Arguing for support of Israel in a venue many Jews perceive as hostile territory, the Israeli Mission hosted an all-day strategy session at the United Nations May 31 on fighting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
The 1,500 people in attendance at “Build Bridges Not Boycotts” nearly filled the UN’s General Assembly chambers.
Among those at the conference was Mark Levenson, president of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations and a partner of the Sills Cummis & Gross law firm in Newark.
“Aside from its Holocaust Remembrance Day programs, this was the largest philo-Semitic presence I have seen at the UN in all my years,” he told NJJN a day after the event.
While an overwhelming majority of the participants were Israeli and American Jews, “there was a sizeable group from England and isolated people from European countries,” Levenson said. Among them were many high school and college students from the tristate area.
The convener was Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, who, Levenson said, felt it was important to hold the forum at a place where much anti-Israel sentiment flourishes.
“BDS is not about helping the Palestinians or bringing peace,” Danon told his audience. “The only goal is to bring an end to the Jewish state. This is the reality and we won’t be afraid to say it out loud, everywhere. BDS is the true face of modern anti-Semitism.”
“Danon is taking an aggressive approach and is trying to create some semblance of balance at the UN,” said Levenson, “where there is this institutional anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment.”
A right-wing rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Likud Party, Danon served as a Knesset member and deputy minister of defense before being appointed Israel’s envoy to the UN.
Curiously, Levenson noted, a strategy he heard advocated is to take a left-of-center approach when arguing against BDS.
“We have to speak in the language of the progressives and the Left. You are not going to win the argument about BDS by speaking the language of the pro-Israel Jewish community. You need to show how Israel is progressive and how the Palestinian Authority and others who favor BDS are not only corrupt but favor eradicating Israel,” he said.
Another featured speaker, Elyakim Rubinstein, the vice president of Israel’s Supreme Court, agreed, telling the conference, “The BDS movement is a part of those who wish to destroy us. Yet their mission will not be fulfilled. Just as we overcame the Arab boycott, so too will we overcome the BDS movement.”
A direct target of the BDS movement, the SodaStream corporation, moved its manufacturing plant from the Mishor Adumim industrial zone on the West Bank to the town of Lehavim in Israel’s Negev region in December 2015.
According to The New York Times, SodaStream’s president, Daniel Birnbaum, suggested to those assembled that merely arguing against BDS was not doing enough. Supporters of Israel must “build trust,” he said, “and the only way to build trust is to get to know [Palestinians] as human beings, not as Palestinians, as terrorists. Find a Palestinian friend,” he said.
To Ruth Cole, the immediate past president of the State Association, the forum was “a kickoff, a launching pad. We are trying to figure out the best ways to fight BDS and with whom we should engage.”
“I don’t know if you can use the term ‘winning the argument,’ but you can use the term ‘who is more effective?’” she told NJJN. “So far, because it is being more widely talked about and responded to, the BDS movement is making greater inroads, especially on college campuses.”
Cole attended the conference and took part in an afternoon workshop on the pro- and anti-BDS activities at American universities. She told NJJN she sat next to a recent graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has an active BDS movement.
“She told me she felt she could deal with it effectively,” said Cole, “but she said many other students don’t know how to deal with BDS, so they will shy away from it and not engage at all. But she feels they have to engage.”
To Levenson, “college campuses pose the biggest problems because they are where our future leaders are going to be, so we can’t let these arguments go unopposed. We have to fight the fight. We have to be aggressive, we have to be assertive, and we have to defend the rights of Jewish students and non-Jewish students to be free of intimidation and to have a balanced view of Israel.”
Levenson said he does not believe “BDS is gaining a lot of steam, but I think it is incumbent upon us through legislative efforts and actions on campuses and letters to the editor when warranted” to fight BDS.
He noted that the State Association is strongly backing anti-BDS legislation that passed the NJ State Senate unanimously May 9 and appears destined for passage when it comes up for a vote in the Assembly in mid-June. It would prohibit state pension funds from investing in any company that is involved in any economic sanctions aimed at Israel.
Cosponsors of the conference included the World Jewish Congress, Keren HaYesod, the American Center for Law and Justice, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, State of Israel Bonds, StandWithUs: Supporting Israel Around the World, B’nai B’rith International, Hillel, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
JTA contributed to this article.