One of the people I follow these days on Twitter is Danny Ayalon. He’s the deputy foreign minister of Israel but it’s hard to tell from his Twitter feed that he does anything besides man the virtual barricades of the state.
Hardly an hour goes by when Ayalon doesn’t end up engaging in tweet-to-tweet combat with some leftist activist. He’s either scolding @DidiRemez by telling him that “Ad Hominem attacks are always the last tool of an exhausted argument and a desperate person,” or upbraiding @lisang: “Perhaps you have not done sufficient research, plenty are boycotting ALL Israeli products regardless of where they are made.”
Besides the obvious concern for a foreign ministry where one of its top officials seems to spend much of his time collecting Twitter followers, Ayalon also happens to be doing a great disservice to his own stated cause: Defending Israel against its supposed enemies.
Ayalon’s online brawls are, of course, just part of a larger concerted effort by Israel’s ruling coalition to undermine those who would —as they put it — “delegitimize” the Jewish state. But all they seem to be doing so far is raising the profile of these activists and giving them more legitimacy and a more substantial platform than they could have ever achieved on their own.
The most stunning example of this dynamic was on display July 11 with passage of what has become known as the anti-boycott law. Widely denounced as a violation of free speech and a threat to Israeli democracy by even the most mainstream of Jewish organizations — from the Anti-Defamation League to the American Jewish Committee — the unprecedented legislation makes it a civil offense to talk about boycotting not just Israel, but even the occupied territories. If you so much as suggest that people should non-violently protest a settlement’s orange grove by not buying its oranges, that settlement can sue for hypothetical damages.
The law was clearly articulated as a response to the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement, which has been active over the past half decade attempting to isolate Israel culturally, academically and economically by boycotting sometimes Israel itself, but most often the occupation. Among people like Ayalon, BDS is a scourge. When Benjamin Netanyahu counts delegitimization as one of the three existential threats facing Israel — no less than a nuclear armed Iran and the missiles of Hamas and Hezbollah — he’s thinking of BDS.
The anti-boycott law was meant to be a weapon to strike fear in the hearts of these Israel haters. Instead, all it seems to have done is provide this scattered, largely ineffective movement a humungous gift of unprecedented — and free — PR. Millions of Israelis were introduced to BDS — a nefarious enemy they weren’t even previously aware of.
Just listen to the official BDS response to the passage of the bill: “This new legislation, which violates international law, is testament to the success of the rapidly growing global BDS movement and a realization within political elites inside Israel that the state is becoming a world pariah in the way that South Africa once was.”
Does that sound like a group that has just found out its modus operandi has been censured and outlawed? Not really. They sound like they just won a prize. The website of the BDS movement is full of similar gloating, activists thrilled that they had managed to get such a giant rise out of the Israeli government — “New York Times editorial admits boycott law is response to BDS,” reads one headline.
Now let’s stop and take a look at the actual threat posed by BDS. The movement was an initiative of Palestinian civil society, which called in 2005 for a global campaign against Israel and has been picked up by activists in the West and Israel proper. It has had its successes, mostly in Europe. And perhaps the movement’s biggest coup has been to convince a roster of aging rock stars like Elvis Costello and Roger Waters not to tour in Israel.
But in many other ways, BDS can only be described as a failure. On North American campuses, that supposed hotbed of anti-Israel activity, there have been no more than 17 significant BDS actions since 2005 according to an extensive national survey conducted by the Forward in May. And not one of these has led to a university divesting from a company or permanently ceasing the sale of any product. Few people have even heard of BDS outside the small circle of activists on the left. Its larger off-campus campaigns — like a boycott of the beauty products produced near the Dead Sea by Ahava or tractors made by Caterpillar and used in settlement construction — have not made a dent.
In Israel itself, the only boycotts that have gained traction or attention are those aimed at the occupation. The government decided last November to force state-supported arts centers to require their actors appear on any stage in Israel or the occupied territories, including at the new cultural center in Ariel, a large town in the West Bank. When a number of artists refused to perform over the Green Line they were supported by a petition signed by dozens of Israel’s cultural elite.
Politicians like Ayalon or Zeev Elkin, initiator of the anti-boycott law, don’t seem to understand that they are only doing great harm to Israel’s own credibility by stooping to meet the activists of the BDS movement at their level, whether it be on Twitter or by making anti-democratic laws to try and shut them up.
What they end up doing is the very definition of counterproductive. Rather than defuse this enemy, they elevate and inflate the threat by engaging it. What might a better strategy be for dealing with the BDS movement? How about just ignoring it. Think of how much more work Danny Ayalon could get done.
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