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US House Committee on Foreign Affairs Discusses BDS 'Threat'

March 15, 2014 at 12:56 pm

The growing strength of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement was a topic of discussion at the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade last week. The subcommittee’s March 5 hearing was on “Threats to Israel: Terrorist Funding and Trade Boycotts“. Chaired by Rep. Ted Poe (TX), witnesses included author Edwin Black and attorney Steven Perles.

The topic of boycotts was tackled by the third witness Dr. David Pollock, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a right-wing, pro-Israel think tank. Pollock’s statement to the subcommittee focused on BDS, including his assessment about the threat it poses to Israel, and what can be done about it.

Pollock gave an update on the latest BDS developments, from Scarlett Johansson to the Norwegian YMCA, and gave his take on current official European Union (EU) thinking. Pollock downplayed BDS successes, but conceded such initiatives could “gain momentum”, particularly if there is no “countervailing campaign”. He later noted that “the prospect of growing unofficial economic reprisals against Israel, in case of a breakdown in the peace process, is a real one”.

His final conclusion was that BDS “as an unofficial movement, and even as an official response limited to Israeli settlements” is “gradually gaining strength in some quarters – and could surge in the event that the current peace talks deadlock or disband.”.

Pollock made two proposals for what the US can do “to address this problem, and nip it in the bud”. The first was to use “public diplomacy and private persuasion” with European allies. The second was possible “legislative or legal remedies”, an idea Pollock put forward with reference to laws against compliance “with the nominal Arab boycott against Israel”.

Here Pollock seemed to be advocating for, or at least raising the possibility of, the kinds of legal attacks on freedom of speech attempted in New York Assembly, and Maryland and Illinois state legislatures, initiatives even being disowned by strident Israel advocacy organisations.

During the questioning of the witnesses, the issue was raised of how the BDS movement is funded. Pollock replied by saying that insufficient research had been done on this question, but that his own assessment was that it was a mix of sources all over the world, with many groups simply securing funding “from a variety of individual donations”.

For his part, Edwin Black singled out the New Israel Fund – which ironically has explicitly stated its opposition to BDS – for opprobrium, based on its record of funding human rights-focused Israeli groups like Coalition of Women for Peace (CWP), Breaking the Silence, Adalah, and B’Tselem. Black credited CWP for creating “a global infrastructure of boycott” – an achievement the scale of which might surprise CWP activists themselves.

Subcommittee member Rep. Juan Vargas (CA) insisted that as a “worldwide” movement, BDS seems to have “a lot of money” with someone apparently “orchestrating it”. Vargas asked how it was possible to make sure BDS groups do not get any money, to which Pollock suggested that there could be “an opportunity to investigate the tax-exempt status of organisations that might be knowingly or unknowingly funding activities that are either illegal or improper or not eligible for tax-exempt status because they’re political advocacy”.

Interestingly, Pollock himself did not seem to have much faith in this possibility, as he then commented that “the best way” to tackle BDS was simply “raising public awareness”. It was an indication, almost certainly missed by the subcommittee members, of the limitations of offensive challenges to a human-rights focused campaign – so as long as the systematic human rights abuses persist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.