The official Twitter account of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office recently posted “I salute you Governor Cuomo. #BDSFail.” The triumphant tweet referred to a June executive order from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that makes state government agencies to cut support for institutions that support the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. The directive also mandates a listing of companies and entities that support BDS. In late May, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill with nearly identical provisions (the State Assembly has yet to vote on the legislation).
The New York executive order and New Jersey bill are clearly well-intentioned demonstrations of solidarity with the Jewish community. However, such an unsophisticated approach to BDS is poorly matched to the movement itself and can only provide short term results. The instant gratification of meeting anti-Israel activism with state punishment will give way to an increasingly complicated political environment in which Israel’s American supporters, particularly among the U.S. Jewish community, are more isolated.
Combatting BDS with the blunt instrument of state power will inevitably create enemies for Israel where heretofore they did not exist. Take one example: both the New York executive order and the New Jersey assembly bill drew harsh criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an influential legal rights advocacy group. In both cases, the ACLU focused on the state government’s creation of a registry of BDS-supporting institutions, which both the rights organization and anti-Israel figures termed [not without justification] a “blacklist.” The ACLU chapters in both states made clear that their criticism is strictly constitutional and not a measure of support for BDS. Indeed, the group has defended First Amendment rights for a host of unsavory entities including the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi parties without advocating their platforms.
To the ACLU’s largely progressive supporters, BDS is not the KKK or the Nazis. While the ACLU itself takes no position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and retains a largely domestic focus, government intervention against boycotts may generate ambivalence toward the Jewish state among free speech advocates. Outside the ACLU, some may simply resent the pro-Israel movement after seeing the bad legal precedent created by state sanctioning of an unpopular opinion on something many Americans see as an obscure issue in foreign affairs.
Government action against BDS also demonstrates a serious failure to understand the movement’s current supporters. In the United States, the anti-Israel cause is championed by radical leftists already disdainful of state authority. Lawmakers in Albany and Trenton are inviting disappointment if they believed BDS activists would simply bow to their policies. The introduction of state governments as an actor in the struggle over BDS fits neatly into the campaign’s victimhood and underdog narratives. As one anti-Israel pundit, Remi Kanazi, stated: “10 years ago, BDS was ignored. 5 years ago, it was smeared. Today is attacked. We are winning, even as the repression intensifies.” Whether or not Kanazi’s affirmation reflects reality is almost irrelevant – government action emboldens the BDS movement and gives strength to its rhetoric.
While the BDS narrative intensifies, the American Jewish community is bereft of its own coherent narrative on the boycott, offering mixed and frequently contradictory messages. The movement is simultaneously characterized as marginal and as an overarching threat. Such competing descriptions call for vastly different strategies. If BDS is sputtering out, as the #BDSfail hashtag popular with the Jewish state’s social media cheerleaders and Israeli officials suggests, then the movement can be ignored as it will die out on its own. If BDS is an unparalleled menace, then packed conferences at the United Nations and government suppression are needed. Pursuing both approaches at once produces a cognitive dissonance, muddling counter-boycott efforts and encouraging disjointed logic.
The truth about BDS likely lies somewhere between the two extreme presentations. Effectively confronting anti-Israel activity means picking a consistent story. The Jewish community may also require real political change in order to achieve lasting success.
A 2016 report by Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS), a coalition of over 200 retired IDF generals and their equivalents in Mossad, Shin Bet, and the police forces suggests that progress on a two-state solution can “pull the rug from under BDS-like movements.” Even if Israel left the West Bank tomorrow, an extremist core of activists will always oppose the Jewish state’s existence. However, CIS’s assessment is correct insofar as support for BDS among progressives with no vested interest in Israeli-Palestinian conflict – labor unions, academic associations, and even ACLU supporters – is avoidable. More importantly, real progress, however gradual, toward resolving the conflict and withdrawing from the occupied territories will stabilize Israel’s security situation. High-ranking IDF officers, military intelligence, Mossad, and Shin Bet directors have explained this ad nauseum.
There is much about the Jewish state and its democracy that Israelis and their allies can celebrate. There are also some issues that traditional Hasbara-style advocacy will not erase and situations where fighting BDS by fighting BDS is not enough. In the face of boycott campaigns, enacting a counter-boycott cannot effectively answer for Israeli government ministers who make far reaching and permanent claims on the West Bank. Aside from playing into the BDS movement’s narrative of persecution at the hands of the powerful, such moves can only go so far without real progress on the ground. Absent such changes, Israel’s supporters will continue to offer non-solutions like the New York and New Jersey policies – all with the best of intentions.