“When I was in school,” recalled Republican pollster and right-wing propaganda consultant Frank Luntz, “there was no opposition to Israel whatsoever.”
But today, he warned, “schools across the country have tremendous challenges” because young people are dramatically more liberal, increasingly hostile toward Israel and more sympathetic to Palestinians.
To defeat BDS, Luntz concluded that Israel’s supporters must adopt language that appeals to the campus left.
Luntz was speaking on 31 May to a packed conference hall at the United Nations headquarters in New York, where the Israeli mission to the UN and the World Jewish Congress hosted the first international #StopBDS conference.
An estimated 1,500 people, many of them college aged, attended the summit to learn and discuss strategies for crushing the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement burgeoning on US college campuses.
Speak young, speak left
To illustrate his point, Luntz presented polling he said was taken within the last 90 days showing attitudes toward Israel and the Palestinians among US college students.
He was most troubled that only one in three students considers themselves pro-Israel. Almost a quarter of students support Palestinians over Israel and 39 percent think Israel should return all Israeli land to Palestinians.
Forty-three percent favor boycott as a means to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights and 44 percent – almost half – view Israel as an apartheid state.
“I’m not looking to speak to people who already agree with me,” said Luntz. Anti-BDS messaging, he argued, needs to be tailored to Democrats, women and people under 29 – demographics he identified as most likely to sympathize with the Palestinian struggle for human rights.
His findings are similar to those of a recent Pew survey that found a dramatic increase in support for Palestinians in the Democratic Party’s liberal base.
“I want to speak young, I want to speak left and I want to speak to the women,” which requires “promoting equality” and “promoting human rights,” Luntz explained.
“I want you to focus on democratic language. I want you to focus on language to the left. I want you to imagine when you are communicating Israel that you are speaking to a 21-year-old college Democrat woman,” Luntz advised. “That’s the people that you need to reach out to.”
Then Luntz abruptly ended his presentation out of fear that his remaining slides would be publicized.
“There are a couple of people in this room right now who support BDS, who tweet about it, who write about it on social media. I have language that I’d like to show you but I think that I would actually do damage, that people would take photographs of it and put it out,” he said.
Earlier this year, some of Luntz’s slides from his anti-BDS presentation were leaked.
When The Electronic Intifada attempted to interview Luntz ahead of his speech this time around, he was upset to learn there was a media presence at the #StopBDS conference. “I didn’t know they were letting journalists in,” he snapped.
David Sable, CEO of the global advertising firm Y&R, struck a similar note with a presentation that resembled a corporate rebranding pitch.
Israel needs an image makeover, argued Sable, noting that Israel was not ranked in the top 10 countries for entrepreneurship, cultural influence, business friendliness or quality of life.
The only area where it made an impact on popular perceptions was for a category he called “Tanks and Banks,” where it came in at number eight.
Sable also presented data showing that to people in many countries, “Israel’s personality is alienating.”
To the surprise of many, he advised the audience to copy the style and language of the BDS movement, which he credited with dominating the conversation online and in social media.
“We are reactive, they are proactive,” said Sable, noting that anti-BDS content is “dated and uninviting” whereas BDS materials are “highly discoverable” and often well designed.
“We look like a corporate brochure. What they put out looks like a platform for self expression. This is what we need to start emulating,” he said.
He also highlighted the significance of solidarity building between BDS and other activist movements, paying particular attention to the Palestine solidarity movement’s relationship with Black Lives Matter, a dynamic that has rattled pro-Israel groups since expressions of solidarity with Palestine were first uttered in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The latest manifestation is equating everything that’s happening with Black Lives Matter,” Sable said.
Rebranding BDS as a hate group
While this isn’t the first time anti-BDS operatives have proposed adopting left-wing rhetoric to make their case, the coordinated emphasis on appealing to the left signifies a profound disconnect.
Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the Israeli American Council, argued that part of the success of BDS is that it “uses identity to build alliances with minority groups.” Therefore Israeli-Americans “should create a bridge” with immigrant minority communities to counter that, he said.
But in the same breath, Nicole characterized BDS as “a violent racist hate movement” that “must be eliminated.”
“Rebranding Israel is important,” he said. “But we also need to focus on rebranding BDS as a hate movement. When people think BDS, their stomachs need to turn. We need to name and shame any person who supports this movement. No faculty member or student leader would be associated, for example, with the KKK. They should feel the same way about BDS.”
But “naming and shaming” is a tactic Israel’s propaganda planners have advocated and used for years, and yet it has done little to slow the growing momentum of BDS.
Meanwhile Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students, called for Zionist groups to incorporate intersectionality into their advocacy.
“Intersectionality is the theory of interrelated forms of oppression,” Tarshish told the audience. “A lot of anti-Israel organizations have managed to infiltrate this conversation.”
Within the last year, pro-Israel activists have started to raise concerns about intersectionality, which they see as responsible for the solidarity Palestine and BDS have received from other activist groups ranging from feminist organizations to the immigrant rights movement.
Tarshish’s solution is to claim intersectionality as a Jewish invention. “Before it was called intersectionality it was called being Jewish,” he insisted, referencing Jewish involvement in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
“We need to remind students around the world that they need to stand with us because we will stand with them when their rights are trampled,” he said, adding that “Jewish students need to speak the language of the left.”
That BDS is modeled on those very movements was completely lost on conference participants.
More importantly, so is the fact that appealing to the left will be a near impossible task for the anti-BDS effort.
Its base is inherently right-wing and supports a blatantly racist regime led by far right nationalists and proto-fascists committed to denying basic human rights to Palestinians, stealing their land, demolishing their homes and corralling them into walled-off ghettos.
Justifying and dismissing such atrocities is completely incompatible with progressive values, particularly when coupled with the bigotry and bullying tactics of many Zionist organizations.
BDS isn’t rising in popularity among young people because it has slick messaging and authentic-looking brochures.
It is becoming popular because Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is unbearably atrocious and BDS is seen as a viable set of tools and tactics to challenge and begin to change that reality.
No amount of intersectionality, identity pandering, branding, left-wing buzzwords and polished propaganda is going to change that.