Why the BDS movement thrives on more than anti-Semitism, cash and ill-will.

A couple of years ago, I was treated to a flying lesson for my birthday. Mid-flight the pilot — having given me the controls — asked a simple question; “Joe — what do you understand to be the most important component of the aircraft keeping us alive up here right now?”

“The engine” was my intuitive answer, knowing we only made it aloft through sustained airspeed.

“Wrong” said the pilot, who then proceeded to switch off the engine. “The wings at this moment are the reason we can stay up here, gliding for quite some time without further need for fuel.” Once I got over the shock of the sudden eerie silence, I understood his point.

The plane lurched, but it did not crash.

It was a powerful lesson, about flying specifically, but also about instinct, perception and intuition. When it comes to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, we recognize bigotry and anti-Semitism as the engine, perhaps cash and political duplicity as the fuel. These things certainly power the ugly BDS machine forward and upward.

They are not however, the ‘wings’ that keep BDS aloft.

I’m privileged to write this post from the Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth anti-BDS conference taking place in Jerusalem where I spoke on HonestReporting’s unique insights to countering BDS. President Reuven Rivlin addressed the opening of the conference, and it is a great credit to the State of Israel and the organizers at Ynet and their production partner StandWithUs that so many have come together to give serious exploration and direction to a common task: fighting back against a movement of hatred that remains in flight, and many feel continues to soar higher with time.

President Reuven Rivlin addressing a full house at the anti-BDS conference in Jerusalem (photo by Joe Hyams)

President Reuven Rivlin addressing a full house at the anti-BDS conference in Jerusalem (Joe Hyams)

My address today focused on two easily overlooked ingredients that give flight to hateful movements: The increasingly visual nature of social media and the fashionable ease with which peers mimic and adopt the views and opinions of friends with little independent thought given to the integrity of those ideas.

What is novel in the context of BDS is the perfect storm that brings a simplistic and emotionally compelling narrative together with highly visual communication channels such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The inherent falsehood of the narrative that frames Israel as the oppressor goes unnoticed at first because the iconic representations are powerful and often emotionally jarring.

Media bias is nothing new, and is not particular to fueling the spread and influence of BDS per-se. More people are able to contribute to the means of influencing others in real time than at any point in history. And we can do it professionally with cheap and free tools that were beyond the reach of all but a narrow news producing community just twenty years ago.

BDS social media workshop including speakers Amit Cotler, Ynet; Ido Daniel; Israeli Students Combating Anti-Semitism; Evyatar Gat; Mark Halawa; Joe Hyams, HonestReporting; Hen Mazzig & Emily Schrader, StandWithUs (photo courtesy Simon Plosker).

BDS social media workshop including speakers Amit Cotler, Ynet; Ido Daniel, Israeli Students Combating Anti-Semitism; Evyatar Gat; Mark Halawa; Joe Hyams, HonestReporting; Hen Mazzig & Emily Schrader, StandWithUs (photo courtesy Simon Plosker).

The second under-appreciated factor propelling BDS is the cognitive ease with which we accept and internalize salient ideas. We all follow news, and tend to trust what we consume too quickly to discern bias and falsehood on first take. It takes a great deal of mental work to swim upstream and challenge the ideas presented to us, but we have to educate for and encourage such behavior. We know that our children watch too much and read too little. It matters no less to advocate for better literacy on the core issues that BDS seeks to defame and shame Israel and the Jewish people.

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Roseanne Barr with HonestReporting CEO Joe Hyams at the anti-BDS conference (Joe Hyams).

Those of us who care for making a visual, powerful and concise counter-message have to work overtime, often with limited resources at our disposal. We have to work together, share insights and support each other’s work. Medium by medium, trend by trend, partnership by partnership, we are learning how to play the enemies of reason at their own ill-fated game.

Yet the powerful imagery together with a willing audience presents a real challenge that must not be dismissed for the asymmetric threat that it is. We must work to ensure that citizens and communities everywhere can see beyond the moral and intellectual gulf in which these shallow ideas will ultimately meet their demise. Our work is to deny hate campaigns the hot-air required to soar high, and think strategically about bringing a cold, hard headwind to bear upon their anti-peace, anti-progress designs.

The ideas propagated by BDS are false and libelous. Appreciating the social and psychological factors that keep it airborne is the first step to bringing BDS swiftly down to earth.