The first ever anti-BDS conference in Israel brought together politicians of all stripes to show their commitment to the fight against boycotts. In doing so, however, they showed just how effective the boycott movement really is.
Israel’s best selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and its online platform Ynet, hosted a conference Monday in Jerusalem’s Convention Center dedicated entirely to combatting the BDS movement. The very existence of the spectacle — the first national conference of its kind co-sponsored by StandWithUs and attended by over a thousand people — gave BDS (short for boycott, divestment, and sanctions) more attention in Israel than it could have ever hoped for.
It was a tell-tale sign that the global movement to boycott Israel has become significant enough to warrant such an event, whose speakers included President Reuven Rivlin, senior Knesset ministers, members of the opposition, World Jewish Congress head Ron Lauder and comedian Roseanne Barr. (There were, of course, no speakers at the conference who represent or support BDS).
The cognitive dissonance became clear the moment the conference began. Yedioth Ahronoth Editor-in-Chief Ron Yaron told the crowd that the power of BDS cannot be underestimated, and that Israel does not want to find itself in the position Apartheid South Africa was in 5 t0 10 years’ time. Yaron immediately caveated that there is no connection between Israel and South Africa. Public Security and Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who oversees government efforts at combating BDS, opened by saying that people should not “overemphasize” BDS.
Speaker after speaker stepped up to the podium and said, in the same breath, that although BDS is succeeding, it is not a success; that it is not a threat but must be taken as a serious threat; that it has not negatively impacted Israel’s economy but that Israel must allocate more of its budget to fighting it. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz said (Heb) that Israel should engage in “targeted civil eliminations” of BDS leaders with the help of Israeli intelligence, intentionally using language that plays on the Hebrew term for “targeted assassinations.” Tzipi Livni, meanwhile, said that it is really trendy these days to “be vegan and hate on Israel.” At one point, World Jewish Congress head Ron Lauder compared efforts at implementing economic boycotts of Israel to the Nuremberg Laws, while Roseanne Barr, the keynote speaker of the conference, called the BDS movement “fake-left” and “fascist.”
While the BDS movement and its most dominant spokesperson, Omar Barghouti, were the main target of the conference (Barghouti came up several times when speakers described the Israeli government’s recent efforts to revoke his permanent residency status), speakers also went after Israeli human rights groups for allegedly aiding BDS efforts.
Within the first hour of the conference, President Reuven Rivlin was asked whether Breaking the Silence is a legitimate organization, since it takes “anonymous testimonies” given by Israeli soldiers and presents them abroad. Rivlin replied that it is important to distinguish between “legitimate criticism” and “incitement,” adding that criticism must remain internal. Yedioth columnist Ben Dror Yemini boasted about how proud he is to live in a democratic country where free speech is so sanctified that it even makes room for those who support BDS (he failed to mention that there is now a law on the book that penalizes Israelis who call for boycotts).
The word occupation wasn’t mentioned once at the conference — although many speakers stridently defended Israeli democracy against claims that Israel is an undemocratic or apartheid state. The fact that the question of Israel’s democratic character is brought up at all is a sign of the inculcation of the language of BDS into Israeli discourse.
BDS, as a multi-pronged movement with many activists and groups claiming to speak on its behalf, is of course not above criticism. As recently pointed out here, the movement could do far better when it comes to distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate acts of boycott, and specifically distancing itself from anti-Semitism, as distinct from anti- or non-Zionism.
No matter how much the speakers tried to downplay its importance, the fact is that Monday’s conference was a clear admission that Israeli politicians, journalists, security experts, businesspeople, and lay leaders feel compelled to do something about the damage — to Israel’s economy and image — that the BDS movement is creating.