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Opinion

Campaigns to hurt Israeli economy really hurt Middle East peace

Anti-Israel campaigns to get big organizations to divest from the Israeli economy may make headlines, but their questionable tactics don't appear to be working – and they don't promote peace.

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False claims of BDS groups

After five years of defeats, with internal struggles confounding the BDS organizers, the campaign went into suspended animation from 2006 to 2009. The movement got a fresh round of press, however, in February 2009 when media reported claims that Hampshire College in Massachusetts became first US campus to divest from Israel.

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This declaration, put forth by campus BDS activists, was later refuted by the college’s president. A year of similar bogus reports followed, some even claiming that major institutional investors (such as the academic retirement giant TIAA-CREF) had joined the Israel divestment movement. In fact, TIAA-CREF had simply sold off some plummeting Israeli real estate stock for purely economic, rather than political, reasons. Just last month, BDS activists claimed that Harvard had divested from Israel when it made a routine transfer of Israeli equities from its emerging-markets to developed-countries fund portfolios.

Why are BDS organizers so desperate to portray major institutions such as Harvard and TIAA-CREF as backing their cause? Remember that divestment, at its heart, serves to hammer home the BDS propaganda message that Israel is an "Apartheid State" deserving economic sanction from major, respected organizations. A group of anti-Israel activists demanding divestment is not news, but Harvard or the Presbyterian Church or TIAA-CREF taking such a stand makes headlines.

Lack of success

Again, the goal of BDS is not just to change the investment landscape per se, but to create a public opinion “tipping point” against Israel – the kind that spelled the end for South Africa’s racist regime 20 years ago. On both of these fronts, it comes up well short. Israel's economy has grown explosively during the ten-year period when BDS has been working tirelessly to make these statistics go down. Meanwhile, support for Israel among the American public has surged in the same period. Even in Europe, where political hostility to Israel is greater than in the US, European venture funds now invest heavily in Israel.

In the face of this macro-economic reality, the lists BDS organizations present as their wins (especially when stripped of false claims like Hampshire and TIAA-CREF) seem paltry indeed. But keep in mind that the goal of boycott and divestment campaigners is to put Israel in the dock and to give legitimacy to their accusations against Israel by claiming well-known and respected organizations as their supporters.

Because of the potential propaganda payoff of even a temporary success, BDS campaigns are likely to continue this year, regardless of the needless pain that always accompanies dragging the Middle East conflict into a civic institution. In fact, the BDS campaigns may contribute to extending and exacerbating conflict, even during a period when the parties themselves are negotiating peace.

Those who are truly interested in working toward peace might find a better home with the many organizations committed to peace and understanding between Jews and Arabs in a part of the world needing more cooperation, not than less.

Jon Haber is a Boston-based writer and activist who documents the BDS movement at his anti-divestment website, www.divestthis.com.

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