Everyone is talking about BDS. Maybe it’s time to stop.
In Las Vegas, top philanthropists convened last weekend to discuss BDS. In Jerusalem, Bibi Netanyahu and his coalition colleagues are decrying it. In New York, Bibi’s foe, Yair Lapid, is raging against it at shul. And in London, where the national students union has just voted to boycott Israel, these three letters are the talk of the Jewish community.
It’s not time to stop strategizing against this outrageous boycott, or to stop opposing it. On the contrary — people are just waking up. They are promising to pour time and money into finding the best battle plan “against BDS.” But let’s rewind a sec, and listen carefully — a battle plan “against BDS.”
I watched the contemporary boycott movement germinate and grow from very close up. I covered the campus beat in Britain for the Jewish Chronicle for almost a decade from 1999 — during the second intifada when anti-Israel activism grew to new levels, through 2005 when efforts were formalized in to the BDS campaign, and beyond. This was, as the late anti-Semitism scholar Robert Wistrich used to note, the epicenter of delegitimization. In these years, I saw the ground being prepared for last week’s British student boycott — my only surprise is that it has taken so long.
The Israel-haters are nothing if not smart cookies. In the winter of 2005, they started to run out of pictures of bloody Palestinian victims, as the second intifada came to an end. But they were determined to keep the momentum they had gathered during this “uprising.” And so less than six months later they came up with a solution — brand, brand, brand.
As it does in commerce, branding allowed the activists to take on an image that gave them more appeal than their “product” would have otherwise merited, and created the impression that were bigger and more powerful than they really were. By the summer of 2005 the motley crew of eccentric professors, firebrand trade unionists, angry students, hate-filled Islamists and others suddenly had a Western-oriented consumer-friendly global brand, BDS.
And part of the fight against their campaign should be challenging the supremacy of their branding. Here are five reasons why Israel, the Jewish world, and everyone else who opposes the boycott should make an effort to stop using the term BDS — even if, in the age of Twitter handles and media debates, purging the term BDS completely from our vocabularies won’t be possible.
1) Using the term BDS reinforces this global branding. And in the case of the boycott it’s not only branding; it’s branding that it cleverly done with an acronym. When we use an acronym without explaining it, we’re saying that every informed person should’ve heard if it, and instantly affirm its importance. We attest to the success of this branding.
2) The term BDS engenders a vagueness as to whether the target is Israel or the settlements. We know that it targets Israel as a whole, but potential supporters don’t — and BDS thrives on this. The website Innovative Minds advises boycott activists to make a distinction between sovereign Israel and settlements when trying to haul in new supporters — even though the boycott movement doesn’t believe in the distinction. Or as the website puts it, there “can be no moral distinction between land stolen in 1948 and land stolen in 1967,” but it’s useful to differentiate between the two for “campaigning.” If the activists position themselves against settlement goods in the first instance, they are told they will achieve wide appeal. This “strategy” has led to “some spectacular victories,” claims the website. Don’t allow their campaign this luxury of ambiguity — call it what it is, namely the anti-Israel boycott.
3) Using the term BDS helps the movement to position itself as a contemporary progressive cause — and distance itself from the Arab League boycott of Israel, which actually began as a boycott of Jewish-made goods in British Mandate Palestine in 1945. In reality today’s boycott is scarily similar to the boycott initiated 70 years ago — it is against the very idea of a Jewish State in the Middle East. Today’s supposedly forward-thinking people today are picking up the cause of yesterday’s dictators. The dictators came up with it long before Israel started building settlements, but the contemporary movement has reinvented itself, and used Israel’s presence over the Green Line as its rallying cry. BDS branding is key to this illusion that the boycott is something new, inventive and with a fresh relevance. Activists wouldn’t do badly to occasionally refer to BDS as the Second anti-Israel Boycott, prompting one glaringly obvious question from anyone who is listening.
4) Using the acronym BDS whenever we talk about boycotts gives needless exposure to the movement’s wider mission. There is a frustration within the movement that it has little prospect of any real sanctions against Israel. “After ten years of successful struggle, the most urgent issue that needs to be raised today is the ‘S’ in the BDS acronym, or the campaigning for sanctions against Israel,” wrote activist Amjad Alqasis in an online article published last month. Why help the boycotters to keep the perverse desire for sanctions alive by citing their full mission every time they call on a rock singer to cancel a concert in Israel?
5) Taking the initiative with language can work, if it’s simple and catchy. Israel’s desire to have the West Bank referred to as Judea and Samaria, a term that underscores its biblical heritage, was never going to catch on. Apart from anything, most Israelis have no idea where Judea ends and Samaria begins, and, ideological factors aside, foreign journalists were never going to start checking for each and every story whether they’re in one or the other. Compare this with the Six-Day War, an Israeli term that emphasizes the country’s unexpected military accomplishment in 1967. It’s straightforward and self-explanatory, and used by many across the world who would, ideologically, prefer one of the war’s more neutral names like the Third Arab-Israeli War. When public figures use language to redefine their subject matter in speeches or interviews, it can fall flat if they sound pompous or long-winded — and they just get edited and paraphrased in concise words. I know, because I edit them. But if public figures can find terms that are clear and actually reduce instead of increase the need for explanatory phrasing by writers and producers — like anti-Israel boycott instead of BDS — this can make it through to the public.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.