(June 21, 2018 / JNS) The BDS movement hasn’t had much luck targeting Israel’s economy or even its cultural life: Despite some high-profile cancelations, there were 140 performances by international artists last year, up from 22 in 2010.
Yet these failures are secondary to the movement’s main goal, which is to delegitimize Israel and turn it into a pariah state by insisting that Israel—alone of all the world’s countries—is uniquely deserving of boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And in that, BDS has been more successful, particularly on American college campuses.
The only way to fight this is to turn the tables—to make BDS itself a pariah with which no decent person would associate. That’s precisely why the numerous state laws against anti-Israel boycotts are so important.
Nevertheless, many Americans who oppose BDS object to trying to ostracize the movement, arguing that doing so essentially emulates and thereby legitimizes its tactics. As a free-speech advocate, I’m sympathetic to this argument. The problem with it, however, is that it effectively legitimizes the movement’s underlying message instead.
After all, even in America, some views are so unacceptable that no respectable organization would give them a platform. By not putting BDS in this category, we’re effectively saying its message—that Israel is fundamentally morally illegitimate—isn’t beyond the pale; it’s a legitimate position over which reasonable people can disagree. And that makes it easy for BDS to grow because it enables even groups that don’t care about this issue to feel comfortable embracing the movement for tactical reasons (i.e., to gain its support for their own pet causes).
Moreover, as several recent examples show, delegitimizing BDS is far from mission impossible.
Earlier this month, for instance, an Australian social-services agency canceled an invitation to Tamika Mallory, co-leader of the Women’s March movement, to address its annual conference after complaints by local Jewish groups. Mallory has said, inter alia, that Israel’s very establishment was a “human rights crime.”
A spokesman for the Victorian Council of Social Service said the agency was “concerned both by comments Ms. Mallory made in recent days regarding Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and the capacity for these remarks to overshadow the Good Life Summit. The Good Life Summit is about setting a positive vision for a fair and just Victoria. … We don’t want anything to detract from that vision.”
Thus, Mallory’s anti-Israel animus made her someone a respectable agency would rather not host. In the agency’s view, she, and not Israel, had become the pariah.
Several recent developments in Germany send similar messages. Earlier this month, the German music festival Ruhrtriennale demanded that the BDS-supporting Scottish band Young Fathers reject BDS if it wanted to perform this year. Young Fathers then withdrew from the festival, announcing that organizers had canceled its show because of its support for BDS. Once again, BDS, rather than Israel, had become the pariah.
Last week, when leading boycott activist Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame performed in Munich, Mayor Dieter Reiter vowed to ensure Waters never performed there again by applying last year’s city council resolution barring the use of public facilities for BDS activity. Accusing Waters of “growing, intolerable anti-Semitic statements,” Reiter said it’s “important for me to make it unmistakably clear ahead of the concert that anti-Semitic propaganda of Roger Waters is neither welcome in Munich nor will it remain unanswered.”
Last month, student councils at two German universities voted to ban BDS as anti-Semitic. The student council at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz unanimously approved a resolution saying it “condemns the anti-Semitic boycott campaigns, like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS], and works against the implementation, participation and support of such campaigns and events on JGU.” Heidelberg University’s student council similarly declared BDS anti-Semitic and voted to deny BDS advocates university funding or facilities.
And in the United States, Texas A&M’s Student Senate resolved in March not to “facilitate, promote or participate in any activities that promote BDS or any other form of anti-Semitism.”
Also significant, albeit very different, was last week’s decision by world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, to open disciplinary proceedings against Palestinian Football Association President Jibril Rajoub over his conduct prior to this month’s planned match between Israel and Argentina. Many media reports, using such time-honored tactics as truncating a quote (Argentine player Gonzalo Higuain’s statement that canceling was “the right thing”) to distort the speaker’s intentions, have credited BDS with convincing Argentina to nix the Jerusalem match out of principle. BDS itself also gleefully claimed credit.
In reality, as the Argentine media reported, the team canceled because of death threats against players and their families. That was evident from Higuain’s next sentence: “Health and common sense come first.” The vice president of Argentina’s soccer federation, Hugo Moyano, similarly said that “the players’ families were suffering due to the threats.” This campaign of intimidation was egged on by Rajoub, who urged Arabs and Muslims worldwide to burn shirts and posters bearing pictures of Argentine team captain Lionel Messi.
FIFA’s decision to take action against Rajoub obviously doesn’t mean that the organization is taking a stance against BDS. The only position it’s taking is the entirely correct one that soccer officials shouldn’t be running intimidation campaigns, and especially not campaigns intended to prevent soccer from being played, in blatant violation of FIFA’s mission.
Nevertheless, this decision dispels the myth that BDS is a “non-violent … human rights movement,” as Young Fathers termed it. In fact, it’s a thuggish one that relies on threats and intimidation of a kind even FIFA—an organization with a high tolerance for bad behavior—finds beyond the pale.
What’s especially encouraging about all of the above is that BDS was ostracized by people and groups that have traditionally been its bastion of support: university students, international organizations (where Palestinians usually command automatic majorities), leftist politicians (Munich’s mayor belongs to the center-left Social Democrats, the more anti-Israel of Germany’s two major parties) and left-leaning organizations (cultural festivals and social-service agencies both tend to lean left).
Sometimes, fire must be fought with fire; only by making BDS a pariah can we keep it from turning Israel into one. Fortunately, this is an eminently achievable goal.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.