Anna Baltzer, the Jewish-born national organizer of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, wrote a gushing February 2 blog post that in many ways exemplifies the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement’s appeal to Middle America.
Her enthusiastic, exclamation point-punctuated missive is illustrated by a meme of a blue sky filled with puffy white clouds and superimposed with the words “Imagine your city Israeli-occupation free.” In the post, Baltzer promotes a February “Municipal Boycott & Divestment Campaigns Webinar” and provides a link to a list of 150 “inspiring” BDS victories on campuses, in churches and in theaters near you.
“These valiant efforts have inspired activists nationwide to pursue similar campaigns in their cities today — and you could too!” writes Baltzer, a controversial “granddaughter of Holocaust refugees” who is a popular speaker and BDS activist across college campuses.
“The movement for Palestinian rights grows more creative and dynamic every day, yielding so many achievements that it can be hard to keep up!” writes Baltzer.
For many pro-Israel advocates, Baltzer is a perfect storm of social media-savvy — her Twitter profile is hashtag heavy, referencing, among others, #Ferguson, #Palestine, #blacklivesmatter and #bds” — combined with Jewish street cred. She is seen as a “reasonable” voice promoting BDS, and so mainstream that she has appeared in popular arenas like the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” once the go-to “news” program for young Americans.
In a packed session at the annual Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on Monday, panelist Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser railed against the “sophisticated” new methods used by those bent on the demise of Zionism, saying that since the Iron Dome has neutralized their rocket fire, they’ve turned to the world arena to push BDS.
In his brief presentation on the “Anti-Semitism, BDS and Responses” panel, Kuperwasser called BDS “anti-Semitic” and a “soft terror campaign” whose stated goal is to bring about the end of the Jewish state. Drawing a comparison between BDS and the current wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks, Kuperwasser said, “You have to understand what we’re facing… the connection between knives and BDS.”
“Stabbings are not ‘popular resistance,’ they are terrorism. Just as BDS is terrorism,” he said. “BDS is anti-Semitic; it is a form of anti-Semitism — they deny the right of Jews to have self-determination. We can fall prey to their sophisticated methods when they try to hide their goals,” said Kuperwaser.
He showed several examples taken from Palestinian television in which children joyfully sing, “When we die as martyrs we go to heaven. What meaning is there to childhood without Palestine?”
“Every Palestinian child knows this song [which states] everybody has a way to fulfill their mission to bring the demise of Zionism,” said Kuperwasser. “BDS is just one expression of the battle.”
In a repeated tit-for-tat, almost every day the media reports on the BDS proposals brought by pro-Palestinian activists — and the legislative counter-efforts.
Earlier this week, the Paris City Council adopted two non-binding resolutions which condemn attempts to boycott Israel, while in the UK, new regulations announced Tuesday to allow the government to prosecute universities, local government, councils and student unions that back BDS has come under heavy fire from leftists, including opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and pro-Palestinian activists.
Kuperwasser, today the project director of regional Middle East developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that when successful, the pro-BDS initiatives are effective in large part because of the disorganization of the Jewish community in fighting them.
The proliferation of BDS is aided by the complacency of Jews and their supporters, alongside a widespread uncertainty about whether they should have a stake in an Israel they may not always agree with.
For example, the question of whether it is legitimate to ban products from the West Bank, but not from Israel proper, is a divisive issue among American Jews. They may take their lead from their leader: As reported late last week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama will sign a trade bill — despite a provision combining Israel and “Israeli-controlled territories.”
This bill is arguably a huge BDS fail. According to a Times of Israel report, within 180 days after the bill becomes law, the US administration is required to report to the Congress on global BDS activities, including the participation of foreign companies in political boycotts of the Jewish State. It also includes a number of legal protections for American companies that operate in Israel and explicitly instructs US trade representatives to discourage European Union member countries from engaging in Israel boycott efforts.
And so one may wonder, with all this opposition from above, is BDS even an economically effective tool?
At Monday’s panel, Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog said that when looking at it from a macro-economic perspective, the impact is marginal. Herzog, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, said that it is, however, extremely effective in that it “poisons the atmosphere.”
“The word ‘Zionism’ is now so charged that people want to keep their distance from it,” said Herzog. He said that after 10 years of the BDS movement, he sees the beginnings of a “sea change” in counter-efforts, including numerous think tanks and NGOs, and the new Israeli government ministry of strategic affairs that is tasked with fighting BDS.
‘The word “Zionism” is now so charged that people want to keep their distance from it’
Herzog called for a “wide tent” of bodies drafted to the fight, including those who are affiliated with the left.
One effort to draft liberal academics into the fight against BDS was reported by the Hebrew-language Walla news site this week. According to the article, top American academics, including those who are blatantly critical of Israel such as Columbia University journalism Prof. Todd Gitlin, will receive an honorary position from an Israeli university, thus, de facto, defeating an academic boycott. Other names include Stanford University’s Prof. Steven Zipperstein, University of North Carolina’s Prof. Michele Rivkin-Fish and Dr. Phillip Mendes.
Where is the ‘line in the sand’?
At Monday’s panel, participants emphasized that criticism of Israel is welcome.
Herzog said, however, that there needs to be “a line in the sand” — an understanding that Israel “has the right to exist and be self-determinant as the national state of the Jewish people in its ancestral homeland.”
Those who call for the delegitimization of Israel are obviously outside the tent, and, according to Herzog, anti-Semitic. “Let’s call a spade a spade,” he said, saying these organizations should be exposed and “shamed.”
Ido Daniel, the head of Israeli Students Combating Anti-Semitism in the National Union of Israeli Students, clarified that “once you support BDS, you’re not with us.” He called the tactic of targeted boycotts of settlement products a “bridge the gap strategy” used by groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace.
Daniel called JVP an “anti-Semitic organization” that “poisons hearts and minds every day.”
‘Jewish Voice for Peace is for pure hatred… They’re playing you, don’t go there’
“They are not for peace and justice. Jewish Voice for Peace is for pure hatred… They’re playing you, don’t go there,” Daniel said.
Another panelist, Akiva Tor, the head of the Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, cautioned in using the anti-Semitic label.
Tor, who works with a team that is on the ground in Jewish communities to fight BDS proposals, such as those brought by the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, said “often people are not self-aware that they are anti-Semitic… The Presbyterians don’t understand their behavior is anti-Semitic, even though it is.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry is pushing European countries to adopt a legal definition of anti-Semitism based on the US State Department, which includes a clause stating anti-Semitism includes,”denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.”
No ‘center of gravity’
With so many hats in the ring, does the fight against BDS lack “a center of gravity,” as Herzog suggested?
“Today there are too many bodies fighting” and they “lack a coherent budgeted strategy,” said Herzog.
One could assume that the “budgeted strategy” comes in the person of Minister of Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan, who also spoke at the Conference of Presidents on Monday about the fight against BDS.
“Both BDS and what some are calling ‘lone wolf’ attacks stem from the same foundation: the de-legitimization of Israel and the denial of the Jewish people to have a state,” he said, echoing the panelists’ statements.
During his talk, Erdan noted the Conference of Presidents’ programs, including its “lawfare initiative” — which includes pro-active lobbying of organizations and states to adopt a broad definition of anti-Israelism as anti-Semitism — and From the Grapevine, a website filled with clickbaity, sometimes obscurely pro-Israel material.
The website is marketed to youth and run by reThink Israel, an NGO founded by commercial marketing wiz Gerald Ostrov, the former CEO of Bausch and Lomb.
Taking a pragmatic test-marketing approach, the enthusiastic Ostrov said that while apathy reigns on college campuses, students need to be moved in their hearts, not their heads. And what do students care about? Food, nature, the arts, innovation, celebrities, according to Ostrov’s market analysts. (His analysts also pointed to a widespread readership, whereas direct shares reported on a random sampling of the website’s articles did not indicate much popularity.)
In an era when not just Zionism but Israel itself is a loaded word, Ostrov, and apparently the Conference of Presidents, is hedging its bets by dumbing the nation down to well-illustrated articles with tangential links to “Games of Throne.”
But this too is strategy.
Speaking with The Times of Israel after Monday’s panel, Ostrov joked that he told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the best thing he could do to help the success of Grapevine is to stay out of it. As Ostrov said, it is not meant as a vehicle for students to become automatic Israel advocates.
The idea is that these potentially viral articles can serve as apolitical, nonthreatening gateways that change an increasingly BDS-poisoned atmosphere.
Their goal is to help students “at least not hate Israel,” said Ostrov. “It’s not the answer, but a starting point,” he said.