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First-of-its-kind conference on BDS showcases diverse pro-Israel strategies

Click photo to download. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via  Wikimedia Commons.
Click photo to download. A Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

I was privileged to attend and participate in a recent conference organized by StandWithUs in Los Angeles, entitled “Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel (BDS)—Understanding the BDS Movement’s Strategies and Tactics.” What was unique about this first-of-its-kind conference was how it allowed experts in the pro-Israel/anti-BDS movement from all over the U.S. and Israel to put their heads together, compare notes, share their experiences, and discuss the best strategies to fight the BDS scourge.

The March 21-23 conference did so by setting up five tracks: BDS on Campus, BDS in Academia, BDS in the Legal Arena, BDS in the Church, and BDS and Community Organizations/Economics. Additionally, there was a special plenary session panel on BDS in the Cultural Arts, which did not include a strategy session as the five primary tracks did (see below).

While the nefarious infiltration of BDS is well-known on campus, in academia, and in many churches (with different strategies developed more or less successfully to combat them), the fields of the legal arena and the cultural arts have not been given as much attention. StandWithUs is to be commended for shining the light on these areas and innovating, by coordinating the efforts of a stable of attorneys willing to offer their services pro bono to assist anyone (particularly students) attacked or assaulted by overly aggressive anti-Israel students or faculty members (or, as the case may be, to deal with amorphous college administrations unwilling to do their job of protecting all students). The music and movie industries are also successfully fighting the delegitimizing efforts by BDS activists to have artists and stars cancel tours in and visits to Israel.

For each of the conference’s tracks, there was a plenary session followed by strategy sessions in smaller working groups (except for the cultural arts). Each group came up with a string of suggestions that were shared at the last plenary. Since I was in the community organizations/economics group, I presented the Earth Day Israeli tomato plants giveaway model that has been run in San Diego for the last three years as an example that other communities might be interested to emulate. Indeed, the two conference representatives from Calgary jumped on it and are plan to do their own version soon.

Attendance at the StandWithUs conference was capped at 250, including 60 students and student leaders, to allow direct exchanges among participants. The exchanges were conducted intensively, and the lineup of speakers was equally impressive, bringing together no less than 36 known figures in the pro-Israel world to address the participants, either as speakers on their own or as part of a panel. For someone like me, who has been involved in this field for close to 10 years now, it was a rare treat to be able to meet in person so many pro-Israel “celebrities” whom I had known until now only through their writings or YouTube appearances. As partial as it was, we had here a real “who’s who” of everyone who matters in this field. The networking opportunities alone made attending the conference worth it.

Among the speakers, two stand out in particular. First, famed attorney Alan Dershowitz was there for the whole conference and spoke no less than three times to share his views on the current BDS situation and on the work being done to address the issue. Known as a staunch pro-administration Democrat, it was interesting to hear Dershowitz not exactly mince words regarding his attitude about Israel and its leader. As he put it at one point, “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu did a flip (accepting the two-state solution—incidentally, a first in Israel’s history—during a 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University), followed by a flop (his recent statement that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch), followed by another flip (his apologies for the preceding flop), so now I expect President Obama to do the same thing. He did a flip (his promise that he would always have Israel’s back) followed by a flop (his condemnation of Netanyahu’s own flop), but he hasn’t done another flip yet.” Dershowitz emphasized his support and admiration for the work of StandWithUs on several occasions.

The second speaker of note was Bassem Eid, a Palestinian Human Rights activist. Usually, when I hear of “Palestinian human rights activists,” I tend to dismiss them since at best, most of them are apologists for Palestinian terrorism and more busy accusing or condemning Israel for imaginary wrongdoings than protecting the human rights of Palestinians, especially from abuses by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas. But Eid is the real deal, as scarce as they are. He expressed in strong terms his critical view of the corruption pervading Palestinian society and leadership, and was quick to admit that Netanyahu was correct when he stated the plain truth: Palestinian society is far from ready to be a viable partner in the two-state solution.

How refreshing, for once, to hear a Palestinian admit that they share responsibilities in this whole situation and have a lot of catching up to do before the two-state solution can take place. After his speech, I asked him privately if, besides well-known journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, there were many Palestinians who shared his views. Eid assured me that there were thousands of them.

Among the other compelling speakers and panelists were NGO Monitor President Gerald Steinberg and investigative author Edwin Black, who shined some light on the funding of the myriad organizations that make up the multi-faceted BDS family; Asaf Romirowsky, director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (one of the rare organizations with “peace” in its name that is not in fact anti-Israel); Mitch Danzig, who is part of the new legal team put together by StandWithUs; John Haber, the clever analyst and writer who maintains the blog; Dr. Michael Harris, StandWithUs coordinator for the Bay Area; Robert Jacobs, StandWithUs coordinator for the Pacific Northwest; Noah Pollak, director of the Emergency Committee for Israel; AMCHA Initiative founder Tammi Rossman-Benjamin; and Dexter Van Zile, Christian Media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). There were many more, but it would take too long to list them all.

Overall, the conference on combating BDS was a highly motivating experience, and I hope that StandWithUs will turn it into an annual event.

J.J. Surbeck is executive director of San Diego T.E.A.M. (Training and Education About the Middle East). This article first appeared in the San Diego Jewish World.  

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