On U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent, final tour of the Middle East as secretary of state, he took yet another step to defend Israel on the international stage. This latest in a long string of such steps was the recognition that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against the Jewish state is anti-Semitic. “We want to join all the other nations that recognize BDS for the cancer that it is,” Pompeo said at a press conference in Jerusalem.
Supporters of Israel welcomed this gesture, but recent events remind us that the dark heart of BDS still beats relentlessly.
Pompeo later released an official statement that the United States “strongly opposes the global discriminatory Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign … and practices that facilitate it, such as discriminatory labeling and the publication of databases of companies that operate in Israel or Israeli-controlled areas.”
He added that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” in line with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism, adopted by dozens of nations around the world and, in October, by the Global Imams Council (GIC), the world’s first and largest international non-governmental body of Muslim religious leaders.
These developments have demonstrated a growing understanding that singling out the Jewish state is a form of anti-Semitism, a truth now accepted by increasing numbers of nations and organizations globally.
Connected to this, and possibly as a result, the anti-BDS movement is gaining steam in the United States at official legislative and legal levels, with 32 U.S. states having passed laws with broad bipartisan support, and executive orders designed to discourage boycotts of Israel. Several European national governments have recently condemned BDS, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France, and several courts have ruled against the right to boycott Israel, most notably in Spain.
The movement has also been dealt a blow thanks to the recently signed Abraham Accords, which demonstrate that Israel can and will make peace with Arab nations, even absent a deal with the Palestinian Authority.
Indeed, the agreements with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan have almost killed the already moribund idea of an Arab-Israeli conflict, and demonstrates that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is a national one, and not one born of racism or religious opposition to peace. Those who believe that Israel is a racist, anti-Arab nation will have trouble explaining the fact that it now has warm relations with a growing number of Arab and Muslim nations, and seeks peace with more.
Furthermore, as Israel is showing in its relations with the Arab world that boycotts are ending—and peace, reconciliation and cooperation are gaining momentum—the idea of boycotting Israel elsewhere is losing support in the region.
Luke Akehurst, director of We Believe in Israel, wrote recently: “BDS was built on the foundations and legacy of the Arab Boycott of Israel, initiated as a boycott of the pre-state Yishuv [Jewish settlement] by the Arab League in 1945. With key Arab states now formally embracing trade and diplomatic deals with Israel, it looks ridiculous and out of touch with the reality of the region or Arab opinion for radicals in Europe and North America to continue to pursue a boycott policy.”
Nonetheless, unfortunately, the movement still has powerful energy and momentum.
In September, students at Columbia College passed its first-ever referendum to boycott and divest from companies that deal with Israel, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign passed a similar resolution six days earlier, and a resolution supporting the BDS movement was passed by San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) student government only days ago. Commenting on these victories, the BDS movement’s North America coordinator Olivia Katbi said: “These campus BDS victories are indicative of the rapidly changing tide we’re seeing across the United States.”
In addition, many involved in the BDS movement use intersectional politics to gain adherents. The official organization Black Lives Matter Global Network has endorsed BDS against Israel, and other “progressive” movements, like the Women’s March in previous years, have openly banned Zionists from taking part.
Passionate supporters of BDS in one form or another in the U.S. Congress, like Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), demonstrated strong support in the recent elections, and have wasted little time directing their ire once again at the only Jewish state. They lead a growing wing of the Democratic Party that singles out Israel for opprobrium and relentlessly tries to turn the one Jewish state into an international pariah.
Absurdly enough, Tlaib will be speaking on a panel at an anti-Semitism event—featuring her and other panelists who oppose the existence of Israel—organized by the vehemently anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace.
So, while BDS has lost a lot of legal battles in recent years and is proscribed in many more places than previously, the narrative behind it is standing firm, if not growing stronger.
In truth, BDS was rarely about gaining official recognition—or even preventing the purchase of Israeli goods—at least not at this stage. Rather, it is about maligning Israel, steadily gaining traction, support and recognition, and winning hearts and minds—especially among students, our future leaders.
As Israel advocates, we must continue pushing for condemnation of BDS at the official level, and placing it outside legal boundaries of free speech—since it is a source of hate and incitement against a nation and its people. Above all, however, we must gird ourselves for a long, arduous battle in the court of public opinion. That is where the fight must be won.
We must ensure that Americans understand that BDS is a movement based on bigotry and intolerance, one that has fewer and fewer adherents in the region, and one that flies in the face of a true peace movement—growing warm relations between Israelis and Arabs across the Middle East.
Advocates of BDS will not go down easy—and perhaps will never say die. But Israel advocates must continue our struggle against the BDS movement until it is definitively relegated to the dustbin of history.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.