When it comes to BDS, Israel's worst fear is the South African boycott scenario

When it comes to BDS, Israel's worst fear is the South African boycott scenario
BDS’ strength is in its ability to adapt, penetrate, and garner support, and it has triggered Israel's greatest fear of a shift in global public opinion regarding the state's history and legitimacy, writes Emad Moussa.
9 min read
15 Nov, 2021
Pro-Palestinian supporters gather outside King's College London calling for UK universities to end co-operation with institutions involved in breaches of international law carried out by the Israeli government in London, UK on 9 July 2021. [Getty]

In his own words, the founder of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Omar Barghouthi, describes the formation of the movement as "a historical moment of collective consciousness, and informed by almost a century of struggle against Zionist settler-colonialism."

BDS is a rights-based, non-violent movement rooted in international law and human rights norms. Its core mission is to encourage the world's civil society organisations and people of conscience to "impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era." The goal is to pressure Israel into succumbing to international law and ending the decades-long injustice and structural violence against the Palestinian people.

The Ben & Jerry decision to cease sales in the settlements and, later, Nike's withdrawal from the Israeli market, soon followed by Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s refusal to publish her last book in Hebrew, have signalled that the movement is still alive and effective. The events further reflected BDS' multi-dimensionality and evolving nature, as well as the diverse nature of the Palestine solidarity movement worldwide.         

"The "Israel-centric" or "save Israel from its own apartheid" narrative reduces the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ending the occupation alone."

Yet, BDS functions within a world system dominated by a single superpower categorically aligned with the very state against which the boycott battle is waged, assisting it diplomatically and passing anti-BDS congressional legislations in its favour. 

On its part, Israel has been - with the direct involvement of its intelligence services - fiercely lobbying and pressuring governments to prohibit BDS and stymie its activities. These efforts haven’t been without some success. The anti-BDS endeavours, therefore, have set the reach and limits of BDS' advocacy and raised its stakes.

Distinct from other means of resistance, BDS supplements the state-centric discourse with imaginative ways of conceptualising Palestinian self-determination based on rights and humanitarian merits. It sees Palestinian rights as inalienable and Israel's rights as acquired. 

The movement opposes the narrative that frames the occupation, above all other considerations, as harmful to Israel. The "Israel-centric" or "save Israel from its own apartheid" narrative reduces the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to ending the occupation alone. It does not address the UN-sanctioned rights of most Palestinians to return to their homes and receive compensations, or Israel's institutionalised discrimination against Palestinians in Israel.

 The conflict is asymmetrical. Therefore, the movement's struggle is one for freedom and justice for the oppressed, above all other considerations. In this worldview, Palestinian rights are transhistorical. Without redressing the consequences of the historical wrongs committed against the Palestinians by Israel - beyond merely ending the 1967 occupation - the alternative will be an ethno-centric hierarchy in Palestine favouring Jews.

In other words, a continuation of the current asymmetry, although in a different shape. BDS visualises the future Palestinian-Jewish relations as "ethical coexistence," one based on justice and equal rights for all.

The movement is made up of individuals and organisations with varied goals and worldviews on how the conflict should be resolved. As such, their strategies and methods of implementation somewhat differ.

For some, BDS is a vehicle through which they express (or manifest) their opposition to Israeli policies and military occupation. Nick Riemer, an Australian BDS campaigner at Sydney University, told the New Arab that even those reluctant to boycott Israel, "may be drawn closer to a pro-Palestinian position as a result of being asked to commit to the boycott itself."

To others, the role is more proactive and involves developing concrete strategies  to end the occupation and achieve justice for the Palestinians, either through a two-state or one-state solution.

The strategies converge to achieve a primary goal: to make the status quo more unsustainable and expensive to Israel, disrupting Israel's relatively cheap conflict management approach.


The theory is that cultural and economic pressure will take a heavy toll on the Israeli public, forcing the Israeli state to seek a way out through a political process with the Palestinians.

The boycott effect is incremental, one achievement at a time. So far this year, BDS has scored several successes. To name a few: Norway's largest pension fund, KLP, divested from 16 companies linked to West Bank's settlements; Scotland's second largest pension fund, Lothian, divested from Israeli bank Ha'poalim; the match between FC Barcelona and Israeli club Beitar Yerushalayim was cancelled; and, responding to the war on Gaza this past May, 350 academic departments, programmes, centres, unions and societies worldwide have endorsed statements in support of Palestinian rights. Added to that, the City University of New York's (CUNY) staff congress, representing 30,000 members, passed a resolution denouncing Israel as a settler-colonial and apartheid state.

As early as 2015, the Financial Times mentioned that a leaked Israeli government report estimated that BDS could cost Israel's economy US$ 1.4bn a year. A Rand Corporation's report in the same year projected that the costs could be three times as high, US$ 47bn over 10 years. BDS activists like to cite these figures and others to reflect the movement’s impact.

It is believed, however, that the broader economic impact of the boycotts has been negligible. Israel’s economy continues to thrive, despite the withdrawal of several international companies as a result of the BDS advocacy.

With the exception of Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority, Israel has suffered Arab boycotts for decades. The boycotts made the Jewish state insecure in terms of supplies of basic commodities, energy resources, and raw materials. Incrementally, according to Bahar and Sachs from Brookings Institute, the Israeli economy became adept at dealing with boycotts, third-country subsidiaries being one tactic.

The boycott has partially collapsed over the past year as four Arab states normalised ties with the Jewish state. Israel and the UAE today hope they could reap US$ 1 trillion in economic exchanges. Although a much smaller economy, Bahrain provides backdoor access for Israeli firms to the much larger Saudi market. Speculatively, Sudan can provide Israel with cheap raw materials.

What is more, Israel today is a world hub for tech entrepreneurship and research and development. 40% of Israel's exports are deemed intermediate goods, meaning they are integral to the production of other goods. This makes Israel an intrinsic part of the global value chain.

This begs the question, why is Israel concerned about BDS then?

Riemer explained to The New Arab, "At the moment, at least, it's really not about economics. The recent Ben and Jerry event had ideological and political reverberations that far outstripped the financial ones." To him, it’s a trickle-down effect, a trial and error, "testing a particular tactic, and then discarding it, modifying it, or continuing with it as is, depending on its results."

BDS' core strength lies in its ability to adapt, penetrate, and gather support. Israel fears that the shift in the global public opinion on Israel, particularly in the United States, will set in motion a domino effect that may start with supporting Palestinian human rights and ending with intense debate on the country’s history and, therefore, legitimacy.

To Israeli leaders, this makes BDS a strategic, if not an existential threat. Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015 warned, "We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to its name." 

In response to Ben & Jerry's decision to stop selling ice cream in the settlements, PM Naftali Bennett's office vowed to "act aggressively against all boycott actions directed against Israel’s citizens." The B&J's move is "clearly an anti-Israel step," the office added, raising concerns about the negative impact of the boycott on Israel's international standing and legitimacy.

But the question of Israel's legitimacy is a zero-sum one, it shifts the debate from Israel’s human rights violations  to anti-Semitism. 

Placing BDS only within the parameters of "Israel's legitimacy" automatically reframes Palestinian demands for rights as the antithesis of the Jewish people’s right to exist; in other words, anti-Semitic. In this logic, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are one and the same, only camouflaged in a set of linguistic techniques aimed at hiding the movement’s true intentions of denouncing and demonising Israel, as well as denying its right to exist.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) claimed that BDS targets Israel's right to exist, and in a tactic similar to that routinely unleashed against the UN bodies, accused the movement of singling out the Jewish state. The organisation sees that BDS undermines peace between Israel and the Palestinians because  it "prioritises blaming Israel over uplifting the Palestinians."

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and American Jewish Committee (AJC), among others, employ the same tropes in their anti-BDS endeavours. 

Neither Israel nor the pro-Israel lobbies seem interested in addressing the causal relationship between Israel's policies, on one hand, and the growing pro-Palestine activism, on the other. Changes in the global trend towards Israel - even among young Jews in the US and Europe - only emphasises Israel's self-image as a beleaguered community existentially threatened by irrational anti-Jewish intentions.

"In this context, fighting for Palestinian rights is categorically a fight against Zionism, not different in principle or spirit from the Jewish struggle against Nazism"

Here, time collapses and BDS becomes a reincarnation of the Jewish past traumas. Netanyahu said that BDS was reminiscent of Nazi Germany's campaign against Jews, and Lapid, Israel's Foreign Minister and Alternate PM, drew a direct line between BDS' activities and the Mufti of Jerusalem’s collaboration with the Nazis in the 1940s.

Palestinians and their supporters reject the accusations, emphasising there's a distinction between effect and motivations. BDS, nevertheless, is expressly and proudly anti-Zionist. Equating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism is seen as nothing but a defamation campaign to deny Palestinian rights. The movement explicitly calls Zionism the "ideological pillar of Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid." 

In this context, fighting for Palestinian rights is categorically a fight against Zionism, not different in principle or spirit from the Jewish struggle against Nazism. It is not directed at Jews qua Jews, much like Jewish anti-Nazism was not a campaign against the German people. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.