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The Threat of the BDS Movement

June 17, 2015

Hello there! I’m very excited to be blogging here at Duck of Minerva for the next several months, and I’d like to thank all the full-time Ducks for the opportunity! For my first post, I thought I’d address something I’ve been thinking about ever since a student asked about it in my US Foreign Policy class this past semester. She asked about the BDS movement and whether I thought it had any chance of influencing Israel’s behavior towards the Occupied Territories and the Palestinians. Not having thought much about the issue before, I gave a typically hemming-and-hawing answer, but the more I think about it the more I think that the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divest Movement is, perhaps, the most significant threat faced by Israel today. (As an aside, this is not at all an area of expertise of mine, so what follows is more musing than academic treatise. I’ll post more serious  stuff in my area of academic expertise soon.)

Seriously, you ask? Yes, seriously. Seriously, you ask again? More significant than the rockets of Hamas and Hezbollah? More significant than Iranian nuclear proliferation? More significant than the civil war in Syria and the potential collapse of the Assad regime? Yes. Let me explain.

None of these things is a serious threat to the continued existence of the State of Israel (obviously, I am not among those who take seriously Iranian threats to nuke Israel…but that’s a topic for another post). Given Israel’s military dominance and nuclear deterrent, Israel is more existentially secure than it ever has been. But the BDS has the potential to strike at and undermine the very essence of the character of Israel.

Israel, much like the United States with its claim of “American Exceptionalism“, has long seen itself as different from other states. The Book of Isaiah twice speaks of Israel being a “light unto the nations” and a large part of the “case for Israel” rests on Israel’s status as the only free democracy in the Middle East (a claim which no longer may be true as Freedom House now lists Tunisia as “free”; Kuwait, Turkey, Morocco, and Lebanon all rate as “partly free”). Israel prides itself (pun very much intended) on its LGBTQ friendliness and points to its courts as a hallmark of its commitment to the rule of law.

But the BDS Movement challenges and undermines that claim to exceptionalism. It focuses on the worst that Israel has to offer: its inhuman treatment of the Palestinians and illegal settlement and blockade policies. And while the broader political situation and dyadic nature of the situation are essential for understanding those policies, the simple fact remains that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is not suitable for a democratic, rights-respecting nation.

In the much the same way that the international sanctions movement aimed to pressure South Africa into abandoning its racist apartheid system, the BDS Movement seeks to pressure Israel into “meet[ing] its obligations under international law by: 1) Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall; 2) Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3)Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.” [Note: I do not wish to here discuss whether the BDS Movement, and particularly number 3 above are, either intentionally or unintentionally, aimed at destroying the state of Israel itself] Even the US eventually abandoned its Cold War ally, imposing sanctions on South Africa in 1985 and 1986. But the evidence is scant that the sanctions played an important role in dismantling the white regime (here and here). But the threat of the BDS Movement lies less in the threat of economic losses, and more in the social, cultural, and moral isolation of Israel.

In a mere 10 years since its founding (the BDS Movement emerged following the 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice that the Israeli security barrier along the Green Line is illegal), artists such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Santana, and Lauryn Hill have all canceled concerts scheduled in Israel, numerous academic groups and associations have voted to end contacts with Israeli academics and academic institutions, pension funds are divesting from Israeli banks and more and more groups are boycotting Israeli goods produced in the West Bank. We’re now at a point where any music act that does choose to play in Israel feels it necessary to explain its decision. While the economic impact of all of this is still relatively negligible, the effect of this isolation is likely to continue to grow over time.

So, how is all of this threatening to Israel? Because the BDS Movement is able to ignore the one thing that has long protected Israel from serious political pressure: its strategic importance. Since 1973, when Israel’s neighbors largely came to accept Israel’s existence, strategic considerations have prevented countries that purport to care about the plight of the Palestinians like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia from doing much to help the Palestinians. Pledges of money go unfulfilled, little to no pressure is put on Israel, and things continue as they always have. Israel can take public criticism, especially when that criticism isn’t backed with action.

But, it seems to me that the BDS Movement has a much greater likelihood of being successful.  Given how it has been able to change the discourse in only 10 years, assuming that it continues to grow Israel will continue to be marginalized and have its moral righteousness challenged. When that is combined with the growing Israeli resistance to the status quo (such as the recent report from Breaking the Silence in which Israeli soldiers involved in last year’s war in Gaza described both episodic and systematic violations of the laws of war by the IDF), there might be real pressure on Israel to change its policies. A majority of Israelis generally support the peace process and the two-state solution (of course, the devil is in the details). If the BDS Movement is indeed able to increase Israel’s isolation, the costs of that isolation might eventually overwhelm those details.


UPDATE: This timely op-ed piece in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post by Professor Gil Troy of McGill University (full disclosure: Gil is an old friend of mine) reinforces my argument. While Troy dismisses the BDS Movement as devoted to the demonization and elimination of Israel (a point which I noted in the main post I did not want to engage) and its supporters as “deluded,” his call for national unity to counter the movement seems to imply a serious threat to Israel, no?

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Seth Weinberger is Associate Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound. He received his B.A. (1993) in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, an M.A. (1995) in Security Studies from Georgetown University, and an M.A. (2000) and Ph.D. (2005) in political science from Duke University. He teaches courses on international relations, U.S. foreign policy, international security, terrorism, constitutional law, and political philosophy. His book, Restoring the Balance: War Powers in an Age of Terror was published by Praeger Press in 2009. His recently published articles include “Enemies Among Us: The Targeted Killing of American Members of al Qaeda and the Need for Congressional Leadership” in the Georgetown Global Security Studies Review (Spring 2013) and “Institutional Signals: The Political Dimension of International Competition Law Harmonization” (with Geoffrey A. Manne) in The Anti-Trust Bulletin (57, no. 3). His current research focuses on congressional-executive war powers in the on-going armed conflict against al Qaeda. In 2011, Professor Weinberger received the Thomas A. Davis Teaching Excellence Award.