On Monday 28th March, I had the opportunity to attend the Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth Conference on tacking the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement. This was one such opportunity throughout the year given to participants of Masa’s Israel Government Fellowship Program. My fellowship is currently at the North America Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.
Coming into the conference I had been concerned that the Israeli media may be overplaying the threat of this movement. While at University in London, a city known for being a hotbed of BDS activity, Israeli news teams and their cameras would film the stalls we set up to counter such campaigns as “Israel Apartheid Week”. Jewish Students on Campus in both the UK and US are mobilised to defend Israel on campus and it felt to me as if the Israelis were looking for a story to further a narrative that the Boycott movement was winning.
The Conference was a culmination of a months long campaign by the two host newspapers to take action against the BDS movement and to make it central to the discourse of Israeli politics. This was emphasised by the presence of all leading Israeli political figures except for the Prime Minister. The Conference opened with President Ruvi Rivlin in conversation with a journalist from Yedioth. He gave an impassioned call for Israel to stand firm and voice our opinion to the Boycott movement, be strong and patient but not aggressive. He was confidant Israel was a society that can effectively contend with these false claims.
A running theme throughout this conference was that politicians and commentators emphasised the anti-Semitic dimension of the BDS movement. In my opinion, it is necessary, especially on campuses to draw a line between anti-Zionist and anti Semitic activity. However, this is becoming an increasingly hard line to patrol. We have witnessed recently in the BDS and related groups a growing strain of anti-Semitism coursing through the movement. I have come to the conclusion that beyond simply calling for an end to the occupation and a two state solution, BDS does not want any of Israel to exist in it’s current form. The boycotters, even those with the best of intentions are no different from the radical jihadists of Hamas who call for an end to the Jewish State.
That all being said I believe that the conference was highly political and did not really get into the substance of how to combat BDS. Speeches were relatively short and lacked sufficient depth to effectively counteract anti-Israel activity. Even some conference attendees implied the purpose of the conference was simply to talk in front of a large crowd about an issue that many are trying to take on as their own. It was a nice day for like-minded people to get together and to make speeches on an issue they are passionate about, but the conference was severely lacking in providing concrete practical steps to combat BDS.
The consequences of this is to give the BDS movement a PR Victory that it does not really deserve as the boycott movement has suffered significant setbacks in recent months. Many states in the US have passed anti-BDS legislation and President Obama has signed into law such legislation on a Federal level. American Ambassador Dan Shapiro reinforced this narrative. “The United States of America vigorously opposes efforts to isolate or boycott Israel.” He said. “We have demonstrated this commitment for decades and continue to devote substantial resources in our government to this fight. We consider it an extension of our longstanding commitment to fight any effort to delegitimize Israel.”
In the UK, BDS has suffered from the violent attack at a talk by Ami Ayalon at Kings College London by the Action Palestine movement and the growing stories of anti-Semitism at the Oxford Labour Society. National newspapers are fast picking up on the anti-Semitic tendencies of the anti-Israel movement on campuses and in civil society. I have been on the front line battling BDS at UCL in London and many of my friends agree that with sufficient support and resources we can successfully challenge the movement.
The conference came at a mixed time for Israel and the BDS movement. On the one hand Israeli politicians are finally taking on board the cries of the grassroots about the threat of the boycott movement. Such organisations I have personally interacted with such as Stand with Us, Sussex Friends of Israel and individual University Jewish Societies have been battling against this for for many years in the most hostile of atmospheres. Nevertheless BDS remains very much a fringe movement, especially in the United States and the conference could be interpreted as overplaying the threat posed to Israel by the Boycott movement even to the extent of unnecessary scaremongering.