Israel’s military might is unmatched in the Middle East, and its most formidable foe — the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah — is currently preoccupied in Syria. The young country is fully integrated into the global economy, having recently joined the elite Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The Jewish state’s top trading partners are the European Union and the United States, the world’s leading powers.
So why are the Israeli government and its defenders in the United States freaking out? While the country is far from isolated, its image in the United States as a plucky democracy in a hostile region is slowly eroding. And predictably, that erosion is coming hand in hand with Zionist and conservative backlash.
At the end of last year, the American Studies Association’s (ASA) decision to boycott Israel inspired the neoconservative writer Ben Cohen to call on the Jewish community to “harass, frustrate, and crush [the boycotters] … without mercy.” In early 2014, the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) conference included a talk about how Israel denies entry to those trying to visit Palestinian universities, and vitriolic e-mails containing images of anti-Jewish Nazi boycotts were sent to MLA members because of it. Last year, the mere hosting of a pro-Palestinian event at Brooklyn College prompted one state legislator to warn of “the potential for a second Holocaust here.”
Fueling the erosion of Israel’s image is a movement summed up by three letters: BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions, originally a Palestinian response to Israel’s decades-old occupation and denial of Palestinians’ human rights.
In 2005, a coalition of over 200 Palestinian organizations, ranging from labor unions to refugee rights’ groups, issued a call to the world to boycott Israeli products, divest from companies doing business with the state and lever sanctions. The movement’s goals are threefold: to end the occupation, ensure equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and implement the right of return for Palestinian refugees expelled by Zionist forces in 1948. Modeled on the global anti-apartheid movement that targeted South Africa, BDS has become one the most visible and potent global left-wing movements.
The message has found fertile ground in Europe. Major pensions funds have divested from Israeli banks over their involvement with illegal settlements. And in recent months, the BDS movement has racked up some important, albeit symbolic, victories in the United States, Israel’s key backer and the site of its most vociferous defenders.
In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies became the first academic group in the United States to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, which BDS advocates have targeted because of their involvement in crafting Israeli policy towards Palestinians. For instance, Israeli universities have produced the intellectual rationales for military assaults and are key partners in the production of deadly equipment like drones and the bulldozers used to demolish Palestinian homes. While the Asian-American group’s decision hardly made a splash, it was followed up in December 2013 by the ASA’s vote to also boycott Israel. That move unleashed a firestorm of controversy, with not only Ben Cohen but also university presidents and Israel lobby groups harshly criticizing the ASA and some smearing the group as anti-Semitic.
Any discussion of BDS provokes Israel’s defenders, and the ASA’s endorsement of the movement was no exception. In recent months, both Democrats and Republicans in various state legislatures have introduced measures to punish the ASA by prohibiting taxpayer funds from being used to help students or scholars travel to their conventions — and the New York State Senate was the first body to pass the legislation. If schools violate the law, a portion of their state aid would be cut off. The campaign has also migrated to Congress, where two Illinois representatives introduced a bill to cut off federal funds to any academic institution endorsing BDS.
Legislation targeting the BDS movement is worrisome for free speech and academic freedom. But this type of BDS response is bound to backfire, casting Israel’s advocates as thuggish wielders of power trying to shut down discussion of Israeli human rights abuses.
Other events have also tarnished Israel’s image. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobby group, recently attempted to scuttle the initial U.S. deal with Iran over its nuclear energy program by pushing for more sanctions on the country, which if enacted would likely kill the diplomatic effort. It was only after the Obama administration successfully lobbied Democrats to oppose new sanctions that AIPAC backed off.
And in January, the actress Scarlett Johansson announced she was the new spokesperson for SodaStream, a company with a factory in an Israeli Wesk Bank settlement. While Johansson’s move was a coup for the company, it also garnered an unprecedented amount of attention for the BDS movement, which has called for boycotts of SodaStream. As the controversy continued, Bloomberg News reported that the company’s stocks slid “amid growing criticism for businesses operating in a territory that Palestinians seek for an independent state.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land — and the home demolitions, arrests of children and building of illegal settlements that have accompanied it — continues with no end in sight. Each individual Israeli outrage provides fodder for boycotts of Israel, and encourages more people to join the BDS movement. For example, after the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-2009, the anti-war group CODEPINK focused more of its attention on Israel and launched a campaign to boycott beauty products made in an illegal West Bank settlement. The growth of the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation is another reminder of the increasing potency of the movement targeting Israeli human rights abuses. When the campaign group, an umbrella organization, formed in 2001, there were a few dozen member organizations. Today, there are more than 400 member groups, with many of them working on BDS.
As Sarah Schulman, the LGBT activist and scholar, said last March, “when significant subcultures move on Israel/Palestine, the U.S. will move.” Israel’s image among the broad American public remains positive. But in some sectors — like academia and the media — we see movement.