In recent years, BDS has become the scourge of the organized Jewish community and the government of Israel. Everyone from B’nai B’rith International to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Israeli economy is not only anti-Israel, but also anti-Semitic. This past Tuesday, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, led an anti-BDS conference sponsored by a host of centrist and rightwing Jewish groups that was designed to “create practical tools to battle BDS by training students to serve as ‘ambassadors’ against boycott.”
It is clear that to Netanyahu, Danon and others, BDS is to the legitimacy of Israel what Iran is to Israel’s physical existence. And we agree. But many rightly argue that notwithstanding its importance, a blanket one-size-fits-all condemnation of BDS is overly simplistic.
With so much at stake, it was disheartening to learn that Israel’s state comptroller, Judge Yosef Shapira, issued a report concluding that the government is failing in its fight against BDS and rising anti-Semitism. Thus, according to the report, “Israel is not effectively countering the overt hostility from different parties abroad that cast doubt on Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish nation-state.”
The report traced the failure to the erosion of the foreign ministry’s authority, as Netanyahu has, since 2009, spun off the ministry’s public diplomacy efforts to various other offices — causing overlapping authority and turf wars. The Strategic Affairs Ministry, in particular, came in for strong criticism. Netanyahu gave the ministry the BDS portfolio, and significant funding, in 2013.
While those findings may be correct, there appears to be another reason for concern about anti-BDS strategy. For several years Israel has sought to get European capitals from Madrid to Kiev to outlaw endorsements of the BDS movement as hate speech. Those efforts have failed. Indeed, just last week, the Netherlands followed Sweden by declaring calls to boycott Israel as legally protected free speech.
On the merits, the Netherlands is right. Advocacy for BDS, standing alone, isn’t hate speech. Israel is also correct, however, that the analysis changes when such advocacy is coupled with unsupported accusations, lies and other hateful tropes about the Jewish state. In that case, the totality of the circumstances crosses the line and turns otherwise free speech into something else. The problem is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate the distinction, and any attempts to do so could likely backfire. For example, what would prevent the Dutch Parliament from declaring speech supporting the right of Israeli settlers to live in Judea and Samaria as illegal hate speech?
Israel is not only falling short in achieving results because of governmental mismanagement of the anti-BDS agenda, its international strategy needs attention as well. Nothing less than a complete rethink of the agenda is necessary. If the Jewish state can’t get its act together on BDS, can diaspora voices be expected to do any better?