At Summit to Counter BDS Movement, J Street Feels the Heat

At the event hosted by Israel’s UN mission and the World Jewish Congress, anti-BDS activists who still oppose settlements were told their group is anti-Semitic.

Delegates at the summit for countering BDS, United Nations, New York, March 30, 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

NEW YORK It was a sharply undiplomatic conclusion to the BDS summit aimed at forging strategies to overcome the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in social media and on campuses. At the end of Wednesday's proceedings hosted by Israel’s UN mission and the World Jewish Congress at UN headquarters, two students from J Street U asked a question.

One student from Barnard and one from Princeton asked what they could say to fellow students who oppose the occupation to convince them that BDS is wrong. Once the pair identified themselves as being from J Street U, hisses sounded throughout the large UN hall.

Then came the most popular line of the day. Though some speakers throughout the day urged anti-BDS activists to work with progressives to reach left-leaning students, Alan Clemmons, a Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives, apparently felt otherwise.

“I personally believe that the organization you’re representing is an anti-Semitic organization that chooses to ignore the law and reality to push back on Israel and the Jewish nation,” he responded to the J Street U students. “There is no illegal occupation.” Many of the more than 2,000 people in attendance gave him whoops of support and a standing ovation.

During a day that was part pep rally and part training for anti-BDS student activists, speakers included the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, Jewish Agency chairman and former refusenik Natan Sharansky, and Jew for Jesus attorney Jay Sekulow. They all assured attendees that BDS was losing and Israel winning.

A not-so-subtle subtext to the summit seemed to be to demonstrate Israel’s support inside the halls of the very body that so frequently condemns it. As Israel's UN ambassador Danny Danon put it, the United Nations adopted 20 resolutions condemning Israel in 2016, compared with six for all the other nations of the world.

Haley pledged U.S. support. “We should boycott North Korea. We should divest from Syria, not Israel. It makes no sense. Know that you have a friend in the UN and know that you now have a friend and a fighter in the U.S.,” she said to an enthusiastic audience.

Participants at a summit to counter BDS, United Nations, New York, March 29, 2017.
Shahar Azran / WJC

The CEO of the World Jewish Congress, Robert Singer, sounded a confident call. “Let me tell you this: We are winning more and more battles,” he said. “In the past few years, 17 U.S. states have passed legislation against BDS . At the federal level, Congress passed a law that opposes politically motivated actions that penalize or otherwise limit commercial relations with Israel, such as BDS . The BDS movement has also suffered significant losses in Canada, the U.K., France and Spain . Once again I will say it loud and clear:| Operation Fightback is underway, and we are winning.”

The battle against apathy

Danon struck a more cautious tone. “The BDS movement is still active and still strong. Every day, academic and religious groups, student unions and investment firms are all falling prey to boycott calls. They want to strip stores of Israeli products, force musicians to cancel their concerts in Israel and bully companies into abandoning Israeli markets,” he said.

“The danger of BDS is not in their numbers or even in their threats. It is in their ability to cower us into silence. If we do not stand up strongly if we do not speak the truth on campuses, in the boardroom and here in the UN, they will win,” Dannon added.

“If students don’t have the proper tools, they will choose to stay in the library rather than standing up for Israel during Apartheid Week. They hope that apathy will take over and that they will slowly turn the world against Israel .You must remember that silence is weakness. Silence is defeat.  We are all here today to say that we cannot, we will not, be silent!”

Many in the audience had come from New York-area Jewish schools, from an Orthodox girls’ yeshiva in Long Island and another in New Jersey, and from Abraham Joshua Heschel High School and other pluralistic day schools in the region. The event clearly cost a tidy sum; nine Israeli journalists were flown in to cover the summit, and there was a fancy VIP luncheon for speakers and the media. The organizers claimed ignorance when asked about the budget.

And while the summit’s motto was “Build Bridges, Not Boycotts,” many audience members appeared to have trouble doing so even within the Jewish community.

Anti-BDS bag at a summit to counter the movement, New York, March 30, 2017.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

The big applause for Clemmons’ criticism of J Street U was a painful moment for the students representing that liberal Zionist organization that opposes settlement building in the West Bank and lobbies for American support of the two-state solution.

“We knew the space was going to be right of center based on a lot of the sponsors, but we definitely were not expecting anyone to call J Street anti-Semitic,” said Rikki Baker Keusch, a senior at the University of Chicago and J Street U’s vice president for the Midwest. Keusch, who was born in Israel and remains a citizen, was one of 15 J Street U students present. “It felt pretty shocking,” she told Haaretz.

A yearning for all the land

Event sponsors included organizations like CAMERA on Campus, the Zionist Organization of America and the Maccabee Task Force, but also centrist groups like Hillel International and the American Jewish Committee.

One sentiment articulated by both Clemmons and the ZOA’s Mort Klein had wide support in the audience, judging by the standing ovations: All of biblical Israel belongs to the modern State of Israel and  “the occupation is a lie,” as Klein put it.

J Street U member Brooke Davies said in a statement afterward that “we hope that they will recognize that the approach to Israel advocacy that we saw on display at the summit is leading to a disastrous dead end . We urge them to join us in a new approach, actively working to ensure Israel’s Jewish and democratic future by opposing the injustices of the occupation and advocating for a two-state solution. As we made clear today, change is urgently needed.”

The J Street U students, who all wore T-shirts identifying the organization, were instructed to cover up the logo, said J Street U staffer Orren Arad-Neeman. “We were asked by a security guard and one of the event organizers to cover them up when we tried to take a photo. It’s unclear exactly why,” she told Haaretz.

The conference contained another surprise, though this was less noticeable to most in attendance.

Sekulow, a featured speaker at the summit’s main session, is a Jew turned Christian who has defended Jews for Jesus at the U.S. Supreme Court and sat on Jews for Jesus’ board.

While now a longtime evangelical Christian, at the BDS summit Sekulow sounded as Jewish as ever. “I am Shmuel Sekulow’s grandson,” he said. “I am the grandson of a root peddler in Brooklyn who came from Russia.”

Sekulow and his organization American Center for Law & Justice have been deeply involved in defending right-wing pro-Israel groups. He currently represents the Gush Etzion Foundation, one of over a dozen Israel-related defendants in a lawsuit brought by Bassem al-Tamimi and others contending that the groups are guilty of war crimes against Palestinians.

“As we read the Passover Haggadah in just a few weeks we recite the L’Dor Va’Dor. We thank God who has saved us and will do so again,” Sekulow said, adding that his father had died recently.

“I think of my father, the son of Shmuel. You ask me what I wish. It is Jerusalem. You ask me what I wish, it is the Temple,” he said, referring to the building of a Third Temple. “You ask me what I wish, it is our holy creed and customs. We fight for our creed, we fight for our ancient customs. And at the end of the day let me be crystal clear we win!”