Analysis from Israel

The one saving grace about anti-Semites is that, contrary to Barack Obama’s famous claim, they generally are irrational and, therefore, they often overreach. The anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement has been doing exactly that recently. In the past month alone, it has suffered three resounding and damaging failures.

The first, of course, was its “success” in pressuring a Spanish reggae festival to disinvite American Jewish singer Matisyahu unless he issued a statement backing a Palestinian state. Matisyahu, to his credit, didn’t merely refuse; he also made sure the world knew why he wouldn’t be appearing as scheduled. The subsequent public outcry not only made the festival hurriedly backtrack and reinstate Matisyahu in his original slot, but also exposed the truth of the BDS movement’s anti-Semitism, which it has long tried to hide. After all, Matisyahu isn’t Israeli; he was asked to issue that statement, alone of all the artists at the festival, simply because he was Jewish.

Next came last week’s decision to boycott Israel by the mighty municipality of Reykjavik (population about 120,000). Having naively expected applause for this display of moral indignation, the municipality was stunned to be met instead by an outpouring of condemnation, including from Iceland’s own prime minister, and quickly reversed course. But the damage, as Haaretz journalist Asher Schechter lamented, was already done: Reykjavik had provided further proof that the BDS movement, contrary to the widespread belief that it merely targets “the occupation,” is simply anti-Israel.

Then there’s my personal favorite, which occurred this week: the BDS protest against a Pharrell Williams concert in South Africa. When I first read about the planned protest, I couldn’t believe BDS was serious. A black American singer goes to South Africa to perform for black South Africans, and BDS wants to ruin the audience’s fun? Just because Williams’ corporate sponsor is a Jewish-owned retailer (Woolworths) that already boycotts produce from “the occupied territories”? But BDS evidently couldn’t see how bad this looked. It rashly promised some 40,000 demonstrators, “the largest protest event in South African history against any musician or artist.” And it wound up with a measly 500, as many South Africans suddenly discovered that BDS might not be their best guide to international morality.

Finally, as icing on the cake, the lawfare crowd also suffered an embarrassing defeat this month: After it painstakingly gathered the 100,000 signatures needed to force a debate in the British parliament on a motion to arrest Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, parliament unceremoniously refused to debate it anyway on the grounds that the motion itself flagrantly violated both British and international law with regard to diplomatic immunity.

But all of the above are merely the tip of the iceberg of what could be done against BDS. As Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, has repeatedly stressed, one of the most important steps is pressuring Europe to stop funding anti-Israel hate groups by showing decision makers what their money is really being used for. This may seem like mission impossible, but as Steinberg wrote last week, the past year actually brought some significant progress:

Under the “Partnership for Peace Program”, the European Union did not renew grants for NGOs that promote BDS and lawfare, including for violent activities, marking the most significant change in over 15 years. A number of European embassies in Israel also reduced or ended grants for anti-peace NGOs. While there are still tens of millions of Euros and Pounds and Krona going to BDS, the trend is down, for the first time.

Legal action is another promising and underutilized tool. As I wrote last year, BDS has already suffered major setbacks in European courts. But the real legal game-changer, as professors Eugene Kontorovich and Avi Bell of the Kohelet Policy Forum argued recently, could be an Israeli challenge in the World Trade Organization against EU sanctions on settlement products. The EU plans to finalize a directive on labeling Israeli settlement produce next month, the latest in a series of directives targeting such produce. But as Kontorovich and Bell noted, the EU hasn’t imposed similar measures on other territories it deems occupied, such as Western Sahara or Kashmir, and WTO rules explicitly prohibit discriminatory trading policies.

The movement to Besmirch, Demonize and Slander the Jewish state is so hydra-headed and so venomous that it can often seem overwhelming. But in reality, it is big and strong enough to win only if nobody else is in the ring: As the past month’s events amply demonstrate, pushback works. Now it’s time to accelerate the pushback and put BDS where it belongs – on the defensive.

Originally published in Commentary on September 24, 2015

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In today’s world, Orthodox and Conservative Jews should be natural allies

Jewish tradition holds that the Second Temple was destroyed by baseless hatred. Since we’re currently in the annual three-week mourning period for the destruction of both Temples, which culminates in the holiday of Tisha B’Av, it’s a good time to consider a particularly counterproductive bit of baseless hatred: that between the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

Orthodox Jews tend to view Conservative and Reform Jewry as indistinguishable, lumping them both together as “non-Orthodox.” But in reality, there’s a yawning gap between them. The Conservative movement officially maintains that Jews must follow halachah (traditional Jewish law), including by observing Shabbat, kashrut, the Jewish holidays and so forth. The Reform movement rejects the very idea of binding halachah. Thus on the fundamental issue that has preserved the Jewish people for millennia—the binding nature of halachah—the Conservatives are formally on the Orthodox side of the divide.

Admittedly, most Conservative Jews don’t practice what their movement preaches, so one could legitimately ask what value this formal commitment to halachah has if most of its members ignore it. Moreover, this failure to produce and sustain observant communities has led many Jews raised in committed Conservative homes to switch to Orthodoxy (I’m one of them), and if the most observant continue leaving, I wonder how long even a formal commitment to halachah will survive.

But right now, the Conservative movement still contains a traditionalist faction that’s committed to observing halachah as the movement defines it. And because of this commitment, traditionalist Conservatives have far more in common with Orthodoxy than Reform.

Granted, Conservative interpretations of halachah diverge from Orthodox ones in nontrivial ways. But that strikes me as a less serious problem, because radically divergent interpretations of halachah have been common throughout Jewish history.

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