Why the BDS Movement Is Winning
The BDS movement has never been about boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. That’s why those proclaiming a victory against the BDS movement are fundamentally misguided.
The focus on BDS’ failure to orchestrate a significant boycott against Israel displays a deep misconception regarding the movement’s actual long-term objectives and consequences. In every way that matters, the BDS movement has the upper hand, while its Zionist opponents remain tragically oblivious to their crushing defeat.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the organized effort to boycott the Jewish state has a simple yet subtle goal: to redirect and change the conversation surrounding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
In this regard, the BDS movement has been exceptionally successful. While BDS may not actually manage to isolate Israel in the international arena, it has dominated and overshadowed the entire Middle East debate. In the diplomatic world, in global institutions, in intellectual circles, and on college campuses, the name of Israel and Zionism is now inexorably linked to apartheid, malevolence and oppression.
The BDS debate is premised on the notion that Israel is the “bad guy” — that it is a fundamentally corrupt and wicked state. In this sense, the movement utilizes the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” argument as a mere propagator of this wider allegation, reframing the entire “Israel” discourse. BDS shifts the focus from whether Israel is guilty, to how best to discipline or penalize Israel for being guilty. Engaging in this debate essentially means the implicit acceptance of Israel’s culpability.
Measured this way, the success of the BDS movement is painfully obvious. When Israel is compared with Apartheid South Africa, the comparison sticks regardless of however convincingly the accusation is refuted. Whatever the Zionist answer, the BDS movement essentially wins just by raising the question.
The typical pro-Israel “victory” by countering the BDS movement with facts, adopts BDS’ underlying assumptions, leaving a lasting, devastating impression that seeps deep into the mainstream consensus. This is the goal of the BDS movement. And it’s working.
The most common self-satisfied arguments against BDS easily demonstrate this misconception. One such argument highlights how BDS supporters single out Israel while ignoring other notorious human rights violators, such as Turkey, China, or Russia. While supposedly exposing some form of hypocrisy and insincerity, this in fact concedes that Israel is comparably guilty, grouping Israel along with murderous, oppressive, and tyrannical regimes.
Another smug argument emphasizes Israel’s technology, innovation and general contribution to global progress and welfare. At best, this seems to accept that Israel’s policies are abhorrent — but that its good deeds somehow make amends for the bad ones.
A final example is the focus on the founders and leaders of the BDS movement, their blatant antisemitism and their barely-concealed ties to overt terrorism. This line of defense helps discredit the movement itself, but does little in the way of countering the severe accusations against Israel. To the average audience, this is immaterial: who cares about the background and transgressions of the BDS leaders, if Israel is indeed guilty?
The most misguided strategy in combating BDS is the decision to engage it in the first place. The pro-Israel camp naively takes the bait, meeting the BDS movement on hostile turf and fighting on the battleground chosen by the adversary. All of the above might convince an observer to reject the boycott, yet none of it refutes the basic premise of Israel’s villainous nature.
Disappointingly, the pro-Israel movement has yet to acknowledge this colossal miscalculation. The obsession with the BDS specter permeates the Zionist activist community. Many otherwise-commendable pro-Israel organizations have adopted BDS as their central theme, such as the Maccabee Task Force, or the recently-established government-sponsored “Concert — Together for Israel” (formerly Kela Shlomo). Along with misplaced good intentions, this is also happening so politicians and activists can parade their triumphs over the “boycott,” and carelessly obscure the more sophisticated challenge facing our community.
This major BDS victory is primarily manifest in the normalization, tolerance, and acceptance of casual Israel-hatred. Such tolerance can be seen in the shameless anti-Zionism of the new US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, or in the antisemitism storm engulfing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the UK. It is demonstrated by the celebrity status of the antisemitic Women’s March leaders. It is evident in the refusal of a University of Michigan professor to provide a recommendation letter for a student going to Israel.
This is the inevitable result of focusing exclusively on the BDS movement. By winning most BDS battles, Israel is losing the opinion war.
No doubt, we must oppose the BDS movement. But to turn the tide against widespread anti-Israel sentiment, a defense-to-offense paradigm-shift is required. A massive parallel effort must exist to promote Israel’s merits, its relative victimhood in the Israel-Arab conflict, its virtuous and just foundations and its epic story of national rejuvenation. This ought to be independent of any anti-BDS measures. Such an effort must neutralize the toxic effect of BDS not by playing into the enemies’ hands, but by providing a compelling alternative to the “wicked Israel” narrative.
One proposal for such an effort could be a coordinated “Israel Support Week.” The fact that no such initiative exists speaks volumes. This would be an annual event, sufficiently distant from any relevant calendar milestone, pro- or anti-Israel alike. It would be a collaborative effort shared between all pro-Israel groups, and would take place in communities, at various levels of government, and on college campuses.
Israel Support Week would be an opportunity to make the case that Israel is not only “non-evil” — but rather that the Jewish state is a noble and worthy enterprise serving the cause of justice and democracy. It would provide greater context and background for the Israeli-Arab conflict, and for Israel’s territorial and geopolitical predicaments. And it would be a much better way to combat the BDS movement.
Yonatan (Johnny) Green, 31, a qualified attorney in both Israel and the state of New York, has worked for the Kohelet Policy Forum and is an Israel advocacy activist. He was born and raised in Israel to parents from the US and the UK.