The BDS Movement: A Help or Hindrance?


‘Israel has no foreign policy; only domestic policy’ – Henry Kissinger.

In antecedent years Kissinger’s famous aphorism has become conventional wisdom in discussing Israeli politics, a quick-witted remark made in reference to the frantic “shuttle diplomacy” of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Whilst on close examination the comment is incontestably platitudinous – every nation’s foreign policy is influenced by domestic concerns – it does provide a spring-board for discussing why Israeli foreign policy is less extensive than other developed nations. Traditionally, the core of Israel’s foreign policy is a symbiotic ‘veto-for-veto’ relationship with the US, supplemented by foreign aid, and enforcing a narrative of the Jewish struggle against surrounding Arab nations. The lack of a more expansive policy is partly due to the instability of Israeli governments, resultant of proportional representation, with religious splinter parties having to support the main party in coalition. The splinters are necessary to keep the Prime Minister’s head above water, but leaning on splinters can cause harm: there isn’t much freedom on foreign political issues. Exacerbating this is the continuing debate surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and a lack of progression towards a peaceful solution in the region.

As a result, over the years, Israel has been quite self-contained, but increasingly the conflict between Israel and Palestine has gained more international attention and criticism, worsening isolation. The European Union is openly critical of Israeli settlement expansion, with the labelling of goods imported from Jewish settlements coming into effect in many EU states. Even US-Israeli relations have weakened – in part due to Netanyahu’s congress speech on Obama’s Iran policy – with the US, for the first time in Israeli-US relations, urging the reversal of expropriated land in occupied West Bank. Israel’s deteriorating reputation is even more evident in polls, with global condemnation of the country spiking in recent years. In the BBC World’s Service’s 2013 global survey, Israel’s negative ratings rose to 52 per cent, with only 21 per cent of pollsters holding a positive view of Israel. Even more strikingly, a 2014 poll by GlobeScan for BBC World Service found that the British public viewed Israel overwhelmingly negatively: with 72 per cent of British people asked reporting negative views. The emergence of negative Western sentiment prompted Netanyahu to claim the “British worry me” in a 2011 interview with the Telegraph – evidently Israel’s isolation in the developed world is becoming worrisome to its leaders.

In 2005, out of this growing animosity towards settlement expansion and conflict culminated the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), a global campaign attempting to exert political and economic pressure on Israel, in the hopes they will comply with their conditions:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.


The movement has been controversial but has gained substantial support. However the question remains: is the BDS Movement pragmatic in progressing towards a peaceful solution? Are the methods and aims of the movement quixotic? Will it fuel, among other factors, an Israeli “them-against-me” attitude, contrary to lasting peace?

One particularly foul and misfortunate by-product of the conflict and condemnation of Israel is the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in Europe, which are potentially inflammatory in relation to peace. The 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict saw the highest number of civilian casualties since the Six-Day War, with 2,256 Palestinians and 85 Israelis dead, and some more 17,125 Palestinians and 2,639 Israelis suffering injuries. Correlating with this conflict, anti-Semitic hate crimes began to rise in Europe, with Crif reporting a significant rise in French synagogue attacks in 2014, with one in Sarcelles being firebombed by a mob of 400 people. In 2014, the Community Security Trust of the UK recorded a doubling of hate crimes from the previous year, and in May 2015, Jewish immigration into Israel from Europe surged by 40 per cent. Whilst it is misguided to solely blame hate crimes on Israel-Palestine, tensions are high, and it seems many are using the conflict as a pretence for unleashing their anti-Semitic hatred on European Jewish communities.

This is potentially damaging to the peace process for various reasons. The increasing levels of anti-Semitism fuels the Zionist notion of Aliyah (Jewish return to the homeland), and as more Jews enter Israel, more are available to populate West Bank settlements. The population of West Bank settlements spurs expropriation of land by the government, leading to an increase in global condemnation and conflict between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Furthermore, European hate-crimes covered in Israel’s media also fuels a growing fear and anger within Israeli society – it’s easy to see how this cycle can become isolating and damaging.

One only has to look at the history of Israeli politics to understand how fear and hatred can be harnessed by far-right politicians. Meir Kahane is a particularly notable example: in the U.S., Kahane used the holocaust as a pedagogical tool in reforming American Jewish national consciousness, whilst Kahanist rhetoric in Israel espoused fear of a ‘second holocaust’ and vilified the Arab populations. Kahane gained immense popularity and election as a Knesset member for the party Kach – the party was banned in 1994 under fears of its growing popularity and racist policies.

Many scholars and commentators now fear the BDS-Movement is fuelling isolation, providing the far-right with rhetorical ammunition, and that increasingly Israelis are adopting a “them-against-me” attitude – after all, what’s the harm in expansion if Palestine and the world already hate you? Such a critique is indeed speculative: the evidence we can look to is the actions of the Israeli government in line with the movement’s growth: there has been increasing settlement expansion and conflict despite international condemnation and boycotting.

Indeed, the slow pace of the movement is worrisome, and one of the growing concerns of Palestinian activists hoping for a two-state solution is settlement expansion in West Bank territory – if West Bank is afforded to Palestine, it is seeded with Jewish settlements. These settlements would either have to be accommodated for, or demolished and Jewish populations relocated. This is no easy task for an Israeli government, and they know it. Ensuing settler aggression would make the process incredibly hard, and the longer it takes to come to agreement, the more problematic the situation becomes. Animosity generated through boycotting movements will also make negotiations tense, but criticism extends beyond this.

Rather surprisingly, one of the most out-spoken critics of the BDS movement is the famous anti-Zionist scholar Norman Finkelstein, denouncing the movement as “silliness, childishness and a lot of leftist posturing”. Finkelstein’s main criticism is what he sees to be the “disingenuous” nature of the BDS movement, claiming “they don’t want Israel”, and that their ultimate aim is to create a chaos resulting in its dissolution:

“They think they are being very clever; they call it their three tier. We want the end of the occupation, the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel… they know the result of implementing all three is what, what is the result?

You know and I know what the result is. There’s no Israel.”

Finkelstein focusses on what he sees to be a “cult” whose methods are unpractical and ultimately quixotic. It is the movement’s lack of an explicit goal which frustrates him, as Israel will never engage in a dialogue with a movement which doesn’t recognise their right to exist, and so far, you couldn’t count their “superfluous victories” on “ten fingers”. Noam Chomsky (another titan of the pro-Palestinian movement) concurs with Finkelstein, additionally pointing out the hypocrisy of boycotting Israeli universities for their government’s foreign policy, but not U.S. ones.

Finkelstein’s critique is flawed in many ways. His claim the BDS do not “recognise Israel” are dubious and never fully stated by the organisation, even if his comment that “a large segment of the movement wants to eliminate Israel” holds true. What he does expose however is one major question overlooked by the movement: what is the result of the three-tier system coming into effect? The BDS-movement neither supports nor rejects a two-state solution – with Finkelstein proposing they tend to favour an unpractical one-state solution – it seems that whilst it harnesses the energy of pro-Palestinian activists, this energy is not focussed.

I posed this dilemma to Alexandra Jünemann, a pro-Palestinian activist based in Holland; I asked her whether she felt the BDS was “an umbrella organisation”, espousing too many voices and contrasting opinions, without any real direction:

“Umbrella is a very good word for it… There are many different goals imaginable. It can be lifting the siege on Gaza, giving back the occupied territories, one-state solution, two-state solution, no state solution (some people really don’t want Israel to exist at all) etcetera. First and foremost, what most BDS supporters have in common, is that the suffering of the Palestinians should stop. Oh, and the right of return”.

Here, I pointed out Chomsky’s opposition to right of return for Palestinians, having lacked significant global support and his perception of its impracticality. She disagreed with Chomsky, and continued:

“Personally, I think we should take one step at a time. Focussing on the most pressing matters that are taking place right now. Those are the blockade on Gaza and the apartheid in the West Bank”

Alexandra’s commentary produced a helpful evaluation of the purpose of the BDS: to alleviate Palestinian suffering and continue to relieve pressure on both sides of the conflict. I concur that it should be conducted through a series of small goals, but this must be done in conjunction with a dialogue and recognition of an Israeli state – not in the least to help said dialogue from reaching full fruition. If it is to become productive, these steps towards a healthier situation must be under the focus of a clear aim which unifies its members, and should work to reduce economic and political pressure when and if Israel complies with the steps towards peace.

Is the BDS helpful? In its current state no, although through an engaged narrative towards an ultimate goal which unites its members, it has potential to be.