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BDS Ain’t New: The Arab League Boycott Gets a Makeover

February 5, 2016 -    

This piece was co-written by Adam Milstein and Marc A. Greendorfer.

In recent years, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement has gained increasing traction at universities, academic associations, municipalities, churches, unions, pension funds, and investment portfolios in America and around the globe. The pro-Israel community is now waking up to the seriousness of the danger that this movement poses to the Jewish state, the Jewish people, the American people and the U.S.

Yet, as we mobilize our community to action, it's important to recognize that BDS is nothing new. Those behind this campaign have simply put old wine in a new bottle. Anti-Israel and anti-American boycotts initiated in the Middle East have been a part of American life since the early 1970s – and past experience in fighting these anti-Semitic Movements should guide our response in the present.

Arab boycotts of Jewish interests in the Land of Israel started as early as 1922, more than two decades before the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948. Arabs who violated this boycott were physically attacked by their brethren. Increasingly restrictive boycotts were instituted in 1933, 1934 and 1936. An official organized boycott of the Jewish community in Palestine was adopted by the Arab League in December 1945, and persisted against Israel after its founding, with the goal of isolating the Jewish state from the international community. Through the years, this boycott spread like a virus across the globe, resulting in institutionalized discrimination against Israeli goods and businesses.

The effects of the Arab League boycott in America were as disruptive as they were outrageous, causing energy shortages, gas lines, rationing, economic stagflation and discrimination against Jewish Americans. The 1973 oil boycott by the Arab Middle East countries not only cost the American economy billions of dollars, it turned American businesses and consumers into unwilling participants in an anti-Semitic campaign to destroy Israel and demonize the Jewish people.

In 1977, U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation to protect American interests, making it a criminal offense to adhere to the Arab League boycott and imposing fines on American companies that were found to be complying with it. An office was opened in the U.S. Department of Commerce to conduct surveillance and implement the law. A large number of states followed the federal legislation with their own anti-boycott laws, which were generally successful in dramatically reducing the effects of the Arab League Boycott in the United States.

Those behind the Arab League's Boycott campaign continued to search for a way to circumvent anti-boycott laws. They found this avenue in 2001 at the UN's "Conference on Racism" held in Durban, South Africa, hijacking the conference's agenda to force through a series of racist declarations attacking Israel. At the conclusion of the conference, the Arab League met to formally call for a resumption of its boycott, which became the framework for the subsequent organization of the BDS Movement.

In many ways, the latest boycott is even more toxic than the original, as those behind BDS have learned the lessons of the Arab League's failures. BDS has effectively branded itself as a human rights movement, hiding from the public its true intentions – the destruction of Israel, the demonization of the Jewish people and the erosion of the values at the heart of America's way of life — and obscuring the role of extremists, terrorists, and radicals in driving its agenda.

The BDS Movement has effectively exploited the general language of existing anti-boycott laws, claiming that these laws only apply to activities directly connected to the Arab League boycott by name. The pro-Israel community must begin to draw the unmistakable connection between these two efforts, ensuring that Federal, State, and Local agencies are enforcing existing anti-boycott laws.

Yet, this is not enough. New laws should be enacted that specifically address BDS and close any purported loopholes that BDS supporters exploit. Recently, this was accomplished at the federal level, when Representative Peter Roskam's anti-BDS language was included in the Trade Promotion Authority passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama. Congress may also consider utilizing anti-discrimination measures to combat the BDS movement, which promotes hatred and discrimination against Jewish Americans and other pro-Israel supporters, especially on college campuses.

We can also work at an organizational level to fight BDS. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union recently nullified a resolution adopted by a local UC chapter that endorsed BDS. The union explicitly dismissed BDS supporters' claims that it was a human rights movement, stating that "…despite semantical claims to the contrary, [BDS] can easily be construed as academic and cultural discrimination…" and the UAW deemed BDS support to be a program of "…discrimination and vilification against Israelis and UAW members who are of Jewish lineage…"

BDS threatens a return to the same kind of economic and social turmoil that the Arab League boycott created within the United States in the 1970s. We, as Americans, have to stop BDS in its tracks before it's too late. The future of Israel – and America – is at stake.

Adam Milstein is an Israeli-American philanthropist, National Chairman of the Israeli-American Council, real estate entrepreneur, and President of the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation. Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMilstein and @AdamMilsteinIAC.