Israel's BDS dilemma: Is it wise to blacklist the boycotters?

Israel intensified its battle with the BDS movement this week, listing 20 groups whose members could not enter the country. Critics say such moves corrode Israeli democracy, doing more harm than the pro-Palestinian boycotters themselves.

Hunter Dyke/The Ann Arbor News/AP
University of Michigan alumna Mozhgan Savabieasfahani holds up a sign supporting divestment during a student government meeting in Ann Arbor, Mich. Nov. 14, 2017. The University of Michigan's Central Student Government voted to ask the school to look into possible divestment from companies that do business in Israel amid criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians.

Israel ratcheted up its battle this week against one of its most high-profile public enemies – not a hostile country or a terrorist organization, but a movement that seeks to isolate it internationally as part of a campaign for Palestinian rights.

Israel’s target: the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, known as BDS, which calls for an international boycott of Israeli companies and academic and cultural institutions, including professors and artists.

How to respond to BDS, which is widely reviled among Israeli Jews but attracts the support of some liberal Jewish groups, is debated both within Israel and among Jews abroad. For those who oppose BDS there is a nagging question: Which is worse for Israel and its stature, BDS or Israeli moves to defeat it?

The movement arguably threatens neither Israel’s existence nor its security, but it does affect the Israelis’ yearning for acceptance. And it taps into fears, both existential and practical, that delegitimization could gain a serious foothold in public opinion internationally and make Israel into a pariah nation, causing deep economic damage.

This latest Israeli salvo came in the form of a blacklisting of 20 organizations at the vanguard of the BDS movement, declaring that their members, as of March 1st, will be barred entry from the country for security reasons.

The publication of the blacklist followed shortly after New Zealand pop star Lorde’s high-profile decision in December to cancel her scheduled June concert in Tel Aviv. She canceled after activists urged her to boycott the show, asking her to stand against what they called the occupation and the oppression of Palestinians.

The cancellation threw the spotlight back on BDS after a relative lull in international attention.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Lorde performs at the Outside Lands Music Festival at Golden Gate Park on Aug. 13, 2017, in San Francisco. In December, under pressure from BDS supporters, she announced cancellation of a scheduled June concert in Tel Aviv.

Israel’s blacklist move immediately drew fire, including from the targeted organizations themselves (among them a Jewish organization called Jewish Voice for Peace and the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee) and their supporters, who said it was only further evidence of Israel’s repression.

Perils of overreaction

Opposition to the blacklist, however, also was voiced by some in Israel and abroad who don’t support BDS. They consider the move to be not only counterproductive, but corrosive to the country’s democratic ideals and its notion of itself as an open society. And, they say, it may even violate its very laws.

“I think that BDS is not an existential threat to Israel unless Israel acts in a way to make it one,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

“By overreacting with blacklists, you do more damage than good,” he argues. “It is damaging Israel’s reputation abroad, and nothing BDS people could do,” he adds, could be worse than what the government is doing itself.

“But it plays well in the Likud,” he continues, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling party, “and it looks like Israel is being tough.”

Looking “tough” can take various forms, from the passing of a new “entry law” in March that enabled the blacklist, to more personalized attacks. But such measures can also become double-edged swords.

For example, Israeli authorities recently held up the travel permit of Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights activist and co-founder of the BDS movement, who was trying to accompany his mother, a cancer patient, to Jordan for surgery.

Those who argue for actively countering BDS say that if the movement is not stymied, Israel might come to be seen as the apartheid state the movement accuses it of being. And that, they say, could hurt Israel militarily as well, creating a situation where every action Israel takes in its defense is defined as a war crime, limiting the country’s freedom to maneuver.

“Because that’s their (BDS) language: ‘Israel is always wrong,’ ” says Professor Rynhold.

Impact on economy?

Fueling the perceived urgency to aggressively go on the attack have been declarations by Israeli politicians that BDS constitutes a genuine threat with anti-Semitic influences. The government has earmarked some $25 million to counter the movement’s reach, and news of debates and events like “Israel Apartheid Week” – especially on US college campuses and in Europe – gets a lot of attention in Israeli media.

But Rynhold maintains that Israel’s robust economy, which this past year surpassed $100 billion in exports, would not be significantly hit even if boycotts had some impact.

“Yes, they could make Israeli companies suffer, but could they get leverage to change any policies?  The answer is no,” he says. “What is at stake … is not that BDS will bring Israel to its knees. The only way that would happen is if the United States adopted BDS, and we are a long, long way from that.”

The BDS movement emerged in 2005 as a coalition of Palestinian human rights activists calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the “right of return” of Palestinians who were displaced or fled the fighting in 1948 that led to Israel’s independence.

Israelis have long argued that the “right of return” would overwhelm the country’s Jewish majority and effectively spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state, which the government argues is the real aim of the BDS movement.

The anti-apartheid model

BDS activists’ playbook on the boycott was modeled on the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1980s and 1990s that is credited by some with helping to end apartheid rule in South Africa. Activists say it proved its effectiveness in both damaging the country’s economy and labeling it as a pariah nation.  

Israel’s blacklist was made possible by an amendment to the March 2017 “Law of Entry,” which made it legal to block the leaders of BDS organizations from entering Israel.

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) blasted the law, saying it “violates the most basic tenets of democracy by making political opinions a consideration that may prevent non-citizens from entering Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of ACRI, the country’s version of the ACLU, said the law and now the blacklist speak to the sense of a growing intolerance for criticism by Israel’s government.

“We are concerned that the space for freedom of speech, which is a pillar of democracy, is shrinking. In a democratic country you want to hear various positions. And to limit criticism does not allow this kind of fundamental discourse,” she says.

Impact on Palestinians

ACRI is also concerned, she says, that the law and the blacklist will make things harder for residents of East Jerusalem and other Palestinians.

Sari Bashi, the Israel/Palestine advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, and, like Abraham-Weiss, a human rights lawyer, is also concerned about the impact the Entry Law and now the blacklist will have on Palestinians themselves.

“One concern is that the law does not ban entry only to Israel but also to the West Bank and Gaza for reasons that have nothing to do with security. It prevents Palestinians from in many cases meeting their foreign supporters, and further isolates residents of the occupied territories,” Ms. Bashi says.

She says many Palestinians living abroad hold foreign citizenship and rely on visas to Israel to access the West Bank and Gaza, and argues that using the litmus test of political opinion as a condition for reaching Gaza and the West Bank is actually illegal under international law.

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