BDS action shifts to international arena. Israeli and world Jewish leaders speak out on BDS but signs of informal European boycotts of Israelis increase.

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In June BDS action shifted suddenly to the political arena. Israeli and world Jewish leaders spoke out forcefully against BDS, promising greater action. A scandal emerged surrounding hostile comments from the head of a French telecommunications company operating in Israel. Meanwhile, restrictions on BDS grew in US state and Federal legislation. These rapid developments show that BDS is being treated with unprecedented seriousness and that pushing back is effective. But BDS has also become a polarized political issue within Israeli and global Jewish society.


June marked a major turning point for global BDS. A key development was the scandal around the French telecommunications company Orange.

While in Cairo the chief executive officer of Orange, Stephane Richard, was quoted as saying the firm was “ready to withdraw” from Israel “tomorrow morning.” He added that “Orange does not want to keep its brand presence in countries where it is not an operator” and that the decision was not political. Orange, one of the world’s largest telecommunications firms, has a licensing agreement with the Israeli firm Partner.

Reaction to Richard was swift and harsh. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Richard’s statement as “despicable.” Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a major investor in Partner, called Richard’s statement, that Orange was not leaving Israel a result of political pressure, a “blatant lie” and threatened legal action. After further condemnations Richard backpedalled, first apologizing, then declaring he had been misquoted and that he was “radically opposed” to boycotts, and that he “loves” Israel. More significantly, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also stated that France would not boycott Israel, a sentiment echoed by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (whose visit to Israel was marred by the controversy) and former French president Nicholas Sarkozy.

After additional pressure, Richard traveled to Israel for meetings with local officials in order to clarify “supposed declarations that I never made.” While in Israel Richard stated that Orange was there “to stay” and that “This has nothing to do with Israel; we love Israel, we are in Israel, in the enterprise market, we invest money in innovation in Israel, we are a friend of Israel, so this has absolutely nothing to do with any kind of political debate, in which I don’t want to be.” Few observers, including those within France, believed this account.

Reports indicate that Orange has come under enormous pressure from Qatar as well as Egyptian and European BDS entities, including  NGOs, to end its relationship with Israel. But the vehemence and breadth of the political backlash, including from within France, appears to have been unexpected. In practical terms BDS pressure on Orange should be understood as having backfired, except to the extent to which the affair heightened public awareness of the cause.

Qatar was also reputed to be behind the Palestinian effort to organize a boycott of Israel within FIFA, the scandal-ridden international soccer federation. Israeli officials now expect efforts from the Palestinian Olympic Committee to have Israel banned from the 2016 Olympics. The Palestinian Olympic Committee is headed by Fatah activist Jibril Rajoub, also head of the Palestinian Football Association, who efforts to have Israel expelled from FIFA.

The Orange and FIFA affairs have prompted an unprecedented series of statements from Israeli officials. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that “this campaign to delegitimize Israel entails something much deeper that is being directed at us and seeks to deny our very right to live here.” Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren also characterized BDS as a strategic threat to Israel. These views were echoed by opposition leader Yair Lapid, and by newly appointed Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, showing that broad agreement exists on BDS within mainstream Israeli politics.

But a contentious Knesset debate regarding proposed legislation that would limit the activities of pro-boycott entities within Israel indicated that consensus as far from total. Another bill, from the left wing Meretz party, would label goods from Israeli communities across the Green Line. The shape of the debates, where the political right states that boycotts were inherently antisemitic, which the far left and Arab parties deny, demonstrate that BDS has become a full political issue within Israel.

More substantively, the Israeli government has reportedly adopted a strategy of actively opposing global BDS. After a long period of relative neglect, Gil Erdan, newly appointed public security, strategic affairs, has been given the BDS portfolio, along with staffing and a reported budget of 100 million NIS, while Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is reportedly formulating a legal strategy. The official Israeli legal approach, which has yet to be formulated, has been anticipated by private Israeli initiatives aimed at American and Palestinian firms that threaten Israel boycotts.

Despite these developments, European leaders continue to warn of diminishing support for Israel, ostensibly over “settlements.” Potential economic consequences include labeling of products from those communities. On a visit to Israel Czech Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek stated “if the situation does not change it will be hard to maintain our position… We want to avoid initiatives against Israel, but it is getting more difficult with the current government and with the opposition to the two-state solution… What is the alternative, to deteriorate towards apartheid?”

Israeli sources remain divided whether such labeling would entail meaningful economic consequences for Israel. In the meantime, a media campaign orchestrated by the Israeli Embassy in Sweden forced the main office of a supermarket chain to force a branch that had banned Israeli products to reverse its policy. The large public outcry against BDS was key to the decision. At the same time, reports indicate that a Norwegian insurance company has removed two international construction firms from its portfolio as a result of their ownership of Israeli companies operating over the “Green Line.”

The role of European governments in funding pro-BDS NGO’s also continues to be exposed, demonstrating how European governments are publicly challenging Israeli policies while indirectly subverting Israel at more fundamental level. These European strategies, however, are being confronted by US legislation. A bipartisan amendment to the controversial ‘fast track’ Trade Promotion Authority legislation passed by the US Senate states that European countries doing business with the US cannot engage in political motivated boycotts of Israel. This has been joined by legislation in South Carolina barring commercial discrimination “based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.”

In Pennsylvania legislation has been introduced that would cut funding to schools engaged in BDS. A non-binding resolution condemning BDS against Israeli academics was also introduced in the House of Representatives. A similar resolution was passed in the New York State Assembly.

BDS has also become an issue within US presidential politics. Senator Ted Cruz stated that US universities that boycott Israel should lose Federal funding. Other candidates have not yet expressed an opinion.

Another key event in June was the emergence of a major American Jewish initiative against BDS. In the US a major conference on opposing BDS was held in Las Vegas. Organized by wealthy American businessman Sheldon Adelson and others including Haim Saban, over 40 organizations combating BDS made presentations to vie for an estimated $50 million in future funding. Adelson and Saban took pains to note their unity in opposition to BDS despite their well-known political differences. Most American Jewish and Israeli commentators voiced support for the initiative but the Las Vegas meeting was derided by American Jewish groups that were not invited as well as by individuals from the American Jewish left and the pro-BDS sector. As in Israel, BDS has become a political issue within the American Jewish community, with the far left ironically finding common ground with the anti-Zionist religious far right.

In the academic and cultural spheres, the National Executive Council of Britain’s National Union of Students voted in favor of a resolution “encouraging” the boycott of Israel. The narrowly adopted decision was condemned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other observers note that an umbrella group representing British universities has rejected BDS and that British-Israeli academic cooperation is growing significantly. British Business Secretary Sajid Javid also praised British-Israeli economic cooperation as being in a “golden era.” A resolution calling on the university to boycott Israeli institutions operating beyond the ‘Green Line’ was also voted down at Reading University. These developments show that while student BDS activities may attract attention, they are neither always successful nor meaningful in the larger picture of relations with Israel.

More ominously, however, reports indicate an administrator at a Brazilian university had made a request to other officials to indentify all Israeli students at the institution in order to comply with a public records request from pro-Palestinian groups.

Reports have also begun to surface of informal boycotts of Israeli academics by European counterparts. In a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin Israeli academic leaders complained of a growing ‘silent boycott’ of Israeli universities, which includes a decline in acceptance of papers for publication in academic journals from Israeli scholars and joint research projects. This is in contrast with certain high level academic contacts and events that are ongoing. Similar reports from Israeli academic leaders were presented at a Knesset meeting. There, too, far left and Arab legislators stated that boycotts were a legitimate political tool, a viewpoint also expressed by a minority of Israeli academics. These and other events show that BDS is a growing major concern for Israeli academia.

More overtly, several reports indicate that the Louvre museum and other French cultural institutions have refused reservations from Israeli groups. These were ostensibly for scheduling reasons but when the same time slots were applied for in the names of fictitious Arab institutions, they were approved. The incident is reputedly under investigation.

These incidents show that lower level bureaucrats and functionaries, protected by relative anonymity, feel it safe to institute informal boycotts of Israel, motivated either by personal animosity or the perception of semi-official policy. They are further indications of the extent to which Israel has been successfully characterized as a pariah society within Europe.

BDS action shifts to international arena. Israeli and world Jewish leaders speak out on BDS but signs of informal European boycotts of Israelis increase.

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Alex Joffe

Editor SPME / BDS Monitor

Alexander H. Joffe is an archaeologist and historian specializing in the Middle East and contemporary international affairs. He received a B.A. in History from Cornell University in 1981 and Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Arizona in 1991. From 1980 to 2003 he participated in and directed archaeological research in Israel, Jordan, Greece and the United States. Joffe taught at the Pennsylvania State University and Purchase College, and has been Director of Research for Global Policy Exchange, Ltd., and The David Project, Center for Jewish Leadership.

Joffe's work is uniquely broad. Since 1991 he has published dozens of studies on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean and is a leading figure in contentious debates over the relationship between archaeology and politics in the Middle East. He has also authored numerous works on contemporary issues, including Middle Eastern environmental security threats from pollution and weapons of mass destruction. His work on the problem of dismantling intelligence agencies is widely cited by experts and democratic reformers alike.

In the past decade Joffe has written and spoken on topics as varied as the future of American Jews, the Palestinian refugee problem, and nationalism. During that time as well he has been deeply involved with combating the problems of campus antisemitism, the ‘boycott, divestment and sanctions' movement against Israel, and in educating Jews and others about threats to Israel and the West. His current projects include a biography of a British World War II general and several novels. He and his family reside near New York City.

Read all stories by Alex Joffe