Remembering the Failure of the Arab League Blacklist
The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) has just published a database of companies operating in Judea, Samaria, and eastern Jerusalem. The intention is to create a blacklist of companies that can be targeted for boycotting.
The HRC’s action is outrageous and deserves condemnation, but hysteria is unwarranted. The BDS movement’s campaign to destroy Israel will fail. To understand why, let’s recall the history of the Arab League boycott.
Like the BDS movement, the Arab League boycott was fundamentally antisemitic. We know this because it was instituted in 1945 before the establishment of Israel, and because it explicitly said that “Jewish products and manufactured goods shall be considered undesirable to the Arab countries.” All Arab “institutions, organizations, merchants, commission agents, and individuals” were called upon “to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods.” As in the case of BDS, the terms “Jewish” and “Zionist” were used synonymously.
Today, some members of Congress are resisting legislation targeting the BDS movement, but as far back as 1959, the Senate adopted an amendment opposing foreign aid to countries that discriminate against Americans on the grounds of religion. The primary motivation for this and other early legislative efforts was the Arabs’ policy of refusing visas to American Jews and, more specifically, the Saudis’ refusal to permit Jews to be stationed at the United States’ base at Dhahran.
In 1960, Congress adopted the Douglas-Keating “Freedom of the Seas” amendment, which said “the peace of the world is endangered” when nations receiving US aid “wage economic warfare against other nations assisted under the Act; including such procedures as boycotts, blockades, and the restriction of the use of international waterways.” Five years later, Congress adopted a broader regulation that held that US policy opposed “restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by countries against other countries friendly to the United States.”
Israel and its allies are justifiably upset that the HRC released a blacklist of 112 companies. This is trivial, however, compared to the scale of the Arab League blacklist.
In 1975, Senator Frank Church disclosed that 1,500 American firms were on Saudi Arabia’s blacklist. He did not investigate how many international firms were being blacklisted, and the number that refused to do business with Israel to avoid being blacklisted was unknowable. Nevertheless, publication of the list made the public aware, for the first time, of the scope of the Arab boycott. Particularly shocking were revelations of US government complicity — perhaps the most serious of which was the admission that the Army Corps of Engineers excluded Jewish soldiers and civilians from projects it managed in Saudi Arabia.
That same year, Saudi Arabia denied Rep. Henry Waxman a visa because he was Jewish. After the State Department intervened, he was allowed to join colleagues from the House Armed Services Committee on a fact-finding mission. King Saud told the delegation “the Jews have no business in Saudi Arabia. … They are our enemies. Jews from America and around the world support Israel. Friends of our enemies are our enemies.” (Almost 20 years later, the Saudi tourism website said it would deny visas to “Jewish People” until that generated bad publicity.)
All sorts of dire predictions were made about the loss of American business and jobs, the price of oil, and an antisemitic backlash if anti-boycott legislation was adopted. Arab officials threatened retaliation. Nevertheless, in 1977, Congress passed legislation encouraging, and in some cases requiring, US companies to refuse to take actions that support restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by any foreign government against a country friendly to the United States or against any American.
The Washington Post wrote: “No realistic person would assert that an anti-boycott law will not cost something . … But if there is a price to keep foreigners from compelling Americans to trample on their own basic values, surely it is worth paying and, as surely, thoughtful and responsible Americans will be willing to pay it.”
Congress ignored what turned out to be idle threats, such as the Kuwaiti finance minister’s statement, “We will boycott and we will continue to boycott, and we will never import anything from the US.” The Arab League responded equally bombastically by saying it would take a stand against the law “which Israel and world Zionism are trying not only to enforce on the US, but also in some countries of western Europe.”
In signing the anti-boycott bill into law, President Jimmy Carter said, “My concern about foreign boycotts stemmed, of course, from our special relationship with Israel, as well as from the economic, military, and security needs of both our countries. But the issue goes to the very heart of free trade among nations.” Carter said the bill was intended to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society. If we allow such a precedent to be established, we open the door to similar action against any ethnic, religious, or social groups in America.”
Carter was prescient, as the BDS movement, now with the assistance of the UN, targets American companies and Jews. Opponents of anti-BDS legislation should not allow American values to be trampled.
Today, most people are unaware that the Arab boycott still exists, though few Arab countries enforce it and several Gulf states now have discrete economic relations with Israel. The lesson is that Israel has grown and thrived for almost 62 years despite a boycott which, at one time, was applied to thousands of companies around the world; it is not going to be destroyed by the BDS movement, even with the support of the UN and the blacklisting of a relative handful of companies.
Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.