The Palestinians' Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign is making headlines, thanks to pro-Israel advocates' attack on an event scheduled for tonight at Brooklyn College in New York. In a blow to the likes of Alan Dershowitz, the decision by the college's political science department to co-sponsor the discussion on a boycott of Israel has been widely defended on the grounds of free speech, including by Mayor Bloomberg.
But it would be a mistake to assume that this sort of crude bullying is the main, let alone only, way that Zionist groups are fighting back against a growing movement for Palestinian rights. In fact, it is perhaps one of the least effective and counter-productive strategies, which the smarter Israel advocates have long since recognised. Here are some examples of how Israel and its supporters are targeting BDS (this is not a comprehensive list):
- One method of fighting BDS is so-called 'rebranding', a strategy embraced for some years now. The aim, borrowing from the world of corporate public relations, is for Israel to "improve the country's image abroad" by "creat[ing] a brand disconnected from the Arab-Israeli conflict that focuses instead on Israel's scientific and cultural achievements". In other words, war crimes, settlements and the Apartheid Wall are displaced by gay clubbing in Tel Aviv, high-tech start-ups, and Idan Raichel.
- Another element in the fight against BDS, in terms of coordination and strategising, has been the Israel Foreign Ministry-organised Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism Antisemitism (yes, a supposedly 'anti-racist' gathering is used to fight Palestinian solidarity). In 2007, working groups addressed topics like "academic and economic boycotts: pre-emptive strategies". At the 2009 meet, a working group described BDS as "traditional bigotry" and discussed a "five year plan" that included implementing "legislative prohibitions vs. BDS" taking into account "different legal traditions".
- A legal approach has also been deployed – for example, see the case brought against the University and College Union by Israel advocate Ronnie Fraser, recent efforts by the Californian state assembly, or the prosecution of French boycott activists.
- A key recommendation by influential Israeli think tank The Reut Institute that has since been taken up by Israel advocacy groups is to 'drive a wedge' between so-called 'moderates' and 'extremists'. In other words, Israel lobbyists should target 'problematic' mainstream NGOs through private engagement and public attack, in an effort to scare them off from partnering with or having any links to Palestine solidarity and human rights groups.
- There is also a large amount of resources being mobilised to specifically target BDS. Examples include, in North America, the Israel Action Network, who recently produced a new guide to 'best practice' in fighting boycott and divestment initiatives, and take individuals from key target groups out to Palestine/Israel for propaganda trips. In the UK, efforts are loosely coordinated by the 'Fair Play' umbrella group, with organisations like BICOM also playing an important role.
- Meanwhile, in Israel itself, activists who support the Palestinians' BDS call have found themselves targeted by the security service the Shin Bet, while the Knesset has passed a law designed to stifle pro-boycott activity by Israeli citizens.
But what is it about BDS that makes it so dangerous from the point of view of Israel and its apologists? Again, here are some pointers:
- BDS puts the focus right on Israel's systematic, racist, illegal policies – and on the lived experience of the colonized. This is exactly where Israel's supporters don't want the focus to be, and they particularly don't want the agenda to be set by the very people they are busy dispossessing.
- The BDS call goes to the heart of the Zionist settler-colonial project with its three demands: end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall; equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return. The status quo challenged by this call is that of a regime of privilege, apartheid, and exclusion, rooted in the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, manifesting itself today from Gaza and the Jordan Valley to East Jerusalem and the Negev.
- Linked to BDS is a powerful apartheid analysis gaining traction even with the mainstream – it was even mentioned by CNN in their coverage of Israel's elections.
- BDS is about ending impunity and enforcing accountability for violations of international law and human rights – a red line for many Israel supporters of both 'hawkish' or 'liberal' persuasion.
- BDS is catching on and getting ever more popular as a form of solidarity by activists, and not surprisingly: it's action-focused, it galvanises and empowers, and it's part of a global movement.
- BDS is making an impact and notching up successes around the world – just look at news from the last two months.
- BDS has even already begun to influence Israeli political discourse. Tzipi Livni's election campaign included warnings that Benjamin Netanyahu was leading the country towards international isolation and sanctions.
There is no doubting that a lot of government and non-state actors' resources are now being targeted at undermining BDS, smearing activists, and co-opting key people in governments, NGOs, trade unions and faith groups. But all this effort is a sign of BDS' success – and until Israel ends its illegitimate policies, this so-called 'delegitimisation' will only grow.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.