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In Israel, BDS is winning

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.

President Reuven Rivlin is interviewed during Yedioth Ahronoth's Stop BDS conference, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

President Reuven Rivlin is interviewed during Yedioth Ahronoth’s Stop BDS conference, Jerusalem, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

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.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at Yedioth Ahronoth's Stop BDS conference, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at Yedioth Ahronoth’s Stop BDS conference, Jerusalem, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

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.

Anti-BDS posters adorn the walls of the Jerusalem Convention Center during the first ever conference to combat BDS in Israel, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

Anti-BDS posters adorn the walls of the Jerusalem Convention Center during the first ever conference to combat BDS in Israel, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

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.

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni is interviewed during Yedioth Ahronoth's Stop BDS conference, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni is interviewed during Yedioth Ahronoth’s Stop BDS conference, Jerusalem, March 28, 2016. (photo: Oren Ziv/

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.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      The Occupation has a deep economic element – see Shir Hever’s “The Political Economy of the Israeli Occupation”. In a nutshell, Palestinians buy Israeli goods with money from international aid, while at the same time the dismantling of the Palestinian economy prevents any competition for Israeli business. When the whole structure becomes too expensive for Israel to maintain the Occupation will collapse – that’s where BDS fits in.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      Israeli companies leaving West Bank in apparent response to boycott pressure
      A soon-to-be-released report by peace group obtained by Haaretz suggests that international pressure may have affected companies’ decisions to move within the Green Line.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Carmen

      Thank you for attending this conference about fighting BDS, which really isn’t a fight because BDS isn’t really a threat, even though much more money will be needed to fight this non-threat, which has no impact at all but is antisemitic and therefore a threat to all Jews. Did you bring an air sick bag with you Ms. Zonszein because you certainly were in an all ‘spin no facts zone’. And the comedy wasn’t provided by an actual comedian, at least I think that’s how Roseanne Barr labels herself, but israeli politicians – ‘it’s trendy to be vegan and hate on israel’ Livni and pres. Rivlin’s strange remarks about Breaking the Silence – which should actually be Maintaining the Silence if he gets his way. Of course I don’t want to forget to give props to the shills congratulating themselves for living in the ‘only democracy in the middle east’. Really? Because all of the suggestions to fight BDS sound very UN-democratic to me. Thanks for your report!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ken Brown

      Are there Israeli Jews who support BDS? Who are they? Do they include Schoken, editor of HAARETZ? What’s their argument?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        For example, Larry Derfner and Ze’ev Sternhell, among many, have provided carefully reasoned arguments about the necessity of external pressure at this point. Not formal endorsements of “BDS” brand BDS (which is a convenient label for dissolving distinctions and branding all forms of external pressure as bad).

        Reply to Comment
    5. Mike Griffin

      A very interesting and insightful article. However, you don’t elaborate, either in this piece or the earlier one, on what you mean by the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate targets for boycott.What are the distinguishing features between one and the other?

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Sheizaf and Omer-Man and others have argued that Israeli “liberals” want it both ways: for all intents and purposes the state and its electorate has erased or strives to erase the distinction made by the green line. In practice it is one state. But when it comes to boycott and divestment, these same “liberals” want to hold fast to the distinction made by the green line.

        Reply to Comment