The BDS Movement Has Already Lost

Where it counts—in the halls of government and boardrooms—the effort to boycott Israel doesn’t even register.
  • 0

Last week, a suspected Israeli soldier shot and killed Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was reporting on an Israeli military operation in the West Bank. A few days later, Israeli police attacked mourners at her funeral. A number of members of the U.S. Congress are now circulating a letter to their colleagues for signature demanding an FBI investigation into her killing.

The episode is no doubt going to provide momentum for advocates of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel, a movement known as BDS.

The BDS movement is an agglomeration of activists, professors, artists, academic associations, and affinity groups who say they seek to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of Gaza by bringing the kind of global political and economic pressure on Israel that was brought to bear on apartheid South Africa.

The Israeli government, pro-Israel groups, and many American Jews have raised the alarm over BDS. They charge that it is antisemitic and a strategy aimed at delegitimizing Israel by identifying it as a “settler colonial state” and denying any legitimate Jewish connection to the land. They point to statements such as that by one BDS co-founder, the Tel Aviv University educated Omar Barghouti, that: “Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.”

If one only paid attention to what is being reported from U.S. college campuses, one might believe BDS is thriving. In late April, the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, Harvard University’s student newspaper, published an editorial titled “In Support of Boycott, Divest, Sanctions and a Free Palestine”—a ringing and (self-)righteous paean to oversimplification. The editorial specifically rejected the complexity of a centurieslong struggle between competing nationalisms, identities, and historical memories interwoven with the highly sensitive issue of religion and instead declared a “categorical imperative [for the editorial board] to side with and empower the vulnerable and oppressed”—i.e., Palestinians.

That editorial was met with an equally self-righteous and indignant rejoinder by an associate news editor at the Crimson that neatly followed the standard argument of various and sundry pro-Israel and establishment American Jewish organizations. One former Crimson journalist relays that the paper, which is self-supporting, is now under financial strain, as some university alumni have decided to boycott the publication over the editorial. Irony is dead.

This ferocious response is typical when hegemonic ideas are challenged. Just down the road from Harvard, a Tufts University student threatened legal action against the school last year for failing to protect him from the harassment he endured because he is pro-Israel, including an attempt by the Tufts chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine to impeach and remove him from student government. The group eventually withdrew its complaint against the student, saying members became concerned for their safety after the case drew national attention.

It gets worse. A 2021 poll found that 15 percent of Jewish college students expressed a need to hide their identity around other students, with 12 percent saying others had blamed them for things the Israeli government had done because they were Jewish. Anti-Israel protest events such as Israeli Apartheid Week and “die-ins” are now a regular part of student programming on many campuses.

Pro-Palestinian activists counter that they are under siege, threatened, intimidated, and silenced for their activism. For example, the website Canary Mission, an online clearinghouse of information gathered on BDS student activists, is clearly intended to intimidate and silence pro-Palestinian students. And 35 U.S. states have anti-BDS legislation that government officials can use to intimidate university faculty members who support BDS. Still, activists continue their efforts to organize and pass BDS resolutions bringing pressure to bear on university administrators and boards of trustees.

Sadly, campus life has become difficult for any student genuinely interested in learning about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as dogma has descended upon curricula and extracurriculars alike. To make matters worse, outside interest groups armed with money have helped to fuel the fraught atmosphere in colleges and universities.

Beyond all the heat and navel-gazing about BDS on college campuses, though, the movement has mostly failed. This is not an argument that “it’s complicated,” or that BDS is antisemitic, or that Israel has nothing to answer for in its treatment of the Palestinians and stealth annexation of territory. It’s merely an acknowledgment that where it counts—in the halls of government and boardrooms—BDS does not even register.

There are a few cases of corporate and government action, such as the decision of the foundation that runs Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to no longer sell its products in West Bank settlements, though you can still get it in Israel. A number of years ago there was also a controversy over SodaStream, which had a factory in the occupied territories that employed Palestinians. And the European Union requires that products made in Israeli settlements be labeled as products of the West Bank, not Israel.

But these are exceptions to the fact that by all measures, Israel’s normalization in the world is complete.

Of the nearly 200 countries in the world, over 160 have relations with Israel, including six members of the Arab League. Of the couple dozen that do not, around half are Arab countries—but even among those there are gray areas. In 2021, Qatar and Israel signed an agreement allowing Israeli diamond traders to operate in Doha, and Qatari diplomats are the primary interlocutors with the Israelis on Gaza. Saudi Arabia is a virtual party to the Abraham Accords. If it weren’t, it would be impossible to fly on Israel’s El Al airlines from Dubai to Tel Aviv in three hours, and a representative from the Israel Defense Forces would not likely be posted in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, just about 20 miles from Saudi Arabia by a causeway. And in 2018, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in a not-so-secret visit.

Those countries that have not come to terms with Israel at all include Iran, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Pakistan, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela. This is an important group of countries for a variety of reasons, but Israel has managed to thrive without them. Sure, Israel endures endless criticism at the United Nations, but since when does what happens in the General Assembly, Human Rights Council, or UNESCO have a bearing on the conduct of global affairs? Almost never.

It is not just that Israel has greatly expanded its relations with countries across the globe—investors see a lot of opportunity in Israel, and the world’s biggest firms want to leverage the country’s greatest asset: its well-educated and talented workforce.

In 2021, investors poured $21.5 billion into Israel’s health care and health tech sectors, according to Israeli businesspeople I spoke to. That is more than double the previous record year, which was 2020. The Israeli government reports that 33 percent of all cybersecurity unicorns—private firms worth over $1 billion—are Israeli and 40 percent of global investment in cybersecurity is in Israel. Even if governments tend to pad their statistics to accentuate the positive, there is no denying Israel is a world leader in cybersecurity. (Of course, as the NSO Group and its Pegasus spyware make clear, the Israelis are not always good stewards of this technology, but that’s a separate issue.)

Then there are tech behemoths and other powerful companies—such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Oracle, Applied Materials, Alibaba, Berkshire Hathaway, Baidu, Bosch Group,, Citi, Dell, eBay, Flex, Ford Motor Co., HP, Mastercard, Perrigo, and Phillips—that have operations and research and development facilities in Israel. The country has no automobile industry, but Israeli engineers are writing the code for General Motors-manufactured vehicles, and the future of self-driving vehicles is located in an office building in Jerusalem, at the headquarters of an Israeli firm called Mobileye that Intel owns (and is set to be spun off in an IPO next month).

BDS activists have clearly failed to force global firms to unwind their operations in Israel. This is where any analogy to South Africa, which the Crimson editorial writers employ, breaks down. Israel and Israeli firms are too well integrated into global business for international companies to walk away from the country. Settlers can do without Ben & Jerry’s, and Israelis will survive not getting to see Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters or any number of other artists who support BDS perform live in the country, but Microsoft, Apple, Google, and the others all benefit from Israel and aren’t likely to leave anytime soon.

Pro-Palestinian activists are taking the wrong cues from whatever victories they have scored on college campuses. Campus BDS resolutions have done little to alter the way the world sees Israel, which is too important a geopolitical and economic player to be isolated. The BDS movement has already lost. The tragedy is that Palestine’s supporters remain wedded to a losing strategy, apparently believing they have time on their side to change hearts and minds.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

The BDS Movement Has Already Lost

Where it counts—in the halls of government and boardrooms—the effort to boycott Israel doesn’t even register.
  • 0