It seems that a new and fresh wind is blowing through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, whose leadership has come to realize that the way the previous government fought the BDS movement (that calls for the imposition of boycott and sanctions on Israel) has played into the hands of our enemies.
Israel’s way to deal with the tactical threats of the BDS movement in recent years has greatly contributed to the distancing of liberal and progressive groups away from Israel, hence endangering Israel’s long-standing relations with the US Democratic Party, with most American Jewish communities and with most European countries. This has become a significant strategic challenge, that is amplified by advancing legislation against freedom of expression, and silencing criticism, which are considered sacred liberal values.
Israel’s instinctive response to the BDS challenge, as is the case with most of the challenges we face, was to perceive the movement as an existential threat, to seek solutions of military/security nature, and to brand it as antisemitic. However, the BDS movement posed a marginal threat to Israel's security and economic prosperity, while associating it with antisemitic movements was detrimental to both the fight against anti-Semitism and the fight against BDS. Israel’s use of semi-military means to thwart threats well demonstrates the meaning of the phrase "whoever has a hammer in his hand sees every problem as a nail". However, the means used are not suitable to address this challenge and are even harmful.
The BDS movement uses the non-violent tactics that civil society organizations used in the past against the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Western BDS proponents are typically politically liberal and progressive, and many among them are Jews who oppose Israeli occupation and the settlements in the West Bank, and who believe that only international pressure would bring about change.
Anti-Semitism on the other hand, similar to other expressions of xenophobia and racism, originates from politically right-wing movements. The association between the BDS movement and anti-Semites is harmful; first, because when the diagnosis is wrong it is difficult to develop a prognosis; second, because it legitimizes anti-Semitism among many young people, who might wrongly conclude that anti-Semitism is legitimate if anti-Semitism equals criticizing Israeli policy.
Branding BDS as anti-Semitism is perceived as hypocritical because it puts us in the same group with populist conservative leaders - Trump in the US, Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil and others - who are all supported by anti-Semites. who are now also supportive of Israel because they perceive Israel as sharing their xenophobic and especially anti-Muslim sentiments.
In order to fight the BDS movement, we must increase contact with liberal and progressive circles and dialogue with them, even if they are critical of certain aspects of Israel’s policy. As regard anti-Semitism, the way to cope with it is through alliances with other minorities and through forming a broad coalition against racism and xenophobia, rather than using the term anti-Semitism against anyone who dares to criticize Israel or Zionism.
Our insistence on distinguishing the Holocaust from other incidences of genocide as a means to fight anti-Semitism, while being completely indifferent or even encouraging Islamophobia, for example, is immoral and doomed to failure.
During a discussion in the Knesset State Audit Affairs Committee, headed by MK Ofer Shelach (July 28), which I attended as a representative of the Mitvim Institute, I was impressed by the presentation of the new Director General of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Ronen Menalis, who claimed that a new and more effective approach to respond to the challenge exists.
I was also encouraged by the understanding presented by Menalis, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be a key player in addressing BDS due to the knowledge and unique position of its representatives among target audiences. It is to be hoped that a new era will indeed open up in this aspect of Israel’s foreign policy, alongside the new spirit felt in the Foreign Ministry.
(This post was published in Jewish News and Time of Israel on August 6th.)