One of the primary targets of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement over the past year was the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest that took place in Tel Aviv earlier in May. Despite the protests, the contest went ahead and, on the day, none of the acts scheduled to appear in the final pulled out.
Why, then, am I claiming that the BDS campaign actually succeeded? The short answer is media coverage. Even though it did not achieve the goal of totally isolating Eurovision Tel Aviv, or convincing the headline acts to pull out, the BDS campaign succeeded in raising a massive amount of awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people.
For a more detailed answer, it is necessary to understand the true goals and methods of the BDS movement. BDS is not an abstract exercise in moral purity; it is about winning concrete victories against Israeli oppression.
There have existed in the past, and they may still exist, “lists” on the internet of Israeli or Israel-connected products for us to boycott. While perhaps well-intentioned, such lists are in my view misguided. The main point of BDS, like other consumer boycotts, is not to make us feel good about only buying the “right” things. The aim is to make a real difference and to extend a real hand of solidarity to the people of Palestine.
That is why the BDS movement has instead focused on concentrated campaigns against two or three different brands at a time in each particular country. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign in Britain, for example, is currently focusing its efforts on HSBC due to its investments in companies that arm Israel; Puma, because of its sponsorship of the Israel Football Association; and British universities that have investments in Israel-linked companies.
The strength of BDS, and of the Palestine solidarity movement in general, is that is a genuine global grassroots campaign in which people stand together. It is almost a cliché, but nonetheless absolutely true, that we can achieve far more together than we can as individuals. Personal boycotts of Israeli products are fine, but much more is achieved when a group of people, even a small group, get together and, for example, write to the manager of a local supermarket and explain why they have chosen to boycott the Israeli fruit sold there.
Another important aspect of the way that the BDS movement operates, and a major reason for its ongoing successes almost 14 years after it was formally established is simple: education. BDS is a win-win strategy, because it succeeds consistently in educating people about the violent, racist and unjustified way that Israel treats the Palestinians. It keeps the issue alive, when Israel would prefer Western audiences to look the other way.
The awareness-raising potential of BDS is almost endless. Take, for example, Radiohead’s decision to scab by breaking the BDS picket line in the summer of 2017 and playing a gig in Tel Aviv. A long-running and persistent BDS campaign targeted the well-known band, asking them not to play in Israel. Convincing the band members to pull out would have been a major success, but it was not to be. Instead, what did happen was that the BDS campaign kept the issue alive in the headlines in the mainstream media.
A Radiohead gig in Scotland was attended by activists waving Palestinian flags in protest at the then imminent performance in Tel Aviv. This simple intervention generated a substantial amount of mainstream media coverage. Moreover, the coverage was relatively fair. Even the celebrity gossip page of the Metro tabloid newspaper covered the Scottish protest against the band. Of course, it took the usual — misguided in my view — “balanced” approach that the establishment media often takes on the Palestine issue. Nevertheless, it meant that more people were made aware, talked about, debated and discussed the cultural boycott of Israel.
So why do I think that the BDS campaign against Eurovision in Tel Aviv was an impressive success? Building on the Radiohead coverage and other earlier campaigns, there was a huge amount of mainstream media coverage of the Eurovision boycott campaign. People were talking about it. British TV channels broadcast debates about it. More celebrities and musicians than ever put their heads above the parapet and endorsed the boycott of the song contest in particular and of Israel in general. What’s more, the coverage was not limited to European media; even the usually anti-Palestinian US media covered the BDS campaign.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, this critical discussion made a real difference; many tickets for the Eurovision final were unsold and the expected boost to Israeli tourism failed to materialise.
Every year, the campaign for a cultural boycott of Israel slowly but surely gathers momentum. This is a long-term project. Palestinians have been enforced refugees for more than 71 years now, and that inertia won’t be overturned overnight.
The BDS movement has the potential to reach the heights of mainstream support that the campaign against South African apartheid did in the 1980s and early 1990s. If that is to happen against Israeli apartheid it depends on each and every one of us getting involved and showing full and consistent solidarity with the people of Palestine.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.