Analysis from Israel

Last Friday, for instance, Austria’s national student union passed a motion denouncing BDS as anti-Semitic and saying the movement recalls the Nazis’ economic boycott of Jewish businesses. The resolution also said BDS activists shouldn’t be given funding or venues in which to promote its campaign. The motion, which was pushed in particular by a student group called GRAS (Greens and Alternative Students), passed almost unanimously, with one abstention and no votes against.

The previous week, the Green Party in the German state of Bavaria passed a resolution denouncing BDS as “anti-Semitic, hostile to Israel, reactionary and anti-enlightenment,” adding that it “reproduces the National Socialist slogan, ‘Don’t buy from Jews!’” The resolution, introduced by the party’s youth wing, also urged the national Green Party not to cooperate with BDS. Given that some prominent Green Party members have actively promoted anti-Israel boycotts, this uncompromising denunciation effectively amounts to a grassroots revolt.

And this week, the Left Party in Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, decided not to consider a motion urging Israel “to end the occupation and the Gaza blockade” and demanded the European Union end its Association Agreement with Israel due to the blockade and Israel’s West Bank security fence. Given that the Left Party (Die Linke in German) is easily the German party most hostile to Israel, this development is surprising.

The party offered no explanation when it announced the decision on its Twitter account, but Jerusalem Post reporter Benjamin Weinthal suggested it might be related to what Martina Renner, a Left Party member of parliament, said about the resolution earlier this month. The “motion sounds like it was written from Israel boycott groups,” Renner said. “From this the executive board of @dielinke clearly distances itself.” Renner’s statement left no room for doubt: Even the Left Party wants nothing to do with BDS and anti-Israel boycotts.

All these examples have something in common: The anti-BDS push is coming precisely from the groups that are normally least sympathetic to Israel–leftists and young people. In other words, BDS is losing not just among groups that could be expected to oppose it, like the U.S. Congress, but among the very demographic that ought to be its principal bastion of support.

Of course, even many people who oppose boycotting Israel as a whole still think boycotts are acceptable as long as they target the settlements alone. The problem, as the UNHRC blacklist makes glaringly obvious, is that this isn’t actually possible.

One of the companies that received a UNHRC warning letter this week, for instance, was Bezeq, Israel’s largest telecommunications company. Why? Because Bezeq provides telephone and internet service to the settlements. Nor is Bezeq unique; many of Israel’s largest companies provide services to the settlements, including the banks, the Mekorot Water Company, the Israel Electric Corporation, and all cell phone operators, because physical and economic infrastructure companies are expected to provide service to all Israelis.

Moreover, the blacklist as compiled by the UNHRC and other BDS advocates also defines East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights as “settlements.” In other words, to satisfy the boycotters, Israeli companies wouldn’t merely have to stop providing essential services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the West Bank; they’d also have to stop providing services to hundreds of thousands of Israelis in Israel’s capital, not to mention the tens of thousands of non-Jewish, non-Israelis living in both eastern Jerusalem and the Golan. Complying with the boycott would, thus, cause a humanitarian crisis of major proportions –and, therefore, it isn’t going to happen.

Until now, because most boycott initiatives have been small-scale, it’s been possible for people who advocate “just boycotting the settlements” to ignore what that actually means. The irony is large-scale initiatives like the UNHRC blacklist, by publicly spelling out exactly what it entails, make it much harder for people to keep ignoring the truth: that “boycotting the settlements” actually means boycotting Israel.

Nevertheless, this realization isn’t going to sink in without a lot of work on the part of both the Israeli government and Jewish and pro-Israel activists worldwide. Indeed, that’s one of the main lessons of the victories to date.

When the BDS movement first emerged, many well-meaning people advocated ignoring it rather than fighting it on the grounds that fighting it would simply inflate the importance of an otherwise insignificant movement. But victories like those of the past few weeks show why that strategy was wrong. The growing understanding that BDS is anti-Semitic didn’t happen because Israel and overseas activists ignored the movement; it happened because both the Israeli government and overseas activists relentlessly explained the connection between boycotting Israel and anti-Semitism. And a similar effort will be needed to explain that “boycotting the settlements” is just a euphemism for boycotting Israel.

Even though large swaths of polite society are now perfectly comfortable with anti-Semitism as long as they can tell themselves it’s just “anti-Zionism” or “fighting the occupation,” open avowals of anti-Semitism are still taboo. Once stripped of the comforting pretense that it’s not anti-Semitic, BDS will be finished. And groups like the Austrian student union and the Bavarian Green Party are now tearing that pretense to shreds.

Originally published in Commentary on October 18, 2017

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In Europe, Israel needs a bottom-up approach to diplomacy

For years, I considered Europe a lost cause from Israel’s perspective and decried the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Euro-centric focus, arguing that it should instead devote more effort to places like Africa, Asia and South America, which seemed to offer better prospects for flipping countries into the pro-Israel camp. But the past few years have proven that Europe isn’t hopeless—if Israel changes its traditional modus operandi.

This has been evident, first of all, in the alliances that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed with several countries in eastern and southern Europe, resulting in these countries repeatedly blocking anti-Israel decisions at the European Union level. Previously, Israeli diplomacy had focused overwhelmingly on Western Europe. Netanyahu’s key insight was that conservative, nationalist governments seeking to preserve their own nation-states would have more instinctive sympathy for a Jewish state than the liberal universalists who dominate in Western Europe, and whose goal is to replace nation-states with an ever-closer European union.

But as several recent events show, even Western Europe isn’t a lost cause. The difference is that there, conventional high-level diplomacy won’t work. Rather, the key to change is the fact that most Europeans, like most people everywhere, don’t really care that much about Israel, the Palestinians or their unending conflict. Consequently, small groups of committed activists can exert a disproportionate influence on policy.

For years, this has worked against Israel because the anti-Israel crowd woke up to this fact very early and took full advantage of it. Take, for instance, the 2015 decision to boycott Israel adopted by Britain’s national student union. The union represents some 7 million students, but its executive council passed the decision by a vote of 19-12. Or consider the academic boycott of Israel approved in 2006 by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (which no longer exists, having merged into a larger union). The association had some 67,000 members at the time, but only 198 bothered to vote, of whom 109 voted in favor.

Yet it turns out pro-Israel activists can use the same tactics, as in last week’s approval of a resolution saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism by the lower house of France’s parliament. The resolution passed 154-72, meaning that fewer than 40 percent of the National Assembly’s 577 deputies bothered to vote, even though 550 deputies were present earlier in the day to vote on the social security budget. In other words, most deputies simply didn’t care about this issue, which meant that passing the resolution required convincing only about a quarter of the house.

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