The massive international response to the crisis in Ukraine should have shocked BDS activists to the core. Twenty-plus years into its efforts to single-out Israel and sever its cultural, economic, and academic ties with the rest of the world, BDS has nothing to show for its efforts. Not a single company, bank, or university has joined the effort. Those who have attempted even a semblance of a boycott (like Ben & Jerry’s recent refusal to sell ice cream in the West Bank), faced immediate backlash, hurried to distance themselves from BDS, and eventually walked back their boycotts. Most US states now have anti-BDS laws on their books, as does Congress. As I show below, even on the most politically active campus in the U.S., students are unfamiliar with BDS, are skeptical about the effectiveness of sanctions, and vehemently reject academic boycotts.
In stark contrast, the global mobilization for Ukraine demonstrated clearly the collective will that civil society and governments worldwide could muster when they identified a shared moral wrong. The anti-Russian boycotts and sanctions accomplished in days what anti-Israel boycotters had dreamed of, and had failed to mobilize, despite decades of trying. In the midst of this flurry of international boycotting, anti-Israel activists in California made a modest attempt last week to persuade at least one organization, the Sierra Club, to join its efforts. Even this attempt failed. The Sierra Club issued a public apology for even considering the matter. While the world was “canceling” all of Russia, BDS organizers could not even cancel a field trip to Israel.
As it turned out, the problem with uniting the world around a boycott was not global inertia, or lack of political influence, or fear of economic cost. The problem was disbelief. Most people believe that sanctions against Russia are just. Few people believe that sanctions against Israel are just. Americans are suspicious of the motivations and goals of BDS, an anti-peace and anti-coexistence movement that seeks the dissolution of Israel. They consider efforts to hold only Israel accountable for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be biased, unhelpful, and hypocritical. And they have noticed that, where BDS rears its head, antisemitic incidents are quick to follow.
In their despair, BDS activists had turned to academia, hoping to score easy victories where the stakes of grandstanding against Israel were the lowest. To their dismay, one academic association after another rejected BDS proposals, including the International Studies Association (2016), the American Anthropological Association (2016), the Modern Language Association (2017), the American Political Science Association (2019), and the American Historical Association (2020). This wholesale rejection of BDS among academics is not surprising: In trying to discriminate against scholars based on their nationality or country of origin, BDS threatens the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom and inquiry.
The Middle East Studies Association, a small anti-Israel advocacy group long since abandoned by serious scholars of Israel, is next in line to consider adopting a BDS declaration. It’s a bold strategy to choose to target scholars in Israel, of all places, against the backdrop of cataclysms in Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. Judging by precedent, the association will either end up quietly walking that policy back or face boycotts of its own. Several universities have already declared that they will cut ties with the Middle East Studies Association if it goes through with its plans. Even those few scholars who do support BDS resolutions have admitted that these declarations have no tangible effect, not even on their own behavior: They will continue to visit Israel, study Israel, and collaborate with Israeli scholars and universities.
Zero student BDS referendums passed
In light of recent events, I was curious to find out how students on my campus, the University of California at Berkeley, felt about anti-Israel boycotts. With the help of several of my students, I stepped out to Sproul Plaza, the very heart of the Berkeley campus, and surveyed one hundred passers-by. The location of our survey was symbolic: This is the square where Berkeley’s free-speech and anti-war activism began and, until about a decade or so ago, it is where its anti-Israel protests used to take place, back when such protests were still in fashion.
My survey, ostensibly about Russia and Ukraine, focused on boycotts, specifically academic boycotts. Of the 100 students who took the survey, nearly three-quarters (73%) described themselves as Democrats or Progressives. I asked only one explicit question about Israel: I offered a list of countries and asked students whether they would like to visit one or more of these countries. Nearly half the students (47%) chose Israel. As for sanctions, Berkeley students expressed skepticism. Only 13% of students were confident that sanctions could yield concrete results. In contrast, 35% thought that sanctions don’t work (and another 51% were unsure).
Students were even more skeptical about academic boycotts. Only 3 students out of 100 thought academic boycotts were legitimate and effective. Another 17% thought that, while permissible, such boycotts would not work. In contrast, 45% were vehemently opposed to academic boycotts. Even among those few who thought that other types of sanctions could be effective, 60% explicitly opposed academic boycotts, arguing that we need to learn more about other countries, even rival countries, and do what we can to protect their scholars.
The most surprising result of my survey appeared when I asked students whether they knew what “BDS” stood for. Out of 100 students surveyed, only 7 were familiar with the acronym. Another student knew that the term had something to do with Israel but couldn’t quite remember what it was. Yet another student guessed that the term had “something to do with bondage and sadism”. The rest responded with a question mark or left their answers blank. Even among students who had some knowledge of the Middle East (they knew what “OPEC” or “UAE” stood for, for example, or had taken a class on the Middle East), only 15% were familiar with the term “BDS”.
A closer look at those seven surveys suggests that even the seven students who had heard of BDS were not fans. Four of the seven noted that they would like to visit Israel. Six of the seven stated that they vehemently opposed academic boycotts. I only met one student on the Berkeley campus that day who both knew what “BDS” was and who supported academic boycotts. And that student noted that they did not expect such boycotts to work.
Twice in Berkeley’s history have anti-Israeli students tried to persuade the campus to pass BDS resolutions. Both attempts failed. This situation is mirrored on other campuses across the US. Despite the efforts of several student groups over the years, not one student referendum on BDS has passed and no university has boycotted Israel or its academic institutions. The question is no longer why BDS has failed so badly. The question is: Why are we still treating BDS as an issue, when students at America’s most progressive university don’t even have a clue what it is?