There's Only One Way to Counter the Boycott Movement

Recruiting professional anti-BDS advocates isn't going to stem the campaign's growing momentum.

Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen
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Michael Felsen
Michael Felsen

San Francisco’s Jewish Vocational Service is advertising a part-time job available with that city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. The position: “Counter-BDS Grassroots Organizer.” Job duties: “The ideal candidate will assist in the design and implementation of a comprehensive grassroots education and advocacy program for campuses and the community, utilizing the Bay Area laboratory to advance national efforts to counter the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement.”

In one sense, the creation and posting of this position shouldn’t come as a surprise. BDS – whether directed at products produced by Israelis in the West Bank, or at Israel more generally - has long been a sharp thorn in the side of the institutional U.S. Jewish community. More than three years ago, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched a multimillion-dollar joint initiative to combat it. The $6 million, three-year initiative, called the Israel Action Network, was designed to develop a rapid-response team charged with countering BDS, a movement seen as an existential threat to the State of Israel, second only, some said, to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

It’s three years later, and BDS, in its various shapes and forms, persists. From the artists’ boycott of performances in the Ariel settlement, joined by the likes of Theodore Bikel, to Peter Beinart’s 'Zionist boycott' of Israeli products made in the West Bank, to the far broader 'global BDS' movement founded by Palestinian Omar Barghouti, this non-violent resistance tactic has, if anything, gained momentum.

Most recently, following some coverage last May when physicist Stephen Hawking opted not to attend Israel’s high-profile Presidential Conference, BDS is back in the news, with the 5000-member American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. As reported in the New York Times, that organization’s announcement “signal[ed] that a movement to isolate and pressure Israel that is gaining ground in Europe has begun to make strides in the United States.”

So, what is to be done? Is hiring a cadre of 'counter-BDS grassroots organizers' going to stem the tide?

Unlikely.

As long as the occupation continues and the Palestinian people continue to long for their state, the lifeblood of the BDS movement will continue to pulse. Which isn’t to say that all BDS proponents will be satisfied when two sovereign states - Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and Palestine as the homeland of its people - exist side by side, viably and securely. Even after a Palestinian state is established, some will doubtless remain scornful of Israel’s very existence. But what chance will they have of garnering anything but a paltry response, after a two-state peace accord is achieved? For all intents and purposes, the fuel for the fire will have been removed.

Hence, to 'counter BDS' the real solution lies not in improved hasbara, or in better strategies to convince the world that Israel is being unfairly singled out for pariah-state treatment. Rather, it’s in helping to clear the debris-strewn path to peace.

What should JCRCs, and American Jewish leaders, do to further this cause? First, they should speak to their communities about the urgent need to pull out all the stops in support of peace-making. They should mobilize their constituents to let their Congress-people and Israel’s leaders know that they support the efforts of the Obama administration to broker a just, comprehensive, and sustainable agreement. They should organize their members to tell their elected representatives that we, as American Jews, are counting on them to take whatever action they can to most effectively remove the barriers to peace.

They should also urge their communities to let Israeli and Palestinian leaders know that we, as Diaspora Jews, support both Israel as a secure homeland for the Jewish people and Palestine as a safe and viable homeland for its people, and that we expect both sides to demonstrate their stated commitment to a two-state solution by their actions. American Jews, for example, should be encouraged to convey the view that we count on Israeli leadership to remove, and not erect, obstacles to peace that are within their control. For example, further Israeli settlement development in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, before borders have been agreed, should be suspended. It’s provocative, unnecessary, and plainly obstructive to peacemaking. Jewish communities in the U.S., and their leaders, need to say so.

The overall message is simple: Peace – in the shape of two safe, secure, and viable states - is not only possible but necessary. American Jews need to help make it happen this time.

A final word to JCRCs, in San Francisco and beyond: Want to de-fang BDS? Hiring 'Counter-BDS Grassroots Organizers' isn’t going to work. Address the problem at its source. Hire a Grassroots Organizer for Peace.

Michael Felsen is an attorney and was, from 2007-2013, president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year old Jewish communal organization dedicated to Jewish education, culture, and social justice.

A demonstrator displays a sign reading "Boycott Israel, racist state" outside the Belgian foreign affairs building during a protest in Brussels, May 31, 2010. Credit: Reuters

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