The Israeli government response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been predictable. Being incapable of engaging in any reasonable form of self-criticism, Israeli leaders have turned their wrath on their accusers and their victims.
In recent years, several entities have implemented boycotts or are considering other punitive actions in an effort to force a change in Israeli behaviour. European governments are moving to require Israel to label products originating in West Bank settlements so as to distinguish them from exports from Israel. Some US churches and pension funds have decided to divest from businesses that support the occupation. US and UK student groups have been successful in winning votes calling on their institutions to support BDS. And some academic groups and renowned scholars have indicated that they will not cooperate with events supporting or hosted by Israeli institutions in the occupied lands.
These actions are not only legitimate expressions of political concern. They are also a profoundly moral response to Israel’s behaviour. When confronted by Israel’s continued defiance of international law, its theft of Palestinian lands to construct Jewish-only settlements and its daily displays of brutality towards Palestinians, the desire to disassociate from that behaviour is the right thing to do. And when confronted by an international system that has neutered itself, refusing to act decisively to put the brakes on Israeli conduct, then the response of the BDS movement becomes even more worthy of support.
In the face of this growing international pressure, the Netanyahu government has gone on the offensive. Speaking this week in Israel, the prime minister said: “We are in the midst of a great struggle being waged against the state of Israel, an international campaign to blacken its name ... the last thing we should do is bow our heads and ask where we erred, where we went wrong. We did not err, we did not do wrong.”
Netanyahu went on to emphasise that what is behind this campaign is nothing more than anti-Semitism in a new form. Others in his government called the BDS movement “terrorism”.
As an initial response, Israel’s legal system has criminalised activities that support BDS among its own citizens. And Israel’s allies in Congress have followed suit by introducing language in both the pending trade and US Customs authorisation bills that would target countries or businesses that boycott, sanction or divest funds from Israel.
There is, of course, more than a little audacity on display here. Israel acts with impunity in seizing Palestinian land, demolishing Palestinian homes, and denying basic freedoms to Palestinians. Israel then acts to sanction the Palestinian Authority by refusing to transfer tax revenues that are legally Palestinian funds, and supports US legislation that sanctions and divests from any United Nations entity that recognises Palestinian national rights. But when confronted with a dose of the same medicine, Mr Netanyahu cries foul and threatens retaliation.
This is nothing more than the perverse reaction of a spoilt child who insists that he not only win every game, but that he must be able to define the rules. And when everybody doesn’t agree to his “rules”, tantrums and threats follow. This is the spoilt child turned bully.
It’s an old story. When the UN votes 143 to 3 in favour of a Palestinian position, Israel denounces the world body as a “collection of anti-Semites and third world dictators”. The UN, Israel insists, is hopelessly biased and incapable of playing any fair role. Israel’s supporters then turn to what is, in fact, the “hopelessly biased” US Congress pressing it to pass one-sided anti-Palestinian or anti-UN legislation. And they do so with no sense of irony.
To be sure, there are also some sane voices being heard in Israel. Like the prophets of old, they are calling on the Israeli people to reject the dangerous fallacy behind the prime minister’s argument. They note that it is not the BDS movement that is blackening Israel’s name – it is the policies of their government that are causing it to become increasing isolated. If anything, they say, the peaceful BDS movement is a response to Palestinian despair and to the world’s frustration with the intransigence and acquisitiveness of the Netanyahu government.
In recent weeks, Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to demonise BDS have been joined not only by Congress, but by several state legislatures who are passing anti-BDS bills and now by a collection of pro-Israel billionaires and ultra-right Islamophobic groups who have joined forces to silence the BDS protest movement in the US. One early tactic they have employed is the creation of an insidious website that posts the biographies and pictures of student BDS leaders – the stated purpose being a warning to prospective employers that these young people are anti-Semites and enemies of Israel.
As a tactic, the resort to BDS is a far better and more productive form of resistance than violence and may be the last best hope of reining in Israel’s behaviour and salvaging the possibility of creating an independent Palestinian state. It would be a tragedy and a travesty if Israel’s bullying tactics were to succeed in silencing the legitimate and moral voices of the BDS movement.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute