As the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement grows across the US, Israel’s supporters are cranking up hatred against Palestine solidarity activism in both rhetoric and tactics.
The general anxiety about BDS was on full display last week, when an estimated 1,500 people gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for the first international #StopBDS conference.
The event was organized by the Israeli mission to the UN and the World Jewish Congress in partnership with such Israel lobby groups as StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America, CAMERA, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel.
As The Electronic Intifada reported, public relations and branding experts told participants that Israel faces a deep and persistent crisis in selling itself, while the BDS movement is reaching more people with messages that resonate.
The majority of those who attended were either college students affiliated with pro-Israel groups or high school students whose parents had brought them to the summit, the official theme of which was to “build bridges not boycott.”
But the rhetoric that filled the halls of the UN was far less diplomatic.
Aimed at disseminating strategies for crushing BDS, the conference featured calls for coordinated harassment of Palestine solidarity activists and championed outlawing free speech to censor growing support for the movement.
These tactics were justified on the basis of paranoid fantasies that portrayed BDS as an anti-Semitic global conspiracy with Nazi roots.
“Fail even faster”
The conference kicked off with a speech by Danny Danon, Israel’s ambassador to the UN.
“BDS is the true face of modern anti-Semitism,” said Danon, equating the UN’s criticism of Israeli human rights abuses with Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews in the 1930s.
Next, the audience was treated to a pre-recorded message from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanking them for fighting BDS.
“BDS has nothing to do with human rights,” Netanyahu assured them. “With your help this immoral movement will fail even faster.”
“The era of the quiet Jew, the timid Jew, is over,” crowed Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. “We are no longer victims. We no longer have to rely on others to protect us. And we’re absolutely done being quiet. Enough is enough!”
Lauder then launched into a sectarian tirade against the Muslim Student Association, which he portrayed as a vehicle for the Muslim Brotherhood to impose the Quran on Western governments.
Lauder also implored students to snitch on their BDS-supporting peers and professors and urged financial bullying to ensure censorship by universities.
“If your school or your professor is backing BDS in any way, contact us,” he commanded. “We’ll urge alumni to stop any donations.”
Elyakim Rubinstein, a vice-president of Israel’s high court, characterized BDS as “political terrorism under the guise of freedom of speech.” He argued that calls for boycotting Israel are not protected by the First Amendment in the US.
Contrary to Rubinstein’s claim, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that politically motivated boycotts are protected free speech.
But pro-Israel groups have sought – unsuccessfully so far – to recast the BDS movement and Palestine activism more generally as discrimination against Jews and therefore a violation of civil rights law.
Shoham Nicolet, CEO of the Israeli-American Council, alleged that Jewish students across America are being “forced to hide their Jewish identity” out of fear of “retaliation” from BDS activists, another claim with no basis in reality.
BDS is “like a cancer,” said Nicolet. “This violent racist hate movement must be eliminated” by “rebranding” it as akin to the Ku Klux Klan, he added.
“Joining BDS should be a one-way ticket to excommunication from polite society,” he said. “When people think BDS, their stomachs need to turn. We need to name and shame any person who supports this movement.”
Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of Sodastream, which was pressured by the BDS movement to relocate its factory from an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, blasted the UN as a “house of shame.”
He denied the existence of Israel’s military occupation in the West Bank and accused the media of “nurturing the conflict.”
Birnbaum also maintained that an Israeli soldier was “not only equipped with the best gun” but “with the biggest heart.”
An Israeli soldier was “not motivated by 72 virgins,” he added, deploying a bigoted talking point frequently used to portray Palestinians as barbaric religious fanatics rather than people with legitimate rights which they are struggling to regain.
These paranoid fantasies wrapped in sectarian chauvinism and bigotry were epitomized by the unhinged reaction from Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, when The Electronic Intifada attempted to interview him.
Before even being asked a question, Klein labeled this reporter a “vicious, anti-Semitic, Nazi-like Jew hater.”
He even accused The Electronic Intifada of “attacking Jewish people and Jewish leaders” for bringing up Lieberman’s incitement. And he repeatedly alleged that The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah is “a liar.”
He referred several times to a debate he had had with Abunimah at the University of Michigan more than a decade ago.
Klein’s absolute rejection of a civil conversation is all the more remarkable given the conference’s supposed goal of building bridges.
“Use all fire-power”
The dogmatic fixation on BDS from conference speakers was rammed home in a 30-page guidebook handed out to attendees.
The booklet smears Palestine solidarity activism as an all-powerful movement of hate and even resorts to classic anti-Semitic tropes, warning that “BDS’ tentacles have reached nearly all areas of society” to manipulate “our future leaders and opinion makers.”
Under a section titled “Strategies and Tools,” students are advised to “contact your elected officials and encourage them to draft legislation that outlaws academic boycotts of Israel.”
The same page urges students to purge BDS supporters from all facets of life through outing “the delegitimizers” and “focusing all available fire-power – whether financial, social, legal etc. – to expose the individual and prevent them from operating in the campus, labor union or any other forum.”
“If anti-Israel students falsely accuse pro-Israel students of discrimination in violation of campus policy, this may constitute harassment,” the booklet claims.
These tired talking points were successfully absorbed by young people in the audience.
“I have never felt personally threatened physically,” admitted Tova, an 18-year-old student at New York’s Hunter College who is involved in the Hunter Students for Israel Club.
Still, she accused the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Hunter of holding rallies that are “extraordinarily anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist.” Asked to provide an example of SJP’s alleged anti-Semitism, Tova responded that “a woman once yelled at me, ‘Israel created Hamas!’ and then walked away.”
She also accused SJP of being “violent and loud” whereas “the Students for Israel Club is all about peace and is quieter.” When asked to elaborate, she explained that SJP’s “club poster is a fist with a Palestinian flag, which is a little scary to see.”
“There’s a difference between free speech and hate speech,” she continued. “I think the way that [BDS] is being implemented is hate speech.”
It’s no mystery where she got that idea.
Correction: This article initially stated that Danny Danon had been rejected by Brazil as ambassador because of his leadership role in the West Bank settler movement. In fact that was Danny Dayan.
- Danny Danon
- United Nations
- Zionist Organization of America
- Morton Klein
- World Jewish Congress
- Anti-Defamation League
- Daniel Birnbaum
- anti-BDS laws
- Students for Justice in Palestine
- Shoham Nicolet
- Israeli-American Council
- Ronald Lauder
- Elyakim Rubinstein
- First Amendment
- free speech