The following remarks were delivered by Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), at the “Ambassadors Against BDS” summit organized by Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations on May 31st, 2016.
I want to thank and congratulate Ambassador Danon for organizing this historic event. It is a testament to his truly visionary and courageous leadership.
I would also like to thank Israel’s Mission to the United Nations, and the other sponsors of today’s summit.
I am honored to be here.
My family was part of the 800,000 people that were thrown out of Arab countries just because they were Jews. They chose to live in Israel because this is the only Jewish State.
As an officer in the IDF, I fought to defend Israel from its enemies. It was a natural transition to continue my service to defend Israel when I arrived to the United States as a student more than 17 years ago until this very day.
However, something changed for me lately. I realized that our fight against BDS is not only defending Israel. We are also defending our new home: America.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with coordinators of IAC Mishelanu. IAC Mishelanu brings together Israeli-American students from across the political spectrum under one roof on 94 campuses.
I was shocked to discover that students are afraid to participate in Mishelanu social activities out of fear that pro-BDS faculty and administration will retaliate against them. Our campuses have become a hostile environment to pro-Israel Jewish students.
Day after day, we receive emails from students and parents who are forced to hide their Jewish identity because of the threat of anti-Semitism originated by BDS.
If supporting Israel is cause for retaliation on our campuses… if being Jewish is something that students feel compelled to hide… if we permit blood libels in Ivy Leagues… if we allow so-called “freedom of speech” to shut us down… it means that the democratic values of the world’s leading democracy are in danger.
We cannot see BDS as a campus issue. The students of today are our leaders of tomorrow. By fighting BDS on campus, we are fighting for the future of America. This violent, racist, hate movement must be eliminated. We have no other choice. Today they want to eradicate Israel, but their real agenda is anti-free-world.
Tens of millions of dollars have been invested by many Jewish-American organizations to fight BDS and there are some success stories.
But we need to look closely at why BDS on campuses has grown stronger.
Like a cancer, their movement is multiplying, and our search for a cure depends on our capacity to think outside of the box.
We need to realize that our existing efforts are not good enough. We have to pivot now. We must disrupt the way we fight BDS.
I will touch briefly on five ways that I believe we can disrupt the fight against BDS:
First, we need to transform the role of pro-Israel organizations in this fight.
We must stop thinking like organizations, and begin thinking like a movement. This means empowering our community members to lead the fight.
At the IAC, we tried for some time to have our staff build an anti-BDS network on campuses from the top down. It wasn’t easy. Then, in Boston, we let Israeli-American community members lead the effort. In no time, they organized an organic network of 150 pro-Israel advocates from the academia. We realized that empowering our community was infinitely more effective.
Yet, to do this we must educate our community. As an officer, you learn that you cannot win a war if your troops don’t understand why and what they are fighting. We make the false assumption that our community understands BDS. We ask people to fight something they do not really understand. Some are so confused they even join these groups and fuel them.
Our community is our greatest asset. We must educate and empower it. If we believe we can win this war with organizations alone, we are making a big mistake.
Second, we need to rebrand BDS.
We need to accept the fact an average student couldn’t care less about Israel, the Jewish State and even anti-Semitism. They are simply too busy.
This is why the current war for hearts and minds on campus is asymmetric. We are trying to use facts that will explain why we are on the right side. BDS, on the other hand, appeals to students’ emotions, talking about race, discrimination and oppression.
Rebranding Israel is very important, but we also need to focus on rebranding BDS as a hate movement. When people think BDS, their stomachs need to churn. When people think about BDS, they should think about the KKK.
We need to name and shame any person who supports this movement and embraces their ideology. No respected faculty member or student leader would be associated with the KKK. They should feel the same way about BDS. Joining BDS should be a mark of Cain, a one-way ticket to excommunication from polite society.
Third, we need to transform our relationship with faculty members.
BDS’s biggest boost on campus comes from faculty members who integrate hate into the curriculum and discriminate against pro-Israel students. Each faculty member has the ability to impact thousands of students throughout the years. We should fight the faculty members supporting BDS and at the same time we must invest many more resources in educating the others – we must educate the educators.
Fourth, we need to embrace technology.
The war on social networks is important, and many organizations are doing a lot in this area, but it is not enough.
The Israeli-American community is now developing a range of cutting-edge tools moving our posture from reactive to pro-active.
Just a few months ago, the IAC hosted a session at the Cybertech Conference in Israel. For the first time ever, we gathered the most brilliant Israeli technology minds in one room and asked them how we can leverage their unique knowledge to fight BDS. All I will say is that these ideas will not remain ideas. We are already beginning to implement them.
The fifth point is about building bridges – what I call the X Factor, the “secret sauce” – which is the second generation of Israeli-Americans.
We know that it takes a network to defeat a network like BDS. Israeli-Americans—who represent 10 percent of the American Jewish Community—can offer one of the most valuable networks we have in the fight against BDS. We are moving this fight from defensive to offensive, and challenging the BDS narrative.
Our hybrid identity is a unique asset. An Israeli-American student or faculty member speaks both “Israeli” and “American.”
We can tell Israel’s story from a very personal point of view. We tell it from a first-hand perspective, what it is really like to serve in the IDF, or to have your family live every day under the threat of terror, or to face discrimination on a college campus just because of the country where you come from.
At the same time we can speak “American” in a way that Israelis cannot. We are part of the American culture, and by fighting BDS, we are defending the values of own country.
Our new high school program called IAC Eitanim is the first to bring together Jewish Americans and Israeli-Americans around their passion for Israel. Using project-based learning, we teach leadership and advocacy skills, preparing our high school students to fight BDS when they reach college.
We saw the power of the Israeli-American community when we mobilized 50,000 people as part of the Celebrate Israel festivals in six major U.S. cities. It sent a powerful message to elected officials from both parties, including legislators in California who are now working with us to pass an historical anti-BDS bill in the Golden State.
BDS has been successful because it has found allies. It frames the conflict as a struggle between colonizers and a native people – and uses this identity to build alliances with human rights, minority, and progressive groups.
As a minority and immigrant community, Israeli-Americans are natural bridges to other minority and immigrant communities. We could outreach to philo-Semitic minorities who are inclined to love us from country of origin: Chinese, Korean, Hindus. We should create a bridgehead with these communities and reinforce the natural bond and then expand outwardly to the others. This what Mishelanu students did at UC Berkley, for example.
Last but not least, the fundamental element in fighting against BDS is our ability to strengthen the connection between the next generations of American Jews to Israel. I believe that Israeli-Americans can become the living bridges between the American Jewish community and the State of Israel, fostering its status as the Jewish home.
Elie Wiesel said, “Action is the only remedy to indifference, which is the most insidious danger of all.”
We cannot be indifferent in this fight against a boycott based on race. We must act as one. We must be forceful. We must be resilient. We must win this historic fight on behalf of the Jewish people and the free world.