It’s time to press reset on Israel’s confused response to the genuine threat of BDS and demonisation. A series of own-goals have created the impression of a powerful, aggressive government harassing weak NGOs. An alternative approach, based on Israeli MKs and their counterparts in foreign parliaments creating a shared policy framework, is needed.
Among Israeli politicians and pundits, the recognition of threats from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and demonisation, through labels such as ‘apartheid’ and ‘war criminal,’ dawned very slowly. When the response came, it took the form of an overreaction and a series of own-goals that, if anything, have made matters worse.
The most damaging involves policies preventing the entry of BDS activists (actual and imagined) into Israel, first through the actions of overzealous officials in the Interior Ministry at Ben Gurion International Airport, and later through Knesset legislation. This led to intense criticism, and became another major source of friction between Jewish critics of Israel in the Diaspora and the government.
For a large part of the Israeli political spectrum, including right, center and center-left, BDS is seen as a form of antisemitism that singles-out the country for criticism, blunts effective counterterror measures and seeks to end Jewish self-determination. The economic damage has been minimal, but the demonisation that feeds attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world is seen as a major danger. The fear is that such activities, modeled on the fight against South African apartheid and launched at a 2001 UN conference in Durban South Africa, will erode Israeli sovereign equality, including legal sanctions in the UN. While Israel is militarily and economically powerful, a strong sense of isolation and vulnerability continues to permeate large parts of Israeli society, and various forms demonisation amplify these concerns.
The network of NGOs leading BDS is also involved in lawfare, in the form of attempts to bring cases against Israelis to the International Criminal Court and in individual countries, including the UK. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and government ministers have referred to these campaigns as a form of strategic warfare – a view shared by centrist politicians such as Yair Lapid.
But on the Left, BDS in general, and in the ‘selective’ form of boycotts of West Bank and Golan Heights products, are seen as legitimate forms of protest with the limited objective of ending the post-1967 occupation. This is true even for some liberals who consider themselves to be on the Zionist Left. Peter Beinart, for example, wrote that ‘we should lobby to exclude settler-produced goods from America’s free-trade deal with Israel’. Similarly, Kathleen Peratis, a board member at Human Rights Watch, has written that ‘settlement businesses help make settler life possible’ and hence should be boycotted. But for many Israelis, these distinctions are different aspects of the same battlefront. Selective boycotts use the same tools and slogans as the wider BDS movement, erasing the nuances, particularly in harsh political debates.
It is against this background that a spate of recent actions, laws and regulations against BDS activists – real and imagined – have created a crisis. In February 2017, before her passport was stamped and she was allowed to enter on a tourist visa, Jennifer Gorovitz, an official of the New Israel Fund (which supports ‘limited boycotts’) was questioned about BDS activities by a zealous border control officer at Ben Gurion International Airport. For the critics, internal and external, such restrictions are assaults on democracy, and worse.
In this period, a number of ‘global BDS’ activists – particularly non-Jews leading major organisations, were denied entry, including Brigitte Herremans of the Catholic Belgian NGOs Broederlijk Delen and Pax Christi (both involved in BDS initiatives). Herremans is one of the central figures in European demonisation of Israel, including the practice of exploiting tourist visas for bringing groups to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). These ‘familiarisation tours’ emphasise Palestinian victimhood and Israeli culpability, reinforcing support for political warfare, including BDS, among the participants. Afterwards, the group members are expected to participate in campaigns targeting Israel.
In December 2016 Dr. Isabel Apawo Phiri, an official of the World Council of Churches (WCC) was denied entry ‘due to support for the Israel boycott’. Phiri heads the WCC’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine (EAPPI) – a clear example of an organisation that exploits Israel’s open access for tourists to bring activists to the West Bank to learn the Palestinian narrative. At the end of a three month ‘tour,’ EAPPI volunteers return to their communities where they provide ‘testimonies’ on apartheid, ‘collective punishment,’ ‘war crimes,’ ‘Bantustans’ as well as promoting the Kairos Palestine document on BDS. The Kairos document is a prime example of how demonization of Israel is mixed with theological antisemitism, which are integrated into EAPPI events.
However, the absence of a consistent policy was reflected in the confusion over the denial of a work visa application submitted in February 2017 by Omar Shakir, a BDS activist employed by Human Rights Watch to ‘report on Israel/Palestine’. In rejecting the application, the Interior Ministry noted that HRW has long been guilty of exploiting human rights language to falsely accuse Israelis of war crimes, and staffers promoting this agenda had no right to a work visa. But in keeping the rejection secret, Israel allowed HRW to promote a much distorted version of events, comparing Israel to North Korea, which was widely quoted around the world. The government was then on the defensive, and the BDS activist received a tourist visa and a personal welcome from the Foreign Ministry. This abrupt turn-around highlighted the confusion and lack of consistency in government policy.
In barring entry under various criteria including radical political and social activism, Israel is acting in conformity with the practices of other democracies. For instance, the UK barred the entry of antisemitic French comedian Dieudonne, a radical Lebanese cleric, and Israeli Rabbi Yosef Elizur, who was indicted by Israeli authorities for inciting the murder of Palestinians. As noted by my colleague Anne Herzberg, the UK also bars activists from the group ‘Stop Islamisation of America,’ on the grounds that granting visas to members of a hate group would ‘not be conducive to the public good’. In Israel, the entry of BDS leaders is also viewed to ‘not be conducive to the public good’.
Amidst the growing debate, including instances of BDS leaders who were allowed in publicly boasting of their ‘success,’ the Knesset jumped into the fray in the form of a law adding to the existing administrative powers to bar entry to individuals. For the government and Israeli politicians on the Right, the law governing entry regulations was the appropriate political response to the ugly war being waged against the Jewish state.
This was not the only such measure – proposed anti-BDS legislation has included regulations that would penalise the NGOs leading these efforts by increasing tax rates; requiring special lobbyist identification tags in Knesset visits; disclosure and more transparency regarding foreign government (mostly European) funding. Most of these initiatives disappear after getting their sponsors headlines. If NGO funding restrictions related to BDS, lawfare and other forms of demonisation are enacted at some point, the European government officials who guide these funds for favourite NGOs will simply increase the budgets to cover the taxes.
How to lose friends and not influence people
Measures perceived as popular with voters for Likud and other coalition partners are largely ineffective in combatting BDS, and allow the campaigners to portray themselves as victims of an anti-democratic ‘McCarthyite’ witch-hunt. The use of restrictive legislation (especially measures that will not pass scrutiny from the courts), regulations, and other approaches cause significant damage to Israel’s international image. The picture that emerges is one of a powerful and aggressive government harassing weak NGOs.
Global BDS promoters like Jewish Voice for Peace saw the controversy and the law restricting visas for BDS activists as an opportunity for headlines and pushing their anti-Israel agenda, stating they will try to defy or test the entry law by sending groups to Israel. An anti-Israel BDS coalition led by Jewish Voice for Peace and American Muslims for Palestine launched a publicity campaign in the US based on their plan to defy this ban, and in July several members were prevented from boarding a flight at Dulles Airport, outside of Washington D.C., as their names were on the list of those barred from entering Israel.
More serious condemnations of the entry restriction policy came from individuals and groups that have consistently opposed global BDS and other forms of demonisation. A statement issued by the Association for Israel Studies (of which I am a member) emphasises this diverse group’s commitment to fighting BDS campaigns, including discrimination against Israeli academics and institutions, while charging that that ‘this law undermines our ability to continue to do so’.
Colin Shindler, a British professor from the Zionist Left who has fought the good fight for many years, published an op-ed on this theme in Haaretz (‘These Academics Fight BDS on Campus Every Day. Will They Be Banned From Israel?’ March 19, 2017). He described how academics from around the world stood with Israel in opposing academic boycotts, and achieved important successes in this fight. However, ‘many of the leading lights … [who] have struggled valiantly against the advocates of BDS on US campuses … may find themselves barred from entering the country simply because they don’t hold the “correct” view on the West Bank settlements and the purchase of their produce’.
In the realm of progressive Zionist political activists critical of the government, Daniel Sokatch, the US CEO of the New Israel Fund, thundered that similar to President Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ the ‘Knesset has shown that it, too, will make it a matter of law and policy to use discriminatory tests to decide who may enter Israel’. Peter Beinart noted that ‘the Knesset wants me to choose. Either stop visiting Israel or stop opposing the occupation’.
Finding an alternative approach
Eventually, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, headed by Gilad Erdan, and other officials concerned about Israel-Diaspora relations, woke up to the cost of these populist laws, and issued regulations which narrowed the criteria for denial of visas, published in July. Only ‘major players’ in the BDS movement would be affected, including ‘senior leadership and senior key activists of an organisation which has undertaken ongoing, consistent and active efforts to promote and advance a boycott of Israel’. Hence, liberal critics of Israeli policies, or even those who support limited boycotts, such as Beinart, will not be barred from entering the country. According to officials, the regulation ‘explicitly excludes political criticism of Israel as a criterion for consideration’.
In this way, the crisis over the anti-BDS entry regulations was defused, but the core issues and debates over how to deal them will continue. First is the question of whether BDS and demonisation pose serious threats to Israel? The economic damage that BDS campaigns have inflicted on Israel to date is minimal in the broad sense, with foreign investments in the tech sector breaking records, and targeted companies like Soda Stream thriving. However, as documented by Professor Eugene Kontorovich, the efforts continue through soft-boycotts such as European labelling requirements, which are applied to settlements only in this conflict, not to the Turkish Occupied-zone in Cyprus, Tibet, and other conflict areas. Of greater concern are the plans to create a UN blacklist of Israeli firms, and to boycott banks through the language of Corporate Social Responsibility, based on the language adopted in the EU’s ‘Settlement Guidelines’ labelling policy.
But the main justification for declaring BDS a ‘strategic threat’ is the role it plays in singling out Israel and Israelis as political lepers (‘apartheid,’ ‘war criminals,’ etc), particularly on college campuses. Silent boycotts of Israeli academics, efforts to prevent Israeli artists from performing, and similar actions, are often attributed by the Israeli public to Israeli NGOs like Breaking the Silence, B’tselem, and Adalah, who are seen as complicit in these campaigns. They are denounced for travelling the world cavalierly accusing IDF soldiers of war crimes, and gratuitously lobbing charges of racism and violations of human rights.
In Fathom, Professor Gadi Taub pointed out that for many Israelis, ‘Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem are not considered … to be honest human rights watchdogs. Rather, many suspect that they abuse the issue of human rights in the service of a worldwide campaign to demonise Israel’. For example, there was widespread criticism when the head of B’tselem denounced Israel in a widely publicized UN Security Council “informal session” led by Venezuela and other core human rights violators. Adalah’s partnership with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and its insertion of BDS into the BLM platform is another instance of such NGO demonisation.
Whether the revised entry law will actually have an impact on demonisation campaigns and BDS activists remains to be seen. But in the short-term, the controversy increased the friction between Israelis and liberal supporters abroad, including among the Diaspora Jewish communities – one of the primary target audiences of radical fringe groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace. In the battle of images and narratives, the original legislation was an ‘own goal’.
Among Israeli politicians, journalists and others who have taken on the BDS challenge, the challenge is to find an alternative to restrictive legislation and other government measures that will be interpreted as anti-democratic and heavy-handed.
One of the alternatives for countering the delegitimisation would be to shift the debate from being an internal Israeli or Israel-Jewish Diaspora issue to one about which Israeli MKs and their counterparts in foreign parliaments create a shared framework. As most of the known funding for BDS comes from European governments, under the guise of supporting NGOs promoting human rights and democracy, agreed guidelines denying funding to groups that lead this demonisation would mark an important change. As NGO Monitor’s research has shown, most European government officials and MPs are unaware of the ways that these European funds sometimes go to NGOs that have links to terror organisations and are involved in antisemitism. As a result, a number of parliaments, as in the case of Switzerland and Holland, have taken action in the past year to change these policies.
Jewish groups in the Diaspora can also join these efforts, providing input to local MPs, influential journalists, as well as to Israeli political leaders. By focusing on groups promoting antisemitism, linked to terror organisations, or active in promoting demonisation, including BDS, Jewish and Israeli groups who disagree on other issues can find a way to work together.
At the same time, it is important for liberal Zionist critics of Israeli policies to understand that Israelis see BDS and demonisation as genuine threats, and not to dismiss those concerns as simply ‘anti-democratic’. Liberals should understand the real anger in Israel at the disproportionate emphasis on alleged Israeli wrong-doing, at the worrying links of some to antisemitism, and at the massive European state funding that enables this anti-Israel agenda. As Daniel Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, has written, ‘a dialogue is necessary to help [liberal] American Jews understand why Israelis see BDS and the movements that support it in the same dire terms that American Jews see what Charlottesville represents . American Jews may acquire tools to help educate allies … who feel pulled by the argument of “intersectionality” toward BDS, why it is unjust, unwise, and counterproductive’. The same can be applied to liberal Jews in other communities, including Israelis.