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BDS, Inc.

The anti-Israel movement is suffering one defeat after another. So, why are so many Jewish activists—and donors—still obsessed with it?

Liel Leibovitz
April 01, 2016
Photo: Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images
People take part in a pro-Palestinian demonstration on October 10, 2015 in Paris, calling for a boycott of Israel and for the recognition of the State of Palestine. Photo: Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images
People take part in a pro-Palestinian demonstration on October 10, 2015 in Paris, calling for a boycott of Israel and for the recognition of the State of Palestine. Photo: Matthieu Alexandre/AFP/Getty Images

Attending a recent conference dedicated to blocking boycotts of Israel worldwide, seated on a dais festooned with small blue-and-white flags and red flowers, and flanked by the singer Idan Raichel and the actress Yael Abecassis, Israel’s most prominent producer, Shuki Weiss, was unamused. The Ministry of the Interior, he saidwith the expression of someone who had stuck his nose into a carton of long-expired milk, had recently asked Sir Elton John—the latest in a long series of international pop stars Weiss had successfully convinced to perform in Israel—to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish State prior to arrival. The idea, thankfully, was quickly nixed—the ministry has since deniedit was ever raised to begin with—but Weiss was still visibly rankled. This, he told the packed room, was not the way to fight BDS.

What, then, is? The answer isn’t clear, and the question itself has recently become controversial, as BDS—a movement pushing boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel—has become an effective lightning rod for many in the organized Jewish community. While nearly all agree that efforts to single out Israel for opprobrium are dubious at best if not outright anti-Semitic, larger issues prevail: Does BDS still matter? Or is it time, now that the movement has been quashed in one state legislature after another and defeated in key academic organizations, to move on and fight bigger and more important battles?

In recent years, the struggle against BDS has become big business. Founded in 2001, StandWithUs, by far the largest organization currently committed to the cause, raked in nearly $11 million in 2014, according to the organization’s tax records, a number that continues to grow. Based in Los Angeles, StandWithUs currently has 18 chapters in the United States, Canada, the U.K., and Israel; and it is committed, said its co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein, not primarily to combating anti-Israel campaigns but to educating people “in all segments of society about Israel, about the tactics and goals of the boycott movement, and about tangible ways to combat extremists who promote bigotry against the State of Israel and its supporters.” Recent victories against BDS, she said—including official resolutions in Canada, Florida, and Paris—may signify the end of some battles but not of the war. “Anti-Israel activists,” Rothstein said, “don’t care that much about losing votes.”

Hardly anyone in America’s organized pro-Israel community doubts this diagnosis, but some are arguing that organizations like StandWithUs are calling more attention than is necessary to a problem that can be solved more efficiently, modestly, and economically. The BDS movement clothes anti-Semitic invective in the language of human rights, but while it is effective in exciting the already excitable on campus, it has had very little success elsewhere, while those who care about Israel have been registering real-world victories by going from state to state and passing legislation that forces companies to disassociate themselves from BDS or forfeit government investment. Even on campus, the prowess of the BDS movement is debatable: Recent unpublished polling I’ve seen suggested that awareness of BDS on college campuses is far from universal, and some intimately associated with the fight against Israel’s detractors on campus believe that the BDS movement, while toxic and disturbing, has run its course.

With that in mind, some critics are arguing that the tens of millions of dollars the Jewish community now spends fighting BDS, especially on college campuses, has become the BDS movement’s advertising budget, transforming a nasty and unimportant political cult into a heavyweight figure in an international debate.

“The campus BDS movement is surely unpleasant, but it’s a fringe movement that can dealt with quietly and dispassionately,” said one top official at a large American Jewish organization, who asked to remain nameless. “Jewish organizations that get publicly hysterical about campus BDS elevate its profile far more than anti-Israel groups ever could. Take StandWithUs. They have a budget of around $10 million, much of which they spend talking about campus BDS as some kind of threat to the future of Israel. That’s vastly more than what anti-Israel groups can afford to spend hyping up BDS, even if you combine most of them.” (Rothstein denied spending a significant portion of her organization’s budget talking about campus BDS, and said in a statement that StandWithUs was focused on educating the public about Israel and, on campuses where BDS campaigns exist, on empowering activists on the ground).

The recent legislative successes, the official added, were all achieved on a small budget, and while they may not excite as much enthusiasm as other, high-profile scuffles on campus they carry much more real weight as they impact the distribution of enormous state budgets. That, the official concluded, was a much more efficient, and less destructive, way to fight BDS.

And yet, while its influence may have begun to wane—and is limited largely to campus life—BDS continues to excite activists and donors, for obvious reasons. “Of course people are passionate about campus BDS,” said Omri Ceren, a managing director at The Israel Project, a DC-based pro-Israeli group. “They have family dinners, and they talk to their children, and they hear about campus boycott referendums, and pro-Israel speakers being shouted down, and fake eviction notices being left under students’ dorm doors. It’s perfectly normal for them to be concerned about those issues.”

Such immediacy, Ceren added, makes it understandable that concerns about campus anti-Israel activism were prominent motivations for donors to become engaged with Jewish groups. “Fathers and mothers hear about how their kids were harassed at school by anti-Semites, and they want to do what they can to make that stop.”

Fighting the war on campus, however, is far murkier than lobbying local government, as it involves a foe largely unconcerned with veracity, decency, and other pillars of academic life. The anti-Israel movement in colleges and universities, said Jacob Baime, the CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition—a network of pro-Israeli students and faculty members that boasts a large number of successful campaigns to defeat anti-Israel measures in American academia—has tried to tether itself “to a broader set of issues that have great currency in the campus environment, such as racial, gender, and economic equality. We have seen how a handful of students, faculty, and outside agitators can turn a campus into a hostile and challenging place for pro-Israel students. They shift tactics constantly, and they are not interested in preserving the reputation of the campuses on which they operate. To the contrary, they want to make each campus a no-go zone for pro-Israel students. We will not succumb to this kind of intimidation, and we reject such false choices.”

But while those who, like Baime, fight BDS on campus are right to point out the movement’s vile nature, an argument could also be made that those who support Israel couldn’t have hoped for a better opponent. Most Americans, after all, believe in the simple and logical notion that the Jewish state has a right to exist just like any other, and that like any other state it, too, must obey international law. The BDS movement goes heavy on the second part of this equation while negating the first: Its aim is to eliminate a currently existing nation state by appealing to international law to make a special case of Israel alone, a hypocritical approach that has repulsed even some on the radical left who, like the critic and academic Norman Finkelstein, are fervent opponents of Israel’s policies in Judea and Samaria. That being the case, propping up the most cartoonish, logically flawed, and politically stunted version of our enemies may not be an altogether faulty strategy.

Still, it’s worthwhile remembering that BDS is still largely an on-campus phenomenon, at least in the United States, and that while campuses everywhere remain fraught environments, the picture just outside the quad is far rosier: Seven in 10 Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, view Israel favorably, while only 18 percent side with the Palestinians. With such overwhelming proof of public sympathy, why continue to fret about the limited efforts of a few bigots?

The answer, at least in Israel, may be concrete gain: Since late last year, Yair Lapid, the charismatic Israeli TV personality-turned-politician, has been beating the BDS drum, a move that helped restore his fortunes: Having won a deeply disappointing 11 seats in the last parliamentary elections in 2015, Lapid is currently polling at 21 seats or more, and is favored by Israeli pundits as the only viable candidate who could potentially defeat Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s not hard to see why Lapid has suddenly become so popular: Embarking on creative campaigns like traveling to Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport and distributing flyers with pro-Israel talking points to travelers about to depart for Europe and elsewhere, Lapid has excelled in portraying Israel as a besieged nation in the throes of a fight for survival. “In this war,” goes one of his catch phrases, “we are all emissaries.”

But Lapid’s anti-BDS rants hardly correspond to much in observable reality, at least those parts of it that ought to consider serious political hopefuls. As Arik Greenstein noted in the excellent Israeli online magazine Mida, Israel’s diplomatic standing is far from disastrous: Relations with leading global players like India and Japan are growing tighter, and regional collaborations with neighbors like Egypt are as well. Even Europe, widely believed by many Israelis to be incurably infected with anti-Semitic zeal, is, in many important ways, far from rejecting the Jewish State: Sajid Javid, for example, the British Business, Innovation, and Skills Minister, recently called ours “a golden era” in UK-Israel trade, and diplomatic and economic ties are just as sturdy between Israel and Germany, two nations that do approximately $6 billion in tradeeach year. As Paul Scham, the executive director of the Joseph & Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, put it in a recent op-ed, “It may seem counterintuitive, or even downright strange, but Israel’s geopolitical position is probably stronger now than at any time in the country’s history.” And this strength, Scham believes, will only continue to grow.

How convincing are such arguments? To judge by the success of Lapid or StandWithUs, not very: Ours is a moment of fear and loathing, and the loud vulgarities of Israel’s bigoted detractors on campus, no matter how trivial, are likely to continue and excite more outrage, more votes, and more cash than any other legislative or economic triumph, no matter how concrete.

Correction: This story has been amended to include additional comments from StandWithUs following publication.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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