Anti-Israel campaigns to get big organizations to divest from the Israeli economy may make headlines, but their questionable tactics don't appear to be working – and they don't promote peace.
After three years of relative quiet, Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns have been making a comeback in the past 12 months. The BDS movement demands that organizations divest from Israel’s economy as a protest against claims of human-rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Certainly, loud divestment protests on well-known college campuses and boycott decisions by aging pop stars may make sexier headlines than the quieter work of peace negotiations. But it is worth asking: 1) How much have BDS campaigns actually affected attitudes and behaviors over the last decade, and 2) Have such efforts advanced the cause of peace or conflict in the Middle East?
The seeds of the modern BDS movement were planted in 2001 at the now-infamous United Nations “Anti-Racism” conference in Durban, South Africa, which degenerated into an anti-Israel hate-fest, leading to walkouts by both Israel and the United States. At a meeting of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) there, a wide range of anti-Israel organizations – meeting face-to-face for the first time – developed an “Apartheid Strategy.” Let’s be clear: This was a long-term propaganda campaign to declare Israel the new South Africa, with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as their primary tactic.
The campaign first made its appearance in 2001, with campus petitions demanding that colleges and universities divest their endowments and retirement funds from companies doing business with the Jewish state.
Despite an initial surge of media attention, campus-based BDS campaigns faced the double bind of university administrators and fund managers universally hostile to divestment requests, and counter-petitions denouncing divestment outpacing pro-BDS petitions at Harvard and elsewhere by a factor of at least 10 to 1.
Just as BDS was facing credibility issues after two years of noise with virtually no results, the program got new momentum in 2004. That’s when the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) voted to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” in companies doing business with Israel. This led to a proliferation of similar divestment requests at other mainline Protestant churches, as well as new institutions such as unions and municipalities.
As with campuses, however, support for divestment within these organizations turned out to be extremely shallow. When the Presbyterians met again in 2006, they revised their 2004 divestment decision by a vote of 94 percent to 6 percent. The resolutions ended the policy of divestment in Israel and shifted to a policy of investments in “peaceful pursuits.”