Wertman: BDS does have sting

BDS supporters protesting in London WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
BDS supporters protesting in London (WIKI COMMONS PHOTO)

Benjamin Shinewald’s article has a point regarding the “failure” of BDS campaigns in achieving their overarching goal of isolating the Jewish State, yet his argument belittles some of the major concerns surrounding the movement.

As someone who has experienced the campaigns first-hand on campus, I cannot simply turn my head and say BDS “doesn’t get me going.” The discriminatory campaigns have indeed significantly and meaningfully impacted the Jewish campus experience for the worse.

During my time as a graduate student at Columbia University in New York, I was inundated by BDS and the general anti-Israel student activism and hatred that is part of the package. Whether it was walking past poster-boards covered in “BDS: Apartheid Divest” flyers on my way to class, a visit from the travelling “Apartheid Wall” smack in the centre of campus, or an event called “Intifada: Palestinian Uprising” – nearly every week there was something.

I remember one particular event that featured three members of Columbia’s esteemed faculty, supposed to be role models and mentors for students, instead calling for an academic boycott of the Jewish State. One of the professors even prepared a handout for the event, detailing “Boycotts Throughout History,” in order to argue against the claim that singling out Israel is unique. The handout tellingly referred to the 1934 Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses as a “counter-boycott.” Discomforting is one word I would use to describe this experience.

Even worse was the practical advice doled out at the event. During the question and answer portion, I asked what students interested in human rights should do if an academic boycott prevents them from traveling to Israel for research. In response, I was told, in front of an auditorium full of students, not to study the conflict and that I should change my research interests in order to comply with the academic boycott of Israel. So much for facilitating a nurturing learning environment.

Through further conversations with BDS-supporting faculty members, I also learned that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and research centre in Jerusalem, should similarly not be visited.


To Shinewald’s point, yes, when BDS came to a vote a few months later it did not pass. Yet, in addition to the divisions that were created within Columbia’s student population, the anti-Israel seeds that were planted will continue to grow. Will university alumni exposed to the hate single out Israel for attack later in their careers? Will it affect their investment decisions? Or their political choices?

In addition to belittling the impact of BDS on students and its potential future effects, Shinewald’s history of the movement gets some important details wrong.

Shinewald claims that “BDS really got going around 2005,” when in fact the roots of the campaign to isolate Israel can be traced to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Forum of the 2001 Durban conference. At the NGO Forum, so-called international human rights organizations, like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, allied with South African and Palestinian groups to demand the “complete international isolation of Israel as an apartheid state.” The boycotts began shortly after.

Today, millions of dollars in taxpayer funds (primarily from European governments but some from Canada as well) are diverted to promote BDS campaigns under the guise of human rights. Funds provided to promote peace or coexistence are used in a campaign with the opposite goals.

While I would love to think that BDS has “propelled” the Israeli economy and that my time spent working to combat the campaigns is actually unnecessary, experience tells me otherwise. Jewish communal organizations are right to take the issue seriously and ensure that the movement is continuously exposed and countered.