Rethinking the Boycott Movement against Israel

While commentators are still debating whether a two-state solution remains viable, I was searching on Google the term ‘Boycott Israel’ in order to try to fathom BDS’s calls for ‘Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions.’ I got startled when landing into a website which rather had a different perspective.

I immediately tried to contact the website’s team whose spokeswoman shortly accepted an interview: Aviv Sarel, an energetic Israeli, who spent her education and profession focusing on marketing, communications, and new media. “We’re four students from the IDC Herzliya: a SEAL’s officer; a Canadian who made Aliya forty years ago; an ex-religious from Jerusalem; and an ex-foreign affairs officer. We write most of our content and hope to make a difference in the way people see the conflict… that it is very, very, complicated,” Aviv stresses to me.

Photo of Aviv Sarel
Photo of Aviv Sarel

Attempts at internationalizing the conflict, which are generally favored by proponents of the BDS movement, are a direct outgrowth of deficiencies in the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians. Idealists sometimes suppose that ‘enlightened’ bureaucracy and diplomacy are the keys to peace, but this view is based on a mistaken understanding of the economic incentives that foster peace. Stating that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be defined in black and white, Aviv adds, “The truth is that both sides are suffering violence and loss, and the reality is sad, filled with sorrow on both sides.” In her opinion, the BDS movement, on the one hand, talks merely about the conflict, while Israel does not react with the right tools.

Project LogoIn fact, one finds that the website’s team follows savvy marketing and communication techniques. Aviv mentions: “Well, we actually called it [the site] ‘It’s Complicated’ and we used the Google SEO system to promote it through the keywords ‘Boycott Israel’ and ‘BDS.’ There are 165,000 searches per month for these keywords. Our project is using this fact to help give more knowledgeable information about the conflict to these searchers.”

Aviv has the following intake about the conflict, “The Israeli government’s explanatory system thinks that in order to create positive branding for our country, we need to show how great Israel really is: how lovely our beaches are, how innovative our start-ups are, and how beautiful our girls are.” “But in fact,” she continues, “This does not represent our daily reality. By using these messages, Israel might be represented by being arrogant, which would create bad connotation and branding to our country.”

As an analyst, and from a policy perspective, what comes to my mind is the idea itself: an entirely different perspective from standard media. In recent years, brain science has converged on a surprising framework for how we believe the things we believe. It appears that the origin of belief is emotive, rooted in things like group allegiance or the affinities we may have for certain patterns of moral values. In this manner, the BDS movement can easily maneuver around things like: the Israeli settlements, the sufferings in Gaza, access and movement restrictions, and the like. Only later, when you carefully read through ‘It’s Complicated,’ does your rationality speak up. This gives you two sides of the spectrum: Biases vs. Reasoning. On the one hand, some may have some cause for boycotting Israel. On the other, the utilization of the science of mind yields effective ways to correct biases, to understand their origins, and to simplify the complexity of the conflict.

Thus, while the political beliefs of BDS’s proponents are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, ‘It’s Complicated’ gives us rational findings about belief formation; findings that should produce rational politics, rather than the internationalization of the conflict.

Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes ‘boycotting,’ but there are at least a dozen essentials to the true meaning of Israel that need shielding from biases: the rule of law, protection of property rights, a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system, a reliable infrastructure, freedom of speech, association, and the press, protection of civil liberties, an effective judicial system for the equitable enforcement of fair and just laws, and world-class universities (actually, one of the founders of the BDS movement had earned a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University!).

The Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey once succinctly put it, “For every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace” (The Causes of War, 1973). It is sad that the principle of moralistic punishment (i.e. I will punish you if you do not support the BDS movement) is becoming popular. But, in the long-run, people do not long tolerate free riders who continually utilize people’s emotions for their political agendas. Although stereotypes are deeply ingrained in people’s nature, ‘It’s Complicated’ will likely become a rational page of future political patterns in the Middle East.

About the Author
Fadi A. Haddadin is a Jordanian economist and policy analyst.
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