10 57
Finland 7 37
Sweden 8 13
Australia 14 9
Holland 9 8
Canada 15 6
United Kingdom 21 5
South Africa 5 2
United States 21

To see how pro-Israel sentiment compares, we typed in the phrase “Love Israel.” The contrast was glaring. To begin with, only 13 countries generated sufficient data for this term compared to 35 countries for “boycott Israel.” The most important for this survey are the states that didn’t generate sufficient searches for “Love Israel” but were in the forefront of searches for the BDS movement and “boycott Israel.”

Missing from the “Love Israel” list are New Zealand, Ireland, the three Scandinavian states and Holland. By contrast, the proportionate searches in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom are very similar to the search multiples for “boycott Israel,” suggesting a highly bifurcated public in these countries when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS movement. Note also that heading the list for “Love Israel” are the African states Kenya and Nigeria, states with sizeable evangelical populations.

Table 6:  Searches for “Love Israel”

Love Israel
Israel 100
Nigeria 58
Kenya 42
South Africa 21
Philippines 20
US 12
Australia 9
UK 9
Indonesia 8
Canada 8

Finally, since the United States is clearly the most important case, it is worthwhile to see how interest (and indirect support) for the BDS movement is distributed there.

The highest absolute and relative score is generated in the District of Columbia. This suggests that the BDS movement is closely followed by the Department of State, other national agencies, the major universities, and think tanks in the area. Other higher scorers relative to their population are Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Oregon, Michigan and Minnesota, traditionally liberal democratic states. The latter two also have sizeable Muslim populations.

The rise of the BDS movement seems to have abated somewhat both in the world at large and in the large English-speaking countries. Campaigns to counter its popularity should focus on those large English-speaking countries. In the United States, campaigns should aim to prevent an expansion of its popularity; in the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, they should aim to blunt its already considerable appeal.

Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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