Super Bowl Sunday was a terrible day for fans of the Denver Broncos, and not a bad day for fans of the BDS movement.
Wait, you say, didn’t Scarlett Johansson tell the boycott, sanctions, and divestment movement where to go, when she not only resisted pressure to drop her connection to the Israeli firm SodaStream but dumped Oxfam? No doubt: At a time of increasing pressure on Israel, it was gratifying to see a major star stand up for Israel and on such a vast global stage. Combine Scarlett’s fourth quarter SodaStream ad with the Coca-Cola ad featuring a snatch of “America the Beautiful” sung in Hebrew (by a Jersey girl, no less), and it was a night for kvelling.
Yet the flap over SodaStream brought mainstream attention to the boycott movement not seen since — no wait: never. Combine a blonde bombshell and a Super Bowl, and you have name recognition not only for SodaStream but for the BDS campaign. Before this week, how many non-activists even knew there was such a thing?
For all the attention given it by activists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, BDS has had comparatively little to show for its efforts. The academic boycott by the American Studies Association made headlines, but the ASA is a relatively small group and the backlash from major universities was nearly unanimous.
And when the BDS movement does claim victory, it invariably plays to the extremists who share their anti-Zionist ideology. Take Sunday’s essay in The New York Times by Omar Barghouti, an architect of the movement. Barghouti claims that “Israel is deeply apprehensive about the increasing number of American Jews who vocally oppose its policies — especially those who are joining or leading B.D.S. campaigns.” That sentence conflates those liberal Jews who would like to see more progress toward a two-state solution with the tiny fringe of Jewish activists who support BDS.
But if Barghouti hopes to convert the former into the latter, his essay won’t do it. Barghouti supports the “right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and lands from which they were forcibly displaced and dispossessed in 1948.” He opposes a “Jewish state for the Jewish people.” He challenges Israel’s self-definition as the “national home” of all Jews.
In other words, he wants to define the nature and parameters of the Palestinian state — and the Jewish state as well, assuming there is anything left of it after he’s done.
If that is the voice of the BDS movement, they shouldn’t expect a lot of Jewish recruits.
The flood of reporting about Johansson and SodaStream, however, gave free publicity to another side of BDS — one aimed at the Jewish settlements. Oxfam, for example, doesn’t support Barghouti’s one-state solution, but it is “opposed to all trade from Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law.” While still considered extreme by many supporters of Israel, a targeted boycott of settlements may seem more palatable to liberals and even centrists who either don’t want to support the settlements or think Israel must do more to bring about a two-state solution.
In talking about the boycotts, mainstream Jewish groups don’t want friends to suggest that Israel bears any responsibility for the actions of avowed anti-Zionists like Barghouti; that’s why some groups, following the lead of Benjamin Netanyahu, were angry at John Kerry for seeming to warn that the “delegitimization campaign” against Israel will grow if peace talks should fail. Critics said Kerry’s remarks only provided comfort to the boycotters and will “inevitably be seen by Palestinians and anti-Israel activists as an incentive not to reach an agreement,” as the Anti-Defamation League put it.
I’m not convinced that Kerry was threatening or “bullying” Israel into making concessions. But he may have been wrong about the real dangers of the boycott movement. It's not the “delegitimization campaign” that threatens Israel, but a targeted economic campaign aimed squarely at the settlements and the status quo. In the United States, a demonstrably pro-Israel public is not about to sign onto a campaign that denies Israel the right to exist. This is the same public that associates “Israeli business” with software, solar power, electric cars, and cutting-edge medical devices. That will remain true as long as the BDS campaign is dominated by extremists who want the Palestinians to return to their unspecified “lands” and who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a democratic Jewish state.
But if different voices emerge — accepting Israel but not the settlements — all bets are off, and a different picture of “Israeli business” could emerge. Recent sanctions imposed by Germany, Norway, and Romania are aimed squarely at the settlements. And Barghouti's blather notwithstanding, a lot of the coverage of the SodaStream ad noticed, and noted, the difference. Even the articles that fairly and accurately pointed out how the SodaSteam factory in Mishor Adumim employs hundreds of grateful Palestinians also made note of Oxfam’s objection that Israeli businesses in the West Bank “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”
In her statement after quitting Oxfam, Johansson went on the offensive, calling SodaStream “a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits, and equal rights.”
And perhaps that’s the message the masses took away from the controversy. But as the Broncos found out, the best offense doesn’t always win the game.