(The National Post, 16 April 2016)
The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign must have seemed fairly simple to the people who started it 11 years ago. They would point out Israel's sins and persuade good people everywhere to stop buying its products and investing in its corporations. Israel, noticing its unpopularity, would soon be forced to change its ways.
But then the theory of unintended consequences raised its head. Israel's products did not lose market share. Foreign investment is healthy and improving. And then there's the vexing case of SodaStream.
SodaStream is a kitchen gadget for making soda water at home. It was produced in the West Bank by a company that employed 1,300 workers: 350 Israeli Jews, 450 Israeli Arabs and 500 West Bank Palestinians.
Anti-Israel boycotters were offended by the West Bank location. They began attacking SodaStream and its spokeswoman, Scarlett Johansson. So the company shut down its plant and moved to southern Israel, putting hundreds of Palestinians out of work. That was not exactly what BDS had in mind.
In some cases, BDS brings out individuals and groups anxious to defend Israel. Jose Maria Aznar, the former prime minister of Spain, is an example. He says that, "What BDS wants is to make life in Israel intolerable so the Jewish nation will not be able to have a normal existence. BDS does not only want to change the government's policy, it wants to empty the country of Jews."
Aznar admires Israel. He wants it in the European Union. He created the Friends of Israel Initiative. "Most of us are not Jewish," he said, "but we share the vision. When defending Israel we are defending the West. We are defending our way of life and values, and also our interests."
In science and technology, Israel has become an innovation powerhouse. In one recent year, Aznar pointed out, 11 per cent of the 300 projects approved by the European Research Council went to young Israeli scientists, putting it behind only Germany and the U.K. On the question of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, he says, "It is unfair and unthinkable for Israel to sign an agreement with a state that refuses to acknowledge the Jewish state's right to exist."
BDS also sometimes inspires organized anti-BDS protests. One morning this week, students at the University of California's Santa Barbara campus woke to find themselves surrounded by posters attacking BDS and its "genocidal campaign to destroy the world's only Jewish state." One poster names prominent campus BDS activists and explains: "The following students and faculty at UC Santa Barbara have allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists to perpetrate BDS and Jew Hatred on this campus."
This was the work of the Horowitz Freedom Center, whose leader, David Horowitz, promises more to come: "Jew haters on other campuses are going to wake up some morning soon and see their pictures on posters holding them responsible for their anti-Semitic thoughts and deeds."
The propaganda of BDS seems to arouse a familiar streak of anxious self-importance in the young. Hundreds of universities and cities have their own local chapters. It has a cultish appeal: students think they are "working for change." If you go to one of their meetings, you realize that everyone agrees with everything. It recalls the "New" Left of the 1960s.
BDS has, in recent years, created a sister movement, the loathsome Israel Apartheid Week, which goes beyond rhetoric to falsehood. The name was apparently chosen not because Israel practises apartheid (it doesn't), but because it's the ugliest quality that can be attributed to any society. Ruth Wisse, renowned as a professor at McGill and then Harvard, provides the most coherent criticism of these two campaigns. She suggests university administrations and faculties have been complicit in allowing anti-Jewish politics to flourish. "Administrators hypocritically invoke free speech in defence of faculty members who provide an ostensibly 'academic' rationale for opposition to Israel. By now, entire disciplines use their academic conferences to attack the Jewish state."
The energy going into BDS proves that students want to get mildly excited about something. But why is their focus so narrow? "Where are the campus rallies for women's rights in Islam, relief efforts for Syrian refugees, vigils for Christian victims of Islamic State (of Iraq and the Levant)? Where is the outrage of historians and archaeologists at the destruction by radical Muslims of ancient monuments?" Wisse asks. Anti-Israel campaigns flourish, she says, "because onlookers who think they have no stake in the conflict choose not to face down the belligerents."
But what about the members of BDS locals? Are they not discouraged because, so far as we know, nobody much is boycotting, divesting or invoking sanctions? Israel's success is proof of their failure. Their propaganda has done nothing but create tension between Jews and non-Jews. They must be disappointed. Unless, of course, that was what they intended from the beginning.