BDS Isn't About Winning or Losing

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Jon Haber doubles down on his contention that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement just keeps losing and has no momentum in his latest post for Open Zion. But Haber leaves out important context when discussing the razor-thin defeat for BDS proponents at the recent Presbyterian general assembly. And the singular focus on “winning” and “losing” obscures the bigger picture of the BDS movement’s effect on how Israel is viewed around the world.

Haber harps on the fact that the Presbyterian vote was “the fourth time [they] have rejected proposals to divest from Israel over the last eight years.” This is true. But let’s put these defeats in context.

The Presbyterians decided to divest in 2004, and the reaction from establishment Jewish organizations was swift. Using the tired but powerful accusation of “anti-Semitism,” they lobbied hard against divestment and defeated it at the next general assembly. By then, the BDS movement was fully on the map, and the Jewish establishment had begun to recognize the movement as something that needed to be combated.

Fast forward to the most recent vote. The Israel Action Network, a $6 million initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) that was created to combat BDS, sprang into action. They put all their weight into defeating the proposal to divest--and they won, but by a measly two votes. This came after a lobbying effort that included sending some Presbyterian commissioners on JCPA-sponsored trips to Israel. Moreover, liberal Zionist groups like Americans for Peace Now also weighed in against divestment, and also used the powerful “anti-Semitism” smear. So the Jewish establishment may have won, but it says something when the victory is by two votes after a campaign was waged by groups with a lot of money and political clout, things that the pro-divestment Jewish Voice for Peace lacks. But the focus on victory or defeat can be blinding. What matters equally is that BDS creates space for people to talk about Israel’s control over Palestinians and their own complicity in it. BDS movements, in whatever context, educate people on the daily indignities that Palestinians face and then give people the opportunity to do something about it. That is one of the principal strengths of the movement. Around the world, Israel’s image as a “liberal democracy” in a sea of tyranny is beginning to change. For example, an annual, worldwide BBC survey recently found that Israel was viewed negatively by half of the total respondents—putting the country in the same category as North Korea, Iran and Pakistan. While the negative image of Israel around the world isn’t the full doing of the BDS movement, it has surely contributed. BDS will continue to march ahead, and Israel lobby groups will continue to mobilize against it. And while the Jewish establishment may eke out victories, the larger narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is starting to look a lot like the BDS movement’s narrative. Just take a look at this New York Times editorial published this morning. The editorial states that a recent report which concluded that Israel has the right to build settlements on occupied land draws “attention to a dispiriting anomaly: that a state founded as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people is determined to continue ruling 2.5 million Palestinians under an unequal system of laws and rights.” Sounds like apartheid to me.