I am a rabbi who is often asked how to improve Christian relations with Jews. I’m grateful that so many are concerned with continuing the positive changes of the recent generation. But I also follow the ups and downs of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, which since 2004, when the Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest from companies doing business with Israel, has become popular among some Christian groups. Initially, I observed the campaign with alarm and later with milder concern. Today, I am simply appalled at the theological betrayal and utter vanity of it all.
Hyper-liberals in mainline Protestant churches, American campus radicals, and European socialist labor unions champion the cause with ardor and prophetic passion. The Catholic Church has wisely stayed out of this toxic campaign, although it seems that the Vatican has not noticed that chapters of Caritas Internationalis in Ireland and France fund NGOs that advocate BDS policies. Also, it seems that some young evangelicals are less committed to supporting Israel than their parents are, according to surveys conducted by LifeWay Research. They are vulnerable targets for BDS activists.
Over the years, Jews have reacted to BDS with alarm, knowing that the movement aims to deter foreign investment and corporate involvement in Israel, isolate the Jewish state diplomatically, cast it as a pariah akin to apartheid South Africa, and undermine Israel’s legitimacy in the family of nations—all of this, allegedly, to help Palestinians and create a Palestinian state. In the last two decades, the BDS campaign has become a favorite of many declining mainline Protestant churches, who want us to believe that BDS is a great moral cause possessing the same ethical purity as the fight against racism.
An honest evaluation shows that the BDS campaign has achieved nothing positive. It has not only failed to realize its stated objectives; it has set them back massively since 2004. Despite steady vituperation and false characterizations of Israel, BDS has not weakened or isolated the Jewish state. Quite the opposite: Between 2004 and 2016, Israel has experienced unprecedented growth and become significantly more secure economically, socially, and diplomatically.
During the period of the BDS campaign, foreign investment in Israel has increased by 200 percent; foreign trade has grown by 42 percent; trade with E.U. countries has more than doubled; trade with the U.S. has risen by more than 35 percent; trade with Asia has increased 1,200 percent; and Israel’s GDP has grown by more than 64 percent.
Israel has become an international powerhouse in high tech, biotech, agro-tech, cybersecurity, and anti-terrorist security. United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May spoke for nearly all Western heads of state when she stated in November 2017, at a London dinner celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which had committed to create a homeland for the Jewish people: “We want to deepen our links in areas where Israel is leading the world—in areas like agriculture, health, science, technology, and innovation.”
Immigration hasn’t slowed, either. More than 240,000 immigrants have come to Israel and made it their new home in this period. And the BDS movement’s campaign of diplomatic isolation has also failed. As Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Teodor Meleşcanu recently said, “Israel’s [diplomatic] situation now is maybe one of the best in the history of the Jewish state.”
England is an instructive case because it is a prized target for BDS ideologues. (London is sometimes referred to as “the BDS capital of the world.”) Trade with Israel is running at £5 billion ($6.6 billion) per year. Despite all the noise the British BDS extremists make, only 11 percent of British citizens surveyed in 2017 said they backed BDS. About half of Brits do not support boycotts of Israel and “find it difficult to understand how others do given everything else that is going on in the world,” in the words of one survey prompt. Backing for BDS in Britain has fallen to its lowest level since 2014, with young English citizens in particular rejecting boycotts.
While BDS proponents haven’t hurt Israel, they haven’t helped individual Palestinians and their national cause at all. Bassem Eid, the founder of Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and resident of Hebron—a hotbed of Palestinian identity—told an Ottawa Citizen columnist:
The BDS campaign is completely contradictory to the Palestinian cause. We will never build peace this way. It has been catastrophic. The Palestinian people want prosperity, and BDS is about a totally different agenda. It is the agenda of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Iran. The agenda of the BDS campaign is to try to destroy Israel. What I try to explain to people is that if you support BDS, you are not supporting the Palestinian cause. You are not even aware of the Palestinian cause.
Multiple studies show that the anti-Zionist BDS campaign has encouraged anti-Semitism and intimidation of Jewish students on campuses in America and Europe. This should not surprise. Asked if there might be anything anti-Semitic about BDS, Eid professed, “Of course it’s anti-Semitic. There is no doubt about it. It is because it’s anti-Semitic that the campaign has such energy around it.”
Christian BDS supporters should be embarrassed by those who are campaigning with them: anti-Semites such as David Duke, the terrorist groups Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the pan-Islamist Global Muslim Brotherhood, the Socialist Workers Party U.K., the South African Communist Party and other radical communist organizations, the anarchist International Solidarity Movement, supporters of convicted serial murderer Marwan Barghouti, and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. BDS politics make for bad company.
As a Jew committed to engagement with Christianity, I fear that BDS is damaging Jewish-Protestant relations. Mainstream Jewish organizations, rabbis, and liberal Jewish leaders who traditionally forged personal friendships and communal alliances with mainline churches now rightly refuse to truck with organizations carrying the anti-Zionist banner.
The BDS cause is, in its essence, negative. The campaign’s attempts to help Palestinians are afterthoughts, as the BDS warriors focus overwhelmingly on demonizing Israel. BDS is coarse politics, and I have difficulty seeing in it positive Christian values or faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus. False and hateful characterizations of Israel do not coexist well with the Christian aspirations of peace, justice, honesty, and love.
I leave it to my Christian friends to assess the theology behind the BDS campaigns. From my vantage point, this movement looks more like false witness than prophetic protest. BDS supporters are simply reveling in self-righteousness. Their campaign offers them a spiritual high and feelings of relevance, while in reality it helps no one.
Liberal Protestant churches should resist the temptation to join in this false benevolence. To be taken seriously, they should become responsible about promoting peace. Rather than futilely blasting Israel, churches committed to helping Palestinians could adopt constructive goals. Here are some: Invest in the Palestinian economy. Help Palestinians build strong and transparent democratic institutions. Strengthen moderate Palestinian voices that recognize Israel’s right to exist. Promote the realistic compromises necessary for peace, and urge Palestinian leaders to reverse their consistent policy of rejecting peace offers as they did in 1947, 1967, 1979, 2000, and 2005.
Why do some churches allow their ideologues to pursue BDS at the cost of biblical and theological integrity, peace, individual and national Palestinian interests, Christian-Jewish understanding, and even the welfare of their own churches? That’s a question that all serious Christians should be asking themselves.
Rabbi Eugene Korn is the academic director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Jerusalem. His books include Two Faiths, One Covenant? and Jewish Theology and World Religions.