We Don’t Need Bigger Tents, We Need Better Bridges

un bds 2I don’t know how Danny Danon pulled it off, but yesterday 1,500 supporters of Israel and supporters of peace gathered in the historic halls of the United Nations with its stunning architecture and fabulous views of the East River.   They sat in the very seats in the United Nations General Assembly Hall, where in its 2015 session its members adopted 20 resolutions singling out Israel for criticism — as opposed to three resolutions condemning all the other countries in the world combined; this according to UN Watch.

But yesterday, for that “One Day,” as Matisyahyu would sing out, those 1500 individuals strategized about how to create a world where “There will be no more wars.  And our children will play.”

The slogan for the day:  Building Bridges– Not Boycotts.  That was the message on the reusable, synthetic fiber bags distributed, each containing a miniature Israeli flag. That was the slogan on the signs held by volunteers directing attendees through the lavishly and stylishly furnished, art-ladened hallways of the UN to seminars, speeches and panel discussions.

The crowd heard Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, the visionary behind Szarvas and the man who made that key call that got Matisyahu back on the stage in Spain last August after he was initially barred from performing for refusing to renounce Israel.  Lauder eloquently outlined what most in the room already knew, but BDS supporters deliberately camouflage: BDS does not support the Palestinian people.

Lauder’s message was echoed by Mosab Hasson Yousef, better known as the Son of Hamas, who likened Hamas to the shepherd leading the sheep (the Palestinian people) to slaughter, sacrificing stone-throwing youths for media coverage and a chance to win over supporters in an emotional battle for hearts and minds.

The crowd heard Emily Neilson-Winkler, an analyst and Middle East expert, tell how years ago she stepped foot on a hostile college campus in South Africa, feeling secure in her knowledge, armed with statistics, facts and history, only to be escorted off campus for her own physical protection.

They heard the powerful Danny Danon, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations and the man who made it all happen, urge unity as the most powerful weapon against BDS.

But, at end of the day, as one speaker lamented, the day was more about fighting BDS rather than Building Bridges.  As long as we focus our efforts on waging a war according to our opponents’ script, we will always be– to paraphrase the incomparable Ruth Wisse, author, scholar and former Harvard Professor: The eternal defendants in the international court of public opinion.

Being an eternal defendant is exhausting.  Pro-Israel/Pro-Palestinian/Pro-peace students are burned out.  It is a lonely plight: Who wants to join in with a group that is always on the defense?  It means supporters of Israel and true peace in the region are always assigned the part of reactionary, and as David Sable, digital entrepreneur, marketer and communicator par excellence, couldn’t underscore strongly enough, we need to be proactive rather than reactive.

Or as the man who many thought stole the show yesterday put it: “We are still playing on their court.” Those were the words of Soda Stream CEO, Daniel Birnbaum.

Yet it wasn’t just Birnbaum’s feisty words alone that elicited thunderous applause; it was also the 2 minute and 54 second video that he brought along.  So far, according to YouTube, 2, 810, 430 people have watched the Soda Stream video.

The video spotlights real people, Israelis and Palestinians, working together.   It is bound to make BDS supporters apoplectic.  It is what the BDS movement calls “normalization” because it features success stories.  It is about building a future, building bridges.

The Soda Stream video portrays what Joseph Montville coined “Track Two Diplomacy”:  non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals.  Track Two Diplomacy and the Soda Stream video are all about giving a voice to those most affected, letting them converse as ordinary human beings.

This approach was also endorsed at the UN yesterday by Bassem Eid, who founded the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group and who himself spent his first 33 years in the Shuafat refugee camp. He told those in attendance that what the Palestinians really seek is dignity.

Actually, cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians is pervasive, but it is under the radar. It does not make for sexy headlines and sound bites and therefore often goes unreported.  It does not further the BDS mission statement.  Yet, nonetheless, Israelis and Palestinians are working together on environmental projects and commercial ventures, in high tech and education, and in sports and the arts.  We need to support and spotlight this cooperation in order to build bridges.

Big Tents don’t work with a population under siege.  The BDS movement’s greatest success has been in fractionalizing the Jewish community and supporters of Israel.  The Big Tent approach actually places a traumatized and targeted population in one room, where each camp can theoretically voice its party line: It is akin to designating Woody Allen and Hannibal Lecter as party planners for the ultimate dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner, or, in this case, more appropriately, Seder meal.

The Big Tent concept will only work after we build bridges.

And you can be sure that the UN is not going to build those bridges.  Neither will UNRWA, which according to the UNjobfinder has 30,000 employees, with 10,000 in Gaza alone.  UNRWA’s primary concern is its own sustainability. Toward this end, it is actually more beneficial for UNRWA to support the construction of tunnels for terrorists—which it does—than enable the building of bridges.

Hearing Matisyahu sing “Jerusalem” and “One Day” at the General Assembly Hall of the UN in May 2016 was transcendent.

Next year, may the voice of Matisyahu once again ring out in the very same hall…together with a Palestinian singer or musician.

That would be a bridge that would really piss off the BDS movement.

About the Author
Sheryl Elias is a mediator and arbitrator. She has coordinated various Israel-related student initiatives.