With anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts gaining visibility, the Jewish community’s main public-policy coordinating body is for the first time confronting the BDS movement as a specific and stated priority.
At its recent annual plenum, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution stating that BDS should now “be regarded with the utmost seriousness and urgency.”
“This is a very serious matter,” JCPA’s executive director, Rabbi Steve Gutow, told the Forward. “We need to wake up, whether we are on the right, left or center.”
The JCPA, an umbrella body representing Jewish community relations councils across the country and more than a dozen leading national Jewish groups, adopted the anti-BDS resolution at its plenum in Dallas on February 23. Gutow said that JCPA member groups are planning to create a permanent body that would respond to the activities of the BDS movement.
While efforts to promote boycotts, divestment and sanctions targeting Israel are nothing new, an international BDS movement embracing a shared platform emerged only in 2005, in response to a call from Palestinian NGOs. Thus far, the BDS movement has taken various forms in different places, pushed forward by decentralized groups of activists around the world with the aim of branding Israel as an international pariah, drawing inspiration from efforts against apartheid South Africa. In the United States, the movement has launched boisterous public demonstrations, such as those that have greeted the Israel Ballet on its current American tour.
The text of the JCPA’s resolution explained that worries about the BDS movement are rooted not so much in the prospect of near-term successes for the anti-Israel effort — which, at least in America, have been few — but rather that “unless effectively countered, over time it may have the corrosive effect of changing the culture of political discussion and making it harder for people of goodwill to publicly support Israel. If support for Israel begins to be seen as de facto racism, this could provide fertile ground for the growth of anti-Semitism.”
For the BDS movement, negative branding of Israel is precisely the objective. It is the justification offered for targeting of anything related to Israel, even academic institutions or cultural events that are not explicitly political.
Andrew Kadi, a leader of Adalah-New York, a pro-Palestinian group in the BDS coalition, helped organize the protest targeting the Israel Ballet in cities where it appeared on its American tour. Pickets were set up in front of performances in Burlington, Vt., Boston and Brooklyn. Activists dressed as ballerinas, held signs that read, “Pas de deux or arabesque/The occupation is grotesque” and passed out mock programs — tactics echoing those employed by Soviet Jewry activists in the 1970s who protested New York performances of Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet and distributed fake playbills.
The BDS movement has raised its profile with these efforts, as well as with its campaigns targeting companies that the movement says are implicated in Israel’s occupation of what it considers Palestinian territory. Ahava beauty products from the Dead Sea and Caterpillar earth-moving equipment have both been the targets of such campaigns. But Kadi and others connected with BDS make clear that the movement is not limited to targeting Israel’s presence in territory it conquered in 1967.
“It is a boycott of Israel,” Kadi said. “It would be absurd to just boycott one manifestation of the state and not the state itself.”
Kadi said that he saw the reaction of the JCPA and other American Jewish organizations as an indication of the BDS movement’s effectiveness.
The resolution passed at the JCPA plenum lays out few concrete steps for beginning to combat the BDS movement. Along with the commitment to take the BDS threat more seriously, the resolution proposed responding “swiftly to false or distorted media statements about Israel,” educating Jewish professionals and students about the “nature, tactics and dangers of the BDS movement” and countering boycotts with campaigns to encourage the purchase of Israeli goods.
Gutow said that a meeting is planned for March in which the leaders of the various JCPA member groups will discuss how to more fully implement a counter campaign.
“We don’t have anything concrete yet in place,” Gutow said. “But our heads are all thinking in the direction of a coalition throughout North America that will allow us to confront this stuff comprehensively and on the ground.”
Contact Gal Beckerman at firstname.lastname@example.org
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman