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Israel and the 'Boycott, Divest, Sanction' Bandwagon

“Why should Israel, a nuclear power with a strong economy, feel so vulnerable to a nonviolent human rights movement?” the disingenuous Omar Barghouti wrote in a New York Times op-ed last month. Barghouti is a Palestinian human rights advocate and a big backer of an angry movement that has come to be called BDS, which stands for a three-part strategy: boycott, divest, sanction.

The aims of the BDS movement, which got going in 2005 but only recently reached its apogee of international fame—when poor Scarlett Johansson was basically told she was no longer welcome as the beautiful face of Oxfam because she isn’t boycotting Israel at all—are several. Some are absolutely straightforward and possible, and some—as BDS and Barghouti and a whole lot of others well know—are anything but.

The movement is straightforward when it calls for ending the Israeli occupation of territory that was not originally Israeli but gained as a result of the Six-Day War in 1967. BDS is also right to support, as Barghouti puts it, the “fundamental rights of Arab Palestinians to full equality.”

However the movement also advocates that anyone and everyone who is a Palestinian refugee has “the right … to return” to what is now a Jewish homeland—and would cease to be if Barghouti and friends got their way.

Impossible or not, it’s always amazing to see how attractive a bandwagon can become when it’s playing so loud—no matter how discordant and unappealing the music. In December, for example, the American Studies Association endorsed an academic boycott of Israel. You have to ask yourself what sense this possibly makes. Why would the ASA undertake such a boycott? So that academics worldwide can have fewer connections with each other? Learn less? As Mohammed Dajani, director of American studies at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, told the New York Times, “We need more dialogue with each other … How can we build trust with boycotts?”

In January, the second-largest Dutch pension fund, PGGM, citing “social responsibility,” claimed to be so anguished about the fate of Palestinians that it said it would divest millions of euros from Israeli banks that have West Bank branches. Because presumably Israeli banks, unlike banks from other nations, have no right to establish branches on the West Bank. And a Netherlands-based pension fund is the best arbiter of social responsibility around.

Personally, I think some of the aims of BDS will inevitably bear fruit. Say what you will about Israel’s 1967 territorial expansion—that it came as a result of grave miscalculations by outside aggressors, for example, and that those aggressors got what they deserved—some day or other Israel is likely going to have to withdraw from most of that acquired territory. Israel knows it, the rest of the world knows it, and BDS knows it.

But given that a Dutch pension fund got into the act, and given the BDS’s emphasis on historical injustice, let’s examine the socially responsible historical role of the Netherlands for just a minute. In 1939 there were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands. By the end of World War II, there were 35,000. Wilhelmina, the Dutch queen, and most of the Dutch government fled to Great Britain in 1940, which was probably not socially responsible. As Manfred Gerstenfeld, an Austrian-born Israeli author, has written, a lot of the atrocities committed afterward in Holland were facilitated to a great extent by “the Dutch bureaucratic and institutional apparatus at the disposal of the occupiers. This greatly facilitated the deportation of the Dutch Jews after their property had been systematically looted.” Dutch policemen, Gerstenfeld adds, rounded up Jewish families, and then Dutch railway employees accompanied them on trains that sent captives on their way to the camps.

It’s a pity that the second-largest Dutch pension fund finds Israeli Jews intractable on the subject of keeping a Jewish homeland Jewish. But I think we can find a few reasons why Israel and its supporters feel as they do: millions of them.

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