One of Israel’s biggest newspapers staged the country’s first national conference against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement this week in Jerusalem. Yedioth Ahronoth and its website Ynet organized a day-long event that featured the majority of leading Israeli politicians and many cultural figures. Fear, paranoia, anger and determination was ubiquitous amongst the panelists and audience. BDS could never have imagined a more high-profile advertisement for its agenda.
Co-sponsored by Sodastream, World Jewish Congress, Bank Hapoalim and StandWithUs, who are organizing their own anti-BDS event in Los Angeles in April, the aim of the day was to counter the worldwide growth of BDS. The organizers stated that, “without knives or missiles but with an explosive payload consisting of outrageous lies – genocide, apartheid and crimes against humanity – the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is conquering a growing number of strongholds in Europe, the United States and elsewhere. From the campuses of California to the supermarkets of Paris, the academic, economic and cultural boycott is becoming a palpable threat to the international status of the State of Israel.”
Held in the Jerusalem Convention Center, hundreds of young and old participants from across the globe were treated to a collection of images in the foyer mocking the intentions of BDS supporters. One picture featured two black Africans standing on dry land while pro-Palestinian flotillas headed out to sea in the opposite direction. “Let’s wave these, maybe we’ll get some support, too”, one of the impoverished looking Africans said to the other while holding Palestinian flags. Another image showed an Israeli soldier saying to what was presumably a Palestinian woman, “Ho, cute baby.” A man sitting in a director’s chair labelled BDS shouts, “Cut! We need more hatred! The world won’t buy that!”
The professionally organized conference was slick. Throughout the day, short videos with ominous music were shown to the crowd. The clips were of BDS supporters, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti (a name repeatedly mentioned during the day, including threats to remove his permanent resident status), global protests against Israel and musicians who refuse to play in the Jewish state.
Speaker after speaker either confirmed the BDS threat or said it shouldn’t be exaggerated. There was confusion how to tackle a problem that couldn’t be destroyed by conventional military means. Yedioth Ahronoth Editor-in-Chief Ron Yaron said that BDS should not be underestimated. There was a “feeling that you have been marked…We don’t want to wake up in 10 years to find ourselves in a position like apartheid South Africa.” He quickly dismissed any comparison between the two nations.
An “information kit for Israelis studying abroad” was available listing the “lies” and “truth” about Israel. It’s a curious document. While acknowledging that, “not every closing of every store in Hebron is fair and not every delay at every checkpoint is justifiable”, occupation (though this word isn’t used) is still sugar-coated. “In spite of the obvious improvements in the lives of Palestinians from 1967 until today, Israeli rule has also created serious issues for Palestinians.” The 1948 Nakba is explained away as “there were some instances of expulsions [but] these were not the rule.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, hailed as a moderate in some of the American media despite recently meeting with members of Lev HaOlam (a group dedicated to supporting businesses in the occupied West Bank), condemned BDS. “The BDS movement is a movement founded on the non-acceptance of Israel’s existence”, he said. “We must differentiate between criticism and de-legitimization. We must show the world the claims of the BDS movement are based on hatred and enmity of the State of Israel.” Rivlin praised Israel’s democratic nature and “one of the most ethical armies in the world”. He closed his remarks by saying that, “the Israeli flag should be held high and we should be proud”. The crowd cheered.
Ron Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, told the gathering that, “our enemies have failed to destroy Israel militarily and economically. Having failed, they are trying to destroy Israel politically.” He accused “well-financed anti-Israel groups” of poisoning the minds of Jews on US campuses. “Most Jewish students are ill-equipped to defend themselves”, he argued. The irony was lost on the crowd that the US Zionist community has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to polish Israel’s image with little discernable effect. There’s no evidence that BDS groups have received any comparable financial backing.
Lauder pledged to push the US Congress and other nations “to make economic boycotts illegal.” There are signs that the US Congress is taking note and pushing to criminalize constitutionally protected speech and non-violent resistance. France is leading the way with other countries likely to follow. Such legislation guarantees BDS activists will break the law and challenge its moral and legal basis.
Successive politicians slammed BDS and never mentioned the occupation (a word that only appeared during the day when questioning BDS allegations against Israel). Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan linked BDS to jihadism and Islamist terrorism, a connection repeatedly made across every panel. “Supporters of BDS justify their actions because of the ‘occupation,’ but if we really look at them, they also wave Hamas flags and call for the destruction of the State of Israel. This fight is not over any particular thing in our lives – but over our right to live here.” Erdan was pleased that every US Presidential candidate spoke out against BDS at the recent AIPAC conference in Washington DC. “Not Bernie Sanders”, he said, “but I’m sure he’ll be against it, too…With the help of God and you all, we will succeed.” Erdan recently claimed that BDS was a threat “to the international community” as well as Israel.
Haaretz journalist and commentator Gideon Levy has written for years that the majority of the Israeli media are mouthpieces for the government of the day. They may disagree with certain policies now and then but in the end they’ll side with Israel’s pro-occupation regime. The anti-BDS conference offered more evidence to prove Levy’s point. Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Ben Dror Yemini praised Israel’s democracy and relished “exposing” critics “who publish lies”. Another Yedioth reporter, Ronen Bergman, after recounting one of his Israeli intelligence sources “recently telling me that we can fight Hizbollah, Iran and its nukes but we haven’t yet defeated BDS; it’s a strategic challenge for the Israeli state”, asked whether “we defeat BDS like we did Hamas and Islamic Jihad 15 years ago [during a wave of suicide bombings]?”
One of the more predictably disappointing speakers was EU Ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, who was recently defamed in a video by Israeli settlers comparing him to Hannibal Lector. After refusing pro-Palestinian activists request to withdraw from appearing on stage with Dani Dayan, former head of the settler movement and just appointed Israeli consul-general in New York, his comments were timid. After stating that EU policy towards the settlements was that they were illegal, he continued: “Our policy is engagement with Israel. We are Israel’s largest trade partner, and we are Israel’s most important international partner in science, technology, and the list goes on.”
He was asked if an Israeli company had offices or factories in both Israel and the occupied territories was reason to label its product from the settlements (as is now happening in the EU with products from the West Bank). He said no. “Settlement products are welcome on the EU market”, he stated, undermining any effort to hold Israeli companies to account.
A flurry of Israeli politicians appeared, mouthed anti-BDS platitudes and left the building. Labor Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog, who recently proposed a policy of forcibly separating from the Palestinians, praised the IDF as “working to the highest goals” and compared BDS to classic anti-Semitism. Yair Lapid hoped to “motivate the start-up nation”.
Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon said there was “no evidence that the Israeli economy was affected” by BDS though pledged to help any Israeli company that was. Israeli farmer Bar Heffetz recently wrote on Facebook that BDS was having an effect on sales to Europe. Kahlon said that Palestinians were the ones suffering the most from BDS “as the boycott harms the exports from the settlements, where most of the workers are Palestinians.” Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said it was fashionable to “be vegan and hate on Israel” and wanted Israel to “change its policies [and] support the IDF as a moral and strong army.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett wanted Israel to “change the narrative and highlight our strong points. Trade with Europe is up and Israel is a steady light tower in an Arab storm.”
Challenging the official position that BDS wasn’t harming the Israeli economy, a panel with Israel’s leading industrialists argued otherwise. Former Intel Israeli President Shmuel Eden said that BDS was a “terrible threat” and “we are losing young, Jewish Americans”. Michael Jonas, CEO of Afek Oil and Gas, accused BDS of “terror” and expressed displeasure that many Arab states didn’t recognize its drilling in the occupied Golan Heights. Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of Sodastream, said Israel was in a “war” and denied that his company’s recent move to open a new plant in the Negev had any connection to BDS pressure (a contrary position to what he argued last year). “We needed a bigger plant and in the Negev, one hour from Ramallah, gives Palestinians work. This isn’t an apartheid state; we need co-existence.” Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss Group, urged more publicity about US and Israeli ties. “I grow in pride when people around the world drink Sodastream”, she said.
A sign of the anti-BDS campaign’s desperation was asking American actress and comedian Roseanne Barr to give the keynote address. She has a history of defaming Islam. Her talk rambled between accusing BDS of being “fascist” and “right-wing” and denying Israel was occupying any Palestinian territory at all (a position shared by virtually all of the day’s speakers). The crowd cheered throughout her talk. “It’s a huge turn-on being in service as a Jew”, she said to applause.
A panel dedicated to “beating the boycott movement on social media” consisted of mostly StandWithUs employees. “Strategic consultant” Chen Mazig, self-described “good friend” of Roseanne Barr, called prominent Palestinian writer and tweeter Ali Abunimah “a raving fanatic, a lunatic. He hates Jews”. Honest Reporting CEO Joe Hyams wanted the audience to “focus on the 85%-90% of people [online] who are undecided about Israel”. His organization routinely publishes propaganda for the IDF.
By late afternoon, and the program running overtime, US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, repeated US talking points about Israel and vigorously opposed BDS. Interestingly, he urged Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians because, “when we have such a tool, our hand is strengthened, not with the core advocates of BDS, who have a truly anti-Israel agenda independent of the conflict, but with those who are persuadable, and there are significant numbers of such people.” It was a theme repeated by Tzipi Livni earlier in the day. BDS would apparently suffer if at least the illusion of peace talks took place.
Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, a hard-right politician who has called all Palestinian people the “enemy”, said that “justice ministers around the world are great friends of Israel. They all love Israel and want to cooperate with it, especially in light of Israel’s experience in the war against terrorism.” She’s right; this co-operation is deepening and will likely continue to do so after more attacks like the ones recently suffered in Europe.
By day’s end, with all the fish, chicken, salad and marzipan chocolate eaten, the final session was about the cultural boycott of Israel and how to beat it. Actress Yael Abecassis said that she was a “spokesperson [for Israel] as soon as I leave the house, when I leave the country. We are all soldiers.” Musician Idan Raichel said that BDS activists had never successfully cancelled his performances. Producer Shuki Weiss, who revealed that Elton John was asked to sign an Israeli loyalty pledge before his show in Tel Aviv, said that few international musicians were listening to the BDS call by former Pink Floyd member Roger Waters.
It was a surreal day, filled with determination to defeat BDS, but participants were seemingly incapable of truly understanding why the movement was surging globally. Anti-Semitism was the oft-stated reason. The current mood in Jewish Israel is nationalistic, belligerent, fearful and contemptuous of Palestinians, pro-military and intolerant of dissent. International media is being blamed for Israel’s poor global standing.
BDS is working. Israeli companies are increasingly moving out of the West Bank to avoid being boycotted (though corporate media outlets like the Financial Times continue to produce plush spreads about the “start-up nation”). In many ways, the West Bank and Israel are already indivisible politically and morally; it’s one state with Jews and Arabs facing different rights and laws. Israel proper is complicit in establishing and deepening the West Bank colonies. De-facto annexation of the West Bank is happening today. Gaza remains broken.
The fact that this anti-BDS event happened at all, after years of Zionist groups and the Israeli government claiming the movement was irrelevant, was a clear sign that BDS has started to bite. Mossad is already pushing a cyberwar against BDS activists. The anti-BDS conference revealed that there are few strategies being contemplated apart from more money for US campuses to spread Israeli propaganda and funds to better sell the country’s supposed benefits to an increasingly skeptical world.
There’s no doubt that draconian legislation against BDS could hamper the movement’s rise in the short term, and BDS leaders could be targeted by political, social or military means, but the underlying trajectory of Israel is clear. The US and its allies are now supporting the “first signs of fascism in Israel”, Gideon Levy recently said. BDS will continue to grow globally because Israel is helping its cause on a daily basis.