The movement goes back to the beginning of the State of Israel, when Arab countries boycotted trade with Israel. The modern BDS movement first came about in 2001, when participants at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban began labeling Israel as an “apartheid state.”
One of the reactions to South African apartheid was a call for divestment and political isolation of South Africa. Naturally, after the label was placed onto Israel, divestment became the latest buzzword for Palestinian activists.
Despite numerous officials, including Richard Goldstone – who led a U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate war crime allegations in Israel – stating “Nothing there [Israel] comes close to the definition of apartheid,” activists continue to make accusations. The goal is to weaken the State of Israel economically because it is seen as a colonial occupier of Palestine that has established an “apartheid” system, separating Israelis and Palestinians.
The first university to boast a successful divestment campaign was Wayne State University (WSU). The campaign at WSU began in 2002, when students and groups such as the local chapter of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) petitioned to divest from Israel. Opposition to divestment was successful until April 17, 2003, when the student government voted in a 9-7 decision to adopt a resolution calling for the university to divest from companies that operate businesses in Israel.
Many organizations see WSU’s divestment campaign as “a model“ for other campaigns across the country. Hundreds of BDS campaigns have popped up on college campuses around the United States. However, while numerous media reports tout the gaining momentum of the BDS movement, only a small amount have succeeded.
Israel’s university collaborations and economy have continued to flourish. Even the small number of campuses that have voted in favor of divestment still have countless investments in Israeli companies, products, and scientific research. Often, the student-governments divestment resolutions are later revoked. In WSU’s case, the Board of Governors rejects it.
So, why was WSU’s divestment campaign the first to work? Moreover, why have so many others have failed, if they are encouraged to use Wayne as a model? As a former student and Israel advocate at WSU, I believe I can shed some light on this question. It was simply a matter of demographics and cowardly tricks.
Often, those spending the most time arguing over the Israeli-Arab conflict tend to be Jews/Israelis and Muslims/Arabs. Additionally, activists have successfully wooed leftist groups to the Palestinian cause, using “Pallywood” propaganda to manipulate public opinion into believing the Palestine cause is a matter of “social justice.”
The Detroit metropolitan area boasts one of the oldest and largest Arab-American communities, and one of the largest Muslim populations in America. WSU is a commuter school located in the center of downtown Detroit. The school’s student body consists primarily of people from the greater Metro Detroit area who live off campus.
In 2003, the majority of those involved in on-campus Israel advocacy (myself included) were Orthodox Jews. While WSU’s Jewish student’s population was quite small, the school boasts thriving Arab Student and Muslim Student Associations, whose constituents included members of the student council.
The pro-Israel students were heavily outnumbered on campus and were caught by surprise when the student government held a last minute divestment vote on the night of Passover. While there was a small amount of opposition at the student council meeting, the decision to hold the vote at a time when the vast majority of Israel advocates were unable to show up in opposition was simply an act of cowardice.
The BDS movement holds a very dogmatic view, where facts that counter BDS rhetoric are dismissed and dissent is not tolerated. The movement tends to target progressive communities, appealing to them through the exploitation of human rights language. Dirty tricks seem to be the standard operating procedure for the BDS movement. Their cowardice has been noted in the past when they refusing to engage in dialogue, spout venomous rhetoric, and ram resolutions through student governments.
There is an old saying: ‘if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.’ Though the BDS movement has had very little success, the movement has grown over the past decade. With this growth comes the spread of more rhetoric. While the BDS movement pretends to be a humanitarian campaign, it is in fact simply an ideological assault on the existence of Israel as a Jewish nation.
Fighting the BDS movement is not difficult. Their claims are backed by nothing but false rhetoric. When people tried to institute a BDS movement on the Park Slope Coop in New York, it failed. Groups banded together and pushed through the rhetoric to show Coop members that BDS did not really represent human rights.
Much like the WSU divestors, the rest of the BDS movement is filled with cowards, unable to handle confrontation outside the echo chamber of their own supporters. They were successful at WSU because they eliminated opposition. However, it is important to stand up to BDS supporters whenever you can, call out their rhetoric, and let them know that they do not represent the truth.
Alex VanNess is the Manager of Public Information for the Center for Security Policy.