Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 1.

Simply, I don’t know what I think about the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. I believe passionately that the Israeli government must be held to account for its actions (in the same way any government should) but I am not (yet) convinced that boycotting all aspects of Israeli life is the way to bring about change.

As such I have asked two people to put forward different arguments on BDS – one broadly in favour and one broadly opposed.  I hope that this exercise will help me, and possibly others, to think about the impact of the BDS campaign.

To start with though, let us be clear about what we mean by BDS – it is a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it ‘complies with international law and Palestinian rights’ (according to Palestinian BDS committee).

This first article is by ‘Sarah AB’ – a blogger and an academic and is based on the premise that the BDS movement is counterproductive to peace.

“Steve suggested that I might write something on why I think boycotts are counterproductive. Although I do think they are (or may be) counterproductive, I don’t think that could be said to be my main reason for opposing them, though it’s a very good one.

The feeling that one’s country is being singled out may well have the unintended consequence of making some Israelis feel more beleaguered and defensive. The more aggressive manifestations of BDS irritate and alienate neutral people outside Israel – and push those who are already inclined to support the country into a more hardline position.

I am though particularly opposed to sporting, cultural and academic boycotts; these seem to target Israel with a demonizing scrutiny not seen in the context of other countries, and shut down the possibilities for conversation, for the exchange of views and ideas.

A very important factor for me is the intersection between BDS and hostility to Israel which seems so extreme as to tip over into antisemitism. I do not mean that all boycotters are driven by conscious or unconscious antisemitism. What I mean is that it does sometimes seem that some boycotters can become so swept up in their cause that they fail to acknowledge antisemitism. One case which I found particularly disturbing concerned the invitation – more precisely the failure to withdraw the invitation – to Bongani Masuku who was invited to address my union after being deemed to have made remarks amounting to hate speech by the SAHRC.

Another thing which I find unwelcome is the way in which shutting down Israeli voices seems almost itself to become the ends, rather than the means. I am thinking of the way in which groups such as Batsheva, the Israeli dance company, have become the focus for zealous opposition, and also about Moty Cristal, who was prevented from speaking at an NHS event just because he was Israeli.

Although I do not boycott Israel in any way myself, I think it’s very important to distinguish between the motives of different people who support BDS. One boycotter for example who has clearly gone to sincere efforts to engage with the dangers of antisemitism is the Green Party’s Peter Cranie. Even those who are most implacably opposed to boycotts, and see them (if not necessarily their promoters) as inherently anti-Semitic, might appreciate his attempts to counter antisemitism and to acknowledge, meaningfully, that it may intersect with opposition to Israel.

By contrast there are others whose support for the Palestinians seems tainted either by antisemitism or just by a chilling disdain for Israelis. A comment that I read just today on Loonwatch struck me as rather telling. ‘Lo’ confesses that ‘my reasons in supporting the one state solution is tainted with spite.’

Moving away from boycotts – and just focusing on pro-Palestinian advocacy more generally – I think this is most effective when it manages to acknowledge and even accommodate a more pro-Israeli perspective. Advocates who do this – and of course Steve is one of these – are far more likely to get those who are more sympathetic to Israel to take what they say seriously. People who use terms such as ‘Zionazi’ (or who simply seem to take pleasure in dipping their toes into the waters of antisemitism before darting back to the sands of pious anti-racism) just make me want to switch off.

Thank you again to Steve for inviting me to write this post. His recent piece on the demonstrations in London struck me partly because of its even-handedness, and partly because it made me reflect that there is something slightly absurd about the way people, often with no connection to the region, feel such a pressing need to take a ‘side’. As Bassam Aramin puts it ‘if we, the fighters, the same people who used to kill one another can sit down and talk, everyone else can.’ I think if Bassam Aramin can look at things from both sides – then surely those of us who are just observers can too.”


A second article on’why BDS is a path to peace’  will be published in the coming days.


Filed under Economics, Human rights, Middle East

12 responses to “Boycotts, Disinvestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 1.

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  2. Pingback: Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – a productive path to peace? Part 2 | Hynd's Blog

  3. Chris Usher

    I was totally supportive of the anti apartheid boycotts and sanctions, but the calls for BDS against Israel feel different somehow. I particularly dislike the academic boycotts, as the academics involved are not generally part of the Israeli state. Sport is not so important in Israel so that route doesnt have the same resonance. I agree with another respondent that a boycott is a tactic, and you have to weigh up the effect of it, to decide if its useful, too often calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel sound like they are trying to inflict a punsihment on Israel and its people as much as trying to achieve their stated political goal (of a viable Palestinian State), I think arms embargos (including bulldozers etc) are entirely justified and also the campaign against mislabelled foods purporting to come from the west bank that are actually produced by settler communities are justifiable though. I think everyone knows wahts needed is a long term political settlement providing Palestinians and Israelis with a safe and secure homeland, but I have no idea how that can be achieved


    • I suppose I am, or have become, rather more sympathetic to the Israeli perspective than aarondellaria and Chris perhaps are. But, if everyone was in complete agreement then there would be no need to discuss these things in the first place. Both commenters seem focused on what might be achieved by boycotts and concerned to weigh up benefits and disadvantages (eg the point about trying to punish Israel rather than achieve anything).


    • Kolya

      If you support an arms embargo against Israel, do you also support the prevention of the import into Gaza of missiles and the materials needed to manufacture them?


  4. BDS statements are very genuine and I applaud the initiative to demand a just solution to the Palestinians: to end the occupation, to recognise Palestinian right and to comply with international law. Yet , this have become a platform for extremism, antisemitism and anti-Israeli sentiment in general – so in this regard I agree with Sarah. The level of hypocresy is sky high as it is ok to condemn Batsheva for receiving funds as supportive of government policy towards the Palestinian when their only aim is to perform, to show the world there is more than violence coming from Israel. A beautiful show with amazing artist- some even support the protests. Yet they are insulted and handpointed as responsible of Israeli government crimes. I havent seen anyone BDS boycotting Facebook, whose owner is a strong supporter of Israel. However, I must confess the interruptions during the show make me smirk as peaceful protest should be allowed and different voices be heard.

    The movement is highly demonised in Israel as anti-Israeli rather than pro-Palestinian and consequently the Knesset has invested in an ‘anti-delegitimization’ campaign fruit of the Reut Institute to counter-balance BDS. The creation of the well known hasbara groups are the exclusive result of this campaign with money being poured into facilitating the ‘support for Israel’– making serious high profile campaigns denying Palestinian rights and existence but exposing them all as terrorists and foreign to their land. This is sadly today’s pro-Israeli narrative: the so-called Israel Right or Wrong and it is gaining ground so fast its popularity levels in the social media are incredible. Incitement on both is blatant but how will BDS making hard for local Israelis to support – also taking into consideration the law that fines Israel for calling any boycott on produce from any territory under Israeli control. As an external force it is important civilians rise issues politicians seem to be sleeping on but as opposed to South Africa what positive changes will BDS bring whilst the US gives 3 billion for military warfare to Israel on the yearly basis.

    BDS alone is not enough to dismantle the security apparatus of the occupation, the settlements, outposts, to stop house demolitions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

    For this reason and other of personal choice I am not taking part in the BDS campaign despite I believe it is legitimate source of protest. I do boycott and am strongly against settlements and their produce but since I dont consider them a legitimate part of Israel I can jump into the bandwagon of BDS


  5. Kolya

    Any proponent of BDS who doesn’t make known a morally defensible analysis explaining in detail what they expect of the respective parties, and what outcome they are aiming for, seems to me to be more concerned with narcissism than justice.


  6. I am no fan of Norman Finkelstein but he made a very valid point about BDS, and made it very strongly when interviewed early this year. He argued that the BDS movement is a “cult.” His substantial problem with the BDS movement is that it is not explicit in its aims. The reason why it isn’t is also made clear by Finkelstein: there are too many people in the BDS movement who want to see the State of Israel wiped off the map. They do not recognise Israel and use wording that is obscure to not make things clear. So while you say in the main post that it wants BDS until Israel “‘complies with international law and Palestinian rights,” it is not clear what is meant by that. On the about page of the very same BDS page that is linked to in the main post, it mentions UN Resolution 194, but it does not mention the far more important UN Resolution 242. The reason for this is because by doing so, there would be an implicit recognition of Israel. Finkelstein is not fooled by their claims and nor am I and nor are others outside the BDS cult: the wording by BDS satisfies those people who want to eliminate Israel.

    When those in the Palestine solidarity movement stop being wishy washy, and recognise the State of Israel to exist, then, perhaps, they might have something to say worthwhile listening to. I am not going to hold my breath waiting.


  7. Steve – it is so difficult to say if the basis for targeting Israel is not an antisemitic one though. People who are not remotely antisemitic may get influenced by subtle antisemitic vectors to focus more on Israel than on other countries. Their arguments may perhaps seem ok in isolation – but it does seem, so often, to be just Israel which is the target – and sometimes just Israelis, like Cristal. I wouldn’t seek to pick a fight with you over your BDS decisions – but it would be good to also look at more positive steps (or at least do both) such as buying Palestinian products or supporting initiatives such as Sindyanna.

    The explanatory link about BDS invokes the plight of Palestinian refugees without explaining exactly what would have to happen for this problem to go away, and certainly doesn’t mention anything other countries in the region might do to help their situation. Generally it isn’t very clear about what would have to happen for BDS to stop.

    Martin – I don’t feel the parallel with SA is earned – what kinds of boycott would you support WRT Israel? As your approach seems more instrumentalist than eliminationist, I don’t particularly want to pick a fight with you either.


  8. Martin Whiteside

    Very interesting post. As someone involved for may years in apartheid boycotts it is always a contoversial tactic.

    I have always found it helpful to consider it a tactic rather than a principle – i.e. you boycott because you judge the likely positive outcomes exceed the negative ones in a particular circumstance (and you work hard to minimise the negative ones).

    If one boycotts out of principle, then to be consistent (and avoid justified accusation of biais) – one needs to boycott rather a lot of countries, and perhaps there is less incentive to minimise the negative.

    It is also important to approach the action with humility and a wish to build bridges of understanding wherever possible. It is so much easier to fan anger and self-righteousness than to encourage understanding. However I still try and boycott as a tactic within such a framework.,


  9. As it is my blog, I get to ask the first question! 🙂

    Sarah, I’m not convinced the “it only targets Israel” argument stands up IF the basis for targeting Israel is not a discriminatory one (ie antisemitism). The question should be more, why are there not more BDS movements around the world?

    That aside, If (as I am) someone is trying to work out whether or not to personally take part BDS (on a personal level) – and makes an effort to avoid any form of antisemitism, is there, in your own view, anything theoretically wrong with BDS as a tactic?


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