Recently, I’ve been nursing some concerns about the way the Israeli government is handling its response to the BDS campaign against the Jewish state, and with it the wider challenges of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in the Western world.
Some of my concerns have already been expressed with enviable clarity by two other commentators—my JNS colleague Jonathan Tobin, and The Times of Israel’s Haviv Rettig Gur. Following Israel’s decision this month to ban 20 BDS-related organizations from entering the country, Tobin made the broader point in his column that the material impact of the BDS campaign upon Israel has been gratifyingly minimal. The true danger of this campaign, he continued, lies in its persistent targeting of Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Meanwhile, Rettig Gur’s critique of the official Israeli response to BDS included a wryly amusing account of how Israel has generated a handful of boutique-sized government ministries during the last decade. These ministries have no clear mandate, but are staffed by bureaucracies whose “primal” goal is survival. This drive, Rettig-Gur argued, explains to significant degree why the Israeli government’s own campaign to counter BDS is escalating.
I want to amplify some of these concerns, and then offer a few of my own. As a general rule, governments engaging in campaigns to defend their own records, or to project a certain image of their country, is rarely a good idea, especially if the ultimate goal is to win over skeptics and adversaries—or at least persuade them to consider a given situation from more than one point of view. That is particularly true, I think, when the bone of contention is not the record of the elected government in power, but the deeper reputation and legitimacy of the nation that government represents.
In the Israeli case, a campaign of this nature is so unnecessary that it’s counterproductive. Why, in effect, nationalize the counter-attack that is already being waged by the myriad of community-based Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, of varying sizes and addressing different demographics, who represent grassroots opposition to BDS and its claims? More troublingly, what kind of credibility is there in a government ministry that was hastily repurposed to confront the BDS campaign only in 2015—more than a decade after the campaign to boycott Israel became a major concern for Jewish communities in the Diaspora?
To my mind, the greatest error of all here is the denial of a basic reality that we should all welcome: the BDS campaign is in decline. That is not to say that BDS has failed definitively; merely to note that by its own very specific standard of political success, it has performed miserably.
That standard is the global movement that opposed apartheid in South Africa—an explicitly racist form of government based upon the formal segregation of white and non-white peoples by the state authorities. BDS proponents lie that this shameful system has been resurrected in Israel, which neatly allows them to adopt the fight against apartheid in South Africa as their inspiration and campaign model.
By the end of the 1960s, within a few years of forming anti-apartheid groups in university campuses and churches in Europe and America, the anti-apartheid movement had succeeded in indelibly linking the name of South Africa with racism of the most backward kind. The notion of South Africa as an affluent, leafy white suburb on the African continent was devastated by images of the suffering visited upon the large black majority by the small white minority.
By the 1980s, banks in Europe and the U.S. were regarding South Africa as a reputational risk, supermarkets noticed that consumers were shunning South African fruit and vegetables in growing numbers, and millions of people heard Nelson Mandela’s name in anthemic songs demanding the jailed ANC leader’s freedom. By 1994, when South Africa held its first multi-racial elections, there was simply no need any more for an international anti-apartheid movement—perhaps the greatest indicator of success for a political campaign whose goal is to end a particular example of injustice.
Even with an entire world of social media that didn’t exist 30 years ago at its disposal, the BDS movement can only dream of inflicting similar reputational damage on Israel and its people. Meanwhile, Israel is now positively enjoying life as a member of the international community—the world’s 10th-most-innovative country, according to a Bloomberg News index released this week, respected and embraced in the worlds of technology, television drama, food and wine, as well as its more traditional spheres, like agriculture and defense.
All this makes the idea of a government ministry that is dedicated to countering a political demonization campaign seem even more incongruous. It suggests that the NGOs involved with this hateful campaign represent such a threat to Israel’s national security that a government-backed response is suddenly warranted. More seriously, it compromises the independence of Jewish and pro-Israel civil society organizations when they do the vital job of pushing back—with all the setbacks and periodic victories that this work has involved, and will continue to involve.
Most of all, it sends a message of fear to the Jewish community: that the fight against BDS is being lost, that more and more of our friends and work colleagues are uncomplicatedly embracing the Iranian fantasy of a world without Israel, and that BDS is inflicting the kind of damage on Israel that South Africa experienced from the anti-apartheid movement.
The Israeli government should see that the reverse is true. Nothing can hide the BDS movement’s abject failure to persuade the citizens of Western democracies that Israel is the new South Africa. There are many activists, writers and political leaders inside and outside the Jewish community who can claim credit for this heartening reality. The challenge now is to consolidate their success.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.