Ever since the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel began picking up steam three years ago, its proponents have brazenly declared the movement’s inevitable triumph. In April, for example, a pro-divestment group at the University of Chicago issued a statement proclaiming that by the school’s student government passing a BDS resolution, the university “finally put (itself) on the right side of history.”
BDS proponents interpreted the momentum in progressive circles, such as student government and academic bodies, as a sure sign from the political gods that BDS will gain acceptance in wider and wider swaths of American society. Eventually, they assert, Americans will realize that their supposed ally Israel is an apartheid state and will cease their support.
Could there be, as the BDS proponents alleged, an unfolding historical dialectic at work here — one as unmistakably foreseeable as the eventual triumph over apartheid South Africa — that would culminate in Israel’s ultimate delegitimization in American society? Is it just a matter of time?
Not so fast. In the past several months, the tables have turned. Anti-BDS bills have passed in state legislatures by huge margins and BDS resolutions have gone down in defeat at several progressive institutions.
At last count, 19 states have passed anti-BDS bills in this past legislative session alone. Some of the legislation merely condemns BDS and encourages a negotiated solution. And some measures place companies that accede to a BDS campaign on a state no-buy list, forcing them to think long and hard before pulling out of Israel. In the Illinois House of Representatives, the anti-BDS bill passed by a vote of 102-2, and in the Florida Senate, it was 38-0 with two abstentions. In every state legislative body that had a roll call taken, the anti-BDS bill passed by decisive if not overwhelming margins.
The state-level anti-BDS onslaught demonstrates that BDS is a marginal phenomena, confined to the extreme left. BDS proponents have picked their battlefields carefully, looking for places where they have a shot at winning. But once the battlefield is widened to state legislatures representing mainstream sensibilities, BDS not only fails to persuade, it is utterly repudiated.
These wins show that when the Jewish community effectively organizes, builds strong ties before the vote with key people in the institutions targeted by BDS campaigns, and appeals to the sensibilities of people sitting on the fence of the BDS debate, it can prevail over Israel’s detractors. Strategic advocacy and relationship building actually work.
David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.