Beating back the assault on Israel’s legitimacy


Leaders of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement say they are protesting Israel’s policies in the West Bank. They are doing far more than that.

BDS advocates routinely oppose a two-state solution and seek to delegitimize the sovereign, Jewish State of Israel. In some cases, BDS becomes the latest form of anti-Semitism.

The BDS movement aims to isolate and punish Israel, using the same techniques applied to apartheid South Africa. Not hesitating to misrepresent facts and ignore context, these Israel bashers take advantage of ignorance and naïveté within civil society circles, mostly in Western Europe, to advance their agenda.

BDS advocates view the situation in the West Bank through a one-way lens. They cite, for example, the security checkpoints that make life difficult for Palestinians but overlook the reasons for those checkpoints. They ignore the fact that hurting Israel’s economy would also hurt Palestinians who earn their livelihoods from Israeli-owned businesses.

BDS backers don’t bother to protest the many countries that have horrific human rights records, instead singling out the world’s only Jewish state, often based on false or misrepresented information.

A tipping point for the Jewish community’s response to BDS came in 2009 when a number of anti-Israel groups called for a boycott of the Toronto International Film Festival because one of its themes was Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary. The Toronto and Los Angeles Jewish federations joined forces and, with help from major figures in the entertainment industry, fashioned an effective response.

With calls for BDS escalating in the mainline Protestant churches, at colleges and elsewhere, Jewish leaders realize that the situation calls for more than an ad hoc approach: Local communities need a strategic approach with national support and coordination.

In 2010, the Jewish Federations of North America allocated significant resources so that the Israel Action Network could serve this purpose. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs — with its 16 national member organizations, including all four of the religious movements, and 125 Jewish community relations councils that work with non-Jewish partners on a range of concerns — was the JFNA’s obvious partner.

One principle that guides this work is that we should understand our audiences. And when we speak with others, we should do so with a respect for the sensitivities of that constituency so that our important messages are authentically heard. Whether on a campus, in a church or speaking with an LGBT group, we should always be clear that we stand as partners, sharing the goal of a future with peace and security — not one of conflict and BDS.

Experience and research demonstrate that what works best with these audiences — mostly made up of political and religious progressives — is not an all-good-vs.-all-bad characterization of Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, a more nuanced narrative is the one that is likely to defeat the one-sided and hostile stance of those seeking to delegitimize Israel.

This means honestly conveying the situation’s complexity, expressing empathy for suffering on both sides (without implying moral equivalency) and helping the parties move toward peace and reconciliation based on two states for two peoples.

Whether we are dealing with a boycott of Israeli academic institutions adopted by the American Studies Association or an attempt to remove Israeli products from a Brooklyn food co-op, the most effective opponents of these initiatives are the people who travel in those circles.

While we in the organized Jewish community should not remain silent in the face of Israel’s delegitimization, we should support and accentuate the efforts of these third-party validators who share our values and viewpoints. The 247 (and counting) universities and colleges that have denounced academic boycotts generally — and academic boycotts of Israel specifically — are just such validators.

It is not enough to only expose the true goals of the boycotters and their allies. Israel’s supporters must also go on the offensive and drain the swamps of ignorance that allow the poisonous ideas of the Jewish state’s opponents to incubate. Thus, we are taking the initiative to inoculate vulnerable politically progressive sectors, presenting a more factual perspective on Israel and taking prominent leaders to the region to see the real situation firsthand.

The Israel Action Network, of course, does not work alone in this arena. On a daily basis, numerous organizations stand up for Israel. Through the IAN, JFNA and JCPA are working together to convene around a common strategic planning table not only our affiliates but also a range of other North American, Israeli and European groups in order to share best practices and coordinate our collective resources in confronting this global danger.

There is no imminent threat to the critical and broad North American support for Israel. But American support for Israel is not to be taken for granted in light of the organized campaign we now face. While we should not be panicked, we cannot be complacent either. We pledge to continue to work hard to prevent any erosion of that support.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Jerry Silverman is president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America.

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  1. Rabbi Gutow and Mr. Silverman totally miss the essential issue in the BDS onslaught on Israel, by devoting most of their essay in describing the complexities of the road to peace between Israel and the Palestinian people in the disputed territories. BDS’ers will not be convinced of the error of their ways by opening their eyes to how hard it is to make peace. There ie nothing rational about the BDSers movement.

    The BDS movement holds Israel to a standard that no other nation on this Earth is held to. Simply put, holding one to a unique standard that others are not held to is these days called discrimination. For a people with more than 2,000 years experience being made the target of such discrimination, we simply call it antisemitism. Whether the BDSers intend it or not, their actions result in antisemitism. Ironically, there is a stronger case to be made for this, than there is for the 40+years proposition in the USA that disproportional representation of racial groups is evidence of racial discrimination. Yet those, including Jews who hold Israel to a unique standard bridle when they are accused of discrimination/antisemitism.

    The only rational response to the BDS movement is to call it what it is – antisemitism. A multicultural approach that attempts to understand the BDsers’ side of things is, simply put, a unilateral suicide pact.

    We live in a time when the Jewish people and Israel have been embraced by many – Millions of Evangelicals of all races and millions of Catholics who have heeded Pope John Paul II’s words. Let’s embrace them and welcome them to our cause.

    By the way, Israel does march to a different drummer than all of the other nations. Israel is the only nation in the history of the world to have brought black people out of Africa to freedom. Israel is the only country to hold its military’s behavior accountable subject to review by the civil supreme court of Israel. Israel has had women as prime minister and as supreme court chief justice. Israel’s parliament includes members of Arab political parties as well parties of the right and left. Israel’s top ministerial and military positions are encumbered by Arabs, Druz, and Christians as well as Jews.
    And more and more superpowers are emigrating to Israel – Google, Apple, Microsoft, and more.


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