newsBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Annual pro-Israel conference makes its latest effort to cut the BDS

More than 500 people representing a multitude of Jewish and pro-Israel groups gathered in Los Angeles from Jan. 19-22 to take part in the fourth annual “Israel in Focus” conference, hosted by StandWithUs.

A group shot of the 350 student participants in the StandWithUs International Conference. Credit: Christina Mia Morales
A group shot of the 350 student participants in the StandWithUs International Conference. Credit: Christina Mia Morales

Israel advocates need to “go to the moral dimension of the issue, not to run away from it” when it comes to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, said UCLA professor Judea Pearl, father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, in a fiery plea to students at a recent conference focused on combating BDS.

“This is where we are strong. This is our cause and this is where we can win hands down,” Pearl said. “Talk about your emotions. I have emotions too, and not just as a grieving father, but as a man born in Israel. My friends came back in coffins from many wars, wars we did not start.”

More than 500 people representing a multitude of Jewish and pro-Israel groups gathered in Los Angeles from Jan. 19-22 to take part in the fourth annual “Israel in Focus” conference, hosted by StandWithUs. The conference nearly doubled in size from last year and included some 350 high school and college students from all across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the U.K.

StandWithUs, an Israel education and advocacy organization founded in 2001, hosts the conference each year to give the pro-Israel community a platform to share best practices on countering BDS.

“It’s very interesting to see how what we do on campuses is now materializing in further action,” Adah Forer, a 20-year-old senior at University of California, Berkeley, told JNS. “And it’s not just on campus, but in state government and beyond. It’s very heartening.”

Forer, whose campus is a hotbed for BDS activity, also spoke on a panel dubbed “Anti-Zionism: the New Face of Anti-Semitism,” in which she detailed her efforts to work with university administrators to address anti-Semitic incidents. She said that many high school students sought her out after her panel.

“It’s cool to talk to high school students who are interested in continuing their passion and joining pro-Israel groups when they come to campus. It’s what we need,” Forer said.

Israeli Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel (Likud) addresses the StandWithUs International Conference. Credit: Christina Mia Morales

Member of Knesset Sharren Haskel (Likud) was the conference’s keynote speaker, and former MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) was in attendance.

Chairman of the Spirit Music Group David Renzer spoke to a packed ballroom about BDS proponents’ war on culture. He cited Lorde’s recent cancellation of a Tel Aviv concert following BDS pressure.

Renzer, who co-founded Creative Community for Peace, an initiative involving power players in the arts, has been instrumental in bringing artists like Elton John, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper and Alicia Keyes to Israel for shows as well as meetings with Israeli politicians, and to learn about causes like LGBT rights in the Holy Land.

“Clearly this movement (BDS) is not going away and it absolutely targets artists and culture,” he said. “It’s doing so with great strategy, a laser focus and apparently some serious funding. Our goal is to continue what we’re doing and expand on what we’re doing.”

Renzer announced his group’s plans to add a New York office to deal with BDS issues in the theatre world, like a recent boycott campaign to shut down the production of a Lincoln Center Festival play funded by the Israeli Culture and Sport Ministry.

Many conference sessions focused on forming coalitions outside of the Jewish community. Chelsea Andrews, director of campus relations for Passages, a Christian pro-Israel advocacy group that nicknames itself the “Christian Birthright,” leads trips to Israel for Christian college students. She brought nearly 30 of her students to the conference to encourage more dialogue with Jewish students.

“If we’re not coming together and hearing other perspectives, then we’re not seeing a more inclusive area and I don’t think Israel should be just the root of Christianity or just a Jewish thing. It needs to be more pluralistic or we can get into a dangerous space,” she said.

Evon Sworesho, a Middle East affairs analyst, drew parallels between BDS and historical persecution in the region against Jews and Christians. Several pastors also spoke on a panel about the presence of BDS and anti-Israel views in churches.

State lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum, including Republican Texas Rep. Phil King and Democratic Rhode Island Rep. Mia Ackerman, discussed how their states have passed anti-boycott laws. King, whose state relies on Israel as its fourth-largest trade partner and a vital contributor of agricultural technology, said that anti-boycott legislation was a no-brainer for Texas.

“BDS at its core is economic warfare,” he said. “Most Texans recognize that regardless of it being a national issue, one that affects our homeland security as Israel is our only friend in the Middle East, there are a lot of state hooks, like our long trade history.”

Both state lawmakers agreed that the economic impact of BDS in the West Bank inflicts the most harm on Palestinians working for Israeli companies, referencing the 500 Palestinians who lost their jobs at SodaStream in 2016 due to BDS pressure.

Ahava Helfenbaum, a 16-year-old high school student from Toronto and a StandWithUs intern, told JNS she was returning home from the conference with renewed purpose.

“All these success stories on fighting BDS I’ve been hearing all weekend are so inspirational and are giving me the confidence to keep going. It’s really a propeller forward for me,” she said.

Roz Rothstein, co-founder and CEO of StandWithUs, said her organization added some new wrinkles to the conference schedule this year to encourage more student interaction and engagement.

“We did a bit of an experiment and combined the high school and campus students in one community all at once to see if everyone was able to take from the conference what we wanted to give them; namely information, inspiration and the resources to build a network,” she said. “It was very effective this year. I’m receiving unsolicited compliments everywhere I go, even in the elevator.”

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