(October 21, 2022 / JNS) The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been a total failure. It will never achieve its objective of destroying Israel, has not influenced Israeli policy one iota and has done far more harm to Palestinians than Israelis. You might think that intelligent people would recognize this; however, the ongoing campaign for an academic boycott of Israel demonstrates that no one should overestimate the mental acuity of pro-BDS professors.
One of the principal rationales behind boycotting Israel is the belief that the Afrikaner regime in South Africa was brought to its knees by applying BDS. There are vast differences between the two cases, not the least of which is that no one was trying to replace South Africa with another state. BDS proponents also overestimate the impact boycotts had on the regime.
Jonathan Hyslop, a professor of history and sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has written that the academic boycott of South Africa in the 1980s was ineffective and counterproductive. One reason is that scholars “who wanted to support the explosion of critical scholarship, cultural, production, and activism that the revolutionary times had produced on South African campuses, faced a problem. They could not give such support if they were required to observe a blanket academic boycott.”
Hyslop noted that the African National Congress ultimately recognized this was problematic. Similarly, as critics of BDS have noted, it makes little sense to boycott Israeli universities, which have some of the most outspoken critics of Israeli policy.
The professor also notes that the South African government required Black students to attend separate institutions. Israeli Arabs are not prevented from attending universities with Jews.
The boycotters of South Africa did not support democratic initiatives in that country, according to Hyslop. Similarly, the BDS movement has no interest in compelling the Palestinian Authority or Hamas to change their authoritarian ways; the focus is solely on demonizing Israel.
Another resemblance is found in virtue signaling. “The culture of the boycott produced an imagined South Africa that was a theater of morality,” Hyslop says. “But the problem was that, too often, the ostensible topic of South Africa simply became the occasion for a kind of parading of the foreign scholar’s moral virtue…When traveling abroad in the 1980s, I was struck by the way in which many keen supporters of the boycott were uninterested in discussing the details of what was happening in South Africa. South Africa was merely the occasion for them to play a heroic (in reality, mock-heroic) role on the stage of the theater of morality.”
Hyslop wrote, “I can honestly say that, throughout the 1980s, I did not talk to a single South African scholar or university employee whose political views had been changed in any way by the academic boycott.” He added, “the academic boycott had little in the way of visible achievement.”
“In many ways, postapartheid South Africa is an exemplary democratic polity,” Hyslop says. “It has reasonably free and fair elections….There is no censorship, and vigorous political debate can be found in the print media and on the radio….scholars can teach and publish more or less what they wish. Nobody gets arrested for their political views.”
On the other hand, he observes that supporters of the new South Africa “are reluctant to acknowledge the persisting inequality, the corruption, and the incipient authoritarianism of the postapartheid polity.”
Supporters of the Palestinians do not acknowledge the existing corruption and denial of human rights by Hamas and the P.A. While there is every reason to expect those characteristics to remain, it is hard to imagine a Palestinian state with any of the attributes of the “exemplary democratic polity” that emerged in South Africa.
It was not sanctions that brought about change in South Africa, Hyslop says. “The mass revolts inside South Africa were the chief force making for the eventual democratization.” The academic boycott “had no important political effect in undermining apartheid and…may have had a minor negative impact on postapartheid society.”
Hyslop also suggests the South African case should be a cautionary tale for the BDS crowd. “The politics of the boycott engendered a situation where academics approached the South African question primarily as moralists. In doing so, they largely abandoned the contribution they could have made as intellectuals to the creation of South African democracy. To this day, it damages their ability to engage with the country.”
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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