Israel’s counter-boycott campaign: all coercion, no moral persuasion
First they ignored it, then they laughed, now Israel and its supporters around the world are vehemently fighting the global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.
The counter-attack began to emerge around five years ago but recent moves in Europe and the US signal the start of a new intensification of the backlash. This latest stage in the co-ordinated transnational efforts against BDS has principally involved repressive legislative initiatives.
It is no coincidence that just in the last few weeks, the UK, the US and Canada all saw top-down government moves to condemn or outlaw the BDS movement, including significant efforts in a number of American states to criminalise boycott even though it is protected by the First Amendment.
Many organs of Israeli society are on board in this fight, not just the government. Illustrating the tendency of the press in Israel to work with the Israeli state, rather than hold it to account, media outlets YNet and Yedioth Ahronoth (Israel’s biggest newspaper) hosted a ‘Stop BDS’ conference in Jerusalem on 28 March. Meanwhile the first panel at the Jerusalem Post’s New York conference ‘Fight for the Zionist Dream’ in May deals with “The future of the Jewish people and the war against BDS”. Also in the USA, Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs will host its second annual explicitly anti-BDS conference in Los Angeles next week.
On the one hand, the huge amounts of money being poured into this concerted Zionist counter-campaign are testament to the effectiveness of the boycott strategy, providing clear evidence that the movement has had a major impact in the decade since its launch following the 2005 Palestinian BDS call - and the extent to which Zionist leaders are running scared.
On the other hand, in the countries witnessing the recent upsurge in anti-BDS activity, measures taken as part of the attempt to quash the boycott pose a real threat not just to BDS but to democratic campaigning of all sorts. However, it is important not to scaremonger, especially when it seems, for example, that part of the UK government’s strategy has been to encourage misleading headlines about the boycott being “banned” when in reality – for the moment at least - there is no such ban.
In addition, the counter-boycott faces a fundamental challenge. Although referred to by its protagonists as a “counter-BDS movement”, in an attempt to portray it as popular campaign, it is actually led by political elites, mega-donors and state powers in contrast to the genuinely civil society-based BDS movement it opposes. They may have the watches, but we have the time: in other words, despite the anti-BDS campaigners’ far superior access to resources, technical and political support, the BDS campaign can count on the commitment of grassroots activists around the world.
This is not to say that there is a complete absence of pro-Israel campaigners on the ground; this is not the case. But the Zionist movement has, in general, professionalised its PR or hasbara activities while, in contrast, the BDS campaign’s greatest asset is the dedication and commitment of ordinary people - and many voluntary organisations – who believe in the justness of the Palestinian cause.
Fewer and fewer people see anything worth supporting in the highly militarised state of Israel and its oppressive regime. Though the campaign to defend its system of ethnic privilege can, for the time being, still muster significant legal resources and political support - and thus wields significant coercive power - there is no moral basis to this effort: it is merely a rear-guard action to defend an apartheid state.
Without a substantive ethical core, the counter-BDS movement merely continues to lash out destructively, corroding civil liberties in the countries where it is seeking to crush BDS. The ethical principles of the latter are clear and should not be under-estimated: BDS is a rights-based movement grounded in anti-racism and the pursuit of peace through justice. Though the “lawfare” and repression of Israel and its allies can and will do great damage to BDS, in the long run the power of its persuasive moral ideas - freedom, justice and equality – can sustain it.
Meanwhile the pro-Israel campaign – which, since it senses that Israel’s crimes are indefensible and thus rarely even tries to make an argument grounded in ethics, instead focusing on influencing “opinion-leaders” - will be impeded by the moral vacuum at its heart. Its global counter-BDS efforts could eventually backfire too, precisely because they so often mirror the anti-democratic and racist face of Israel itself.
Palestinians in Israel have recently set an example for international solidarity activists by renewing their own boycott effort from within the proverbial belly of the beast. And every time an extra-judicial execution by the Israeli army is caught on camera – and leading Israeli politicians including the Prime Minister defend the murder – Israel’s global pool of support continues to shrink. Increasingly desperate recourse to baseless claims of “anti-Semitism” will not prevent the BDS movement from continuing to grow: the moral arc of the universe if long but it bends towards justice.
Hilary Aked is an analyst and researcher whose PhD studies focus on the influence of the Israel lobby in the United Kingdom. Follow her on Twitter: @Hilary_Aked
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.