RONNIE OLESKER: Israel’s combative response has been misguided. It needs liberals to fight accusations of war crimes and apartheid. Russia doesn’t care about being demonised, Israel must
THE POTENTIAL OF BOYCOTT, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has been on display this week as individuals, companies and states moved to boycott, divest, and sanction Russia for its blatant violation of international law. Yet another BDS movement against Israel, operating for 20 years now, has not had nearly as much of an impact.
For Australians, the BDS movement came into the limelight most recently when as many as 35% of the participants in the Sydney Festival withdrew over the A$20,000 sponsorship by the Israeli government of a dance choreographed by an Israeli and performed by the Sydney Dance Company.
The BDS movement started officially in 2005 when Palestinian NGOs called on individuals and groups to initiate an economic, cultural and academic boycotts of Israel. It also called on firms to divest from the state, and for countries to sanction it for its violations of international law.
However, its roots start earlier, in 2001, at the UN World conference against racism held in Durban, South Africa. The location was not a coincidence as Palestinians NGOs were planning to put forward a resolution calling for BDS against Israel, a tactic that was used by activists against Apartheid South Africa in the preceding decades.
In 2002, two British Jewish academics published the first call for academic boycott of Israel and in 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued its ruling against Israel’s construction of a wall on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. All these provided the backdrop for the call for BDS and the formation of the BDS movement against Israel.
The movement makes three demands of Israel. First, that it end its colonisation and occupation of all Arab land. This means the BDS call does not distinguish between territories Israel occupied since 1967 (ie Gaza and the West Bank), and its recognised borders established after the war of 1948 (when Israel gained its independence).
The second demand, considered least controversial, is that Israel stops discriminating against its own Palestinian citizens.
The third is that it recognise the right of return of Palestinian refugees who were displaced in the 1948 and 1967 wars, and that this right be extended to their descendants.
Despite 20 years of activity, we have not seen a significant economic or diplomatic impact on Israel resulting from BDS. Perhaps even on the contrary.
For Israel and its supporters, these demands would spell the end of the Jewish character of the state and represent a disregard for Jewish self-determination rights. The first demand in particular, is seen as a threat that implies the entire Zionist enterprise is illegitimate. For supporters of BDS, these demands align with international norms of self-determination of all peoples and adheres to international law.
Despite 20 years of activity, we have not seen a significant economic or diplomatic impact on Israel resulting from BDS. Perhaps even on the contrary. During this period, Israel’s economy grew and it established diplomatic relations with four Arab states through the 2020 Abraham Accords. It strengthened its relations with previously non-aligned states in Asia and Africa, and foreign direct investment continues to pour into the country.
Does this mean that BDS has been a failure?
In my own research I found that while Israel still maintains the support of western political elites, it is consistently losing the discursive battle and support among western publics, especially younger more liberal people in the West.
The discourse used by BDS, namely the appeal to international and human rights law, is particularly effective among liberals. The effect of this discourse is already felt, with three recent human rights report accusing the state of crimes of Apartheid.
BDS also constructs Israel as a settler colonial state and resistance to it as a form of anti-racist activism. This, too, has been effective at creating progressive intersectional alliances with, for example, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement
Israel’s framing of the BDS movement as antisemitic or an extension of terrorism, on the other hand, shows little impact on the liberal publics it needs to win over if it hopes to combat BDS.
Part of what shields Israel from the effects of BDS in ways that countries like Russia cannot, is the support it enjoys among liberal states, most importantly the US.
Part of what shields Israel from the effects of BDS in ways that countries like Russia cannot, is the support it enjoys among liberal states, most importantly the US. However, recent polling suggests that Israel is losing the support it once enjoyed, especially among younger, more diverse populations.
In the United States, a Pew Research Center poll from 2018 suggests that while 79% of Republicans are likely to sympathise with Israel over the Palestinians, only 27% of Democrats do. Among liberal Democrats the gap is even wider: nearly twice as many liberal Democrats sympathise more with the Palestinians than with Israel.
This finding is significant because my numerous interviews with Israeli policymakers indicate that this is exactly where the battleground for Israel’s legitimacy is waging – in liberal American spaces, including among Jews.
Over half of American Jews identify as liberal and although the majority, even young ones, say they have some or a lot in common with Jews in Israel,less than half, across all age groups, strongly oppose BDS.
Among those identifying as Democrats or leaning Democrat, only 28% strongly oppose BDS even while they remain concerned about the movement.
Recent polling suggests that Israel is losing the support it once enjoyed, especially among younger, more diverse populations.
Which is why Israeli policies in response to BDS exacerbate Israel’s problem. In Durban in 2001, Israeli diplomats felt they were ambushed as they were wholly unprepared for the attack they received there. Since then, and especially since 2015, Israel has moved onto the offensive.
Its use of lawfare, for example, to lobby western governments to pass anti-boycott measures that limit free speech further damage Israel’s reputation as a liberal state among the very publics it needs to win over in order to combat BDS.
Using companies like Psy group, set up by former security agents of the state, to spy on BDS activists on college campuses does nothing to address the issues that draw supporters to BDS.
Setting up government NGOs (known as GONGOs), on whose board sit former IDF generals to work within civil society to combat BDS, has little to no effect.
Campaigns such as ‘terrorists in suits’to convince audiences of the connection between BDS and terrorist operatives convinces only the converted, as do allegations of antisemitism.
Issuing campaigns such as “terrorists in suits” to convince international audiences of the connection between BDS and terrorist operatives convinces only the converted, as do allegations of antisemitism, which show no ability to convince those who are not already on board.
Indeed, Israel’s use of a security-oriented institution to devise the state’s response to BDS – the Ministry of Strategic Affairs – missed the mark entirely and furthered the perception of illiberalism. Perhaps this is why it was dissolved in 2021 when the new government came into power.
Curtailment of Israeli democracy in the name of security, such as barring BDS activists, including Jews, from entering the state, or increased legislation that is blatantly discriminatory of its Palestinian citizens, exacerbates the problem further.
This brings me back to the ineffectiveness of BDS but also to the highly counterproductive policies of Israel. When the issue of BDS does not bubble up to the surface, it tends to be Israel’s actions, whether it is in the repeated operations in Gaza, or the lobbying of legislators in western states to ban BDS, or its equating of an ice cream company’s decision to stop selling its products in the West Bank to terrorism and antisemitism – which both elevate the discourse used by the BDS movement to justify its actions, and elevate its profile, especially among young liberals.
It is liberals whose support Israel must maintain if it wishes to effectively combat allegations of war crimes, apartheid and crimes against humanity. Russia does not care, Israel must.
Ben & Jerry’s Vs Ben & Jerry’s: Israeli licensee sues ice cream giant (Haaretz)
Lawsuit filed in US federal court Thursday alleges that Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever violated US and Israeli law after ending the business relationship with the local licensee because of sales in West Bank settlements
Photo: A boycott Israel protest (Citizenside.com)