The United States Senate was expected to vote this week on a bill that would make it easier for state and local governments, as well as government agencies and perhaps other bodies, to refuse to do business with groups that endorse a boycott against Israel.
The bill comes after several state governments have taken steps against BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Florida’s legislators, for example, directed officials in 2016 to create a list of companies that engage in boycotts of Israel and instructed all government entities to divest from those companies. Two years later, the state passed a bill preventing companies that engage in boycotts of Israel from bidding on local or state government contracts. In all, about half of the 50 states have some form of statute on the subject, some simply making their opposition to BDS known, without adding punitive economic conditions.
Boycotting Israel is a dumb and self-defeating position, but so is the idea of governments boycotting the boycotters.
Opponents of the federal anti-BDS effort – and even some people with no horse in the race – are asking whether boycotts are covered by free speech legislation. Nobody is saying BDS should be illegal. But, when a company or individual applies to government for, say, a contract to build a road, there are numerous conditions. Non-unionized companies may be excluded, for example, or businesses may have to prove they adhere to government guidelines around equal employment. People are free to boycott Israel, and governments are free to prevent those people from obtaining contracts with them. On free speech grounds, we don’t really have a problem with the idea – and we’re pretty defensive about free speech.
To us, the discussion is less a legal one, or even a moral one, than it is a strategic one.
Despite their thuggish, bullying tactics, members of the anti-Israel movement love to position themselves as victims. While harassing Jewish students on campuses, shouting down speakers, making Jewish women unwelcome at women’s marches and disrupting venues where Israel and Palestine would seem to have little relevance, such as at a major LGBTQ conference in Detroit recently, they nevertheless depict themselves as tiny Davids fighting Goliath. With that in mind, legislation that punishes those who support BDS will give its advocates their first rightful justification for claiming victimhood. But there is a more important and obvious reason why we should not be legislating against BDS.
We shouldn’t need to tie the hands of BDS supporters behind their backs to win this fight. Our strength must be our ability to refute the lies, exaggerations, hypocrisies and prejudices of the BDS movement. There are a million arguments against BDS.
Ireland recently passed a wide-ranging Israel-boycott law and promptly realized that its high-tech sector, which is mostly propped up by American investment, could be imperiled if Ireland forces giants like Apple, Google and Facebook to choose between Dublin and Tel Aviv. While BDS is intended to be economically injurious to Israel, it can harm the very people who are advancing it. And it is more than economic damage BDS can self-inflict. Given the plethora of life-saving and life-enhancing innovations emerging constantly from Israel, boycotting that country could be detrimental to one’s health.
There are countless ways to counter BDS … like pointing out that BDS hurts Arabs. Not just Israeli Arabs or Palestinians, like those who famously lost their jobs when BDS forced the closure of a SodaStream plant in the West Bank, but impoverished residents of countries adjoining Israel, too. Seventy years of its Arab neighbours boycotting and isolating Israel has done nothing to harm the massive economic and social successes enjoyed by citizens of Israel. It has only ensured that the people of Jordan, Lebanon and other countries that snub Israel suffer from being deprived of these economic, technological and scientific achievements. Since the Arab boycott of Israel went global, the discrepancies have only grown. Israel’s GDP has doubled since 2005, when BDS started to take off.
The preoccupation of the BDS movement with academic boycotts is especially easy to confront: it’s the ideological descendent of book-burning.
We should also be conscious that even people who take positions we support may be using us to advance their own agendas. While the Republican party has been steadfastly pro-Israel – as have most Democratic party lawmakers – this anti-BDS measure is a bald attempt to sow division among Democrats by shining a light on some of the new elected officials who diverge from the traditional bipartisan consensus on the American-Israeli special relationship. Confronting those dissenters on the issues is justified – and is being taken up by a new group of Zionist Dems, called the Democratic Majority for Israel. But allowing one party to monopolize Israel for political advantage spells disaster for American Zionists and for Israel (despite the overt collaboration of Israel’s prime minister in the Republicans’ partisanship on this issue).
BDS is a bad idea. But, banning – or, more accurately, boycotting – BDS gives the appearance that Israel is indefensible on merit. That makes legislation to punish BDS supporters another bad idea.
At a time when there are plenty of bad ideas to go around, this is absolutely a case where two wrongs do not make a right. Defeating BDS should be done intellectually, not legislatively.