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Beyond Brooklyn College: How and why Israel advocates are fighting BDS

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The Palestinians’ Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) campaign is making headlines, thanks to pro-Israel advocates’ attack on an event scheduled for tonight at Brooklyn College in New York. In a blow to the likes of Alan Dershowitz, the decision by the college’s political science department to co-sponsor the discussion on a boycott of Israel has been widely defended on the grounds of free speech, including by Mayor Bloomberg.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this sort of crude bullying is the main, let alone only, way that Zionist groups are fighting back against a growing movement for Palestinian rights. In fact, it is perhaps one of the least effective and counter-productive strategies, which the smarter Israel advocates have long since recognised. Here are some examples of how Israel and its supporters are targeting BDS (this is not a comprehensive list):

  • One method of fighting BDS is so-called ‘rebranding’, a strategy embraced for some years now. The aim, borrowing from the world of corporate public relations, is for Israel to “improve the country’s image abroad” by “creat[ing] a brand disconnected from the Arab-Israeli conflict that focuses instead on Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements”. In other words, war crimes, settlements and the Apartheid Wall are displaced by gay clubbing in Tel Aviv, high-tech start-ups, and Idan Raichel.
  • Another element in the fight against BDS, in terms of coordination and strategising, has been the Israel Foreign Ministry-organised Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism Antisemitism (yes, a supposedly ‘anti-racist’ gathering is used to fight Palestinian solidarity). In 2007, working groups addressed topics like “academic and economic boycotts: pre-emptive strategies”. At the 2009 meet, a working group described BDS as “traditional bigotry” and discussed a “five year plan” that included implementing “legislative prohibitions vs. BDS” taking into account “different legal traditions”.
  • A legal approach has also been deployed – for example, see the case brought against the University and College Union by Israel advocate Ronnie Fraser, recent efforts by the Californian state assembly, or the prosecution of French boycott activists.
  • A key recommendation by influential Israeli think tank The Reut Institute that has since been taken up by Israel advocacy groups is to ‘drive a wedge‘ between so-called ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. In other words, Israel lobbyists should target ‘problematic’ mainstream NGOs through private engagement and public attack, in an effort to scare them off from partnering with or having any links to Palestine solidarity and human rights groups.
  • There is also a large amount of resources being mobilised to specifically target BDS. Examples include, in North America, the Israel Action Network, who recently produced a new guide to ‘best practice’ in fighting boycott and divestment initiatives, and take individuals from key target groups out to Palestine/Israel for propaganda trips. In the UK, efforts are loosely coordinated by the ‘Fair Play‘ umbrella group, with organisations like BICOM also playing an important role.
  • Meanwhile, in Israel itself, activists who support the Palestinians’ BDS call have found themselves targeted by the security service the Shin Bet, while the Knesset has passed a law designed to stifle pro-boycott activity by Israeli citizens.

But what is it about BDS that makes it so dangerous from the point of view of Israel and its apologists? Again, here are some pointers:

  • BDS puts the focus right on Israel’s systematic, racist, illegal policies – and on the lived experience of the colonized. This is exactly where Israel’s supporters don’t want the focus to be, and they particularly don’t want the agenda to be set by the very people they are busy dispossessing.
  • The BDS call goes to the heart of the Zionist settler-colonial project with its three demands: end the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall; equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the right of Palestinian refugees to return. The status quo challenged by this call is that of a regime of privilege, apartheid, and exclusion, rooted in the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, manifesting itself today from Gaza and the Jordan Valley to East Jerusalem and the Negev.
  • Linked to BDS is a powerful apartheid analysis gaining traction even with the mainstream – it was even mentioned by CNN in their coverage of Israel’s elections.
  • BDS is about ending impunity and enforcing accountability for violations of international law and human rights – a red line for many Israel supporters of both ‘hawkish’ or ‘liberal’ persuasion.
  • BDS is catching on and getting ever more popular as a form of solidarity by activists, and not surprisingly: it’s action-focused, it galvanises and empowers, and it’s part of a global movement.
  • BDS is making an impact and notching up successes around the world – just look at news from the last two months.
  • BDS has even already begun to influence Israeli political discourse. Tzipi Livni’s election campaign included warnings that Benjamin Netanyahu was leading the country towards international isolation and sanctions.

There is no doubting that a lot of government and non-state actors’ resources are now being targeted at undermining BDS, smearing activists, and co-opting key people in governments, NGOs, trade unions and faith groups. But all this effort is a sign of BDS’ success – and until Israel ends its illegitimate policies, this so-called ‘delegitimisation’ will only grow.

This post originally appeared in Middle East Monitor.

Ben White
About Ben White

Ben White is author of 'Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide' and 'Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, discrimination and democracy'. Follow him on twitter at @benabyad and on his website

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27 Responses

  1. Chu
    February 7, 2013, 10:30 am

    “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,”

    Although Bloomberg made the effort on behalf of freedom of speech, he included that he is a big defender of Israel which seems to rubber stamp all of it’s criminal actions as ok.

    • American
      February 7, 2013, 3:19 pm

      Huum…..let me say again that it would be an excellent idea for all these zionist living in the US that say they believe in free speech and democracy US style– to move to Israel..seriously, they need to move to Israel and fight to install the same things there they have here in the US.
      It’s their country, let them go save it.

  2. yourstruly
    February 7, 2013, 10:33 am


    israel’s delegitimisation?

    the apartheid entity?

    not long for this world?

    with justice for palestine?

    arriving on time?

  3. Chu
    February 7, 2013, 10:36 am

    Max Blumenthol makes a great point about the hypocrisy of the NY reps opposing BDS, in that Dov Hikund (#1 Brklyn Bolshie commissar) was standing behind all of these political tools during the January 31 press conference. If you know Hikund at all, you know he cares little about the greater good of New York nation. (Even Hophmi doesn’t care for him.)

    Blumenthol: “If the lawmakers had in fact gathered to take a principled stand against “hate” and “terrorism,” they chose a curious figure to stand behind. Indeed, the press conference was organized by a man who has been suspected by the FBI of involvement in several terrorist bombings and who was a top cadre in an organization currently identified by the FBI as a “violent extremist Jewish organization.” He is Dov Hikind, a Democratic State Asssemblyman who, despite his links to acts of terrorism and violence against racial minorities, has emerged as a political kingmaker in New York State politics. With his ability to deliver thousands of Russian and Orthodox Jewish votes to the candidates of his choice, often deciding hotly contested elections, Hikind had no trouble marshaling high-level opposition to Brooklyn College’s scheduled BDS event.”

  4. Avi_G.
    February 7, 2013, 10:39 am

    Kudos, Ben White. Thanks for this comprehensive analysis.

    • Castellio
      February 7, 2013, 1:40 pm

      I wish it were comprehensive.

      It leaves out the on-going integration of national Jewish organizations with the interests of the current Israeli state. For example, the Canadian Jewish Congress, at one time a national voice for all Canadian Jews, has been folded into the The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. The name change says it all, and directly reflects the priorities of the organization. This has happened world-wide. The fight against BDS is being fought, bitterly, through a series of actions by the national Jewish organizations, fully informed by current Israeli state interests.

      • Avi_G.
        February 8, 2013, 5:47 am

        It leaves out the on-going integration of national Jewish organizations with the interests of the current Israeli state.

        After more than 65 years, I think that’s a given at this stage. Good point nonetheless.

  5. piotr
    February 7, 2013, 10:54 am

    “BDS has even already begun to influence Israeli political discourse. Tzipi Livni’s election campaign included warnings that Benjamin Netanyahu was leading the country towards international isolation and sanctions.”

    This is a key point. Livni is a “Zionist liberal”. Zionist “left” is proposing wide “concessions” to Palestinians on the ground that they are just. This attitude garners about 5% of Israeli vote, plus Arab parties. Livni represents wider part of the public, namely that concessions (from the priviledged status quo) are needed for external practical reasons — to avoid sanctions. But in the absence of any plausibility of sanctions she is an idiot and Naftali Bennet is a genius.

    It would be “deeply unpatriotic” for the liberal Zionist to welcome BDS, but objectively, this is their oxygen. The resolute supremacists like Bennet and Netanyahu and “resolute weatherwanes” like Lapid and Yachimovich will not be impressed with “expression of concern” offered periodically by various foreign ministers or our domestic liberal Zionist like Beinart of NYT editorial page. Sticks and stones may break my bones but the words will never hurt me.

    Opposition to sanctions and boycots suffocates the liberal Israeli politicians, relegating them to the status of a boy who cried wolf. They cried for 30 years at least. And even then they will not volunteer any realistic solutions, they will remain “advocates of the Jewish people”.

    I think that “our domestic Zionist liberals” are well aware of that, but they do not want to suffer from witch hunts, they do not want to loose “links to the community” and they hope that the outside pressure will do the job for them.

    Conversely, supremacists who oppose any other solution then giving Palestinians a permanent helote status have to threaten any further slipping inside the Zionist camp. Thus opposition to BDS remains a shibboleth, supremacists are defending the fords of Jordan:

    Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Two thousand and forty Ephraimites fell on this occasion.
    —Judges 12:5–6, NJB

    • ritzl
      February 7, 2013, 2:14 pm


      “It would be “deeply unpatriotic” for the liberal Zionist to welcome BDS, but objectively, this is their oxygen.”

      Great point. Ultimately all libzios that actually care about Israel, and its long-term “normalization” internally and externally (i.e. an actual durable and peaceful democracy), will have to come to embrace BDS.

      The ones that are just paying lip service to “caring about Israel” as a thinly-veiled IRoW defense of Likud+ policies will noticeably fail to embrace BDS and continue to say they “hate the occupation” while simultaneously defending the status quo (e.g. it’s “bad,” but there’s not anything that can be done about it. [shrug, and it doesn’t affect “me” anyway]). This mode will be increasingly isolated and pushed to the fringes, imo, but who knows what the time-frame may be.

      Highlighting and documenting this contrast and/or isolation is one of the reasons MW is so important.

  6. Andrew Pollack
    Andrew Pollack
    February 7, 2013, 11:24 am

    Great column, Ben. It’s worth noting that last week a new initiative was launched to defend the rights of Palestinian students and allies facing attack as they pursue BDS and other pro-liberation activism:
    “The Center for Constitutional Rights, in collaboration with the National Lawyers Guild and others, is organizing the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support initiative in order to protect and advance the constitutional rights of Palestinian rights activists across the U.S. Our work aims to track incidents of repression, and to provide legal advice, representation, resources and advocacy support to activists.”

  7. pabelmont
    February 7, 2013, 11:28 am

    The test of the success of BDS is the date the first nation runs a draft resolution up the UNGA (or, better, the UNSC) flagpole — seeking sanctions against Israel unless and until Israel comply with international law and agreements and conventions, in a manner and subject to a time-table, explicitly set forth by the draft resolution. We want to put the “S” into BDS.

    It will take time for countries to “come on board”, but it will never happen unless some country (or group) “goes first”.

    For me, such national BDS is the purpose of civil BDS. And BDS will achieve it through continued education (and continued success in its BD activity). So let’s “thank” The Dersh and the kindly NYC pols “very much” for their generous free advertising of this BDS meeting tonight at Brooklyn College. (And thank the anti-Hagel folks for their highlighting the nefarious activity of the pro-Israel lobby). The public is beginning to see what we’ve all known for years.

  8. smithgp
    February 7, 2013, 12:16 pm

    To Ben White’s list of reasons why the Zionist establishment fears BDS, I would add an important bullet: that BDS has largely succeeded in refocusing the movement, both globally and within Palestine itself, from a struggle between two ostensibly comparable contestants for sovereignty over land (a contest that Palestinians have no hope of winning) to a struggle for equal rights. If the struggle is between Democracy and oppression (as indeed it is), who apart from radical Zionists is going to side with the latter? Then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Haaretz November 29, 2007): “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights….the State of Israel is finished. The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.” The then-prevailing non-Zionist community disagreed only in our belief that the two-state solution had long since collapsed by 2007.

  9. just
    February 7, 2013, 12:38 pm

    ‘Meanwhile, in Israel itself, activists who support the Palestinians’ BDS call have found themselves targeted by the security service the Shin Bet, while the Knesset has passed a law designed to stifle pro-boycott activity by Israeli citizens.”

    How chilling, yet hopefully these brave and just Israelis will prevail.

    • seafoid
      February 7, 2013, 1:45 pm

      That sort of manipulation by fear only works if the numbers are limited. Zionism will eventually fall under the weight of its own hypocrisy. Jewish self determination to establish a police state run on fear. Even Israeli Jews indoctrinated from birth will come around eventually. It will take something like an idf massacre of jews demonstrating peacefully for the logic of zionist state violence to meet the bs of zionism as a force for good and mortally wound the ideology in the eyes of its adherents.

  10. seafoid
    February 7, 2013, 12:57 pm

    Israel has also been known to use Bar Refaeli in its anti BDS work. How could any man be anti Bar?

    (as long as she doesn’t open that pouty mouth of hers and deliver the hasbara)

    • Woody Tanaka
      Woody Tanaka
      February 7, 2013, 1:43 pm

      “Israel has also been known to use Bar Refaeli in its anti BDS work. How could any man be anti Bar?”

      I am anti-Bar because she lets herself get used this way instead of standing for freedom for Palestinians. Pretty on the outside but ugly on the inside.

    • German Lefty
      German Lefty
      February 7, 2013, 2:54 pm

      @ seafoid:
      Israel has also been known to use Bar Refaeli in its anti BDS work.
      Really? Could you give some examples?
      Recently, it seems like this woman is everywhere, on German TV and on German-language websites. Apparently, she’s the new Heidi Klum. You can’t escape her.

      How could any man be anti Bar?
      What a heteronormative comment! Shame on you!

      • piotr
        February 8, 2013, 11:25 am

        Doesn’t Israel have a law against using Bar Refaeli in ads? Something about models having to be at least a bit zaftig?

  11. ritzl
    February 7, 2013, 2:15 pm

    Good, useful article. Thanks.

  12. American
    February 7, 2013, 3:11 pm

    There is no way Israel can Re-Legitimize itself……the tipping point has already occured.

  13. Hostage
    February 7, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Linked to BDS is a powerful apartheid analysis gaining traction even with the mainstream . . . BDS is about ending impunity and enforcing accountability for violations of international law and human rights

    No, there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm in the BDS movement for the idea of pursuing enforcement of the available international penal sanctions against the crime of apartheid through the various national and international courts. There have been no protests in the Hague or elsewhere over the ICC Prosecutor’s foot dragging and the lame excuses that have been offered as an explanation for that Court’s failure to act on Palestine’s Article 12(3) Declaration.

    Speaking more broadly, in 2004 the ICJ said that all countries had a legal duty to bring Israel’s human rights violations in Palestine to an end. The ICJ noted that many of the interested State parties in the case felt that Israel had a legal duty to bring the responsible officials to justice in its own Courts.

    Compare that situation with the results of the similar ICJ decision last July in Questions relating to the Obligation to Prosecute or Extradite (Belgium v. Senegal) where it found that Senegal had breached its international obligations by failing to prosecute the former ruler of neighboring Chad.

    The OAU and Senegal responded by setting-up a special criminal tribunal outside the framework of the UN or the ICC to prosecute Hissène Habré. Here is a brief summary of the landmark steps that are being taken and the relevant links:

    On February 8, 2013, Senegal will inaugurate a special court to try the former dictator of Chad, Hissène Habré, marking a significant step forward in the long campaign to bring Habré to justice. The court is known as the Extraordinary African Chambers and was created within the Senegalese judicial system pursuant to an agreement with the African Union (AU) following many years of litigation and negotiation. The pretrial investigation will be conducted by four Senegalese magistrates and is expected to last 15 months. It is anticipated that the investigation will be followed by a trial in 2014, at which a non-Senegalese judge appointed by the AU will preside.

    Habré’s trial will be the first time that the courts of one country tried the leader of another country for alleged human rights crimes.


    I hope the US and the Israelis are paying attention, since both have carried out attacks on the territories of African Union member states. FYI, Israel started the ball rolling on this sort of thing (with the acquiescence of the international community) when they granted their own national courts jurisdiction to place Eichmann on trial for crimes against the Jewish people.

    • piotr
      February 7, 2013, 11:21 pm

      Anal retentive correction: Chad is actually pretty far from Senegal, so “neighboring” should not be used. A bit like Honduras “neighboring” USA.

  14. Hostage
    February 8, 2013, 12:48 am

    Chad is actually pretty far from Senegal, so “neighboring” should not be used.

    Fair enough they certainly aren’t next-door neighbors. I had the entire African Union in mind as the community or neighborhood of states, since it will be appointing the presiding judge.

    My point was that any government can grant its own courts universal jurisdiction over the acts committed by officials in other states, without any regard to their geographical proximity; the need for referrals by the UN; or laboring under the jurisdictional handicaps of the ICC statute.

    If you get a community or neighborhood of states taking actions like that collectively, i.e. setting-up the Extraordinary African Chambers, you should probably think twice about launching drone attacks or other forms of aggression against their citizens.

    • piotr
      February 8, 2013, 11:23 am

      So Nicaragua could sue people like Elliott Abrams for their crimes? Isn’t it a fine Pan-American tradition to offer safe haven to war criminals?

      I also agree that my correction did not change the validity of your post. However, people who know geography have some responsibility to those that do not. My experience is that listeners and readers tend to forget everything what you say except the error.

      • Hostage
        February 16, 2013, 2:37 pm

        So Nicaragua could sue people like Elliott Abrams for their crimes? Isn’t it a fine Pan-American tradition to offer safe haven to war criminals?

        LOL! Pan-American policy is “do as i say not as i do”. Roosevelt and Cordell Hull said that “The Good Neighbor policy”™ meant “No state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another”. Roosevelt stated, “The definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention.”

        The African Union obviously ignored that advice and followed the example set by the US and Latin America after the adoption of the Nuremburg principles. They can only be shamed into taking action against despots with a great deal of effort;-)

  15. Mayhem
    February 8, 2013, 8:26 am

    BDS is about delegitimising and demonizing Israel with the underlying aim being the destruction of the state of Israel. No surprise that supporters of Israel are concerned about such negative, hateful tactics.

  16. Hostage
    February 16, 2013, 11:46 am

    BDS is about delegitimising and demonizing Israel with the underlying aim being the destruction of the state of Israel.

    That assumes Israel had some “legitimacy” to begin with. Very few people familiar with its sordid history of colonialism, displacement, massacres, ethnic cleansing, and continuing aggression and apartheid believe that’s the case.

    No one here has any obligation to maintain a Jewish ethnic enclave in that part of the Middle East in any event. The last Jewish commonwealth there ended up a failed state that made itself defunct through a series of ill-advised wars that had the aim of severing all relations or commerce with the Gentile world. It was a bad idea to reconstitute something like that in the first place.

    Here you are again predictably bemoaning the fact that granting Gentiles equal human rights will destroy the Jewish character of your “state”. Why should anyone feel sorry about that?

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