Is the BDS movement successful?

The boycotted boycotters

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic in the eyes of many. Donald Trump and the German government have tried to limit their radius with this argument. Joe Biden is more reserved.

The international campaign by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is almost exclusively spoken of with foam at the mouth. Some find it just and noble, others anti-Semitic and abhorrent; the cool look from a distance is rare. Both sides believe they are right, the chance of getting closer in the foreseeable future is zero. What is overlooked is that there are gray areas that are worth discussing, that what is well meant can have bad consequences and that none of the beliefs in this dispute are of much use.

No place for Israel

Many friends of peace around the world seriously believe that the movement, founded in 2005 by Palestinian organizations, is striving for a peaceful coexistence between a Muslim and a Jewish state using the instruments of boycott, capital withdrawal and sanctions. They have to get rid of that. Sure, BDS is a diverse group with views that vary from country to country and are motivated differently. In this situation one turns to the founders and spiritual leaders of the movement. These, however, have nothing to do with a two-state solution or with a state of Israel, and therefore also not with a realistic peace. In 2017, the NZZ asked BDS founder Omar Barghuti in Ramallah, and he willingly confirmed what BDS protagonists all over the world are proclaiming: that Israel is a racist “apartheid state” and that any cooperation with him is the devil. With the same emphasis as the Israeli right, Barghouti declared the two-state solution dead. For him there can only be one state, a Palestinian, just as there can be only one state for every right-wing Israeli, a Jewish one. There is no room for a structure called Israel in BDS founder Barghuti's view of the world.

Despite repeated inquiries, Barghouti did not want to comment on Israel's right to exist. That is a strategy: the well-meaning in the West should not be frightened. But Israel should be isolated and brought to its knees, the few remaining Palestinian displaced persons and their numerous descendants should be allowed to return to their former homeland. "It is impossible to accept Israel as a Jewish state on our land," said Barghuti. There is no peace with the Jewish, oppressive and racist state of Israel. And in the long term he has to go.

Now the question is how to deal with such an attitude. It's not that easy to decide, because BDS is peaceful. You talk, set up stands and advertise with flyers, you don't plant bombs. And the core business of BDS, boycotting, is simply a permissible form of freedom of expression. Nobody is forced to buy products from a particular company or country. Everyone can boycott, and everyone can call on others to do the same. Calls for boycotts are popular and Europeans are literally bombarded with them. If the “right” country is affected like South Africa once did, the boycott crowns the glory of good deed.

Where exactly does anti-Semitism begin?

If BDS activists disrupt events like 2017 at the Humboldt University, you can intervene. But what to do when people just give their opinion? Excluding groups who use legal means is problematic. Of course you can say that this is how everything began «back then» and that it is important to defend against the beginnings. A valid objection. But it is not justiciable.

It is therefore not surprising that the BDS critics usually do not target the calls for boycott, but rather the real or assumed anti-Semitism of BDS. Donald Trump wanted, as a farewell present for Israel to a certain extent, shortly before his departure, to have BDS and every organization that supports the campaign branded as anti-Semitic. He didn't succeed. The Bundestag in Berlin already achieved what Trump was striving for in May 2019 by declaring the arguments and methods of the BDS movement anti-Semitic with the votes of the governing parties, the Greens and the FDP.

Joe Biden, the new American president, is different. Not that he has any sympathy for BDS. He detests the movement and will make life as difficult for it as possible. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the nominated UN ambassador, has just declared that the activities of BDS “touched the boundaries of anti-Semitism” and were unacceptable. But the new administration does not want to continue the Trump initiative. Of course, his government is resolute against the campaign, said the new Foreign Minister Antony Blinken. BDS marginalizes Israel unfairly and inappropriately. But it is just as clear that “we respect the rights of Americans, as set out in the first amendment to the constitution, to say what they believe and think at any time”. In 2017, the Knesset passed a law banning all foreigners who knowingly support BDS from entering the country. Two American parliamentarians, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, were refused entry on the basis of this law in August 2019. Joe Biden responded by saying that he was against all attempts by democracies to criminalize free speech.

Drying dialogue

It will mock the broad German center somewhat to find itself in association with Trump and in a certain opposition to Biden. Nevertheless, this unholy alliance is symptomatic. America traditionally rates free speech higher than Europeans, in Germany the tendency towards language regulation has prevailed since the war. However, there can be no question of hard censorship. The resolution of the Bundestag does not aim at a ban on BDS, and the campaign is certainly not "muzzled", as some say. The boycotters of Israel can continue to proclaim their hatred of Israel, just not supported by federal funds and in public spaces. That makes sense. Funding for cultural workers like Farid Bang, who praised his magnificent body, “more defined than that of Auschwitz inmates”? Or for the French satirist Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who was anti-Semitic about gas chambers? It must not be.

But what about Moshe Zuckermann? What about Ilan Pappe, about Avraham Burg? What about all the innumerable peaceful, left-wing, Jewish and non-Jewish critics of Netanyahu, most of whom do not see themselves as opponents of Israel, not as agitators and certainly not as anti-Semites? Should they also be shut up if they can see the positive side of the BDS campaign? It is not that the Bundestag resolution is a vain ornament. It does not have the character of a law. But their normative pressure is considerable. The case of the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe caused the greatest sensation, in which the anti-Semitism commissioner of the German government, Felix Klein, investigated a relativization of the Holocaust, which is why he did not want to see it at the Ruhrtriennale. The Ruhrtriennale did not take place, the German cultural scene was spared the test case. But the squabble over Mbembe is symptomatic. There is uncertainty at universities and publicly funded institutions. If you discover that people have had contact with BDS, you don't even invite them, otherwise you lose the funding or risk being “exposed” by an attentive journalist. Cilly Kugelmann, the chief curator of the new permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Berlin (JMB), told the newspaper “Tageszeitung” about a real bullying against the JMB, about a “culture of suspicion” and a new “McCarthyism”.

Not that the BDS people have reason to complain about the torture being done to them. They do the exact same thing. Not with state authority, but with great public moral pressure. Boycott is their business. People shouldn't buy, companies shouldn't trade, singers shouldn't sing. Barenboim shouldn't give a concert, the European Song Contest in Tel Aviv shouldn't take place and so on. People should fall silent, discourses impoverished.

"BDS is beaten"

But guard rails such as the anti-Semitism resolution are an affront for mature citizens of a democratic state, and the reaction came immediately. Artists and scientists have criticized the resolution, referring to the article in the Basic Law, which states, simply and broadly: "Art and science, research and teaching are free." The heads of institutions such as the Goethe-Institut, the Humboldt-Forum, the Bundeskulturstiftung, the Wissenschaftskolleg, the Berliner Festspiele, the Münchner Kammerspiele, the Center for Antisemitism Research and many others took part. Middle East experts from European universities criticized the “blanket condemnation” of the BDS movement, and 240 Jewish and Israeli scientists issued a call warning against equating BDS with anti-Semitism.

Now all of these skeptics can be dismissed across the board as enemies of Israel or as naive people who do not understand the seriousness of the situation. One can find it splendid that German parliamentarians teach Jewish scientists what is reasonable for them as Jews and what is not. But one could also take the skeptics seriously and thus adopt Joe Biden's attitude, who does not seem to fear open debates.

That would be important because of course this dispute is about more than BDS. Netanyahu uses it as a vehicle to determine what can and cannot be said about Israel and the Jews far beyond his own country. The Prime Minister attacked the Jewish Museum Berlin sharply in 2018. He assumed that he was close to the BDS and called on the Merkel government to combat “anti-Israeli activities” in Germany more resolutely. Netanyahu is a shrewd tactician, but of course left and liberals have to defend themselves against his permanent insinuation that only right-wing politics are patriotic.

This is about the foundations of democracy. Anyone who criticizes the occupation of the West Bank and government policy is neither a bad Israeli nor a bad Jew, and certainly not an anti-Semite. Otherwise millions of Israelis and a large part of the diaspora would be anti-Semitic. There are also Jews who just turn the tables. The occupation and the attitude towards confrontation with the Palestinians, they say, endanger the existence of the State of Israel in the long term and are therefore anti-Semitic. You may be wrong. But of course they have to be able to say things like that.

BDS is campaigning against Israel, Israel is campaigning against BDS. In 2015, Netanyahu defined the BDS campaign as the "greatest current threat to Israel" and appointed Gilad Erdan, Minister of Public Security, to head a concerted action against the delegitimization of Israel. The project was successful, as Netanyahu declared the BDS movement defeated in 2016. “We're doing something against BDS, so they're on the defensive. . . We beat them. " It has been five years since then, and with the best will in the world it does not appear as if Israel is trundling into isolation.

BDS is loud and present, but doesn't achieve much. Where would they be, the big boycotts and the capital withdrawal? No country has refused to participate in the European Song Contest in Tel Aviv. Israel is opening up to the Gulf States, and Dubai Airport is overflowing with Jews these days. The whole world deals with Israel, including the Arabs. All of the world's leading multinational companies have established research and development centers in Israel. Investors are racing to Tel Aviv to participate in the unique Israeli startup boom, with rivers of venture capital flowing from the Gulf. The world is not giving Israel the cold shoulder, on the contrary. She wants to benefit from the concentrated intelligence of the Jewish state.

Democracies can take disputes

In Jerusalem it is now said that one is so successful because one defends oneself so resolutely. That is a thesis. It might as well be said that Israel flourishes despite its dynamic forward defense, not because of it. And as far as BDS is concerned, one can assume that the campaign would be even worse if one did not wear the martyr's cloak around her. Countless people have only known since the Bundestag resolution that BDS even existed. The unwanted PR effect of such actions is considerable.

Also that the loud protectors of Israel behave exactly like the apologists of the wokeness is registered - certainly not everywhere with approval. Like the politically overly correct American universities, Israel's rights want to define what is okay and what to apologize for. You want to regulate language and behavior, but above all: you want to prohibit. The «Cancel culture» sends its regards. Apart from the fact that in the dark realm of right-wing beliefs you can quickly go from judge to accused, bans on speaking are simply not worthy of a liberal state.

Joe Biden fought an uphill battle against an infamous politician who spared no means of slandering him. And yet he does not dream of curtailing free speech - an attitude from which not only he, but all of America benefits. In Europe, for once, you could learn something from the Americans.