Back in the 1980s I had a friend who was, like me, a CIA Case Officer. He came from a German-Jewish family that had immigrated to the United States in 1933 and, though non-practicing in religion, he was a devoted reader of Commentary. At that time Commentary was the house organ for what we now would describe as a neoconservative foreign policy, a fringe viewpoint that had not yet captured the Republican Party.
One day my colleague approached me and began to rant and rave about the movie “Gandhi.” He had been reading about the film in Commentary and told me that it was historically inaccurate and little more than a puff piece that had been funded by the Indian government. Lacking any particularly insight into the matter I made agreeable noises and left it at that, but it occurred to me that there was something more to the story.
Today I understand what the problem was. Gandhi forced a seemingly unassailable imperial occupying power to pull up stakes and go home. And he did it through nonviolence. Commentary clearly understood that if the Palestinians were to copy Gandhi it would create possibly insurmountable difficulties for the Israeli occupation, which was even then beginning to build permanent settlements for 100,000 settlers in East Jerusalem, on the West Bank and the Golan Heights, as well as in Gaza. It could also expose Israel’s denial of basic human rights to many of the Palestinians under its control.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and numerous other friends of Israel have essentially declared war on the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which one might describe as the Palestinian version of Gandhi, as it is nonviolent and nonconfrontational. BDS essentially seeks to bring about change through exposing the immorality of the status quo and even challenging the legitimacy of the Israeli state, which was founded by dispossessing the Palestinians. BDS was organized in 2005 and has three stated objectives: ending the Israeli occupation, granting Arab Israelis full citizenship rights, and respecting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The third demand, the most contentious, is generally conceded to be a bargaining chip, expected to be subsumed into an agreement that would produce two contiguous states, which the BDS organizers explicitly support.
Boycotting Israeli products, divesting from companies that operate there, and calling for sanctions directed against particularly egregious human rights violations are intended to create economic pressure to bring about the type of change that eventually occurred in apartheid South Africa. Netanyahu clearly understands that BDS is the greatest threat that the current Israeli government faces because it actually might be successful, as the world now realizes that Tel Aviv plans a perpetual de facto occupation of all of Palestine coupled with second-class status for anyone who is not Jewish. As a result, even many traditional supporters of Israel regard continuation of the Israel-Palestine status quo as both morally and politically indefensible.
Supporting boycotts or foreign sanctions has now been declared illegal for any citizen of Israel and the government is also taking aim at local human rights groups that it says are providing fodder for foreign critics. Israel was rocked two weeks ago by a near miss over a possible suspension of the country from the international soccer federation FIFA due to its treatment of Palestinian footballers, and fears that similar moves might be taken against its participation in next year’s Olympic Games. Netanyahu understands that international ostracism is a threat far greater than a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and much more significant than the two intifada outbreaks of violence that began in 1987 and 2000. He has stated so explicitly, saying recently that BDS “is an international campaign to blacken [Israel’s] name” and declaring that it “is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence.”
Ayelet Shaked, the Israeli justice minister, has instructed her department to “prepare a plan of legal steps” against BDS to “move from the defense to the offense.” The government has budgeted $26 million to fund the effort. Gilad Erdan, Minister for Public Security Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy, will lead the effort together with Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. Erdan and Hotovely might well be considered gifts to the Palestinians as both are poster children for Israel’s hardest hardliners, Erdan saying that Arab members of the Israeli parliament will be “cleansed” when the time is right while Hotovely has declared “This land is ours. All of it is ours.”
The Israeli government view is that accepting BDS is analogous to letting Nazis into your house. Yair Lapid, a former Finance Minister, told a New York audience that BDS organizers were “outright anti-Semites” linked to Arabs who “collaborated with the Nazis” and for a kicker threw in that they were “responsible for 9/11, for terror attacks in Madrid and London, and for the 250,000 people already killed in Syria.”
In the United States a broad array of organizations considered to be part of the Israel lobby have also mobilized, while Israeli-American billionaires Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, who recently hosted a meeting in Las Vegas to address the problem, are funding the effort with $20 million to raise an activist army called “Campus Maccabees.” Saban noted that “Any company that chooses to boycott business in Israel, we’re going to look at this case, and once we’re done, they’re going to think twice about whether they want to take on Israel or not.” Self-described “America’s Rabbi” Shmuley Boteach was at the meeting as designated point-man, damning BDS as “Hitler’s U-boats” and an “an act of war” that is “driven by a malignant pulse of anti-Semitism.”
The BDS movement in the United States has won some minor victories, to include resolutions supporting boycotts on 15 university campuses as well as divestment by the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches. In Brazil, the government recently canceled a $2 billion contract with an Israeli security firm linked to the upcoming Rio Olympics. In Europe, the movement is much more advanced. The European Union (EU) intends to demand that products originating in Israeli settlements be identified as to place of origin while 16 of 28 EU foreign ministers now support sanctioning such goods. Recently, major French telecom company Orange Chief Executive Stephane Richard recognized the problem in doing business in Israel, stating that he would like to pull out completely. He was forced to travel to Israel to apologize personally to Netanyahu, recanting obsequiously under pressure from Jewish organizations and the French government.
The U.S. Congress recently approved an anti-BDS amendment to the omnibus European trade bill, mandating that nations engaging in anti-Israel boycotts, to include “Israeli controlled territories,” should be penalized in any trade agreement. In early June the South Carolina legislature made it illegal for any public entity to do business with a company or organization that “boycotts others” based on “national origin.” The bill also targeted other kinds of discrimination, but it was really all about Israel, with one State Representative acknowledging “our great ally” before noting that the legislation would counter “economic warfare to forward the purposes of hatred and bigotry … the tactics employed by the Nazis.” Similar bills have also passed in Indiana and Tennessee while Illinois has unanimously approved legislation prohibiting any pension fund investment in companies that boycott either Israel or territories occupied by Israel. There are reportedly 18 other states with similar legislation pending.
New York State considered cutting off funding to colleges that pass resolutions boycotting Israel, a step that GOP Presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz also supports at the federal level, blocking money that would include student loans and research grants. Cruz, who called BDS both a “lie” and “anti-Semitism,” was picking up his Defender of Israel award from the Champion of Jewish Values International Awards Gala at the time.
The counterattack in the U.S. has also spawned an interesting website called Canary Mission, which “was created to expose individuals and groups that are anti-Freedom, anti-American and anti-Semitic.” In reality it is all about Israel, targeting BDS activists at colleges and naming students involved, as “We believe in the right of employers to know which potentially threatening organizations prospective employees were affiliated with during their time on campus.” In short, if you become too active with BDS, we will attempt to make you unemployable.
Some observers note that attempts to use “Lawfare” and coercion against BDS activists might also actually make the movement go underground and be more difficult to confront. Instead of demonstrating or demanding divestment in public fora, critics will simply avoid having anything to do with Israel or with the business interests of prominent American and European Jews who are heavily engaged in supporting the Israeli government. Entertainers will increasingly avoid performing in Israel and academics will stop going to conferences. At a certain point, even friendly investors will consider the country to be a poor risk due to its politics.
The Nazi theme inevitably surfaces regularly in the attacks on BDS. One editorial describes the movement as “a blatant lie rooted in Goebbels’ school.” Benjamin Weinthal, a research fellow for the neocon Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, notes that neo-Nazi groups support BDS and that the first phase of the Holocaust consisted of boycotting Jewish businesses. He cites an acerbic Israeli Foreign Ministry response to European efforts to label settlement products, “It seems European nations now want to put a yellow patch on Israeli products…” It is a familiar argument: since neo-Nazis support boycotting Israel then anyone supporting a boycott must be considered a neo-Nazi.
One can only expect the fight over BDS to become even more bitter as the two sides dig in. The involvement of both federal and state governments on behalf of Israel is particularly regrettable as there will be pressure on universities to conform, and First Amendment rights could easily be trampled along the way. The argument that efforts to bring about change in Israeli policies equates to anti-Semitism is also dangerous, particularly as it could lead to a questionably broad definition of “hate speech.” Even if Netanyahu is able to win by blocking critics, it will still be a Pyrrhic victory because it will not address the fundamental issue: Israel, by its own actions, has become internationally isolated, reducing the number of countries that are reliably sympathetic to a handful. As Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea, in describing the unsustainability of the status quo, put it laconically, “…as long as we have not occupied the rest of the world, we have a problem.”
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.