While the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement may be a popular cause on America’s college campuses, the movement has little future across the larger United States. Not only is criticizing Israel a political third rail, but sympathy for the Palestinians is a hard sell to Americans.
To become a significant movement, BDS will have to be accepted by the political mainstream, but such approval is far off. Being tagged as anti-Israel is an electoral death sentence in American national politics, as candidates play up their support for the Netanyahu government.
This was the case during the 2012 presidential campaign when President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney sparred over who was a better friend to Israel. Israel’s political weight is also reflected by the hundreds of House members and senators who pay homage to AIPAC, the right wing Israel lobby.
Another indicator of the BDS movement’s dismal prospects was the tepid reaction to actress Scarlett Johansson’s appearance in an advertisement for SodaStream, which has been targeted by BDS advocates because the company operates on a West Bank settlement.
The lack of traction in the United States for a boycott of Israel reflects a history of military and diplomatic ties between Washington and the
Jewish state, political pressure by right-leaning lobby groups, low levels of anti-Semitism, support from Christian evangelicals, Israel’s media-image as a heroic underdog, and the natural affiliation Americans feel for a democracy threatened by autocratic regimes. But the biggest obstacle BDS faces in the U.S. is the identity of Israel’s enemies.
The Middle East’s Muslims receive little sympathy from Americans, both frightened and angered by Islamic terrorism. Palestinians, by targeting civilians in suicide bombings and rocket attacks, have become associated in American eyes with the extremists we have been fighting against since 9/11. When television viewers watch coverage of a funeral for a Palestinian teenager supposedly killed by IDF bullets — with a crush of mourners screaming death to Israel — they see a frightening scene that resembles mass protests by jihadists chanting death to America, rather than the expression of a desperate people struggling for dignity and survival.
The combination of America’s strong support for Israel and fear of Middle East Muslims means the BDS campaign is fated to remain associated primarily with university campuses — where protest movements tend to stall, unless their issues effect the interests of mainstream America, as in the Vietnam War era.
And after today’s students move on from the classroom, the Palestinian cause will fade in importance for them, as mortgages, jobs and children become primary concerns.
Political observers have often noted that the Palestinians are lucky to have Jews as their enemies, since their problems would otherwise get little attention. But when it comes to the potential of BDS to spread within the United States, Israelis are fortunate to have Arab Muslims as their adversaries.