The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is making progress because it possesses three weapons. It has the intellectual high ground after a half-century of tireless effort to shape the discourse, even as friends of Israel thought it was enough to have the attention of VIP ears. It has a global social movement led by experienced activists in a myriad of civil society organizations, while friends of Israel have preferred consultants, branding and PR. And – this is a reproach from a lifelong friend of Israel – it has Israeli politicians whose policies, rhetoric and tone too often creates an environment in which BDS can flourish.
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Disarming the BDS movement of each weapon is the key to beating it.
In partnership with many others, my organization, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, also known as BICOM, has pioneered a new, long-term approach to defeating BDS movement. We combine deep intellectual counter-framing, resonant with the values of our key audiences, via our online journal Fathom, with a ferocious ground war waged by We Believe in Israel, a hub of grassroots activity networked with a myriad of civil society groups. Both are linked closely to long-term dialogue and relationship-building with the UK’s elite opinion formers and decision makers.
But we need help from Israel.
If Israel wants to keep the BDS movement from turning it into a pariah state, it must understand that the single biggest driver of perceptions of Israel in the center ground is Israeli policy, actions and statements, especially regarding the Palestinians, Israel’s Arab citizens and Israel’s liberal democracy. Fair or unfair, the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state is tied to its commitment to a viable Palestinian state – and this commitment has to be credible.
Israel does not have to solve the conflict to beat BDS, but it does have to show it is serious about solving it.
Many BDS supporters put their weight behind the campaign only after they come to view Israel as an “apartheid state” engaged in, as the prominent left-wing Israeli professor Ilan Pappe puts it, “incremental genocide” of the Palestinians. A network of serious public intellectuals in the West have spread demonizing ideas about Israel since the 1960s, to the point where support of Israel has lost the intellectual high ground, certainly in those places where the liberal left is dominant.
A growing slice of European elite opinion now seems to think Israel is best represented by terms like “settler colonialism,” “ethnic cleansing,” “Nakba,” “apartheid state,” “ethnocracy,” “war crimes” and “Zionism is racism.” Today, the young idealist trapped inside that conceptual prison sees BDS as a reasonable political response. Tomorrow, the center ground itself will be threatened.
When Israel is largely perceived as being serious about giving up settlements and dividing the land, even if an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is not going to happen tomorrow, then BDS will remain a fringe activity. But when Israel is largely seen as not being serious about dividing the land, or plain opposed to it, then the BDS explanation of the conflict (Israel doesn’t really want peace; it is eating the pizza while pretending to negotiate over it) becomes mainstream – an intellectual defeat for Israel. In addition, Israel faces political defeat in the international arena when the BDS movement moves into the mainstream its tactic of pressuring Israel from the outside, through boycott, divestment, sanctions, parliamentary votes to recognize Palestine and so on.
Israeli policy towards Gaza is critical here. Each Israeli military operation to restore deterrence sees another chunk of European elite opinion slide away, like a coastline falling into the sea. Each is a legitimate act of self-defense against a fascistic enemy, but each is also an opportunity for the Israel demonizers to recruit more mainstream politicians and opinion formers to their side. In terms of global public opinion, when Israel “mows the lawn” in Gaza, it leaves behind scorched earth in Europe.
Israeli rhetoric and style matter too. The world is obsessed with Israel, and we live in a 24/7 global media age. That means there can be no purely domestic messages anymore. Every dog whistle is heard around the world. As the New Left used to say, when it comes to Israel, “the whole world is watching.”
Anti-BDS campaigns like those of BICOM do the best they can, but they need Israel’s help. Such campaigns need to resonate with what people hear from Jerusalem. We can’t just make up an Israel and advocate for it.
Alan Johnson is a senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and the editor of its online journal, Fathom.