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The Battle Over BDS

While Netanyahu’s agents lobby Congress in an all out effort to overturn the Iran nuclear deal, Israeli strategists have opened a second front: an escalating propaganda war to derail BDS.

Inspired by the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa, BDS is a global movement that seeks to end Israel’s longstanding impunity for its continuing ethnic cleansing, colonization, racial discrimination and military occupation—international crimes that have denied Palestinians their fundamental rights of freedom, equality and self-determination.

The BDS movement began on July 9, 2005, when a majority of Palestinian civil society organizations called upon people of conscience all over the world to launch broad boycotts against Israeli and other companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights; to divest from corporations that are complicit in such violations; and to demand sanctions against Israel for its criminal behavior. Intended beneficiaries were and are Palestinians in Israel, Palestinians under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian refugees wherever they reside.  The movement puts forward three specific objectives:

* End the occupation and dismantle the Wall;

* Recognize the fundamental rights of Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

* Respect the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes (as stipulated in UN Resolution 194).

The increasing success of BDS, especially on American campuses and within U.S. protestant denominations, has alarmed Israeli officials and supporters.  In June, two U.S. billionaires (Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban) funded a new organization headed by David Brog, former executive director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI).  Called Campus Maccabees, the group has a mandate to blunt campus BDS activities by branding them as anti-Semitism.

The inspiration for the campaign appears to come from The Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank based in Tel Aviv that describes itself as a “non-partisan non-profit strategy group.” In its June 2015 “Update and Overview” entitled “Contending with BDS and the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” Reut dismisses out of hand the avowed BDS targets described above.  Instead, the document portrays BDS as a movement for the “delegitimization of Israel” and calls it a “strategic threat with potentially existential implications.”  It claims that delegitimization is “about challenging Israel’s very existence and not about correcting its policies.”  It concludes that BDS is “a modern day version of anti-Semitism, directed against the nationhood of Jews.”  On what facts are these allegations based?  The paper doesn’t say.

The “Update” document goes on to include such undocumented claims as the following:

* The BDS movement is pitted “against any political progress with the Palestinians.”

* “While BDS boycotts settlements, it is actually against any form of Israeli withdrawal from the settlements….”

* “BDS frontloads criticism of Israel’s policies and backloads its desire for Israel’s implosion.”

Even more outlandish is Reut’s allegation that “singling out the Jewish state is de-facto fundamentally anti-Semitic, and will eventually result in targeting Jews for being Jewish.”

In outlining a strategy for fighting BDS, Reut claims that the BDS supporters brand “Israel and Jews” as oppressors and frame Palestinians as powerless victims of “Israel and the Jews.”  Yet there is nothing in the published BDS documents that links the oppression of Palestinians to any specific religious or ethnic group.

Not surprisingly, popular outrage against Israeli violence sometimes does ignite latent anti-Semitism.  It may also motivate some Jew-haters to applaud BDS and other activities intended to bring Israel to account.  However, anti-Semitism has no role in BDS or other NGO activities that oppose Israeli policies and practices regarding Palestinians.

In BDS, one searches in vain for an attack on Jews.  The movement targets the violations of human rights by the Israeli government, not the state itself or its predominately Jewish citizens.  Contrary to the government’s official hasbara (public diplomacy), the movement has never argued for the “delegitimization of Israel” nor condemned Jews as Jews.

Despite its delegitimization and anti-Semitism charges, the Reut paper concludes with a significant and positive recommendation for “winning against BDS.  It states:

“A consistent and credible commitment of the government of Israel to ending control over the Palestinian population and to the integration and equality for Israel’s Arab citizens is essential for keeping BDS at bay.”

When that happens, perhaps BDS will also have won.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

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