The United Nations is usually a venue for criticism of Israeli human rights abuses. But on May 31, the Israeli Mission to the UN commandeered the General Assembly for a day-long pro-Israel pep rally, filled with an estimated 1,500 people–many of them college students–who listened to speakers rail against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.
The attendees gathered at the UN to hear typical pro-Israel stump speeches, bash the UN for criticizing Israel, wave Israeli flags, sing Hatikvah and the Star Spangled Banner and listen to Matisyahu, the Jewish-American reggae star. The focus of the “Ambassadors Against BDS” summit was on the global movement to boycott Israel–and speakers criticized BDS advocates for spreading “lies” about Israel and for alleged anti-Semitism. The conference was organized by the Israeli Mission to the UN, and was co-sponsored by a number of pro-Israel groups.
The summit reflected the Israeli government’s increasing focus on the BDS movement. In recent months, Israel advocates, helped along by U.S. pro-Israel organizations like StandWithUs, have put on conferences in the U.S. and Israel to discuss the movement. In March, the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth held an anti-BDS conference in Jerusalem featuring Israeli government officials. The conference made headlines, and attracted criticism, after an intelligence official said Israel should engage in “targeted civil elimination” of BDS advocates, and after Aryeh Deri, the Interior Minister in Israel, said Israel may revoke BDS activist Omar Barghouti’s residency status in the state. Last month, Israeli officials effectively imposed a travel ban on Barghouti after not renewing documents that allow him to travel out of the country.
The day at the UN started off predictably, with Israeli officials and pro-Israel advocates sauntering up to the General Assembly stage to bash the BDS movement. Danny Danon, the Israeli Ambassador to the UN, called the gathering “historic” and said “BDS is the new face of modern anti-Semitism.” Danon vowed to defeat the BDS movement “once and for all,” though he said the movement represented a new threat because “we can’t stop it with weapons.”
Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said that the “era of the quiet Jew, the timid Jew, the ghetto Jew” is over–and that now, the Zionist movement knows how to fight against people like BDS advocates. He claimed that Students for Justice in Palestine was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood–an unfounded accusation–and pledged to place ads in major newspapers to encourage students to report BDS and anti-Semitic activity to the World Jewish Congress. “If your school, or your professor, is backing BDS in a public way, contact us,” Lauder said before urging alumni to stop donating to schools unless they stop the BDS movement on campus.
The BDS movement’s strong presence on college campuses was a particular area of concern for many attendees. Andrea Bhatti, a College of Staten Island student who attended the summit, told me she was “harassed” and “targeted” by Students for Justice in Palestine after she authored a petition calling for the shutdown of SJP. Melissa Sherman, a student at Brooklyn Lawn School, said she hoped the summit would teach her “how to be a better storyteller about Israel.”
The first half of the day was filled with typical stump speeches. But a panel on college campuses and BDS was more measured. David Sable, the Global CEO of the advertising company Y & R, had a surprising message for the attendees: your pro-Israel narrative is not working. “Not everyone who criticizes Israel is an anti-Semite,” said Sable, who admonished pro-Israel advocates to “stop talking to ourselves” and instead reach out to other people not already convinced of the righteousness of Israel. He also said Israel was losing the social media war. “We get killed in the blogs,” he said, while he showed slides of visually compelling pro-Palestinian content on websites.
Sable attended the Democratic debate in Brooklyn between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, and he said was surprised that people who he described as the “Black elite” from Harlem cheered on Sanders’ message on Israel/Palestine.
Frank Luntz, the famous Republican political consultant and pollster, had a similar message to the summit-goers. He showed slides that summed up the result of recent polling he did of college students. 22% are more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli, he said, and 44% believe Israel is practicing apartheid. “Schools across the country are facing enormous challenges,” said Luntz. “We’re losing people who were once softly pro-Israel.” Luntz said pro-Israel advocates have to “speak young” and “speak left.”
That message was apparently lost, though, on the speakers who closed out the day. Shoham Nicolet, the CEO of the Israeli-American Council, blasted the BDS movement as “a violent, racist hate movement.” Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of BDS-target SodaStream, claimed the West Bank is “not legally occupied”–that it’s “disputed” land. Birnbaum encouraged the summit-goers to both fight the BDS movement but also reach out to people with a more positive message. His idea of a positive message? “There are good Palestinians. They’re not all terrorists.” He urged people to make Palestinian friends and send Palestinians Ramadan greetings next week.
But in one of the more bizarre moments of the conference, Birnbaum said that an Israeli soldier “wants to come home to his family, and he wants to go to the beach and he wants to travel after military service. He is not motivated by 72 virgins”–a reference to a belief among some suicide bombers that they will be rewarded after their death.
The BDS movement shows no signs of stopping as long as Israeli control over Palestinians continues. And while some speakers at the conference vowed that Israel would win the battle against the movement, it’s clear more anti-BDS conferences will likely take place in the coming years. It’s one of the favored tools pro-Israel advocates use to rally the troops–but so far, it’s failing to put a dent in the growth of the boycott Israel movement.