(May 25, 2016 / JNS) The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel might be garnering the most headlines when it comes to college campuses and the business world, but representatives from the Israeli government and advocacy organizations are taking the battle against BDS to the United Nations.
On May 31, Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon hosted an international conference in New York that seeks to equip and empower more than 1,500 attendees—students, diplomats, academics, legal professionals, and activists—to become “ambassadors against BDS.”
The Permanent Mission of Israel to the U.N. has decided that it “cannot ignore BDS anymore,” Danon said, explaining the motivation behind organizing the “Building Bridges, Not Boycotts” conference. While a report issued by Israel’s state comptroller last week said that Israeli Foreign Ministry projects intended to combat BDS “are lacking in their planning, management, and implementation, and are failing to achieve their designated goals,” the Danon-led U.N. Mission is now trying its hand at the BDS fight.
Danon said in a phone interview that because the consequences of BDS are evident in the U.N., on college campuses, and in the business world, Israel decided to bring experts from around the world to the international body to share their knowledge about legal issues, activism on campus, and the delegitimization of Israel.
“I believe it will empower the students [and] the activists…to fight and win. I think we can win [against] BDS, but we have to fight back,” Danon told JNS.org.
Danon said it is important to give students “tools on how to fight and what to do on campus,” but also to help students understand that they are not alone when they choose to fight BDS.
“The State of Israel is involved, as well as major Jewish organizations,” he said.
Conference participants received an “ambassadors against BDS” toolkit, providing suggestions and contact information to help them fight BDS on a practical level. The gathering was a partnership between Israel’s U.N. Mission and the World Jewish Congress, Keren HaYesod, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, Israel Bonds, StandWithUs, B’nai B’rith International, Hillel International, CAMERA, and other organizations.
The conference also included a performance by Jewish reggae star Matisyahu, who experienced BDS firsthand in 2015 when a Spanish music festival initially decided to disinvite him in response to BDS pressure. The festival ultimately reinstated his performance.
Attendees heard from panelists including Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress; Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, vice president of the Israeli Supreme Court; and Jay Sekulow, chief legal counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.
“The anti-Israel narrative on campuses and in diplomatic halls has spun out of control and has proven itself to be part and parcel with an anti-Semitic agenda, aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish state and its right to exist,” Lauder said in a statement.
Danon told JNS.org that the BDS movement “is a new form of anti-Semitism.”
“It’s not politically correct to say that you’re an anti-Semite…and when you see graffiti in Europe calling for Jews to go home, it reminds me of 1938. So today we have our own state, we are a strong state for the Jewish people, but still when you see the content and the language, it reminds me of what happened in Europe in the late ’30s,” Danon said.
Does Nazi Germany belong in the same sentence as BDS and other contemporary anti-Israel movements?
“The views of Hamas are an echo of the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Nazis. Its hatred of the Jews and the Jewish state is unambiguous. It makes no distinction between anti-Zionism and hatred of the Jews and Judaism. To the extent to which Hamas is involved in BDS efforts, then in that sense there is some echo of Nazi propaganda,” Jeffrey Herf, a professor of modern European and German history at the University of Maryland, told JNS.org.
But putting Hamas aside, Herf—who has written extensively on the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and Germany during the Cold War era—said that the “main thrust of BDS comes from the Palestinian Authority.”
“The main themes of BDS are identical to the main themes of Soviet bloc, communist state, and Western radical leftist attacks on Israel during the Cold War,” he said. “There is not a single idea expressed by BDS advocates that was not voiced in the United Nations in the 1970s, during which time the U.N. General Assembly labeled Zionism to be a form of racism. The difference is that what was once a set of lies and distortions in the PLO’s (Palestine Liberation Organization) political warfare has now gained a certain academic respectability and theoretical gloss in some universities in Europe and the United States.”
The significance of holding the anti-BDS conference at the U.N. General Assembly can be understood against the historical backdrop of “mendacious” General Assembly resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to Herf. In particular, U.N. General Assembly 3379—adopted Nov. 10, 1975—determined that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” From that point on, Herf explained, the Palestinians’ narrative of “utter innocence and victimization by an ‘evil’ Israel was diffused to international politics. BDS efforts in our time recycle these old and false accusations.”
Yet Herf believes that BDS can be defeated with “determined opposition,” because the movement’s “arguments rest on lies.”
“The denial of Palestinian terror is too blatant,” he said. “The Middle East is in flames and collapsing partly due to its preoccupation with hatred of Israel rather than building stable economies and political structures. A major problem does exist in European and American universities, where now several generations of young people have been miseducated about the history of the modern Middle East. Where young people are given access to balanced accounts of the Arab-Zionist and Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is every reason to think that BDS will fail.”
Danon said that world leaders need to speak out publicly against BDS because “in the long run, we cannot anticipate what will be the consequences” of the movement, particularly as a result of the “hostile” atmosphere BDS creates in the academic and business sectors.
While BDS has a “chilling effect on businesses that operate in Israel,” there is also the fear that college students “will feel disengaged and not want to be connected to Israel,” said Danon.
“I think that they (BDS activists) are very organized, well-funded,” he said. “If we will recognize the threat and will fight back, we will prevail. But I wouldn’t underestimate their organization and efforts.”