Last week a summit was convened in Las Vegas by pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson, focusing on how to defeat the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The summit was attended by a number of concerned pro-Israel philanthropists, including fellow billionaire Haim Saban, as well as approximately 50 organizations involved in fighting BDS and supporting Israel. As the Founder and Executive Director of Hasbara Fellowships, I was invited to participate in this ground-breaking meeting.

Hasbara Fellowships at the KnessetHasbara Fellowships at the Knesset

Why did approximately 150 people decide to fly to Las Vegas to discuss the threat of BDS on University campuses and beyond? Because BDS has become the spearhead and rallying cry for those who wish to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish State. While the BDS argument is that Israel must be pressured through boycotts, economic divestment and sanctions to change their policies towards the Palestinians, allowing them their own freedom and independence, the real intention of BDS is much different.

Throughout the generations the Jewish People have been singled out and targeted. Different generations and different locations had varying reasons why the Jews had to be targeted. The Jews were disproportionately rich or powerful; the Jews were heretics; the Jews were killing Christian children; the Jews were racially inferior; the Jews were a fifth column, etc. Today, the Jews are massacring Palestinians, stealing their land and racially persecuting them. We’ve seen this story before.

The Threat of BDS

BDS has had very limited tangible victories. Israel is feeling very little economic pressure from BDS. Almost every major hi-tech giant today has a R&D center in Israel. Trade with booming developing countries like India and China is at record levels. The State of Illinois recently unanimously passed a bill that would prevent the State’s pension fund from investing in companies that boycott Israel. At this point, BDS is not an economic threat to Israel.

The threat of BDS is not economic; it’s in poisoning hearts and minds against Israel.

The threat of BDS is in its poisoning of hearts and minds against Israel. BDS gives haters of Israel a tangible campaign to focus their efforts. Instead of just spewing hatred against Israel, BDS allows them to spew their hatred with a purpose that people can join.

The most recent academic year on North American University campuses saw a dramatic increase of divestment from Israel motions in student governments. The majority of these motions were defeated, but in truth, it doesn’t matter if they passed or not. The passing of these motions had no actual impact on University investment policies. But on each of these campuses that divestment motions occurred, anti-Israel advocates had a platform to accuse Israel of the most ridiculous and hateful charges. A debate about Israel’s human rights record was sanctioned by the student government. Pro-Israel students are automatically on the defensive, trying to rebut the baseless accusations. But the accusations are made and to the average student with limited knowledge of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, there is a minimal ability to process what is fact and what is not.

Tomorrow’s leaders are being poisoned about Israel and polling shows a dramatic downward shift in support of Israel amongst University students (Source: Pollster Frank Luntz). Jewish students minimally feel ill equipped to defend Israel from these accusations, and often are confused and troubled by them as well.

Isn’t BDS Just Legitimate Criticism of Israel?

Supporters of BDS will often declare that BDS is a legitimate, non-violent strategy to pressure Israel to change its policies. What can be wrong with that? Isn’t it okay to criticize Israel, the Israeli government or its policies? Don’t we want to see change in the Middle East or do we just support the ongoing conflict that seems to have no solution in sight?

Critics of last week’s Summit in Las Vegas have echoed this argument. They say that anti-BDS efforts are doomed because they miss the essential point – if Israel would just change its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, then BDS would go away. If Israel would just “end the occupation” then this anti-Israel campaign would go away.

The problem with this argument is that the BDS movement is not about changing an Israeli policy. Of course it is okay to criticize the Israeli government and its policies. Israelis do that every day!

Criticism is justified when it presented in context. Israel is a vibrant, free, democratic society with minority rights. It is a place that strives to make the world a better place and to act morally in a difficult situation of constant terrorism against it. In this context, can one be critical of specific Israeli policies? In this context can one believe that Israel should make more concessions to the Palestinians? Of course, and many Israeli have exactly these opinions.

But BDS supporters have no room for context or nuance. Everything is Israel’s fault. Israel is the sole reason why there is not peace between Israel and its neighbors. Even Israel’s redeeming factors are used against it. Israel has tremendous advancements in protecting the environment, whether though being a world leader in solar energy or in water preservation? That’s just “greenwashing” to cover up Israel’s human rights abuses. Israel sends teams to Nepal and Haiti to help when humanitarian crisis strike? That’s just to create a distraction from how they treat the Palestinians.

Legitimate criticism is welcome in any democratic and free society. It should be encouraged and fostered. But when a group of people can only see the terrible in another people – something else must be going on. And when the target of this hatred isn’t Iran, China or North Korea, all known for committing horrible human rights abuses, but is instead a liberal, democratic, Western nation – one has to ask what the real intentions are.

Additionally, the vast majority of Israelis support a two state solution. The problem has been that every time Israel has attempted to move this process forward, they have been met by terror, rockets and attempts by the Palestinians to demonize Israel. So to argue that BDS is a method to “end the occupation” is disingenuous. If someone truly wanted to accomplish this, they would be pressuring the Palestinians to negotiate and compromise with the Israelis!

How to win this battle

Since the battle against BDS is really a battle for the hearts and minds towards Israel, our definition of winning and losing can’t be about who gets more votes in a student government motion. Winning the BDS battle will be defined by whether we gain more supporters for Israel or not. BDS can be an opportunity to educate young Jews and non-Jews about the validity and nobility of Israel’s cause and values.

Winning the BDS battle will be defined by whether we gain more supporters for Israel or not.

Since Israel haters want to bring a spotlight to Israel’s actions, then we should use this opportunity to teach others what Israel truly stands for. In a very difficult situation, under attack from all sides, Israel maintains its moral bearing. Israel goes above and beyond to protect Palestinian civilians when defending against Hamas terrorists. Israel regularly helps other countries around the world when humanitarian disasters strike. Israel is not perfect, but if it’s held to the moral standard of any other Western, democratic country, Israel will shine.

If we can make this case in an engaging and thoughtful manner, we can gain allies. And if we can gain more allies than we lose, then we will win against BDS.

Hasbara Fellowships is excited to collaborate with Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban and the wide range of Israel supporters and organizations to win this battle. By joining forces and being united, we can truly win this battle.