Home inFocus Israel’s Allies and Adversaries Driving a Stake Through the Failing Boycott of Israel

Driving a Stake Through the Failing Boycott of Israel

Mitchell Bard Spring 2022
Anti-BDS protesters outside a Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream location in New York City. (Photo: Getty)

The boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign is nothing if not consistent when it comes to declaring victory to disguise its failures. The latest example was the movement trumpeting Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Co.’s decision last summer to stop selling its products in Judea and Samaria – the “occupied West Bank” to its supporters. To no one’s surprise, withholding ice cream from Jews living in their homeland did not cause the collapse of Israel – the point of BDS – and did not improve the welfare of Palestinians one iota. As in other cases, however, the BDS advocates did succeed in galvanizing their critics and creating a public relations and financial nightmare for B&J’s parent company Unilever.

No one should be surprised; after all, based on history, why do BDS proponents believe they can have any impact?

A History of Boycotts

Consider that the Arab League instituted a boycott in 1945 that was blatantly anti-Semitic – it was directed at Jews because Israel did not exist. It had the weight of the entire Arab and Muslim world behind it, and the complicity of companies and countries around the world, and still failed. The boycott did not prevent the establishment of Israel, its evolution into a global technological power with a vibrant economy, its emergence as a cultural mecca, or its diplomatic relations with most other countries.

Prior to the 1973 oil embargo, the boycott was considered “a toothless and gutless” propaganda device. It only gained traction when countries like Japan began to fear their oil supplies might be threatened by OPEC if they traded with Israel, and companies worried they would lose access to the Middle East market. Even then, however, the boycott did little to harm Israel’s economy and had no impact whatsoever on its policies.

In 2020, the UN Human Rights Council decided to do the BDS movement’s dirty work by publishing a blacklist of 112 companies that it said were profiting from Israeli settlement policy so they might become boycott targets. Then- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “Its publication only confirms the unrelenting anti-Israel bias so prevalent at the United Nations….We call upon all UN member states to join us in rejecting this effort, which facilitates the discriminatory boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) campaign and delegitimizes Israel.”

Scandalous as it is, the UN HRC’s blacklist pales in comparison to the more than 1,000 companies once on the Arab League’s list. No American banks would open branches in Israel. The Ben & Jerry’s of its time was Pepsi, which refused to sell its goods in Israel, so Israelis faced the hardship of drinking Coke, much like Jewish settlers must now suffer eating Israeli gelato. 

Most American companies supported anti-boycott legislation with the notable exception of oil companies and others with large investments in the Arab world (at one point Saudi Arabia informed the Arabia American Oil Company – ARAMCO – it would not issue visas to “undesirable persons” by which it meant Jews). RCA Executive Eugene Seculow called the boycott’s effect on American business “capricious and insidious.” He said, “Our position has been very simple. We believe in free trade, and we are attempting to do business everywhere in the world where it is not against U.S. laws. But we won’t comply with the boycott to win our way off the list.” 

That should be the attitude of the companies on the UN HRC list.

Congress Gets Involved

One of the catalysts for congressional action was the 1975 publication of the Saudi blacklist of 1,500 U.S. companies, which made the public aware, for the first time, of the scope of the Arab boycott. Even more disturbing was the exposure of U.S. government complicity, as in the admission that the Army Corps of Engineers excluded Jewish soldiers and civilians from projects it managed in Saudi Arabia.

In reaction to these revelations, Congress adopted the Export Administration Act (EAA) in 1977, which encouraged and, in some cases required, U.S. companies to refuse to take actions that have the effect of supporting the restrictive trade practices or boycotts fostered or imposed by any foreign government against a country friendly to the United States or against any American. 

The law was adopted despite threats from the Arab world. As The Washington Post wrote: “No realistic person would assert that an anti-boycott law will not cost something . . . . But if there is a price to keep foreigners from compelling Americans to trample on their own basic values, surely it is worth paying and, as surely, thoughtful and responsible Americans will be willing to pay it.”

Despite hysterical warnings about the deleterious impact the legislation would have on U.S.-Arab relations, those ties only grew stronger. Moreover, while the BDS movement encourages a boycott, the most important members of the Arab League have abandoned theirs. Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan, and Morocco formally ended their participation when they established relations with Israel and, even countries without diplomatic ties such as Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, have had various levels of engagement with Israel. The boycott is still technically alive but rarely enforced, sustained by a handful of countries that take relatively trivial actions (e.g., Lebanon just banned the film Death on the Nile because it stars Israeli actress Gal Gadot, and the United States fined Kuwait in 2020 for refusing on 14 occasions to accept passengers with Israeli passports on flights from New York to London). 

The Boycott Fails

Recognizing the failure of the Arab League boycott, a new campaign emerged at the infamous United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. The final declaration established an action plan – the “Durban Strategy” – promoting “a policy of complete and total isolation of Israel…the imposition of mandatory and comprehensive sanctions and embargoes, the full cessation of all links (diplomatic, economic, social, aid, military cooperation and training) between all states and Israel.”

The strategy, however, has failed and caused an international backlash. 

Just as the Arab League effort to ostracize Israel proved futile, so too has the Durban strategy. Today, Israel has diplomatic relations with more countries than ever before – 167 of the 193 member states of the United Nations. 

In addition, 35 U.S. states have adopted laws, executive orders or resolutions that are designed to discourage boycotts against Israel. Some have been challenged in court on free speech grounds, but a circuit court just upheld the legality of Maryland’s executive order and, even in the recent case in Texas where a court blocked the enforcement of the state anti-boycott law against a Palestinian-American contractor, the injunction did not apply to the entire breadth of the law. A federal judge struck down an anti-boycott law in Georgia, but on February 21, Governor Brian Kemp signed a modified version that is expected to withstand judicial scrutiny.

Meanwhile, despite the vocal support of BDS by leftists in Europe, their governments have continued to sign military contracts and expand trade and other forms of cooperation with Israel and adopt measures against boycotting Israel. 

In France, promoting the boycott of Israel is illegal. 

The German government designated the BDS movement as antisemitic, and several German cities have adopted anti-boycott laws.

The United Kingdom one of the birthplaces and strongholds of the boycott movement has closer ties than ever with Israel. In November, the two countries signed a 10-year memorandum of understanding for deepening ties on issues such as cybersecurity, technology development, defense, trade, and science. British Conservative politician Robert Jenrick later announced that the government was planning “to outlaw BDS in the UK.”

Even governments that have been hostile toward Israel do not support BDS. Last October, Sweden’s foreign minister became the first senior Swedish official to visit Israel since 2014 when Sweden recognized “Palestine” as a state. Earlier, she said, Sweden wants “more cooperation with Israel, not less,” and that Stockholm does not support boycotts of Israel.

One of the European governments that has been most critical of Israel, and has politicians who support the boycott, is Ireland. Nevertheless, Israel’s exports to the country increased 517 percent in 2021.

Israel’s once tense relations with Asia have dramatically improved, particularly with India and China. Trade with China has grown exponentially from $50 million in 1992 to more than $18 billion in 2021 when China became Israel’s third largest trade partner. China was also Israel’s largest source of imports, surpassing the United States. 

The Abraham Accords have been a boon to Israel and its partners. For example, in the first year after normalization of relations, trade with the UAE reached $570 million. This is in addition to a range of cooperative agreements related to technology, health, water, and other mutual areas of interest. On February 21, Morocco and Israel signed a trade and economic cooperation agreement, which Israel hopes will generate $500 million in annual trade.

The Palestinians

Even more embarrassing to the boycotters are the ongoing relations between the Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel. Ben & Jerry’s and other BDS advocates thousands of miles away face no consequences for telling Palestinians what’s good for them. But when a boycott campaign was launched against SodaStream, then the largest employer of Palestinians in the disputed territories, more than 500 Palestinians lost their jobs (at least 74 were rehired when the company moved its factory to the Negev). Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Palestinians are happy to have jobs in Israel while about 30,000 more working in those “obstacle to peace” settlements.

In addition, journalist Tom Gross noted that the most recent data (October 2021) published by the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that exports of Palestinian goods and produce to Israel totaled $132.9 million, an increase of 19 percent from the previous month. Palestinians imported $624.7 million worth of goods and services from Israel in October, a 22 percent jump. In 2020, Palestinian imports from Israel were $2.77 billion and exports were $955 million. Palestinians are voting with their feet and their pocketbooks against the boycott being pursued in their name.

Unilever Pays for Ben & Jerry’s

Overall, BDS was so successful that total Israeli exports hit a record high of $140 billion in the pandemic year of 2021.

On the other side of the ledger, since Ben & Jerry’s announced the cancellation of its Israel contract, Unilever’s stock has plunged 20.7% – a loss of $26 billion in value – and the company fired some 1,500 workers worldwide and split its ice cream division from its food division. The state of Arizona sold $93 million in Unilever bonds and planned to sell the remaining $50 million in its portfolio. New Jersey divested $182 million from Unilever. Florida was expected to sell about $139 million worth of its Unilever investments and Illinois voted to pull its state pension funds from Unilever. While these financial woes were not exclusively caused by the backlash to the Israel boycott, substantial negative publicity and the sell-off of shares by U.S. states that put the company on their prohibited investment lists undoubtedly contributed to Unilever’s difficulties. 

In February 2022, Unilever CEO Alan Jope reacted to the backlash and announced that the board of Ben & Jerry’s intends to develop a “new arrangement” for sales in Israel by year’s end. While Jope didn’t criticize the B&J board for its actions against Israel, he did observe that “On subjects where Unilever brands don’t have the expertise or credibility, we think it’s best that they stay out of the debate.” 

In signing the EEA into law, President Jimmy Carter said: “The issue goes to the very heart of free trade among nations.” Carter added the legislation was intended to “end the divisive effects on American life of foreign boycotts aimed at Jewish members of our society. If we allow such a precedent to be established, we open the door to similar action against any ethnic, religious, or social groups in America.”

Sadly, today’s Congress is permitting the antisemitic targeting of American Jews by the BDS movement. In 2017, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act was introduced to enhance the existing anti-boycott legislation, but it never came to a vote. In 2019, the Senate passed legislation including anti-boycott provisions by a vote of 74-19. The House, however, was only willing to pass a resolution condemning the boycott of Israel. Though that resolution had overwhelming support (it passed 398-17), adoption of anti-boycott legislation was ultimately sabotaged by Democrats echoing the American Civil Liberties Union’s bogus argument that it would violate the First Amendment. 

Nothing in the proposed law, nor in the state laws, however, prevent expressions of support for boycotts. Even the antisemitic divestment campaigns mounted on many college campuses are protected. As legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich has written, “If the anti-boycott measures are unconstitutional, as the ACLU argues, it would mean that most foreign sanctions laws are unconstitutional. If refusing to do business with a country is protected speech because it could send a message of opposition to that country’s policies, doing business would also be protected speech.”

The fact that a U.S. company like Ben & Jerry’s would declare a boycott directed at Israel, ineffective as it may be, only reinforces the need for the adoption of a federal anti-boycott law to uphold American principles and combat the antisemitic BDS movement.

Mitchell Bard, Ph.D., is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.