Israel Presents: How to Fight BDS the Wrong Way

It's good that the government acknowledged threat posed by boycott, but trying to battle it with legislation and silencing alone is destructive.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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An Egyptian boycott activist holds a BDS pin (illustrative).
An Egyptian boycott activist holds a BDS pin (illustrative).Credit: AP
Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

The Israeli government discovered America this week. After long years in which the Israeli establishment dismissed the risk of a diplomatic tsunami, the diplomatic tsunami has suddenly become the new existential threat. After a long decade in which the national camp acted as if there was no boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, BDS has suddenly become the main event. The dramatic declaration by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the new appointment of Gilad Erdan as minister of public diplomacy, and the ambitious anti-BDS initiative by Sheldon Adelson have placed the problem of the delegitimization of Israel at the top of Israel’s agenda.

That’s a good thing. Better late than never. As someone who has been trying for a long time to get Jerusalem to internalize the problem of America’s younger generation, I’m very pleased that the penny has finally dropped.

But the Israeli government still hasn’t really discovered America. The concepts it is using are yesterday’s concepts and the tools it is trying to operate are yesterday’s tools. It doesn’t understand the context in which BDS is operating, and doesn’t understand the way it works and the source of its power. Lacking this understanding of the battleground and the nature of the campaign, this new initiative will be an utter failure.

The long months that I spent on dozens of American college campuses taught me that while the BDS movement is indeed growing rapidly, its scope is still limited. Even on the most radical campuses the number of students committed to an active struggle against Israel is never more than a few dozen or at most, a few hundred.

The success of BDS stems from its ability to hook up with various minority groups — African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and sometimes queer and feminist groups. This strategic use of minorities by Israel-bashers has a double effect. On the one hand, it triples, quadruples and quintuples the number of boycott supporters, while on the other hand it puts Jews who defend Israel in a bind, because they are accused of racism and supporting human rights violations.

Since this is the case, efforts to battle this new enemy with legislation and silencing alone are destructive. They merely intensify the false image of Israel as Goliath and the distorted image of the Jewish community as an aggressive establishment body. In the end, the struggle is for people’s awareness and their hearts. Only if Israel can convince young Jews and non-Jews that it is democratic, liberal, and peace-seeking will it be able to break through the tightening blockade.

Netanyahu, Erdan, and Adelson have to internalize a truth that for them is a bitter truth: The battle is a battle for the left and the fight is a fight within the left, which means that anyone who despises the left can’t win it. Ninety percent of the young people I met at the universities are Democrats who support U.S. President Barack Obama. Trying to sell them the Gush Emunim agenda won’t work. Only a liberal Zionist message can foment change. Only liberal Zionists can generate enthusiasm and provide inspiration. Only Israelis who believe in the two-state solution can confront those Israel-haters who believe in exactly what the right believes in – one state.

Therefore, to overcome the BDS movement we need a two-pronged strategy; we need to be generous with the Palestinians while telling Israel’s impressive and just story; we need to acknowledge the right of our neighbors to self-determination, while denouncing anyone who denies our right to live as sovereigns in our historic homeland.

The profound failure of Israel’s public diplomacy over the past generation is not technical or coincidental. It stems from the fact that most of those fighting for Israel do not speak the language of human rights, and those who speak the language of human rights are not fighting for Israel. This has to change immediately. Only if we return ourselves to the right side of history can we sustain ourselves within history and ensure the future.

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