Notes of a BDS sceptic

BDS is a legitimate and peaceful course of action, and it certainly does not harm efforts to end the occupation. But does it help?

If there is any consensus regarding the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign to end the occupation of Palestine, it is that BDS is important. It is not surprising to hear this from supporters of the campaign, but if anything, its opponents are even more fervent in this belief. In order to stop BDS, they are willing to further erode the limited protections for freedom of speech, and contribute to the very isolation of Israel they are supposedly trying to fend off.

BDS is a good target for those who want to draw the conversation away from issues that really matter. Discussing this topic allows the defenders of Israel’s policies at home and abroad to paint the country as the perennial victim, forever teetering on the brink of delegitimization. Fostering this sense of vulnerability makes it easier to justify aggressive policies, and the deep neglect of every area of life except for the security apparatus.

Of course, if the BDS campaign never existed, the demagogues would find some other angle that would serve their purposes. The promoters of BDS certainly do not harm the efforts to end the occupation. And the means which they employ are the perfect example of a legitimate and non-violent campaign. The attempts to silence and malign the advocates of BDS are despicable.

Yet BDS is such a lightning rod precisely because of its ineffectiveness. Over the medium and long term, Israel’s external relations and its position in the world are rising, not declining. The prolonging of the occupation has actually benefited Israel in this domain. It gives it an important bargaining chip in a region perceived as critical for stability. Combined with the mirage of the “peace process”, it has allowed Israel to achieve enormous strides in its relationship with the European Union, which hopes to leverage this improvement in relations in order to gain a seat at the table, alongside the US.

Israel is much less popular among the broader publics of Europe, and is often severely criticized by intellectual elites. But this is nothing new, and it has so far proved to have no meaningful effect on policy or Israel’s interests.

In the short term, Netanyahu’s government, and the loony Knesset which supports it, have managed to harm Israel’s image, and damage the relationship with the US, its most important backer. But even this sour atmosphere seems to have extracted no tangible price; and it could easily change if a new government restores the empty rhetorical commitment to the “peace process”.

What about Joseph’s notion, in his excellent and thoughtful piece, that youth of Tel Aviv might be shaken out of their complacency if their favorite performers cancel their concerts? Or perhaps it is Israel’s scholars and researchers who would be stirred to action by refusals to cooperate from colleagues abroad?

It is easy to caricature these arguments, but they do have some merit. Many Israelis cherish the sense that they are a part of the advanced, modern, Western world. This is a major element of the country’s identity, and explains why every foreign criticism, however mild, is often amplified in the Israeli public’s consciousness. This is a certainly a tool to be used by those that wish to make Israel more democratic and promote Justice for Palestinians.

However, to be effective, those who use this tool must take account of other facets of Israel’s identity, as well as the hierarchical structure of our society. For Israel’s truly influential elites – political, economic, security and legal – what matters is what happens in their fields. And there, they enjoy increasing support. If they want to see a concert, they can hop on a plane without thinking twice about it. Below these elites, you will find many groups, which are almost eager to hear that Israel is isolated, disliked and criticized. Their sense of persecution is easily stoked by those who hold real power.

Many BDS supporters seek ways to challenge young people in Tel Aviv, because, well, many of them are young people in Tel Aviv, or can most easily identify with people in this group. A second best, for them, is to challenge academics, because, well, many of them are academics. But both of these groups have very little pull in Israeli politics. If BDS campaigners could affect economic or security interests, that might have a substantial effect. But, as mentioned above, the world is actually moving in the opposite direction.

Those who wish to end the occupation, and promote justice and democracy, need to look in more realistic directions. Part of this strategy would involve advocacy with decision makers abroad. These people are not going to boycott Israel or sanction it any time soon, the way things are going. But if they offer honest and full throated criticism, they can contribute to an internal change.

Ultimately, the main effort needs to be inside Israel, and, wherever it is focused, it needs to be about convincing and making coalitions. This is a tall order, indeed, but much less so than the prospect of bringing down the occupation through BDS activities. In the meantime, this campaign, while it is not harmful in itself, does draw away time, energy and hope that could be more effective when directed at other avenues of action.