SIMON JOHNSON

A new threat may take over from BDS

AS 2017 disappears into the rear mirror, we can reflect that many of the fears that we had for the progress of the BDS movement (which seeks to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel) did not materialise.

We suspected that the anniversaries of the Six-Day War and the Balfour Declaration might give added impetus to the BDS movement and enable them to drive forward their divisive, discriminatory and pernicious agenda.

But the opposite has happened. By a combination of happenstance and focused, strategic work, 2017 was a year in which BDS in this country was contained.

This is “moving the boulder back up the hill”.

We did not defeat BDS but we contained it to such an extent that I believe it is less of a threat than it is treated.

The General Election and the dissolution of Parliament stopped the Six-Day War anniversary from being a focus of pro-BDS campaigning.

The positive Balfour 100 campaign allowed us to commemorate this anniversary on our terms. Israel Apartheid Week was a dampish squib in 2017 — thanks to interventions from the Minister for Schools, Jo Johnson, and from Universities UK.

There has not been a local authority boycott motion since 2014, and there are now regulations that govern such decisions.

More artists are now playing in Israel than are boycotting, despite the decision of Lorde to cancel her concerts.

Nothing happened at the NUS conference and there have been no new trade union boycott motions.

There have been no retail boycott campaigns for two years now. No major UK political party officially supports BDS.

The hard work of communal organisations like the Jewish Leadership Council, which has poured nearly £1 million into fighting BDS in the last three years, and the many grassroots organisations, has allowed us to fight back hard against BDS.

The movement seems to be bereft of ideas and increasingly like a tired, stodgy campaign.

It is not seen that way in Israel, though. BDS is still a useful issue with which to galvanise political support.

Ministers still describe BDS as a serious enemy. At America’s AIPAC conference in March, 90 per cent of pro-Israel senators and congressmen who spoke garnered wild applause when they vowed to fight BDS.

Even within the Israel embassy in the UK, they are super-sensitive to any hint of increased BDS activity.

We have a lot of “guns” (speaking figuratively) trained on the BDS movement. But I believe that we have seen the threat mutate and become something different and that this is the threat that we must guard against in 2018.

The anti-Israel activists, sensing that calls to boycott Israel are losing support, have shifted to a much more general, much less specific, anti-Israel activism.

It is not just the delegitimisation of Israel. It is a continual focus on portraying Israel negatively and having it widely criticised in the court of public opinion. It is in this area that they have had success in 2017.

They have adopted the UN and UNESCO as agencies for this continual attack on Israel and have chipped away at its legitimacy.

UNESCO spent most of 2017 seeking to deny Israel’s rights to Jewish holy places in Jerusalem.

The UN Security Council and General Assembly frothed with manufactured anger at Donald Trump’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Criticism of Israel in general and anti-Zionist rhetoric and imagery is becoming more visible. It manifests itself in anti-Israel protests at universities and criticism of Israel in Parliament.

And I sense that our community is getting increasingly frustrated that this appears to be going unchecked and is not being successfully challenged.

I understand that frustration. I think it stems from the fact that our infrastructure, and that of the Israeli government, is focused on BDS, while the threat has now moved to another direction, and we have not yet “shifted our guns” round to deal with it.

By being so successful in containing BDS, we have given the opposition scope to attack us differently. They can say: “Of course, I do not support a boycott of Israel, but my criticism of Israel is legitimate.”

In 2018, we need to shift our focus to countering this more general anti-Israel sentiment and stop it developing into full-blown delegitimisation.

It requires smarter and more co-ordinated grassroots activity, better use of social media, better and more rapid responses in the general media and continual work with politicians at all levels.

It calls for less outrage and huffing and puffing and more community action. It requires our community to unite to show our pride in our connection to Israel and its centrality in our Jewish life.

Israel’s 70th anniversary in April and May gives us a chance to show our pride. I hope that Israeli and pro-Israel politicians will start to counter this general chipping away at Israel’s standing and legitimacy.

The threat has shifted. And we must shift with it.


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