Fifteen years ago this month, activists launched a campaign to boycott, divest and sanction the State of Israel. Yet, after a decade and a half of coordinated demonization, Israel has only become stronger economically and diplomatically.
The campaign dates back much farther than 15 years. Boycotts against Jews in the holy land began long before the establishment of a Jewish state. The Fifth Palestine Arab Congress in 1922 encouraged a boycott of Jewish businesses. So did subsequent conferences. Palestinian groups attacked Jewish businesses and individuals in 1929 and again from 1936 to 1939.
On Dec. 2, 1945, three years before Israel’s independence, the newly founded League of Arab States sought to address “the Zionist danger” by enacting a boycott of the Jewish presence in Palestine. The Arab League boycott was most potent during the oil embargo of the 1970s. The boycott ultimately waned amid the optimism that followed the 1993 Oslo Accords that formalized the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
When the Arab League lost momentum, a handful of more zealous organizations began to fill the void. A September 2001 NGO forum in Durban, South Africa, called for the “complete and total isolation of Israel … which means the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes.” Western academics and activists began promoting anti-Israel boycotts, serving as a model for the Palestinian-led effort that would soon emerge.
On July 9, 2005, Omar Barghouti, then a graduate student in philosophy at Tel Aviv University, published the “BDS call,” announcing the campaign’s goals. The call demanded an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands,” which included even those lands within Israel’s pre-1967 armistice lines, known as the Green Line. The call also demanded a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, which effectively means flooding Israel with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees from the War of Independence.
Despite BDS’ claim to be a nonviolent, rights-based campaign, its goal is dismantling the Jewish state and denying the Jewish people the self-determination that BDS seeks for Palestinians. Mr. Barghouti and other BDS leaders oppose a Jewish state anywhere in the land of Israel. In a May 2020 podcast in Arabic, Mr. Barghouti confirmed that BDS seeks to eliminate the “Zionist state.”
During the same interview, Mr. Barghouti touted the role the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine (PNIF) plays in BDS. The PNIF, the first listed signatory on the 2005 BDS call, includes U.S.-designated terrorist groups Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Moreover, recent reports reveal troubling ties between terrorist groups and BDS-promoting NGOs. In effect, BDS serves as a grassroots arm of the campaign to destroy Israel.
In its 15 years, BDS has notched modest successes among American academics, church groups and campus organizations. But it failed to make inroads beyond the low hanging fruit. Some peripheral academic organizations adopted BDS prior to 2014, but no medium or large ones have since. A 2019 opinion poll found that more than half of all respondents had not even heard of BDS, and an additional 30% knew little about it.
Many U.S. lawmakers have condemned BDS. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Americans to “be vigilant against bigoted or dangerous ideologies masquerading as policy, and that includes BDS.” Her predecessor, Paul Ryan, called it an “insidious campaign of political and economic warfare designed to undermine Israel.” Congress, however, has passed important but only nonbinding bills opposing BDS.
Instead, individual states have led the charge. In 2017, governors of all 50 states and the mayor of Washington, D.C., signed a letter opposing BDS. And over half of U.S. states have laws that prevent state investment, bar state contracts or prohibit the use of state funds for companies boycotting Israel.
Germany and Austria have a different approach. These countries’ painful Nazi past has shaped their approach to the discriminatory campaign of delegitimization against the Jewish state. Their national parliaments equate the BDS campaign to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in the 1930s with its slogan, “Don’t buy from Jews!” This challenges the false narrative that BDS is merely anti-Zionist, not antisemitic. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights group, has called BDS an “anti-Semitic “poison pill,” whose goal is the demonization, delegitimization, and ultimate demise of the Jewish State.”
German and Austrian student councils have further opposed BDS’ efforts to stifle academic freedom by forbidding partnerships with Israelis. In a remarkable initiative in 2016, the University of Vienna student council declared its opposition to every form of antisemitism, including BDS. Germany’s student parliaments soon passed measures against BDS at several German universities, too,
The United States has an opportunity to follow the lead of these European allies. The time is ripe for Congress to invite Austrian and German students to testify on BDS. Congress should also follow the example of the German and Austrian parliaments and declare BDS to be rooted in anti-Semitism. And for good reason. It is.
• David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Benjamin Weinthal is a research fellow. Follow David and Benjamin on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay and @BenWeinthal. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.