Jewish Journal

Should we fear BDS?

by Kenneth Stern and Michael Berenbaum

Posted on Apr. 30, 2014 at 10:40 am

<em>Scarlett Johansson came under fire from BDS proponents for promoting SodaStream, a company with a presence in the West Bank. The Hollywood group Creative Community for Peace was very active in helping Johansson resist the boycott movement.</em>

Scarlett Johansson came under fire from BDS proponents for promoting SodaStream, a company with a presence in the West Bank. The Hollywood group Creative Community for Peace was very active in helping Johansson resist the boycott movement.

The movement to promote Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), is both old and new, simple and complex, effective and a failure, a danger and an opportunity. 

While various Arab-led initiatives to boycott Israel go back decades, BDS was born 13 years ago, in the summer of 2001. The Clinton administration’s peace process had collapsed, the Second Intifada was under way, and Israel was being demonized at the U.N.’s World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa. Posters comparing Israel to Nazi Germany were prominently displayed (including one that reportedly said, “Hitler should have finished the job”).  Participants, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), distributed leaflets proclaiming, “The World Stopped Nazism! The World Stopped Apartheid! The World Must Stop Zionism!” and exhorting the “boycotting [of] Israeli Apartheid.” The idea, indeed, was to shoehorn Israel into the paradigm of South African apartheid, to portray the Jewish state as an illegitimate anti-democratic regime that anyone opposed to racism should want dismantled.

The larger organizing effort, beginning in early 2002, targeted American universities, demanding they divest their endowments and other funds from investments in Israel. Petitions supporting divestment emerged on some campuses, including Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Rutgers, St. Lawrence University, University of California, Tufts, University of Massachusetts, University of Illinois, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, University of Pennsylvania, Wayne State University and Yale. 

[How serious a problem is BDS, and what are organizations doing about it?]

In response, many more people connected to these campuses, including many alumni, signed anti-divestment petitions. And some key college presidents, among them Harvard President Lawrence Summers and Columbia President Lee Bollinger, many of whom had long records of fighting apartheid, spoke out against the movement. They were offended by the comparison of Israel to apartheid, raising questions of the discriminatory effect, if not intent, of the divestment request. To date, not a single American university has divested, nor is one ever likely to. Thirteen years of utter BDS failure.

And yet, just in the past year, a few small American associations of academics have voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Even as hundreds of college presidents and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have denounced these boycott resolutions, the United States is seeing, as are some Western European countries, the advance of BDS — mostly on the fringes of the mainstream. And it is likely that some Christian religious groups, especially the Presbyterians, will again entertain the idea of BDS.

The reality is, the purpose of the BDS movement is not to harm the Israeli economy, even if many proponents would be happy to see such an impact. Its purpose is far more ideological than financial: to create a black-and-white construct where Israel is seen as irredeemably bad.

In the United States, BDS is playing out in at least three separate arenas, and it is important to understand the differences among them: corporations/consumer products/celebrities, religious groups and the academic world.


BDS proponents have sometimes targeted Israeli products. It is not a winning strategy to ask people to avoid all Israeli-linked items, because a real boycott would mean people give up their computers, cell phones, many medical products and other essentials of life. Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. and Intel Corp. all have facilities in Israel. Israeli scientists have developed pioneering medical treatments and vaccinations. Waze, the Israeli navigation app, was bought by Google Inc., and technology, unlike manufacturing, is intertwined and bundled. Arid regions are unlikely to give up drip irrigation, and, with water shortages looming, Israel’s model efforts at desalinization become ever more attractive. Israeli startups are knowledge-based and know neither borders nor countries of origin. 

So, more frequently, BDS proponents attempt to target U.S. companies whose products are used in the West Bank (such as Caterpillar Inc.), Israeli companies that have a presence in the West Bank (Ahava and SodaStream), or American companies that are partly owned by Israeli companies (Sabra Dipping Co. is half owned by PepsiCo and in partnership with the Strauss Group from Israel). 

This kind of targeting is a smart move by BDS proponents. Many Americans (and, indeed, many Israelis) do not feel comfortable supporting the occupation. Some Israeli companies (Ahava) use materials from Israel that are turned into products across the Green Line. Few people take the time to wrestle with the subsidiary questions: Are products processed in part or whole across the Green Line exploitive of Palestinians? Or do they provide them with needed, better-paying jobs, sometimes with benefits, than are available elsewhere in the West Bank? Why does boycotting Sabra (founded in Queens, N.Y.) make sense to some college students, despite the fact that Israelis have no need and certainly no desire for hummus from Queens? (The claim is that the Strauss Group supports the Israel Defense Forces — but so do most Israelis, just as most Americans support U.S. armed services.) It will be interesting to see whether students and faculty will give up going to Starbucks if its purchase of a 10 percent stake in SodaStream goes through. Starbucks is not just a business, it’s a culture of its own.

Above: Caterpillar products are among U.S. imports used by the Israeli goverment in the West Bank. Below: Sabra Dipping Co. has drawn ire because its owners support the Israel Defense Forces, even though it was founded in Brooklyn.

Reasonable people can debate the idea of boycotting West Bank-associated goods, because these people believe they are targeting the occupation. But there are also strong reasons to be against even a limited boycott, at least as a political movement rather than as a personal ethical preference. 

The BDS effort is not primarily about 1967, it’s more about 1948. As the frequently referenced Palestinian call for BDS noted in 2004, the focus of the movement is Israel’s basic existence, its “Zionist ideology.” There is the danger that calling for a limited boycott (West Bank goods, however defined) will give oxygen to those whose political goals are not so narrow, and who want to create the binary framework in which Israel is congenitally, demonically evil.

We should be clear: Israeli Ministry of Finance officials have said that the BDS movement has had no economic impact on Israel. Warren Buffet’s lauding of his investments in Israel and of the marvels of Israel’s “human capital” at the annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting has had a much greater economic impact than all the efforts of the BDS movement.

Alongside the push to boycott consumer goods, some BDS proponents have put pressure — frequently with open letters and online petitions — on musicians and other celebrities, urging them not to perform in Israel. Some performers conclude that playing in Tel Aviv isn’t worth the hassle, while others refuse to be bullied (notably, the Rolling Stones, who have never performed in Israel, will have their Tel Aviv debut on June 4). And, increasingly, Israeli television programs are finding audiences in the United States, and forming the basis for well-received American shows with Israeli producers and writers. Among the groundbreakers are “Homeland” and “In Treatment.” As anyone living in California knows, the cooperation between Israel and Hollywood is only exceeded by the symmetry of Israel and Silicon Valley. An attempt to boycott Israeli-made movies at the Toronto Film Festival a couple of years ago fizzled when A-list actors indicated that they would refuse to participate in any such boycott.

In both cases — companies and goods on one hand, and celebrities on the other — the organized Jewish community is largely content to fight BDS with blogs and press releases, and on a few ad hoc occasions with a “buycott,” which is the right idea: an organized effort to buy the various Israeli products at the stores the BDS proponents are targeting (Israeli foods at some groceries, Israeli cosmetics at some retail stores).  

This strategy, however, is too reactive, and too frequently designed to show that Jewish groups are strongly sticking up for Israel, rather than doing the hard work that the other side is doing: organizing with a strategy. There is a much better way to stop this type of BDS. Some Jewish groups should crowd source those who oppose these boycotts. People could commit an automatic contribution of one dollar each time there is a BDS initiative (up to an annual limit set by the contributor). The money would go to purchase the exact product or company stock the BDSers were targeting. Motorola? Buy phones to give to inner city families that can use them. SodaStream? Donate the product to schools and homeless shelters. Scarlett Johansson? Buy DVDs of her movies and donate them to libraries. 

BDSers have free speech rights to advocate a boycott, but there is no reason doing so should be without repercussions. Make it so that every time they propose a boycott of a product or company, more of the targeted product is bought, more of the company stock is purchased (and donated to groups that work for the two-state solution, and/or work against BDS, or against hatred). 


In recent years, various liberal Christian denominations have discussed BDS. They are urged to do so by their Palestinian brethren, particularly by the group Sabeel, which has a history of delegitimizing Israel by asserting theological objections to Zionism. An active group within the Presbyterian Church (its Israel/Palestine Mission Network) has adopted this point of view and is eagerly promoting it to its members. 

Jewish groups such as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (JCPA), American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center continue to reach out to Christian groups flirting with BDS, objecting to their reliance on “fringe” Jewish voices, such as those of pro-BDS Jewish Voice for Peace, who are hardly representative of the larger Jewish community. By and large the organized Jewish community has done well in making the case against BDS (that it singles out Israel unfairly, that is imposes double standards for however one objects to Israel’s policies, Israel is hardly among the most oppressive of contemporary governments, that it harms the prospect for peace by empowering rejectionists on both sides, that people who say they care about peace should be looking for ways to bring Palestinians and Israelis together, rather than to divide them further, etc.). 

Yet the Jewish communal capacity to have influence here has diminished. In part this is because of the recent successes of BDS among some small academic groups (enough to give the idea, at least in the BDS proponent’s minds, that the movement has momentum). But more so because the organized Jewish community, with some exceptions (such as the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center and JCPA), has become more restrictive in its focus, more concerned with Israel and Iran, less with the full range of domestic issues that used to provide meaningful opportunities for Jewish communal leaders (staff and lay) to work with and form personal relationships with their Christian counterparts on a variety of issues (poverty, education, immigration, religious freedom, human rights, etc.). The Jewish community, having made the choice to narrow its focus, is now paying a price for this diminished engagement. People who used to see Jewish communal leaders as allies, partners, colleagues and friends now see them more as having abandoned social justice issues, and instead only as de facto defense lawyers for Israel. 


Perhaps the most important community flirting with BDS is that of the American academics. In some ways this is inevitable, because academics are more left-leaning than the general society, and also because of the model of academics in the United Kingdom who have, in the past, voted in favor of the idea of an academic boycott sometimes of Israeli academics, sometimes of Israeli academic institutions.

On one hand, the votes at a few small academic associations are less important than the overwhelming rejection of an academic boycott by the AAUP and the hundreds of university and college presidents who have spoken out against the idea as incompatible with the assocation. On the other hand, there are some voices in the AAUP who would like to change the group’s policy, and larger academic associations might want to take up the issue in the future.

And on this battlefront, with some important exceptions, the Jewish community is failing.

The association runs by its own rules. It is particularly suspicious of outside influence. Proposals for legislation to withdraw federal or state funds from universities that allow any money to go to academic associations that have a pro-boycott position, (or legal threats asserting the claim that pro-BDS political speech violates Title VI) are not only doomed to failure, they actually help the other side by suggesting that the pro-Israel forces cannot make a fair case, so they have to try and silence opponents. (In the exceptional case of illegal harassment, there are remedies that do not impinge protected speech.) Calls to “boycott the boycotters” are also unwise. That says that academic boycotts are OK, it is just a question of whom to boycott. 

When 400 university presidents joined Bollinger in denouncing the pro-boycott vote of the U.K.’s University and College Union in 2007, they did not say they would boycott British academics. They said, instead, that if the British group was intent on dividing the academic world in two — Israelis who should be marginalized and everyone else — please count their American institutions as Israeli, too. 

The inescapable fact is that pro-BDS forces have been organizing inside their professional associations for years. They are passionate, and when defeated, they don’t mourn, they get up off the ground and begin organizing again. Anti-BDS academics (including some who support BDS on consumer goods, but see academic boycotts as anathema) are just starting to organize. They are years behind. But here — not in op-eds, not in blogs or press releases from Jewish groups, let alone legal threats — is where the battle has to be won.

Last winter, Jewish students at UCLA organized quickly to oppose a student government motion to boycott Israel. They were surprised by the fact that their opponents were prepared to shade the truth, for example by inviting groups to join in their battle to oppose Israel’s discrimination against gays, as if gay life was not flourishing in Tel Aviv or was out of the closet in Jericho and Ramallah. Their opponents also used the term “pinkwashing,” arguing that Israel cynically uses the fact that gays have it better in Israel than any place else in the Middle East as a way to get that community to abandon the fight against discrimination against another minority — Palestinians. 

There is some positive news on this front. JCPA and the Federations had the wisdom to create the Israel Action Network (IAN) a few years ago. Run by an extremely competent staff, IAN has helped groups of academics concerned about BDS coalesce. The academics are forming their own groups and coalitions and driving their own agenda, but IAN is asking what it can do to help them, serving an important role as a facilitator. 

And just two months ago, a group of progressive academics came together to form an academic advisory council for the progressive Zionist group Ameinu and its “Third Narrative” initiative. These academics, as a whole, see the occupation as a disaster for Israel, but are also aghast at the idea of an academic boycott and are well-poised to use their scholarship and writing and speaking abilities to engage the troubling idea of an academic boycott. Perhaps as important, this group rejects the notion that one has to be an advocate for Israel against the Palestinians, or Palestinians against Israel. They realize that the binary approach, which defines Israel as always in the wrong, or Palestinians as obstacles rather than as human beings with legitimate aspirations too, only helps promote extremist views on both sides. 

The Ameniu model is the one with the most promise if BDS and the demonization of Israel and Israelis (which will intensify if peace talks fail, or if Iran is attacked) is to be countered effectively.

The major mistake the Jewish community continues to make is letting the communal agenda be set by funders who are eager for Jewish institutions to be “strong” instead of wise. It is easy to be outraged by BDS and to support initiatives that tell Israel’s story, minimizing its problems, accentuating its positives — it is, in fact, a remarkable story, one that we celebrate this week on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day. But these initiatives by and large are meant to make people who already support Israel feel good. They miss the mark because this battle is taking place on the political left, rather than the right.

If the Jewish community wants to beat BDS, it needs to make the consumer/corporate/performer types of BDS fail by assuring the proponents that their efforts will backfire. And, more urgently, it needs to fund those who speak the same language and are of the same community as the BDS proponents, particularly in the academic sphere. This means giving the space for people who might oppose the occupation, or particular Israeli policies, and even support a limited boycott of some West Bank-related items. Jewish communal leaders understand the fear that funders may ask, “Why is some of my money going to support people with whom I disagree about Israel?” The leaders have to have the courage — and leadership capacity — to explain that these are the only people with credibility to expose BDS, and to increase their ability to engage this battle is the only way to win it.

Kenneth Stern is an attorney and author who has written widely about hatred. 

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com.

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