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Op-Ed: Why Anti-BDS Legislation is Important… But Ultimately Limited

Only a week ago, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf signed a law that prevents his state from contracting with entities that boycott Israel and other US allies. Pennsylvania is the 16th state to pass such a law in the past year and a half. Having reviewed these various efforts for the Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) 2016 Annual Assessment of the Jewish People, important lessons can be learned going forward. While these legislative initiatives are important and positive, they are ultimately limited. To be most effective going forward, the pro-Israel community will need to package them as part of a larger coherent strategy.

While many Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supports no doubt believe that boycotting Israel due to specific policies it enacts regarding the Palestinians is indeed the goal, it is by now well known that for the movement’s leadership and hard-core activists this is just another in a series of tactics aimed at wearing away Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state.

But something has changed. Over the past couple of years, after (mostly successfully) blocking dozens of attempts to introduce BDS initiatives on university campuses, in academic organizations, corporate boardrooms and church halls, the American pro-Israel community decided to take more proactive measures that are in line with the American people’s overwhelming support of Israel.

And it is doing this in the form of anti-BDS legislation in states across the country.

There are currently 12 states that passed some sort of legislation specifically against boycotting Israel. Some of these laws call on states to divest public pension funds from companies that boycott Israel, while some prevent the state from contracting with such companies. Some do both while others are only declaratory in nature.

Four more states, including California and Pennsylvania, passed general legislation prohibiting the boycott of all US allies and trading partners, although it is clear that defending Israel lies at the heart of these. The majority of these laws passed in a bipartisan manner and with overwhelming support. More states are expected to join in the coming year.

Many see this as an important bulwark against the onslaught against Israel and its economy. Certainly if one reads Israeli and American-Jewish newspapers, as well as pro-BDS websites, it seems as if the whole world has turned against Israel.

But a hard look at the actual successes of the BDS movement turns up very little. Despite the propaganda, we can say with confidence that from an economic, cultural, academic and especially a diplomatic perspective the BDS movement is largely failing; Israel’s position in the world, in many ways, has never been better.

However, it’s important to point out that the threat of BDS was never economic, cultural or even diplomatic in the narrow sense. Every time a boycott resolution is raised, a speaker silenced, an artist harassed so they avoid Israel, etc., it is accompanied by a campaign of half-truths, exaggerations, facts out of context and flat-out lies. These are meant to rewrite the narrative and convert hearts and minds in order to vilify and demonize Israel and its very existence; any specific successes along the way are a bonus.

The danger is that over time, and aided by the prevalence of social media, Israel’s image and thus perceptions of its legitimacy will erode to the point where it actually turns into a pariah. After all, much of what drives social movements, even those based on exaggeration and fiction, is momentum, peer pressure and mob mentality.

And so, anti-BDS legislative initiatives are important because they make an important statement. They show that the vast majority of Americans stand ever stronger by Israel. This is important in offering public support for companies and institutions targeted by BDS bullying and harassment smear campaigns.

On another level, they keep anti-Israel activists busy.

Having to constantly be on the defensive put Israel supporters in a disadvantageous position, having to explain why Israel is not committing genocide or apartheid or ethnic cleansing, or any one of a number of gross and false accusations. Thus, these laws put the BDS crowd on the defensive, having to justify its ludicrous attacks and exposing the hypocritical and shaky foundations of its efforts.

On a higher level, the legislation helps clear the “wheat from the chaff” among those who limit business or divest for purely financial reasons. The case of British global security giant G4S illustrates this best. After a long and aggressive harassment campaign, the company said it was looking to divest from Israel, which BDS claimed as one of its victories. To avoid losing Illinois state contracts, G4S had to prove that its decision was financial and not ideological and therefore discriminatory. G4S eventually announced that it will “maintain a significant presence in Israel for decades to come, and continue to be a key contributor to the security of Israel.”

The early wave of proactive successes should not, however, distract from the larger issue. The struggle to defend Israel is a complex and ideological one.

Bullying companies to divest from Israel is but a tactic within a larger effort. These legislative initiatives may help win this individual battle but as we have seen, the “anti-Israel campaign of hate” known as BDS will regroup and look for new ways to attack.

Israel and its supporters must take advantage of these victories, and the buffer they provide, to take further proactive moves and keep BDS on the run. Just as the anti-Israel movement uses BDS initiatives as tactics to delegitimize Israel, so must the pro-Israel camp use these legislations as a move within a larger and comprehensive strategy – one that seeks to reclaim and reframe a positive narrative about Israel’s legitimacy.

Originally posted in The Jerusalem Post