War By Other Means: A History of Anti-Israel Boycotts, From the Arab League to BDS

By David May (FDD)

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign, or BDS, is the most recent iteration of a century-old effort to attack the legitimacy and economic viability of the Jewish state and its precursors. Arabs initiated boycotts of Jewish businesses in the Holy Land in the early 20th century, with the goal of preventing the establishment of a Jewish state. The Arab League declared a comprehensive boycott in 1945, first to reinforce these efforts, then to reverse the outcome of Israel’s War of Independence. In other words, these countries sought the annihilation of the Jewish state.

In pursuit of its boycott, the Arab League sought to leverage the disparity between the size and wealth of its members’ oil-rich markets and the diminutive Israeli economy. The former represented a tantalizing prospect for companies large and small. To access them, however, the Arab League insisted that companies not trade with Israel or even with other companies that did. The boycott forced numerous major corporations to avoid or cut ties with the Jewish state.

American anti-boycott measures and inconsistent enforcement by Arab League member states convinced many companies to reject the boycott. The Arab League boycott lost further steam during the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in the 1990s, which saw the Palestinian Authority officially accept economic relations with Israel. When the peace process unraveled, however, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) revived the boycott.

Western activists and NGOs helped develop the campaign’s infrastructure, including the July 2005 “Call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Against Israel,” from which the campaign takes its name. BDS has borrowed heavily from the anti-apartheid campaign that brought down the South African regime in the 1990s. The attempt to conflate Israel and apartheid South Africa is libelous and disingenuous, as Israel grants equal rights to all its citizens, Arab and Jewish alike. Nevertheless, BDS has found receptive audiences on college campuses and among certain NGOs and church groups.

While BDS pressure campaigns have convinced some sizable firms to break off relations with Israel or cancel significant projects, Israel’s emergence as a global technology leader has frustrated the campaign. Israel enjoys significant investment by major multinationals, such as Google, IBM, and Intel. In macroeconomic terms, Israel continues to grow at an impressive rate, while inflation remains low. With its per capita income approaching that of Italy and South Korea, Israel has cemented its place in the top tier of global economies.1

Focusing only on the negligible economic impact of BDS, however, ignores the campaign’s goal of seeking to turn Israel into a pariah state. BDS magnifies, exaggerates, and distorts perceived Israeli abuses, while shrugging off egregious human rights violations elsewhere around the world. This fact is not lost on those pressured by the campaign. During a July 2019 Belfast City Council debate on sending a trade mission to Israel, a councilor noted “an element of hypocrisy” in boycotting Israel but not human rights violators such as China. “I’m pretty sure the million Muslims who are in a concentration camp in China would make similar requests, but they can’t,” the councilor remarked.2

The 2005 BDS charter lists a series of demands that obfuscates more than it clarifies. Activists employ the language of human rights, social justice, and compromise to appeal to audiences who are concerned for Palestinians but may not want to endorse a project whose goal is Israel’s annihilation.

Yet a number of BDS leaders have been quite candid about their goal. Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS campaign, has stated that “accepting Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ on our land is impossible” and that the only solution is “euthanasia” for Israel.3 Ahmed Moor, co-editor of After Zionism, has said: “BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state.”4

This monograph explores the history, strategy, tactics, ideology, and actors behind the economic warfare campaign targeting Israel. It concludes with policy recommendations for the U.S. government to consider.