The Presbyterian Church’s decision last week not to divest from companies that sell equipment to the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank was hailed as a victory for Israel and a setback for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But the Church’s decision to boycott two Israeli companies — Ahava and Hadiklaim Israel — that operate beyond the Green Line, disappointed Israel supporters and was seen by some as a win for the BDS campaign. Following the Church’s vote, each side scrambled to claim that it won this round of the battle. But what does the Church’s decision really mean for Israel and the BDS movement? Is the boycott campaign actually working?
Since the beginning of 2012, the BDS movement has claimed a number of wins, and its detractors have highlighted a number of its loses:
• In June 2012, Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI), a top U.S. investment firm, disclosed that it had removed bulldozer manufacturer Caterpillar, Inc. from its index of socially responsible corporations. BDS campaigners said Caterpillar’s role in “Israeli human rights violations” was one of the factors in the decision. MSCI’s decision prompted financial retirement fund giant TIAA-CREF to divest $72 million in Caterpillar stock. A month earlier, Friends Fiduciary divested $900,000 worth of shares in Caterpillar.
• The United Methodist Church (UMC) decided during its annual conference to accept a boycott of “products made by Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories.”
• The Norwegian Finance Ministry announced in June that the Government Pension Fund Global, a state fund that is Europe’s largest equity investor, would divest $1.4 million worth of shares from Israeli construction firm Shikun & Binui due to its construction projects in east Jerusalem.
• In April, the Co-operative Group, the U.K.’s fifth largest food retailer, announced that it would terminate trade with companies that export produce from Israeli settlements. In a related move, South African and Danish authorities announced that they planned to require merchants “not to incorrectly label products that originate from the Occupied Palestinian Territory as products of Israel.”
• Several internationally known artists and musicians heeded calls by the BDS campaign to cancel shows or avoid performing in Israel over the past year, including Jon Bon Jovi, Pete Seeger, Vanessa Paradis and Cat Power.
• Student organizations at universities in Canada, Arizona and Massachusetts, among others, passed resolutions calling on university administrations to divest from companies that supply Israel with military equipment.
• While it accepted a boycott of Israeli settlement produce, the United Methodist Church at its annual conference rejected a proposal to divest from three companies whose products are used by the IDF in the West Bank, following in the path of the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ and others that have rejected past divestment proposals.
• In March, the Park Slope Food Co-op in New York rejected a motion to hold a referendum on whether to boycott products from Israel.
• Despite many British BDS initiatives over the years, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in March that commerce between the U.K. and Israel soared 34 percent in 2011 “The people calling to boycott Israel make a lot of noise, but their influence is very small,” British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould said in March.
• Musicians such as Madonna, Guns N’ Roses, Ziggy Marley, and Justin Bieber, among many others, have performed in Tel Aviv over the past year, rejecting BDS calls to boycott Israel.
• Despite the intense efforts of pro-Palestinian protesters to stop the show, Israel’s Habima theater company performed “The Merchant of Venice” at London’s Globe Theater in May.
• In June, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) rejected calls to remove Israel as host of the 2013 European Under-21 Championship.
• In February, the University of California in San Diego voted down a divestment resolution proposed by the university’s Students for Justice in Palestine group. Additionally, ahead of a BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania in February, the university’s president clearly stated that UPenn “does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel.”
Based on this list, the BDS movement’s battle against Israel is a whole lot of spin.
Many have said this before me and many will likely say it after me, but it needs to be said, again and again, lest anyone thinks Israel is crumbling under the pressure of boycotts, as stories about often-exaggerated BDS successes in the international and even local media will have you believe.
A closer and more informed look at some of the “wins” listed above will demonstrate that BDS is all bark but no bite.
• Some reports that surfaced after MSCI’s removal of Caterpillar from its social responsibility index raised questions about the extent to which BDS played a role in the downgrade. A statement released by MSCI on June 4 said: “Caterpillar is involved in a long-running controversy regarding the use of its bulldozers by the Israeli Defense Forces in the Occupied Palestinian Territories … this controversy did not trigger the ratings downgrade in February 2012.” While BDS took the credit for the downgrade, there were other factors involved in the move, including a labor dispute and a plant closing down in Canada. (See a good analysis of the MSCI move here.)
• The announcements by the South African and Danish authorities that they wanted to begin labeling products from the West Bank were just that — announcements. A source close to the issue in Brussels told Haaretz in May that “it was still unclear whether the announcement by the two countries was a new directive or just a recommendation.”
• All the supposed BDS victories surrounding divestment resolutions passed by university student organizations have never been able to make it past the final round. To date, not a single university has sold its shares of stocks that have been targeted by the BDS movement, or has adopted a formal academic boycott of Israel.
The list goes on and on, and only highlights what the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs said in March: “Despite expending considerable persuasive efforts at pushing through resolutions calling for boycotts and divestment … thereby giving the appearance of a public relations success, such calls have in most cases met with refusal and rejection.”
Some even say BDS is losing steam.
Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor told me he sees the BDS movement as “declining.”
“In 11 years they’ve accomplished almost nothing and they are also unlikely to get the kind of resources that they had this year,” Steinberg said. “They have less resources each year as they go along, and as more and more is being found out about them … “It’s all spin and no substance. If 300 Presbyterians, or even 3,000 Presbyterians, don’t buy Ahava products, it’s not going to make any difference. On the contrary, in some cases it’s been a positive impact — people go out of their way to buy these products.”
But every few months a story like this — about how the EU may be able to ban trade with Israeli settlements without being in violation of international law — will pop up and suggest that the BDS movement could be gaining traction.
Professor David Newman, dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who has previously come out against the academic boycott on Israel, told me, “The moment you start making distinctions between the occupied territories and Israel, whether it’s in Europe or in America, it’s much easier to have supporters for that policy than when it’s a blanket sort of statement referring to boycotts or BDS and Israel as a whole. There are a lot of people out there who will sign on for boycotts on things emanating out of the territories because as far as they’re concerned, these are occupied territories and everything there is illegal.”
Asked if he thought the EU would eventually decide to ban trade with Israeli settlements, Newman told me, “I would think that the EU would not go in that direction because it raises all sorts of political issues, but again it makes it easy for them to use these arguments and say, well, we’re just going to boycott the occupied territories.”
For now, at least, it seems the BDS movement’s impact on Israel will remain trivial. But BDS needs to prove its legitimacy much more than Israel does, and it will continue to employ PR tactics and whatever other means it can use to further its goals. Any purported victories added to the BDS scorecard should be taken with a grain of salt.