By Jack Saltzberg
Most Jewish and pro-Israel leaders and organizations view the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel as a new war. It’s not. It’s just one more battle in the ongoing Arab/Muslim war against Israel, like the Scud missiles, Qassam rockets, suicide terrorist bombings, Intifadas, tunnels, murders and kidnappings that have plagued Israelis for decades.
The problem is not so much BDS itself but how the Jewish and pro-Israel community in North America fights it. Unfortunately, we are losing the war more than BDS is winning it, and the following are 7 reasons why.
Reason #1: Reacting, Not Attacking
Pro-Israel organizations and funders continue focusing on BDS by countering what BDS does, usually through education. When BDS introduces a divestment resolution at a university, union, or church, for example, the Jewish community supplies the students, unions, or churches with information to counter the resolution. When BDS places billboards, the pro-Israel community counters with billboards of its own. But all of this is purely reactionary in nature. BDS is leading at every turn and our best efforts and minds have done nothing more than respond to it, keeping the pro-Israel community constantly on the defensive.
BDS has no specific timeframe. Its supporters are patient, viewing this as a war that will take decades. BDS doesn’t care about winning any specific vote, because it knows that the mere introduction of a divestment resolution means that Israel loses. Each time, BDS spews unsubstantiated blood libel and propaganda, which becomes part of the historical record for public viewing—forever. On the occasions that a BDS divestment initiative is defeated, the Jewish community celebrates as if it’s a victory. And it may be one—temporarily. But BDS initiatives that fail often lead to later successes because they simply give the BDS movement more opportunities to spread their lies by introducing even more BDS resolutions. Each time a new one is introduced, the movement gains public attention and perceived legitimacy. This happens frequently at universities (UCLA, Stanford, etc.)
The State of Israel did not become a country—and has not survived as one—through defense alone. A war for survival, which this is, can only be won through both defense and strategic offensive initiatives. So far, we have utterly failed in the latter.
Reason #2: Supporting, Not Fighting
North American Jewish and pro-Israel organizations were created mostly for one purpose: to support Israel financially, educationally, and politically. A paradigm was created where the mentality of generations of American Jewish leadership—professional and volunteer—was to support Israel, but in a passive manner, from afar. Even during Israel’s wars—save the few who went to serve in the IDF, as I did—the American Jewish community supported Israel’s efforts only in an indirect and unobtrusive manner.
Reason #3: Self-Promotion, Social Media, and Smoke and Mirrors
American supporters of Israel receive thousands of emails from organizations highlighting their work with regard to BDS. However, in most cases, this material is nothing more than self-promotion. A serious look will reveal little substance and nothing meaningful in fighting the BDS war against Israel.
The unfortunate reality is that some Jewish leaders and organizations are more concerned about keeping their organizations in the spotlight, taking credit for success before other Jewish organizations do, and using BDS for fundraising opportunities. Subtle and overt organizational infighting is not only disruptive to the fight against BDS, it has set the pro-Israel community back for years.
Here’s just one example. For more than six months, almost every pro-Israel advocacy organization knew about the United Auto Workers Local 2865 vote to divest from the University of California system. Nothing was done except to write a joint letter expressing objection. Within hours of the vote in favor of divestment from Israel, these same organizations were quick to fill the Internet with their indignation, condemnation—and fundraising letters. Where was the war for six months?
Musician Elvis Costello, an Israel boycotter, performed in 2014 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. What did the pro-Israel community do? Where were the leaders leading the charge against the orchestra?
Where was the pro-Israel community when Roger Waters—arguably the most outspoken pro-BDS musician—narrated his opera Ça Ira’s U.S. premiere with the Nashville Symphony?
How can it be that in Los Angeles, home to one of the largest and most powerful Jewish communities and to some of the “leading anti-BDS organizations,” students at UCLA voted to divest from Israel?
Unfortunately, some of the most respected organizations operating today are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. Their operations are built on fundraising and they use social media to exaggerate their effectiveness in combatting BDS. But when the numbers are accurately dissected, it is easy to see that their efforts against BDS are virtually meaningless and ineffective, and the public’s return on investment for supporting these efforts in the war against BDS is close to zero.
At the University of California, Berkeley, nearly 1,000 demonstrators from many anti-Israel organizational chapters can be engaged. On the pro-Israel side, one of the most respected organizations known for having a major presence on college campuses has just a single representative. One. And this person became a representative following a weekend seminar.
There’s a continuing perception that the leadership of these organizations is in control when they actually do nothing more than create a false sense of security. Meanwhile, new BDS initiatives are introduced monthly across North America.
In a few U.S. cities, a major organization placed pro-Israel billboards opposite BDS billboards. The organization’s COO told me that this gets a lot of “bang for the buck.” He said that it costs them nearly nothing to place the billboards, but the entire world will write about them. (They did.) As with most hot-topic issues, no minds were swayed by the billboards, but that organization’s supporters, funders, and board of directors were led to believe that they were leading in the war against BDS.
Reason #4: Too Many Leadership Programs
Whether deliberately or as a result of atrophy, the general pro-Israel community has been poorly informed about BDS by many leading pro-Israel organizations. When the community is informed, it is usually in the context of how a particular organization is fighting BDS or as part of a fundraising opportunity.
Historically, U.S. Jewish leaders and organizations have been characterized by great distance between the leadership and the general Jewish public. In many respects, Jewish Americans have been statistics; their ideology and responses to studies and surveys have helped determine policy, but they have not been directly involved. Volunteer leadership has mostly been relegated to the wealthiest contributors.
Social media and the Internet drastically changed the landscape, with no greater example than the grassroots efforts that catapulted Barack Obama from obscurity to the presidency. But the same tools have been used by the BDS movement to successfully change the perception of Israel from that of a David—an underdog fighting for survival—into a Goliath and a pariah nation.
The grasp of grassroots volunteerism, participation, and activism by BDS is what has turned the tide in the war against Israel. And how has the Jewish community responded? As it has throughout history: assuming, expecting, and waiting for leadership to “solve the crisis.”
Unfortunately, the pro-Israel side has too many leaders and not enough volunteers and fighters in one of the most important wars for Israel’s survival.
In 2009, the Jewish Federations of North America adopted a resolution against BDS that, in essence, was to become a blueprint for other pro-Israel organizations to follow. Among the Federation’s Action Recommendations were:
- Declare that the BDS movement be regarded with the utmost urgency;
- Lead an effective response… which would include:
- Educate Federation and JCRC professional and lay leaders
- Train local leadership on how to counter BDS
- Mobilize the Federation to be on alert.
Notice how the Federation directs almost everything toward leadership, both professional and volunteer. More importantly, where is the Federation itself in the fight against BDS? That report is from 2009!
In 2014, over a couple of weekends, a few respected organizational leaders and funders got together to talk about BDS. The goal was to create solutions and come up with strategies to defeat BDS. This, in a nutshell, is the ongoing paradigm, where a few believe that they are smarter than the collective community of all pro-Israel supporters in North America.
Most of the pro-Israel population is expected to do nothing except passively support and fund leadership and the organizations that are purportedly “fighting” BDS. On the other side, hundreds of BDS chapters and thousands of BDS supporters posting anti-Israel material act as a classic illustration of grassroots activism.
Reason #5: Fragmentation
Israel’s enemies stay on the same page in the same playbook: erode world support for Israel through demonization and repetitive propaganda at every level.
Israel’s supporters are on different pages from different playbooks because—as has always been the case—our community is deeply fragmented. Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox Jews; Persians here… Israelis there… Russians here. Democrats vs. Republicans; liberals vs. conservatives; Evangelicals vs. Catholics. Unless the pro-Israel community unifies, there is a great chance of losing the war against BDS.
Reason #6: We Can’t Operate on Ourselves
What’s remarkable is that today’s leaders and organizations are the same ones that did little or nothing while Israel’s enemies attacked and allowed BDS to grow into what it is today. These organizations are responsible for letting the public think, at first, that there was nothing to fear, and now, that they are in control of the situation.
These are the organizations that kept the public uninformed while conducting closed-door policy meetings that led us to our current situation. The leaders who were awarded honors but have done nothing in the fight against BDS, and yet have prospered by building their organizations financially. These are the same leaders and organizations that now want the pro-Israel community to trust them to lead us in this same war.
Following a year of enormous growth in BDS, we cannot allow this to continue. We don’t allow this in business, and we can’t afford to allow this here. Not in a fight for Israel’s very existence.
Reason #7: Lack of Directed Funding
Internationally, Israel’s enemies spend millions to destroy Israel through BDS.
Unfortunately, as previously highlighted, pro-Israel funding has gone to organizations that are not successfully fighting BDS, or funding is going to unproductive and overlapping initiatives.
Israel cannot afford to lose the BDS war because of a lack of or improperly directed funding.
Reason #8: Jews leading the BDS war against Israel
Misguided and dangerous, Jews have turned against Jews from Egypt to Spain and as Kapos in the Nazi death camps. So, it is no surprise that Jews are once again leading the BDS effort against Israel.
As difficult as it is overcoming the onset of lies promoted by BDS, it is tenfold more difficult when Jews lead the way.
In this particular case, they cannot be considered as untouchable simply because they are Jews, but rather as enemies of Israel, no different than Hamas and the PLO.
Jack Saltzberg is the founder and president of The Israel Group