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Israel’s Defenders Gather To Strategize Against BDS Movement
A sign painted on a wall in Bethlehem calling for a boycott of Israeli goods. (Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s Defenders Gather To Strategize Against BDS Movement

Conference in Jerusalem brings together organizations to strategize about how to combat against anti-Israel campaigns

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and those who stand against it appear to be headed for a long battle on multiple fronts. Such was the assessment of Sima Vaknin-Gil, the Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, during her opening remarks at a conference in Jerusalem.

The confab, called the Global Coalition 4 Israel Forum, brought together organizations and leaders from across the pro-Israel world to strategize on how best to fight the BDS movement and rising anti-Semitism.

Members of the media were invited to document the sessions, raising questions about their role in an event that took on the hue of a collaborative public relations campaign.

Indeed, the Strategic Affairs Ministry seemed intent on conjoining government officials, anti-BDS organizations and the press in a united front which some from within the journalistic echelon expressed concern might produce detrimental effects. By appearing to use the press as a mouthpiece for the Israeli government, they argue, the ministry may end up causing harm to Israel’s image when it is, by contrast, attempting to devise credible solutions to changing anti-Israel perceptions.

Responding to these concerns, a high-ranking official in the ministry told The Media Line that no formal instructions, guidelines or talking points had been provided to attendees.

William Daroff, Senior Vice President of the Jewish Federations of North America and a panelist at the conference, echoed this sentiment. “The Global Coalition 4 Israel Forum was established and continues as a mechanism for pro-Israel groups around the world to engage and talk with each other and to share best-practices in order to combat the de-legitimization of Israel,” he told The Media Line.

“We are all learning from each other, we are all getting and giving advice,” Daroff elaborated. “So to say that we are giving instructions or taking instructions from one specific partner is a misunderstanding of the relationship of the different organizations that are here, as well as to the government and various media entities.”

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs has over the past three years spent some $15 million fighting the BDS movement, with another $60-plus million alone earmarked for the next two years.

In her opening remarks, Vaknin-Gil discussed the evolving challenges in the fight against BDS since she assumed the top job at the ministry in 2016. At that time, “it was obvious that the challenge was complex. The opponent we were facing was very smart, creative, filled with money and motivation, fueled with guise, injecting lies into the public sphere.”

It therefore became necessary to go on the “offensive,” she explained, although she predicted that it will be a lengthy and hard-fought battle. “This is not something you can win in one or two years. Now, I can say it could be 5 to 10 years.”

Vaknin-Gil then highlighted the zero-sum nature of the struggle. “If one side wins, the other will lose,” stressing that there are no win-win situations because BDS proponents are not merely pushing for the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines, but “are talking about something else.” Essentially, she concluded, they are about “delegitimizing Israel.”

The conference’s participants discussed the broad arena in which this fight is taking place—from Europe to South America; from South Africa to the United States. They touched on the tactics employed by the BDS movement and both the successes and failures in torpedoing various initiatives in the fields of academia and law, and, more generally, in the cultural sphere. In terms of successes, panelists pointed to some two-dozen anti-BDS laws passed in U.S. states in recent memory.

Despite these achievemetns, Daroff nevertheless cautioned that the tide could turn against Israel in what is increasingly a divided America. “I am concerned about Israel becoming more of a wedge issue, but also used as a lever by those who say President Donald Trump is pro-Israel so therefore we should be anti-Israel,” he told The Media Line.

A recurring argument throughout the conference was the BDS movement is, at its core, anti-Semitic in nature. Tzahi Gavrieli, Deputy-Director General of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, equated the BDS movement to a “virus that is trying to [replicate] and migrate” into various mediums. Over time, this reality has become blurred, he contended, as BDSers are contentiously doing more to mask their anti-Semitic agenda by carefully crafting language. “They are using more and more the term divestment, which sounds almost scientific.”

In this respect, the conference’s final session, “Is BDS a Hate Group?,” focused on the development of terminology to more effectively combat anti-Israel campaigns. Frank Luntz, a noted pollster, described the objective as “com[ing] up with a common language or at least a common effort that comes as close as possible to working all across the globe.”

His presentation included slides of words he deemed most effective in making Israel’s case. At one point, he asked audience members not to post pictures of the slides online. “If you do, it will end up on [the] Electronic Intifada [website], and it will be used against everyone in this room,” he said.

Luntz ended the event by citing findings from studies conducted in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Germany and France. “We’ve found that instead of focusing on the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, we focus on hope and change. We focus on the things that people are desperately looking for in an angry, cynical, and divided world.”

Luntz concluded that the most effective statement tested across the globe when it comes to battling BDS is: “Teaching hate will never lead to peace.”

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