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Taking On BDS: ‘It’s The Narrative, Stupid’

Taking On BDS: ‘It’s The Narrative, Stupid’

Israel’s strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan, recently convened a group of 150 Jewish leaders from 20 countries to plan, and begin to coordinate, the Jewish world’s response to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which has targeted Israel in the economic, academic and professional spheres for 10 years. On its surface, this leadership from the Israeli government is welcome news. For the most part, BDS opposition globally has been largely uncoordinated and inconsistent. 

As a longtime anti-BDS activist, I have been personally and deeply invested in many of these efforts. However, of late, I am questioning some of my own previously held positions on our approach to BDS. I am concerned that while we may be winning the “BDS battles,” we are losing the “narrative war.”

In many ways, the uncoordinated opposition to BDS has been successful. Economic boycotts have failed. Even in Europe, where BDS mania has been the most vicious, Israel-EU trade doubled in 10 years. Moody’s recently opined that BDS “has had no discernible impact” on Israeli trade. Although recent EU regulations on the labeling of West Bank products are troubling politically, no one expects them to meaningfully impact the Israeli economy.

In academia, only a handful of marginal academic societies in the U.S. have voted to exclude Israeli academics. And, while 15 student governments have passed divestment resolutions (12 have failed), no university board has seriously considered divestment.

And, in the past two years, both Congress and many state legislatures have passed anti-boycott laws that will discourage or prohibit companies’ abilities to engage in anti-Israel discrimination.

So, what’s the problem? Why change course at all?

It is true that anti-BDS fights by all of the outstanding individuals and groups who have waged them have largely succeeded in blocking boycotts and divestment — and I do not suggest that we stop opposing them. But the BDS movement has hijacked the Zionist narrative, and the narrative of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The fact that we are even having an argument about BDS means we have already given our enemies 80 percent of the victory.

We need to recognize that BDS is not a strategy; it is a tactic that its proponents have used to demonize, delegitimize and destroy support for Israel. Unlike Europe (where the trends are depressing), according to a recent Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans continue to view Israel favorably. On the other hand, according to the AJC’s annual surveys of the Jewish community, affinity toward Israel has declined slowly but steadily since 2005 when BDS began (though BDS is not necessarily the main cause of this decline). The percentage of “Jews of no religion,” who, as a group, feel less attachment to Israel, has skyrocketed in the past decade, and affinity for Israel, even among the Birthright generation, is substantially lower than among older Jews (this has not always been the case). These are further causes of concern. Scholars disagree about the implications of these facts, but two things are certain:  given the increasing rate of assimilation and intermarriage among millennials, the historical pattern of Jewish pro-Israel advocacy can by no means be guaranteed, and the pervasive negativity that persists on many American campuses is almost certain to have a corrosive effect on long-term support for Israel — among Jews and non-Jews.

The anti-Israel forces are strategic and they are organized. They have evolved their approaches to anti-Israel activism, and they have forged alliances with other groups representing “oppressed populations” (“intersectionality”). The BDS community is even rethinking its use of BDS as the tactic to delegitimize Israel.

Our community also needs to be proactive and coordinated in its strategy. And, the strategic question needs to be not  how do we fight BDS, but how do we reclaim the Zionist narrative and the narrative of the conflict?

As a pro-Israel community, we should establish and organize around a set of shared and measureable goals and objectives. We must shift the focus of our best and brightest from one-off events and responding intensively to the most extreme forms of anti-Israel activity to a much more positive, proactive and strategic approach toward improving sympathy and empathy for Israel. We must provide young Jews with positive reasons to be connected to the Jewish people and Israel — that is, education and experiences. And we should deepen our engagement with non-Jews who share our goals and with open-minded opinion influencers. Perhaps Erdan’s initiative will prove to be an important first step in this direction, and we can turn the tide. But until we start asking the right questions, we certainly won’t come up with the right answers. 

David Eisner is a committee chair of the Conference of Presidents National Task Force to Promote Israel’s Security and Legitimacy.

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