The Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel has not been an effective economic weapon. It has had few victories and numerous defeats. I think that’s probably because market forces are stronger than ideological ones, at least among the populations that make decisions with economic impact. But I don’t think it’s intended to do economic damage.
Some people think that BDS is a nonviolent way to pressure an intransigent Israeli government to stop “oppressing the Palestinians.” That this is not the case is clear from the conditions that the BDS movement has set for the removal of its boycott. They are
- Withdrawal from all territories occupied in 1967 and removal of the security barrier.
- Giving “full equality” to Arab citizens of Israel.
- Recognizing a right of return for the descendants of Arab refugees.
The first is inconsistent with Israel’s survival from a security standpoint, and the last is inconsistent with it from a demographic one. The second condition is interesting, since Arab citizens already have full civil rights; so the demand is for national rights, which would mean that Israel (or whatever it would be called) would no longer be a Jewish state, but a state of all its citizens.
Accepting these conditions would result in the replacement of the Jewish state by an Arab-majority state. Practically speaking, this could not occur non-violently. It would certainly result in civil war and, if the Arabs were successful, expulsion and/or genocide for Israel’s Jews.
Israel will never agree to these demands. It would literally be national suicide, and everyone, Jews and Arabs, knows that. But the demands of BDS are not intended to be acceptable. They are intended to make it possible for the BDS movement to continue for as long as its leaders wish it to.
If BDS does not damage Israel’s economy – and Israel’s success since the initiation of the movement in the early 2000s shows that it doesn’t – and if its demands are so extreme that they will never be met, then what is its true objective?
The answer is that it is a tool for delegitimizing and demonizing Israel. It is a way to start ideological fires around the world, to create controversies that will enable its advocates to call Israel an apartheid state, to say that Israel is like pre-Mandela South Africa, to accuse Israel of all manner of crimes against humanity, including genocide, and to equate it with Nazi Germany.
These accusations are ridiculous, but as former US President Lyndon Johnson once explained, they want to hear us deny them.
Several states in the US have expanded laws initially passed to protect Israel from the Arab boycott that began in 1948 on the basis that the boycott constituted unfair discrimination, to apply to BDS. A federal law to this effect was also proposed in the US Senate in 2017, but hasn’t been voted on. Such laws essentially say that government agencies are not allowed to do business with organizations that refuse to trade with Israel for political reasons. Opponents of such measures say that they are unconstitutional limitations on speech; proponents say that they don’t prohibit speech or expression, only specific actions.
I am not going to discuss the legal arguments, which are ably handled here by Eugene Kontorovich. My opinion is that since BDS is a tool of cognitive warfare, it should be met with cognitive countermeasures. While an anti-boycott law might be an effective and practical tool against economic warfare – as in the case of the original Arab boycott of Israel – it will have little effect on BDS, which as we’ve seen, is not intended to do economic damage.
Indeed, since the constitutional arguments are not well-understood by the public, attempts to pass anti-boycott laws simply provide yet another opportunity for BDS-niks to generate public discussion into which they can insert false accusations of apartheid, oppression, racism, war crimes, and so on. It gives them an opportunity to make false analogies between the “plight” of the Palestinians – actually the point of the spear of the Muslim majorities in the region – and the situation of minorities in the US. Worst of all, it permits them to argue that a powerful Jewish conspiracy is trying to use the law to “silence” the courageous voices of those on the side of the oppressed Palestinian minority-of-color, who supposedly only want their human rights.
The debate that is created by anti-boycott laws and resolutions thus plays directly into the hands of Israel’s enemies. Every time there is a publicized struggle in a university, church, or labor union over BDS, they achieve their goal, whether the resolution passes or not. Just now, the extremely smart, dangerous, and despicable Ilhan Omar has introduced a resolution in the US Congress which would support the “right to boycott” as a free-speech issue. There is a great deal of opposition and at least now it seems that it is unlikely to pass (and even if it did, it would have no legal weight). But Omar has already attained her objective, as should be clear from her words in support of the resolution:
Americans of conscience have a proud history of participating in boycotts to advocate for human rights abroad including … boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust…
Of course she does not explicitly say that Israel is like Nazi Germany, and in fact the pro-boycott resolution doesn’t even mention Israel. But cognitive warfare is all about subtly, almost subliminally, introducing the connections you want to make. The targeted brain does the rest.
Omar likes win-win propositions, like the controversies surrounding her borderline antisemitic remarks (“it’s all about the Benjamins,” etc.) and the dueling resolutions pro and con BDS. She is keeping the pot boiling by announcing a trip to Israel along with fellow anti-Israel Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Israel recently passed a law that gives the Foreign Ministry the authority to ban BDS supporters from entering the country, and if she were banned, she would doubtless claim it as evidence of Israel’s racism and intent to silence critics. Our government (reportedly the decision was made by the PM himself) decided that it would be less damaging to let her in and accept the inevitable exaggerated reports of ill-treatment of Palestinian Arabs that will ensue.
The demonization and delegitimization of Israel that is the objective of BDS has a purpose; our enemies aren’t doing it just to make themselves feel good. It is done in order to prepare the target population – both the “street” in democratic countries and important decision-makers – to stand by and not oppose, to even agree with, very violent actions against Israel and her people. Terrorism against Israel is tolerated during “peacetime” and weapons are embargoed in time of war, disadvantageous diplomatic “solutions” are forced on us, and we are never allowed to achieve decisive victory over our enemies – all because the cognitive groundwork has been laid beforehand, by the operatives of the BDS movement and politicians like Ilhan Omar.
The BDS movement was created by psychological warfare experts, the successors to the ones who gave us the PLO in the 1960s as the “national liberation movement of the Palestinian people,” and cast Israel in the role of the “European colonialists” who were oppressing them. Until now, we seem to have relied on ad-hoc defensive measures that, like the attempts to find legal remedies in the US, only play into the hands of our enemies.
Israel’s doctrine for traditional warfare calls for us to always be on the offensive and to take the war into enemy territory. Shouldn’t we fight the cognitive war in the same way? We’ll discuss that in part II.