After three years of relative quiet, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns have been making a comeback in the past 12 months. The BDS movement demands that organizations divest from Israel’s economy as a protest against claims of human-rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly, loud divestment protests on well-known college campuses and boycott decisions by aging pop stars may make sexier headlines than the quieter work of peace negotiations. But it is worth asking: 1) How much have BDS campaigns actually affected attitudes and behaviors over the last decade, and 2) Have such efforts advanced the cause of peace or conflict in the Middle East?
An anti-Israel hate-fest
The seeds of the modern BDS movement were planted in 2001 at the now-infamous United Nations “Anti-Racism” conference in Durban, South Africa, which degenerated into an anti-Israel hate-fest, leading to walkouts by both Israel and the United States. At a meeting of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) there, a wide range of anti-Israel organizations – meeting face-to-face for the first time – developed an “Apartheid Strategy.” Let’s be clear: This was a long-term propaganda campaign to declare Israel the new South Africa, with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as their primary tactic.
The campaign first made its appearance in 2001, with campus petitions demanding that colleges and universities divest their endowments and retirement funds from companies doing business with the Jewish state.
Despite an initial surge of media attention, campus-based BDS campaigns faced the double bind of university administrators and fund managers universally hostile to divestment requests, and counter-petitions denouncing divestment outpacing pro-BDS petitions at Harvard and elsewhere by a factor of at least 10 to 1.
Little support for divestment
Just as BDS was facing credibility issues after two years of noise with virtually no results, the program got new momentum in 2004. That’s when the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) voted to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” in companies doing business with Israel. This led to a proliferation of similar divestment requests at other mainline Protestant churches, as well as new institutions such as unions and municipalities.
As with campuses, however, support for divestment within these organizations turned out to be extremely shallow. When the Presbyterians met again in 2006, they revised their 2004 divestment decision by a vote of 94 percent to 6 percent. The resolutions ended the policy of divestment in Israel and shifted to a policy of investments in “peaceful pursuits.”
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.
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.