BDS at Penn: Is It a Mortal Threat or Just an Epic Failure?


As with most controversies surrounding anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaigns, including the upcoming BDS conference at the University of Pennsylvania, the debate has centered on free speech versus hate speech. Although First Amendment issues are always worth discussing, such talk misses one of the most important aspects of BDS: What a loser of a campaign it has been.

As someone who has followed and written about BDS since it first invited itself into my former home of Somerville, Mass., in 2004, I don't use the term "loser" as a pejorative, but rather as a statement of fact.

Divestment campaigns have been entrenched on college campuses for nearly 12 years, yet not one college has sold a single share of stock on the BDS blacklist in all that time. Even getting divestment motions passed at student councils has turned into a near-impossible hurdle. And Mainline Protestant Churches, most notably the Presbyterians, that once flirted with divestment have long since rejected BDS calls by margins of 95 to 100 percent.

Most importantly, during the past decade, when BDS advocates have been tirelessly trying to bring the Israeli economy to its knees, that economy — not to mention exports out of and investment into the Jewish state — has doubled in size and support for Israel among the U.S. population has shot up 20 percentage points.

Absent any genuine victories, or even progress, BDS activists have been reduced to passing off fraudulent divestment stories (the hoax that Hampshire College divested in 2009 being just one of many) or boasting about trivial wins (a food co-op here, a celebrity caving into boycott demands there), ignoring the dozens of retailers who have loudly rejected boycott calls or the hundreds of artists and musicians who have defied boycott calls to perform in the Jewish state.

Some complain that even if a boycott or divestment campaign loses on this college campus or that church, the propaganda program at the heart of BDS still makes progress by injecting their "Israel = Apartheid" message into public discourse, with debate only focusing on whether and how Israel should be punished for its "crimes."

But this analysis misses a critical point. If they were losing votes by margins of 5 percent, 10 percent or even 25 percent, one could make the case that the BDSers' message was resonating, even if their tactics might be rubbing people the wrong way. But when BDS loses by margins of 95 percent or higher (as they did with the Presbyterian Church which once supported divestment), the only possible explanation is that the vast majority of members at these institutions recognize the entire BDS package, including their message, is a lie.

In an effort to find a metric for success that doesn't actually involve winning anything, BDS activists have taken to claiming the reaction against them as proof of their effectiveness. Articles written condemning their projects (including, no doubt, this one) are held up by the boycotters to show the impact they are having. And decisions by mainline Jewish organization to place BDS outside the community's "Big Tent" are used as proof of "panic" within the Jewish community over the alleged unstoppability of the BDS "movement."

But this self-serving analysis, which seeks to get pro-Israel activists to question their own political activity, lest they hand BDS forces another "victory," misses a critical point. Mainstream Jewish organizations are cautious by nature, avoiding controversies that might alienate their constituencies. Within such an environment, the fact that everyone from J Street to the Zionist Organization of America is lining up to denounce programs like the BDS conference taking place at U Penn demonstrates how everyone wants to get in on fighting a "movement" that has proven so easy to defeat.

Yet such defeats are not without wider significance. Most efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state take place in institutions like the United Nations, where the anti-Israel agenda is driven by wealthy and powerful states over which we as individuals have little to no influence. But we can — and have — fought against local delegitimization efforts, including BDS, driven by individuals and organizations allied with those wealthy and powerful forces, and we have won time and time again.

By driving BDS forces to the point where they have to boast of trivial or fake "victories" — or sing and dance in front of grocery stores — to get anyone to pay attention to them, we have been able to use the BDSers own ridiculousness, failure and overreach to de-legitimize the entire delegitimization project.

Jon Haber is a Boston-based political activist who writes at the anti-divestment blog You can see his response to each item on the PennBDS agenda at


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