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Successes and failures of the BDS campaign

By Adam Shay
web posted May 13, 2013

A concerted and well-organized campaign calling for "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions" (BDS) against the State of Israel has been in effect for several years now. The aim of this boycott is to inflict tactical damage to a wide variety of academic, commercial, and cultural interests, as well as strategic damage to Israel by way of constant erosion of its national and international legitimacy.

While the movement's self-defined operations include boycott, divestment, and sanctions, this definition is not an accurate one, since divestment is itself a form of economic boycott and sanctions are an action reserved solely for countries. The title BDS should therefore be regarded as a brand-name rather than a description of the movement's activity.

In spite of its constant use of belligerent, violent, and deceitful tactics, the BDS movement has very little to show in the way of success regarding sanctions or divestment. The cultural boycott, however, has proven the most efficient and effective channel for this campaign, due to several unique characteristics discussed below.

There has been very little success in the way of divestment, although the movement claims to have brought about several such acts. There is no shortage of examples of the movement claiming responsibility for such acts despite the fact that they never actually took place, as well as several so-called acts of divestment that had nothing much to do with pressure exerted by the movement or with political considerations, but were rather the result of simple financial considerations.

An example of this dynamic can be seen in the case of the U.S.-based Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA-CREF) [1] of 2009, when BDS activists demanded that TIAA-CREF withdraw from investments in an Israeli corporation – Africa-Israel. [2] Unfortunately, this call to boycott coincided precisely with Africa-Israel entering a financial crisis and being unable to meet its liabilities to bondholders. Several investors opted to withdraw or discontinue investments while an atmosphere of uncertainty prevailed, among them TIAA-CREF. As BDS-related websites proclaimed victory, TIAA-CREF released a statement saying that it had discontinued its holdings in Africa-Israel due to the company's losses and the fact that it had been removed from the global equity index that TIAA-CREF follows. [3] There was, in fact, no political context whatsoever to this decision, and TIAA-CREF continues to hold stock in other companies on the BDS "blacklist." [3]

The biggest success the movement has to show, one it often publicizes and showcases, is the case of the Veolia divestment. Veolia, a French transport company that was part of the Jerusalem Light Rail Transit (JLRT) master plan team, came under BDS pressure due to their involvement in the project [4] and were taken to court in 2007 by the Association France Palestine Solidarity, which sought the cancellation of Veolia's involvement in the project. The French court found no breach of law, either French or international, in JLRT or Veolia's involvement therein. [5] However, in the wake of continued pressure, Veolia did eventually announce that it would pull out altogether from the project (of which it owned 5 percent of the stock). Nevertheless, to date it has yet to do so. Veolia still operates bus lines that run both alongside the Jerusalem Light Railway and in other locations beyond the 1949 Armistice line (the so-called "Green Line"). While the BDS movement declares this a "success," it actually falls short of an ideological agreement on the part of Veolia and appears to be a more expedient matter of the company paying lip-service in order to avoid dealing with continued pressure.

University Efforts at Boycott and Divestment

Several other divestment attempts originated from universities, mostly in the United Kingdom. These can be regarded both as divestment efforts – as they were aimed at banning sales of Israeli goods by academic unions – and as academic boycotts – because they tried to exploit the academic community as a platform for implementing a boycott.

The overwhelming majority of academic boycott or institutional divestment attempts follow the same recurrent dynamic, recognizable since the outset of the current boycott movement in 2004 (PACBI) [6] and through to the latest attempt at the University of Berkeley California, according to the following dynamic: 1. Low-level bodies or unions declare their intention to divest from Israel or from companies invested in Israel. 2. Higher-level and managerial bodies reject the idea.

The 2009 British University and College Union (UCU) divestment attempt is a clear example of this dynamic. At the UCU Congress, a resolution was passed to boycott Israeli academics, academic institutions, and trade unions. But as soon as the resolution had passed, the UCU leadership declared it invalid, after a warning by their own legal advisors that "a boycott of that kind could trigger legal action against the union." [7] The response to the UCU's boycott activity was, in fact, so adamant that the public debate around it moved from whether or not a boycott is a legitimate tool, to whether the UCU itself is anti-Semitic.

As more and more members resigned from the union, citing anti-Semitism as the reason, the union turned down a motion opposing anti-Semitism [8] and eventually voted to disassociate itself from the EU's working definition of anti-Semitism and adopted instead one that allows for the singling out of Israeli institutions. This move created outrage and generated condemnations from all Jewish organizations, as well as a statement from the British Communities and Local Government Secretary MP Eric Pickles, who stated that the UCU's "actions suggest that their [4] true goal is not, and cannot be, to secure freedom of speech, but to silence dissenting opinion." [9]

BDS Efforts by Religious Bodies

This same dynamic is manifested in boycott and divestment attempts by religious bodies. When the Toronto assembly of the United Church of Canada (UCC) voted to boycott goods produced in Jewish settlements in the territories, [10] the national umbrella UCC declined to support a boycott and instead encouraged "pro-peace investment."

The Presbyterian Church USA also attempted to divest from Israel and Israeli companies, only to achieve the same result as described above. In 2005, the Committee on Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI), an important part of the Presbyterian Church hierarchy, called for "voluntary, selective divestment from companies that profit in a significant way from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands." [11] However, before this statement could be voted on by the General Assembly, the church's Committee on Peacemaking and International Issues toned down the rhetoric and replaced it with a general call for the church to invest only in "peaceful pursuits" in Israel and Palestine. The committee also stated that the call to divest "caused hurt and misunderstanding," adding that the church "grieves the pain" and accepts responsibility for the flaws in the process of adopting the divestment decision. [12]

Boycotts by Musical Performers

Where, then, can the BDS movement claim any kind of success?

The cultural field has proven itself the most successful tier of the boycott movement. This type of success is achieved mostly by way of bringing about cancellations of concerts in Israel by international artists, such as Roger Waters, Venessa Paradis, August Burns Red, Pete Seeger, Carlos Santana, Elvis Costello, The Pixies, and many others. Such cancellations have attracted the international exposure and attention that the BDS campaign so desperately seeks. This field enjoys certain inherent advantages over other BDS spheres of operation, as it is based on the artists' popularity, rather than clear cost-benefit and economic considerations.

The relationship between the arts (in this case, predominantly music) and politics has always been a tricky one. Since ancient times, music has served as a method of distribution for political messages and ideologies. It is still used for public mobilization and creating a "rally-round-the-flag" sentiment, which can and often does deteriorate into a mob mentality. Also inherent in the arts is an element of moral criticism and protest, making it the ideal vessel for the BDS slander campaign. [5]

Some musical acts possess an innate political context and there are specific musical genres that can be generally associated with various political ideologies. Other such associations may derive from the content and icons identified with specific artists. The obvious association of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" with Israel's security barrier is a good example, and the endorsement that BDS received from Roger Waters, founding member of Pink Floyd, remains one of their biggest achievements to date. [13]

However, a review of the acts that have performed in Israel, as well as those that have cancelled, shows no correlation between a band's level of politicization and its willingness to play in Israel. Bands associated with radical left-wing ideologies, such as British rockers Napalm Death, have taken to the stage in Israel, whereas artists with little to no political context – such as Mexican musician Carlos Santana [14] – have canceled scheduled concerts while releasing much-celebrated press announcements claiming ideological and conscientious justification.

Why Bands Really Cancel Concerts in Israel

However on the basis of several interviews this writer conducted with visiting artists, such statements should usually be regarded as nothing more than lip-service. The main reasons for canceling concerts in Israel are generally not empathy for the suffering of Palestinians, ideological convictions, or a will to punish or boycott Israel.

One reason for bands canceling their scheduled concerts after being approached or targeted by BDS campaigners is in order to stop belligerent attacks from BDS operatives. In their attempts to bring about cancellations, these operatives carry out coordinated, simultaneous, and multi-dimensional attacks on the band, its individual members, its record company, its ongoing activities and scheduled concerts, as well as various fan-sites.

Such attacks vary from bombarding the band's website, Facebook, and Twitter pages to the point that the sites often collapse, to direct threats against the artists personally. A good example can be found in the courageous reaction of Angela Gossow, lead singer for the Swedish band Arch Enemy, who, prior to playing in Israel in 2012, was attacked by BDS activists:

If the constant threats, bullying, and slander of Arch Enemy via email and online does not stop immediately, we will publish some of the threats we have received from your supporters, where they claim they will come to some of our shows and threaten to attack us, both verbally and physically. I am making Amnesty International aware of your criminal methods and your breach of freedoms....It is not yours to tell us what to do and to force your will upon us....You make us fear for our safety. SHAME ON YOU. [15]

Another example can be found in the reaction of Christophe Deghelt, manager of jazz musician Jacky Terrasson, who was scheduled to play the Red Sea Jazz Festival earlier this year: [6]

We noticed that Erik and Jacky's Facebook pages were overrun with intimidating comments, not from our fans but from activists. Some of these comments are really obnoxious, rising to the level of sheer harassment and blatant denigration. Facebook has become a battleground for BDS campaigners, our fans, Israelis, and those supporting Israel....Your attempt to railroad artists into a black-and-white dilemma is intellectually dishonest....Your activism and your intolerance are abominable. Phony Facebook "fans" have posted messages expressly asking our musicians not play in Israel. This is sheer harassment. Moreover, it's really quite surprising because these fans purporting to sway the artists are not fans at all, but simply your army of little soldiers polluting the calm and positive spaces of our artists' Facebook pages....

What bothers me the most about your effort...is your hatred of Israel, a pathological hatred, blind and most assuredly hidden behind a veil of "political correctness." Your actions don't demonstrate a love or defense of Palestinians but rather a hatred for Israelis....It's not by advocating violence (both intellectual and verbal) and intolerance that you'll help Palestine. [16]

Another reason bands cancel their concerts is in order to avoid negative press coverage. BDS operatives publicize the scheduled concert in a negative context: Artists booked to play in Israel will immediately be accused of ignoring the suffering of the Palestinians and supporting institutional Israel and its policies – sweepingly summed up by the slanderous term "apartheid." This can be seen in the titles of most web pages urging a specific artist to boycott Israel. See, for example, "Moby – Please don't play for Apartheid Israel," [17] or the campaign to cancel Alicia Keys' concert in Israel, titled, "Alicia Keys: Don't be Fallin' for Apartheid, Cancel Israel." [18]

In short, the motive for concert cancellations and the source of BDS success in the field of cultural boycott does not appear to be hostility towards Israel on the part of the artists, but rather concerns due to explicit threats of harm to their persons and/or income.

How Not to Respond to BDS Attacks

Given that it is not ideological empathy that prompts these cancellations but rather practical considerations, the response must be constructed accordingly. Entering into a substantive, content-based debate with a BDS operative is usually an exercise in futility. These operatives do not enter into dialog (be it on online chat forums, Facebook and Twitter pages, picketing venues, or disrupting concerts) for the purpose of discussion. They are not there to be convinced. For the most part such operatives are ignorant of the actual issues between Israel and the Palestinians and incapable of conducting a substantive debate.

The counter-effort often adopted by Israelis and Israel-supporters of engaging these operatives and attempting to debate, explain, and hopefully reach some sort of resolution, is usually counter-productive. While the intention may be to prevent a concert from being cancelled, it [7] actually has the power to achieve the exact opposite. Every post countering a BDS comment will usually be met with multiple talkbacks, mostly based on the BDS "Key Term" check list (apartheid, ethnic cleansing, illegal, racist, etc.) [19] and linked to relevant BDS/anti-Israel websites. The more that comments countering or challenging BDS comments are posted, the further the discussion will deteriorate until it becomes nothing more than a slander-fest. Also, the more talkbacks a comment receives online, the higher the rating that the site/webpage will have and therefore the greater the number of people who see it. Arguing with BDS operatives online merely generates more exposure for their cause and arguments.

This is not to say there is no room for mass online activism by Israel supporters or people disagreeing with the BDS cause and tactics. It simply means that this should be done selectively and cautiously, preferably through a comprehensive campaign empowering and utilizing activists. Any such discussion should not take place in locations – virtual or otherwise – where the BDS campaigners hold the upper hand.

How to Respond to Attacks Against Performers

There is a need to redefine the objective of counter-BDS efforts, specifically in the field of the cultural boycott. The aim of such efforts should not be simply to claim, explain, or protest that "Israel is right and BDS is wrong." However true this claim may be, it is not one that will win the battle. The aim of such efforts needs to be avoiding cancellation of concerts. A cancelled concert is a BDS victory. Every concert cancelled endangers future concerts, as it puts the burden of proof on the band/artists and requires them to justify and explain why they choose to play where others have chosen not to. Along the same logic, every concert that goes ahead eases future pressure on the next scheduled concert and the next boycott battle.

What, then, can be done?

There is a need for a comprehensive campaign aimed at emphasizing specific values that speak to the heart of the artistic community. This campaign should not be aimed at educating and convincing the public at large, but rather should be tailored to suit the interest of the artistic community and demonstrate how those values are fulfilled in Israel. In order to accomplish this, there is a need for a study identifying these values, determining their priorities, and connecting them to relevant and specific Israeli examples.

Counter-BDS efforts need to focus on direct contact with the performers, their producers, agents, or anyone involved in the decision to play or not to play in a specific location. These efforts should not be carried out by the public at large, but rather by professional policy analysts familiar with BDS operations and methods, who can put BDS slander in perspective and present an unbiased picture of reality. Creative Communities for Peace, a U.S.-based civic action group consisting of pro-Israel media and music industry personnel, is doing something similar to what is suggested here, with mostly positive results. CCFP utilizes personal and [8] professional relations in order to get its message through to the relevant artists or decision-makers.

The truth may not generate a loud and public debate – such as the one conducted online by BDS operatives – but it stands a greater chance of prevailing when explained directly to someone who is actually willing to listen. There is an impressive cadre of think tanks and research institutions in Israel that have studied BDS activity as part of a greater anti-delegitimization effort. Many of these bodies would gladly put themselves or their personnel at the disposal of such a worthy cause.

Outside of Israel, such a task might perhaps be entrusted to the Israeli Cultural Attache at the embassy closest to the artist's residence. However, it cannot be assumed that artists would be enthusiastic about communicating with official Israeli institutions, especially if they come under BDS attack. In any case, the State of Israel needs to be alert to the problem and the methods of dealing with it, and be willing and able to support, as well as recommend, both official and unofficial advocates on its behalf.

It is inadvisable for Israeli producers and concert promoters to try and tackle this problem by themselves, or even put out a public appeal to Israeli fans to counter-attack the BDS websites or boycott pages. Their time and energy would be better spent consulting with professional analysts, people closely acquainted with the relevant professional discourse and terminology, as well as BDS activities and tactics.

Artists should be encouraged to come to Israel and state their opinions, as critical as they may be. Israel enjoys a free press and freedom of expression, elements that are crucial to the artistic community and that provide them with a dignified and more constructive alternative to boycotting Israel. Many artists have used the performance stage in Israel to release critical political statements, and have received applause for it. ESR


1. Since this fund serves teachers, this instance could have been addressed both as an academic boycott and a financial one.

2. http://www.haaretz.com/news/u-s-pension-fund-giant-confirms-divestment-from-israel-firm-1.8029

3. http://www.tiaa-cref.org/public/about/news/gen0909_185.html

4. http://electronicintifada.net/content/pressure-continues-veolia-and-alstom-halt-light-rail-project/8665

5. http://www.veolia.com/en/medias/focus-on/jlrt.htm

6. http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=868

7. http://www.jta.org/news/article/2009/06/01/1005531/british-union-votes-to-boycott-israeli-universities-academics

8. http://engageonline.wordpress.com/2009/05/27/ucu-conference-votes-down-amendment-to-investigate-antisemitism-related-resignations/

9. http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/51002/ucus-chilling-vote

10. http://life.nationalpost.com/2011/06/22/qa-united-church-group-on-boycott-of-israel-friendly-companies/ 9

11. http://www.umc.org/site/c.gjJTJbMUIuE/b.886089/k.A105/Two_United_Methodist_gatherings_urge_selective_divestment_from_Israel.htm

12. http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?id=25377

13. http://electronicintifada.net/blogs/ali-abunimah/we-stand-you-pink-floyds-roger-waters-announces-palestine-solidarity-forum-brazil

14. http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3841916,00.html

15. http://www.inminds.co.uk/article.php?id=10530

16. Original in French, translated by Creative Communities for Peace. http://www.creativecommunityforpeace.com/Articles.asp?AID=188

17. http://youthanormalization.blogspot.co.il/2011/04/bds-moby-please-dont-play-for-apartheid.html

18. https://www.facebook.com/No.Fallin.For.Apartheid.AliciaKeys?sid=0.7161121948156506

19. http://pacbi.org/etemplate.php?id=1047

Adam Shay is a senior program coordinator and researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, specializing in battling the cultural boycott. He holds an MA in political science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is regularly called upon by producers and concert promoters to help battle BDS activists in their attempts to pressure artists into cancelling shows in Israel.






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