The Ongoing Myth of BDS Success
Anytime that a student government votes to divest from Israel or a celebrity chooses not to perform in Israel, a cry goes out throughout the Jewish world that Israel is in danger and the antisemitic boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign is winning. But this is untrue.
Take the example of celebrity boycotts. When Lorde cowardly gave in to pressure to cancel her Israel concert, the BDS trolls crowed and the pro-Israel activists expressed outrage. What was the impact? A lot of disappointed Israeli fans.
Meanwhile, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, the Backstreet Boys, Nick Cave, and Bryan Adams were among those who did perform in Israel. Upcoming shows include performances by Foreigner, Ringo Starr, Ozzy Osbourne, and Enrique Iglesias. Yes, some celebrities (mostly B- and C-listers) are shunning Israel, but the BDSers have failed completely in orchestrating a mass artistic boycott.
Perhaps the biggest recent celebrity news was the vigorous attack on antisemites by author J.K. Rowling, a vocal opponent of BDS. After tweeting the definition of antisemitism in response to efforts by some of her followers to contort its meaning, she asked, “Would your response to any other form of racism or bigotry be to squirm, deflect, or justify?” After revealing that Jews on her timeline were bombarded by anti-Jewish comments, Rowling said, “perhaps some of us non-Jews should start shouldering the burden.”
BDSers kvelled over Natalie Portman’s decision not to attend an awards ceremony in Israel. While she gave some comfort to them, her explanation for skipping the gala made one thing clear: “I am not part of the BDS movement and do not endorse it.”
Hysteria over the situation on campus is also misplaced. As I’ve written many times, the BDS movement is confined to a very small number of campuses, fewer than 3%. Also, contrary to claims that elite schools are particular targets, fewer than one-third of schools ranked in the top 50 have had a BDS vote in the last 13 years. Only 35 schools in the entire country have passed a divestment resolution and 64% of resolutions have been defeated.
Concern was justified three years ago, when it appeared the BDS movement was gaining momentum. The number of schools considering divestment resolutions jumped from 10 in 2012-13 to 19 in 2013-14 to 27 in 2014-15. Rather than continue that trend, however, the number of votes has declined. Last year, only 18 votes were held. And this academic year, which is nearly over, has seen only 11.
Remember all the publicity about BDS activity on University of California campuses, such as Berkeley and Irvine? There has been only one vote this year, at UC Riverside, which failed. Last year Riverside was the only UC school to pass a divestment resolution. Irvine and Berkeley have not had votes in the last four years. School is still in session in California, so resolutions may emerge, but we will not see anything like the eight votes in 2013-14.
Make no mistake, the campus climate on the 63 schools that have had BDS campaigns is toxic. Jewish students often feel under siege and, not surprisingly, those campuses often have displays of antisemitism. Besides poisoning the environment, the drumbeat of attacks on Israel erode Israel’s image. Interestingly, students do not become pro-Palestinian, but they are more skeptical of Israel’s commitment to human rights, treatment of Arabs, and desire for peace.
Worse, on many campuses the BDS advocates have succeeded in building coalitions with other student groups that buy into their propaganda. At NYU, 51 student groups pledged to boycott Israel, two pro-Israel campus organizations, and a group of off-campus pro-Israel groups. Among the boycotters are the African Student Union, Asian American Women’s Alliance, Black Students Union, Haitian American Students Association, Mexican Student Association, SHADES: For LGBTQ Students of Color and Allies at NYU, NYU Slam! Poetry Club, and the Turkish Student Association.
The University condemned the boycott: “The university opposes any kind of boycott or official refusal by some student groups to interact with other student groups because of differing points of view. It is at odds with our traditions and values, especially our core belief in the free exchange of ideas.” In 2016, NYU President Andrew Hamilton rejected a demand by its graduate student union to sever ties with Israel.
The NYU administration response is typical and explains why not a single university has divested from Israel. After Barnard passed a referendum calling on the university to divest, for example, President Sian Leah Beilock said the university would not take any action. She pointed out that thousands of alumni opposed the referendum and “taking an institutional stand amid the complexities of the Mideast conflict would risk chilling campus discourse on a set of issues that members of our community should be able to discuss and debate freely.”
One other important point overlooked by those concerned with these BDS votes is how unrepresentative they are of the student body. At Barnard, for example, Beilock noted that the number of students supporting divestment were “less than 30% of Barnard’s student body.”
In most cases, a handful of students are responsible for a BDS “victory.” For example, it only took 18 students out of more than 11,000 undergraduates (0.2%) to pass a resolution at George Washington University and 23 students out of nearly 30,000 (less than 0.1%) to adopt one at Michigan.
BDS advocates have failed so completely on the divestment campaign that they have adopted more desperate means to roil the campus, such as shouting down pro-Israel speakers. These incidents are also often exaggerated because you do not hear about the many speeches that are given without interference.
Similarly, Israel hate weeks have been held around the country. Typically, they consist of a handful of poorly attended events. In recent years, pro-Israel students mostly ignore them and focus on organizing positive programs, such as Israel peace weeks and trade fairs.
There remain plenty of issues on campus, many related to the activities of anti-Israel faculty, but BDS has failed to change university policies and anti-Israel efforts have harmed Palestinians, not Israel.
BDS failures extend well beyond the campus. Just to give a few recent examples:
- New Jersey divested from Denmark’s largest bank to comply with a state anti-BDS law.
- Frankfurt cut ties to banks that enable Israel boycotts.
- Ohio invested a record $200 million in Israel bonds.
- Intel earmarked $5 billion for new investment in Israel.
- PayPal shut accounts of French anti-Israel boycotters.
- For the first time, a commercial flight to Israel passed through Saudi airspace.
- Wisconsin and Florida governors signed anti-BDS bills.
Israel’s enemies are relentless. They may abandon their failed BDS campaign only to adopt a different approach to try to destroy Israel. Hence, Israel’s defenders are guaranteed full employment for life. Still, while I am not prepared to declare “mission accomplished” in the fight against BDS, I am not afraid to say we are winning the war because of the work of dedicated activists, the investments of philanthropists, improvements in education about Israel, and having justice on our side.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 23 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.