With this year's National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference set to take place at the University of Pennsylvania in early February, it's important to understand what the BDS movement is all about and what its ultimate goals are.
The movement's focus is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it specifically demonizes Israel while propagating the notion of Palestinian victimhood in order to gain global sympathy. Those behind the movement believe that if universities, companies and even countries pursue BDS, it will pressure the Israeli government to change what the movement sees as Israel's hard-nosed policies toward the Palestinians and give up land they perceive as "stolen" land.p
In 2010, we saw an illustration of this when the Philly BDS chapter put out a flash dance YouTube campaign against Sabra hummus being sold at a local grocer. The group contended that the corporate parent of the brand subsidizes Israeli human rights abuses by supporting the Israeli Defense Forces and its infrastructure in the West Bank. The group hoped that other university communities would follow suit. In fact, the issue triggered a big debate at Princeton University, with the student body ultimately voting to reject a proposed boycott of the hummus product on campus.
A careful look at the BDS movement and its methodology shows not legitimate criticism but a movement that is racist and anti-Semitic. Why? BDS clearly targets Israel. Its stated goals vary but all include the "right of return" for Palestinian "refugees." The effort is cloaked to give the impression that ending specific Israeli policies, such as the "occupation" or "apartheid," would also end efforts to ostracize Israel. Yet their maximalist demand — the flood of Palestinian refugees, which would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state — is carefully hidden.
Although the basic idea of BDS is not new, we have seen a surge over the past few decades as a result of the desire to highlight Palestinian "victimhood." As long as Palestinians cling to the false notion of being "occupied," with Israel in the role of the "oppressor," they will never assume responsibility for themselves. In the Palestinian narrative, the "occupation" remains the root cause of all problems, from social and economic woes to terrorism.
Yasser Arafat's legacy of "armed struggle" has now been parachuted into the Palestinian "armed media warfare" through BDS and the non-governmental organizations that employ it. For example, during the 2001 World Conference on Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, the focus was on Israeli "racism" and its presumed practice of apartheid. This has been a consistent theme of Israel's opponents, along with Holocaust denial and denying that anti-Semitism is a human rights issue.
Universities, which should be bastions of critical thinking and opposed to such false arguments, have become fertile ground for myths, fantasies and lies about history, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
All of the above makes combating BDS very complicated and confusing, especially for those who want to believe that there is room for debating the "facts" presented by BDS supporters. What makes this battle so arduous for the pro-Israel community — and so attractive for the antagonizers of Israel — is the umbrella of academic freedom, which makes it "legitimate" to debate all aspects of Israel, from specific policies to its elimination altogether.
The upside of all this rhetoric and activism is that the pro-Israel community has redrawn the lines of acceptable discourse. While not everyone agrees with the policies of the Israeli government, a consensus has emerged over the basic belief of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. Ultimately, BDS does not employ legitimate criticism but, in essence, questions Israel's very existence.
Asaf Romirowsky is acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.