As Israel prevailed against the terrorism of the last decade, Palestinians and their allies put renewed energy into “soft warfare” to defeat the Jewish state. Their efforts coalesced around “BDS,” a campaign that calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. BDS cadres pressure performing artists to boycott Israel, and bring boycott and divestment resolutions to corporations, unions, churches, city governments, small businesses, food co-ops, and college campuses.
BDS activists claim they champion Palestinian rights and international law. But their real goal is to blacken Israel’s reputation in the court of public opinion, and erode its legitimacy and support until the world agrees that it has no right to exist as a Jewish state. According to a notorious critic of Israel, Norman Finkelstein, BDS followers “are not really talking about rights. They are talking about [how] they want to destroy Israel.”
The boycott tactic is not new. The Arab League implemented boycotts against pre-state Israel in 1945 and still maintains them. Soon after Palestinians launched the second Intifada in 2000, radical leftist groups and some NGO’s began trying to persuade institutions in liberal democracies to adopt anti-Israel policies, and in 2005, Palestinian groups joined the effort and formalized the BDS movement.
Recently, BDS has grown more organized and aggressive. Though BDS seems local and spontaneous, it is centrally orchestrated. BDS activists share their strategies and best practices, manipulate their rhetoric and train their willing foot soldiers. They collaborate on resolutions which feature similar twisted accusations against Israel and cite the same dubious sources. They prepare PowerPoints and videos and rehearse their speeches. They line up endorsements from anti-Israel figures like Bishop Tutu and Alice Walker. They enlist unexpected allies, such as some LGBT activists who, rationally, should support Israel, the Middle East’s only gay-friendly country.
BDS has had minimal success, but this past spring, seven student governments in California considered divestment resolutions. The process paralleled what happens with other BDS targets.
BDS students used the full arsenal of BDS strategies, refining their arguments, speeches, and accusations against Israel, cultivating sympathetic campus groups, and methodically lobbying student senators. The Jewish state was put on trial, with student senators acting as judge and jury.
Student senators, most of whom know little about the conflict, are susceptible to BDS tactics. The resolutions are not framed to spark debate about the validity of the anti-Israel allegations. As in a kangaroo court, Israel’s guilt is presumed. The resolutions deploy human rights rhetoric. BDS activists cleverly deny they are targeting Israel, and rarely divulge that they are part of the larger BDS effort. Some students become convinced that a “yes” vote means upholding progressive, moral values.
BDS activists try to forestall opposition. They frequently delay putting resolutions on the agenda until the last minute to take opponents by surprise. Pro-Israel students, pre-occupied with college life, have little time to prepare a response. They can also feel overwhelmed by the lurid accusations and hostile atmosphere. At UC Berkeley, for example, one speaker claimed that IDF soldiers use rats to sexually violate Palestinian women. Outside the student senate, groups like Students for Justice in Palestine often demonstrate, chanting, “From the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea, Palestine will be free,” a clear call for wiping Israel off the map.
BDS advocates are relentless. Even when their resolutions are rejected, they claim victory and redouble their efforts. UC San Diego’s senate rejected divestment three different years, but BDS activists simply kept submitting slightly revised versions. Similarly, BDS activists, who bought shares of Caterpillar stock, kept introducing anti-Israel resolutions to annual shareholders’ meetings even though they were defeated each year. Besieged by such proposals , TIAA-CREF finally got SEC approval to ignore the resolutions in 2011 and again in their July 16, 2013 meeting. But BDS activists refuse to accept defeat and feel no shame about hijacking agendas and forcing institutions to spend inordinate time on their fixation with demonizing Israel, no matter how remote the issue is from the institution’s affairs. Perhaps as BDS activists continue obsessively pushing the envelope, more student governments, corporations, and other institutions will finally say, “enough.”
BDS can be defeated. Divestment was rejected at UC Santa Barbara, Stanford, UC Davis, and UC Riverside where initially it passed only to be revoked the following month by an overwhelming 10-to-2 vote. At these schools, pro-Israel students mobilized, prepared their arguments, demonstrated that each accusation was false or based on questionable sources, revealed the connection to BDS, and underscored how the very resolution itself foments divisiveness and hostility.
At heart, BDS is a reactionary campaign posturing as a progressive movement, a morphing of Arab leaders’ decades long propaganda war against the Jewish state, now cloaked in social justice rhetoric for Western consumption. Responsible people should strenuously oppose these pernicious efforts.
Roz Rothstein is CEO of StandWithUs. Roberta P. Seid Ph.D is research-education director of StandWithUs.