Jed Babbin and Herbert London’s masterful new book, The BDS War Against Israel, opens with a blood-chilling quotation from Mao Zedong: "A lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth." Chairman Mao would have marveled at our Information Age, when lies can be shared, pinned, tweeted, and retweeted thousands of times over with the tap of a screen. Lies can self-replicate like viruses, taking on the character of commonplace truths with stunning rapidity. In this respect, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is an epidemic.
Most Americans first heard of BDS in the lead-up to the 2014 Super Bowl, when Scarlett Johansson stepped down as a "global goodwill ambassador" for the UK-based charity Oxfam. The charity objected to her endorsement of SodaStream, an Israeli company that—at the time—employed more than 500 Palestinians in "occupied" territory. In response to the controversy, Johansson remarked, "I stand behind that decision … Until someone has a solution to the closing of that factory, to leaving all those people destitute, [boycotting Israel] doesn’t seem like the solution to the problem."
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Johansson exposed an important truth about BDS when she called attention to the price its advocates expect Palestinians to pay: BDS isn’t really about the Palestinians at all.
As Babbin and London explain in this slender tour de force, the fundamental problem that the BDS movement is trying to solve is not Palestinian destitution. Nor, for that matter, is it ongoing human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza. If it were, pro-Palestinian advocates would set their sights on Hamas brutality and P.A. kleptocracy. Rather, the "problem" BDS is out to solve is the very existence of the State of Israel. The solution? Israel’s isolation, delegitimation, and ultimate dissolution.
Babbin and London trace the roots of the BDS movement not to the boardrooms of NGOs or the studies of university professors. They pinpoint its birth to Tehran in February 2001, at a conference of NGOs convened in preparation for the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. Israeli officials and NGOs were naturally excluded from the Tehran conference, as were state supporters of Israel. With the deck thus stacked, the Conference resolved to include in the Durban agenda condemnations of Israeli "ethnic cleansing," "genocide," "apartheid," and "racism."
The United States and Israel withdrew from Durban before the conference even began, leaving the inmates to run the asylum. While representatives of states worked on a 219-article declaration condemning racism and xenophobia, a parallel conference of more than 1,250 NGOs took place in the city. There, under the active leadership of such organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, all the Tehran libels were enshrined in a document known as the NGO Forum Declaration.
The NGO Forum Declaration essentially set the agenda for the BDS movement, calling for "the launch of an international anti Israeli Apartheid movement[,] … a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel as an apartheid state[, and] … [c]ondemnation of those states who are supporting, aiding, and abetting the Israeli Apartheid state and its perpetration of crimes against humanity including ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide."
The libels have been given a veneer of legitimacy by the U.N. Human Rights Council, which currently includes such champions of human dignity as Congo, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. For more than 20 years the Council has employed a "Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967". The current Rapporteur, Makarim Wibisono of Indonesia, picks up where his predecessor, Richard Falk, left off. In his final report as Special Rapporteur, Falk accused Israel of apartheid and ethnic cleansing; but these allegations were tame compared to a 2013 interview with RT in which he accused Israel of targeting Palestinian civilians with "genocidal intent."
On one level, these are only words: the words of bureaucrats, lawyers, and committees comfortably situated at Turtle Bay. But these words—genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid—may well out-libel even the blood libels of the Middle Ages, contaminating the public imagination and resulting in almost irrevocable bias in public discourse.
The persistence of the 2009 Goldstone Report is a key example of this. The dust had not yet settled on the First Gaza War before the Human Rights Council tasked an investigative commission led by South African judge Richard Goldstone to investigate violations of international law. The Commission found that Israel had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead, deliberately targeting civilians and violating the laws of armed conflict. The report is frequently cited by BDS supporters as irrefutable evidence of Israel’s criminality. That Goldstone later penned a full repudiation of the report has not stopped them.
But for audiences nourished on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, the U.N. imprimatur is enough to legitimate any slander. In this respect, the campaign to delegitimate Israel in public opinion presents as big a threat to the Jewish State politically as an Iranian nuclear weapon does existentially.
Babbin and London do a fair job of showing how BDS has gained traction on university campuses both in the United States and abroad among the chronically aggrieved and the incurably naïve, finding a home in the American Studies Association and the Middle Eastern Studies Association. The presence of such useful idiots is one of the costs of the very academic freedom that BDS scholars would deny to Israelis.
The more vexing problem—and this is the book’s greatest contribution—is the role of NGOs and the United Nations in fostering a movement that is morally bankrupt and intellectually corrupt. This is critically important because the modern State of Israel was in many ways a creation of international organizations and international law. The League of Nations established the Palestine Mandate for the ultimate purpose of creating a national home for the Jewish people. A majority of members of the United Nations recognized that home in the 1947 partition plan for Palestine. And in 1948, the majority of states once again recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish State by recognizing Israeli independence.
But in recent decades the United Nations has become pathologically obsessed with delegitimizing Israel—as if to undo what it once helped to create—and international law has provided a veneer of respectability and rationality to even the most hateful anti-Israeli sentiment. This is a threat not because the United Nations is a powerful institution (in the realm of realpolitik, it is quite weak) but because the institutional legitimacy of the U.N. provides cover to those who wish to influence public opinion against Israel.
Babbin and London expose BDS propaganda at its ugliest and most effective. Quoting Mark Twain, the authors note, "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes." If the BDS movement is to be overtaken, it’s high time we put our running shoes on.