UNITED NATIONS – More than 2,000 people attended on Tuesday the first-ever conference at the UN General Assembly aimed at combating the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the largest gathering to date focused on battling the attempt to pressure Israel over its perceived ill-treatment of the Palestinians.
Students, activists, dignitaries legal professionals and representatives of Jewish organizations took part in the “Building Bridges, Not Boycotts” day-long summit, a partnership between Israel’s Mission to the UN and a dozen pro-Israel organizations including the World Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, StandWithUs, B’nai B’rith International, Hillel and CAMERA.
Among those who addressed the participants in the General Assembly were Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, Vice President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Jay Sekulow, Chief Legal Counsel of the American Center for Law, and Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the opening session via video.
American-Jewish singer and songwriter Matisyahu — who BDS activists tried to have banned in 2015 from a performance at a festival in Spain over his support of Israel — also gave a speech, later singing his hit “Jerusalem,” to cheers and applause from the audience.
In his opening speech, Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said that the BDS phenomenon amounted to “modern-day anti-Semitism,” and that those who wanted to fight it “must unite to reveal its true face and put an end to its ideology of hatred and lies.”
“Here, from the parliament of Nations, we commit to fighting BDS on campuses, in the courts and in the halls of the UN. We will not allow the forces of hate to demonize Israel. Together, we will defeat BDS,” Danon said.
Speaking to The Times of Israel, Danon said the impetus of the conference came after the UN Human Rights Council in March voted to create a “blacklist” of companies operating in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, a motion that passed with 32 countries voting in favor, and none against.
Danon decided it was time to bring the fight against BDS inside the United Nations.
“For me it was a red line. BDS is not only about the campuses. Now we see BDS entering the halls of the UN,” Danon told the Times of Israel on Tuesday. “This is the exact kind of hatred the UN was founded to eradicate. Now that very same organization is funding a blacklist of Jewish companies and businesses. For me, it is outrageous and disappointing. We need to fight it.”
Ron Lauder, president of the WJC, said the World Jewish Congress would “commit all of our resources, and all of our abilities, to help fight BDS.”
Lauder criticized the movement, saying it did not really support the Palestinian people.
“It is strictly a campaign to delegitimize Israel, which is simply the latest attempt to deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination. Every other people on earth have that right, but BDS wants to deny that basic right to Jews,” he said.
“I actually understand the power of BDS. It’s a political movement that makes you think you are standing against tyranny; especially when you are joined by celebrities, rock stars, or your favorite professors, but I wonder if all those people that support BDS have the slightest understanding of what this movement really means,” Lauder added. “These activists are calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. Make no mistake.”
Rubinstein vowed that the movement will be defeated.
“As we say every Passover, ‘In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.’ The BDS movement is the latest group who wish to destroy us. They will not succeed in their mission. Just as we defeated the Arab boycott, we will defeat BDS and this movement will be thrown into the trash bin of history,” he said.
Two parallel workshops followed the plenary session, “Fighting BDS on Campus” and “Legal Aspects of Boycotts and De-legitimization.”
“The BDS [movement] uses ‘lawfare,’” said Sekulow of the American Center of Law. “They use the legal system to delegitimize. Well, we are using the law to fight them. The law is on our side.”
Sekulow said BDS initiatives often violate US non-discrimination laws as well as university policies. He cited legal victories against BDS at several universities including University of Chicago Loyola, University of Texas, University of Michigan, UCLA and City University of New York, CUNY.
Many students attending the conference said they were struck by the way the law can be used to combat BDS.
“Campuses can be their own worlds and I think the conference is doing a great job of showing what can be done to fight BDS beyond the campus,” said Yael Smolar, a business student at Binghamton University in New York.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, agreed that legal action could be useful, though he cautioned there was no “silver bullet” against BDS.
“There are a variety of ways we can combat BDS and we must be prepared to use many tools. Different initiatives are needed in different situations,” he said.
Some of those ideas and initiatives were included in an “ambassadors against BDS” tool kit handed out to participants. The kit was part of an effort to galvanize the community and show a unified front, said Shahar Azani, Northeast Executive Director for StandWithUS.
During the session on BDS activity on campuses, students listened to suggestions on how to counter Israel Apartheid week, an annual spring event, which includes “Apartheid” walls and checkpoints. Ideas included holding an Israel Week on their campus, an Israel Education Day, and building relationships with groups across campus.
For Professor Asher J. Matathias, the situation on university campuses is especially alarming.
“I am a Holocaust survivor. This is very personal for me,” said Matathias, a social science professor at St. Johns University in Jamaica, NY. “The American public has to be informed with what is happening on campuses. It’s atrocious.”
It was a big week for anti-BDS events across the city.
On Thursday, the World Zionist Organization and American Zionist Movement will host “BDS – The New anti-Semitism? Confronting a Global Campaign.” A special delegation of mayors and deputy mayors from Israel are slated to attend the program.
The UN event came a week after the State Comptroller’s office in Israel issued a scathing report remonstrating the Foreign Ministry for not having a cohesive strategy to fight BDS. The office urged the Foreign Ministry to allocate more of its budgets for diplomatic efforts.
In 2015, the ministry spent NIS 132 million, or $33 million, on diplomacy, development aid and public diplomacy compared with NIS 1.65 billion, or $423 million, on security for missions abroad.