Delegitimization of Israel: “Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions”

March 10, 2010
Richard Kuper
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globalforumGlobal Forum on antisemitism – working groups reports

Delegitimization of Israel: “Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions”

Co-Chairs: Dr. Mitchell Bard and Professor Gil Troy

Introductory comment by Richard Kuper

The 2009 Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism took place in Tel Aviv in December under the chairmanship of Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Avigdor Liberman and Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, Yuli Edelstein. It produced a report on how to combat the campaign for pressurising Israel through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions which we reproduce below. It is decidedly odd. Its opening paragraphs concede that “In the current climate, Israel advocates are always going to lose a fight over “settlements” and “occupation,” or at best get mired in stalemate” but it then almost welcomes the BDS campaign as one which, as far as it is concerned, makes “the battle one over Israel’s right to exist, over the legitimacy of Zionism, over the anti-Semitic tropes shaping the anti-Israel movement”.

There follows an account of the BDS movement which I for one cannot recognise.  BDS  is presented not as a strategy with many nuances, but unproblematically as a call for ‘the destruction of Israel’. JfJfP is on record as supporting targeted BDS strategies selected on a case by case basis and I doubt if any of our supporters would recognise themselves in the description given of various BDS activities and activists. Our support for a boycott of settlement goods, for a suspension of Israel’s privileges under the EU-Israel Association agreement, for divestment from companies profiting from the occupation etc are all subsumed in a generalised description of BDS [e.g. “BDS is a part of a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel”, “BDS crosses the line into traditional bigotry”, “BDS is also part of the broader Islamist strategy to undermine the West” etc.] Assuming this is a genuine document and not a spoof [it is now clear that it is genuine – see the report in the Jerusalem Post, 11 March,  Campaign planned against Israel boycott] it seems important that those who care about human rights for Palestinians and Israelis should be aware of how some Israel supporters are thinking and organising and we present some extracts from this document here in that spirit. You can find the full 6,000-word report here.

[posted 10 March, updated 11 March]

This position paper summarizes the discussions of the Working Group on Delegitimization at the 2009 Global Forum against Anti-Semitism. Our task was to generate specific action plans to respond to the BDS – boycott, divestment, sanctions – movement, to reframe the issues in our favor and to set a new proactive agenda. If there was one clear conclusion that emerged from the two-day session in December, it was THERE MUST BE FOLLOW UP. There is a need in the Jewish world today for more coordination, for more sharing of best practices, for more LEADERSHIP in the fight against anti-Semitism. Activists in the field feel alone. Those who succeed are not sharing their successful tactics and strategies; those who are less experienced flounder, wasting precious time, resources, goodwill. Everyone was honored and excited to participate in the Global Forum; no one wanted it to be limited to a two-day meeting, and many volunteered to keep the global conversation growing.

Beyond that, this paper will spend less time on definitions and narratives, and instead serve as an initial brainstorming document. Through the use of a Wiki set up with the assistance of Dr.Andre Oboler, task force members helped edit these two papers. The first was initially authored by Gil Troy, the second on taking offense, by Mitchell Bard. We thank all the participants for all their time, passion and expertise – and look at this as the start of an ongoing process, which we hope will continue.


There is a clarity in fighting against BDS that could provide traction in the Jewish world and beyond. In the current climate, Israel advocates are always going to lose a fight over “settlements” and “occupation,” or at best get mired in stalemate. BDS shifts the terrain, making the battle one over Israel’s right to exist, over the legitimacy of Zionism, over the anti-Semitic tropes shaping the anti-Israel movement, and the rank anti-Semitism behind the disproportionate, obsessive focus on Israel. It is also a battle about freedom of speech and of open discourses, given the BDS attempt to shut down normal flows of learning and commerce with Israel. This is a battle we can win – and (shhh, don’t tell anyone) have been winning so far, in many ways, in many communities.

We also should recognize that BDS is a part of a broader campaign to delegitimize Israel. This campaign of delegitimization, Dr. Joel Fishman writes, has been “a central motif of Palestinian propaganda in international bodies” and reflects a strategy of a “People’s War,” as full blown political, economic, cultural, ideological struggle against the very existence of Israel.

The Foreign Ministry can help centralize the fight against BDS and delegitimization, coordinate responses to what is a coordinated attack, share information, take a moral stand against the human rights hypocrites, engage diplomats in a fight for Israel’s basic rights, and train Israeli diplomats about the BDS movement. But the fight also has to be local not international, rooted in particular community norms, and necessarily somewhat distanced from the Foreign Ministry which is, naturally, perceived as a biased party, and whose involvement in all facets would help our enemies argue that we are fighting for Israel using the fight against anti-Semitism as camouflage.


Part of the fight against BDS is an educational one. And central to that is explaining that

  1. (as mentioned before) BDS crosses the line into traditional bigotry, both by resurrecting traditional anti-Semitic tropes, and by following the traditional ways of all bigots in attacking the essence of Israel and the Jewish people rather than constructively seeking to change particular policies or actions.
  2. BDS is part of the “Durban Strategy” adopted by NGOs during the infamous Durban Conference that was supposed to be against racism in late August, early September 2001. Good liberals on campus and elsewhere who think they are just fighting for “justice” need to be confronted with the fact that they are advancing a particular agenda with a particular – and quite problematic – pedigree.
  3. BDS is also part of the broader Islamist strategy to undermine the West. Especially in North America, activists need to understand how positions they are taking are aiding the same people who support shooting up Fort Hood, trying to down commercial jets on Christmas, and succeeded in killing nearly three thousand people on September 11, 2001.

Our Vision:

Includes: Israel being a cause to celebrate

Humanization of Israel (using a vibrant proactive approach making the Zionist case while emphasizing Israel’s many positive accomplishments and appealing characteristics)

Driving a Wedge between Soft Critics and Hard Delegitimizers


To have in place legislative prohibitions vs. BDS which can then be applied in different communities, acknowledging the different legal traditions

Creating “Best Practices” which can be modeled and taught

To have in place institutions (centralized, or ‘hub within network’ institutions) that can share information. (Committee members disagreed whether the bulk of the work should be from the government or from the community/civil society).

Institutions: To have in place Affinity Groups – lawyers, accountants, academics etc who can help fight BDS from within

Israeli intellectual ‘buy in’ – mobilizing Israeli academics and other professional who understand the seriousness of the threat and fight it

Encouraging more Israel Studies on campus as part of a broader rebranding and reversing of the current wherein enemies of Israel on campus are rewarded and friends are punished

Debranding the NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) – naming and shaming

Pursuing a strategy of ridicule and satire – especially on the internet

Here are some steps we should follow to achieve those goals:

1. Let’s Reframe to Name and Shame:

BDS means very little to most people – and sounds like a communicable disease (which in some ways, like anti-Semitism itself, it is…) The awkwardness of the language, and the venom behind the sentiments, together provide a double opportunity. We can rename and reframe their movement. We need to point out how BDS crosses the line from legitimate criticism to historically-laden, anti-Semitic messaging. We should note that BDS fails the “Sharansky Test” of Demonization, Double Standards and Delegitimization” because it singles out Israel for special condemnation, speaking for example about the “apartheid nature of the state” rather than specific policies. We could reinforce this by adding a 2-E Test – “exceptionalism” and “essentialism” – which again focuses on singling out Israel and, in the nature of traditional bigotry, condemning the actor not the act.

In that spirit, in Toronto, the Jewish Federation re-christened the movement the Blacklist, Demonize and Slander movement


1.1 Ensuring tactics don’t defeat strategy

The campaign against the University and College Lecturers’ Union’s boycott attempt in the UK was a signal success, mainly due to a classic job of re-framing. The BDS crowd wants the debate to be about Israel and the pro-Israel crowd made it about academic freedom. Although this is an exquisite tactic it runs the risk of leading to a strategic defeat.

What happened was that the “bad guys” talked about how bad Israel is and the “good guys” talked about how bad boycotts are. In the end the only messages that anyone heard about Israel were how bad she is. The boycott motion was handily defeated, but such a triumph contains the seeds of a Pyrrhic victory.

3. We Need a War Room

The BDS movement is well-coordinated (and well-financed). The Jewish community needs a war room, tracking this movement, sharing best practices, coaching communities. All too often (and most especially on campus), when an anti-Israel initiative is launched the few who care act as if such a thing never occurred elsewhere and start working on their own strategy – rather than relying on a broad network and a collective memory that should be helping them.

4. BDS Draws a Line in the Sand

BDS Draws a Line in the Sand – Either testing or recruiting progressives. By implicitly shifting the debate from Israeli policy to Israel’s right to exist, BDSers have provided what we could call the J-Street Test (or the test for J-Street). Progressives, no matter how critical of Israel, who condemn the BDS movement, prove their “pro-Israel bona fides.”

6. Make this the New Soviet Jewry Movement

A “Let Israel Live” anti-BDS campaign, if done right, could provide the kind of community-wide unity, continuing passion, and identity-building activism, last seen during the Soviet Jewish movement. The threat is intense enough, the moral issue is clear enough, all we need is the motivation, leadership, and organizational sophistication to make it happen.

8. Speak to Israelis about their roles as ambassadors and dangerous role as enablers

The fight against anti-Semitism, against BDS, and for Israel begins at home, in the homeland. Israelis can be the most effective ambassadors and activists in the fight against BDS – this should be the kind of fight for survival that transcends most political divisions and harnesses the kind of ingenuity and passion Israelis bring to more conventional battlefields. Israelis need to understand that, for all their much vaunted, “Start-up Nation” Hi Tech inventiveness, if the European Union decides to boycott Israel, the economic impact would be devastating. The threat is real – but not well known, and usually seen, unfortunately, through a left-right prism.

9. Ally, Fraternize, and Build Coalitions

Far too much of the fight against anti-Semitism and for Israel occurs within a Jewish community bubble. The Foreign Ministry can be a particularly useful force here in helping build alliances with academics, business people, politicians, anti-terror/national security types, Christian Zionists, civil libertarians – creating a broad coalition that is against demonization.

9.1 Labor unions

Universities (or other institutions) that invest in Israel seldom do so for reasons of Zionist sympathy. If they have put money into Israel or Israeli companies it’s because their investment advisers have told them that it’s the right thing to do in order to grow their endowment. Hence, divestment would be financially inadvisable.

If, in the midst of a divestment campaign, campus unions that represent technical, administrative and janitorial staff were convincingly informed that the divestment campaign might well lead to job cuts (and not amongst the tenured academics pushing for BDS) they might easily be persuaded to condemn such a campaign. How embarrassing for the “progressive” academics pushing BDS to be opposed by the representatives of the lowest paid workers on campus?

9.5 Professional Organizations and Communities

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, who was involved in combating the proposed British academic boycott of Israel, suggests applying some of the lessons from that experience more broadly. He proposes forming and informing groups of Jewish/pro-Israel professionals within various national and international professional association/organizations/unions. Their first order of business should be passing anti-discrimination by-laws within the organization that are general in nature, and that do not mention Israel per se, but rather oppose discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality etc. This would put the onus on the boycotters to prove they are NOT discriminating, instead of pro-Israel forces having to prove Israel’s innocence. …

10. Zero in on a moment to raise awareness of the BDS threat and start delegitimizing the delegitimizers

Beyond Israel (and the communities of Israelis abroad), even many ardently pro-Israel activists do not quite know what to do with Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Memorial Day. Perhaps this year is the time for a mass, international, cross-community teach-in about BDS on Yom Hazikaron, remembering the fallen soldiers and victims of terror by learning that words can kill (or heal), that demonization has facilitated violence and undermines peace. An added bonus is that after this sobering, somewhat defensive day of learning, one can simply celebrate Israel’s birthday, with Yom Ha’atzmaut immediately afterwards.

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