Whither the BDS Movement?
The normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates may be one of the biggest and final nails in the coffin of the antisemitic BDS movement. The truth is that the movement has been a failure from the outset, and while it continues to attract a lot of attention, it has proven to be far less successful than the Arab League boycott, which crumbled long ago.
Many people do not realize that the Arab League initiated its boycott in 1945 before Israel existed, demonstrating, like the newer boycott, it was fundamentally antisemitic rather than anti-Israel.
The original boycott had a minimal impact despite the blacklisting of hundreds of companies, including major US brands such as Ford, RCA, and Coca-Cola. It began to crumble, however, when the United States passed anti-boycott legislation in 1978, and it became toothless after Egypt signed its peace treaty with Israel.
The BDS movement is an outgrowth of the UN forum held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The “Durban Strategy” — called for “complete and total isolation of Israel … the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, [and] the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.”
On the diplomatic front, Israel has relations with more countries today than it did in 2001. The leader of Sudan backed recognizing Israel in a historic shift. The decision of the UAE, most importantly, broke the longstanding taboo among Gulf states against normalizing ties before the Palestinian issue was resolved.
The Palestinians themselves have rejected the boycott. Prior to the pandemic, more than 100,000 of them had jobs inside Israel — and an estimated 10,000 worked in those “obstacles to peace” settlements.
Some Palestinian leaders still give lip service to the boycott. And to the extent they’ve tried to enforce it, only the Palestinians have suffered. This has been particularly obvious as the Palestinian Authority has denied Palestinians access to health care in Israel and rejected shipments of vital medical supplies to fight the coronavirus because they were flown on UAE planes that landed in Israel.
BDS also aimed to damage Israel’s economy, but, prior to the pandemic, the Israeli economy was healthy and the problems it did have were unrelated to any boycott. Meanwhile, Israel’s trade relations around the world continue to expand. Countries and companies continue to invest in the Jewish state. Airbnb rescinded its never implemented boycott of the West Bank, and tourism was at a record pace before the lockdown.
The cultural boycott has been no more successful. A handful of mostly B- and C-list performers have succumbed to pressure to avoid Israel. In 2019 alone, however, A-listers such as Madonna, Joshua Bell, Tom Jones, Bon Jovi, and Jennifer Lopez performed there. An even bigger failure was the effort to impede Israel from hosting the enormously successful Eurovision contest. In June, Universal became the first major music label to open a branch in Israel
The sports boycott is another failure. After initially trumpeting that Argentina’s national soccer team had boycotted Israel, Argentina played a match against Brazil in Israel, and Brazil played the Israeli national team. In 2017, the Giro d’Italia cycling race took place in Israel, in what officials called the biggest sporting event ever held in the country. Israeli athletes have participated in events around the world, including Gulf states. In Abu Dhabi, “Hatikvah” was played for the first time in the Gulf when an Israeli won a gold medial at the Ju-Jitsu world championship.
The Durban Strategy called for an end to aid and military cooperation with Israel. The United States is providing record amounts of military aid to Israel as part of a 10-year $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding (signed during the Obama years), as well as additional funds for missile defense. Israel has engaged in military training with many countries, including the United States, Greece, France, and member countries of NATO. This past week, the Israeli Air Force conducted its first exercises in Germany. In addition, Israeli companies have signed numerous contracts to provide military equipment to countries around the world — and, rejecting BDS pressure, the UK sold arms to Israel.
The backlash against BDS has reverberated around the world as countries such as France, Spain, Chile, Norway, and Germany condemned BDS and/or adopted anti-BDS laws. Countries have begun to refuse providing aid to Palestinian organizations associated with BDS. In the US, 32 states have adopted laws, executive orders, or resolutions that are designed to discourage boycotts against Israel. The Senate passed a bill with an anti-boycott provision in 2019 and, later that year, the House passed a resolution condemning the boycott. The Trump administration has opposed the boycott, and the Democratic platform said the party does also, consistent with the position of its nominee for president, Joe Biden.
The academic boycott has also been a total flop. Today, hundreds of joint projects are in progress between Israeli and American scholars and researchers. The field of Israel Studies, non-existent prior to 1998, is now flourishing with perhaps the best program at ground zero of the anti-Israel campus movement, UC Berkeley. Students continue to study in Israel and visit on Birthright and other programs (pre-pandemic). Cornell and the Technion opened a high-tech campus in New York. Not a single university has divested from Israel, and BDS proponents have largely given up that campaign as college presidents have universally rejected and denounced their efforts.
Yes, it’s extremely disturbing that several thousand professors support BDS, and that there are almost entire departments (mostly in anthropology, sociology, and Middle East Studies) at some of the major universities now inhabited by antisemites, or faculty supporting the antisemitic BDS movement. These professors would be anti-Israel whether or not the BDS movement existed, with older faculty hostile long before BDS existed. Also consider that while I’ve identified nearly 2,500 faculty BDS supporters, that represents fewer than 1% of the more than 500,000 assistant, associate, and full professors at American universities.
This is just a sample of the ways the Durban Strategy has failed. More can be found by searching #BDSFail.
As other Arab nations finally bow to reality and normalize relations with Israel, it will be increasingly difficult for the BDS movement to justify its existence. Failure and rationality have never been deterrents to Israel haters, however, so the antisemitic BDS campaign will endure until it is replaced by a new, but equally futile effort to delegitimize Israel. By that time, the Palestinians will be isolated and may be forced to accept that no one will save them from themselves.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst and authority on US-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.