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Fighting BDS at the U.N.

Attendees gathered inside the U.N. General Assembly to discuss approaches to combating BDS. But was it productive?

Jesse Bernstein
June 01, 2016
Inside the U.N. General Assembly. Wikimedia
Inside the U.N. General Assembly. Wikimedia

There was an air of presentation at the “Building Bridges, Not Boycotts” convention at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, a first-of-its-kind gathering also known as Ambassadors Against BDS. Attendees were polite, perhaps overly so, as they shook the hands of stone-faced guards and hardly uttered a peep to one another about the sticky weather and long lines outside. We had gathered with the common goal of fighting BDS; to show the world that the movement was conclusively ill-conceived, ill-intentioned, and illegitimate. The program began with an address by Israel’s U.N. ambassador Danny Danon, and the vice president of Israel’s Supreme Court, Elyakim Rubinstein, who told the crowd of hundreds to be an ideological Iron Dome of sorts by shooting down false arguments and half-truths before they reached any impressionable BDS fence-sitters.

The problem being, of course, that there didn’t appear to be a fence-sitter among us. The debate centered on whether or not the day’s event—which Danon and others called “historic” again and again—actually meant anything. Was the event, co-hosted by Israel’s Mission to the United Nations and the World Jewish Congress, a Zionist celebration and triumph for the anti-BDS movement, or was the day a mere pep rally for those already strongly in the anti-BDS camp?

For those who were alive when the U.N. declared that Zionism was a form of racism, the sight of a big group of Jews (to my estimation it did not near the 1,500-2,000 mark, as many outlets reported) singing “Hatikvah” in the General Assembly Hall filled with “#StopBDS” nameplates, was an amazing sight. For many others, the idea that BDS was going to be properly combated by a conference of and for Jews seemed to be business as usual.

The morning session, which featured an 11 a.m. performance from Matisyahu (“Oh, you saw him at Stubb’s? Well saw him in the U.N. General Assembly Hall”), speeches from Danon, Rubinstein, WJC President Ronald Lauder, and Jay Sekulow, the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, were well received, if not for the content than simply for the spectacle. It was the afternoon sessions that really had people listening.

At “Fighting BDS on Campus,” one of the two breakout sessions, marketing experts David Sable and Frank Luntz were the first to acknowledge the elephant in the room—or, perhaps, it’s the elephant that wasn’t in the room: the fact that the crowd was overwhelmingly Jewish. How would BDS be stopped, they asked, by Jews speaking to Jews?

Speaking from a branding and PR point-of-view, they asked the assemblage to consider the ways in which they spoke about BDS to non-Jews and college students, emphasizing that moralizing, offering platitudes about “the most moral army in the world,” and combating the distortions of the BDS movement have been shown over and over again to immediately turn people off. With Danon looking on, Sable and Luntz each pleaded with the crowd not to do what the Israeli ambassador had spent the morning doing: spouting facts and refusing to empathize, an approach that Sable and Luntz politely skewered.

SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum, whose company has been a BDS target, also spoke, and, as crass as he came off, made similar points by speaking to the importance of cooperation, e.g. reaching out where people least expect, speaking with people from a place of universal ideas about human rights rather than from a purely Jewish or Israeli perspective. Birnbaum was followed by powerful accounts from Mossab Hassan Yousef, son of a major Hamas leader turned Shin Bet operative, and Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist, and others, all of whom largely stuck to the morning script. But by that point the divide—between informed pragmatism and sticking your head in the sand—had already been illustrated, providing, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

Jesse Bernstein is a former Intern at Tablet.

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