BRENDA KATTEN, jpost.com
There have been two major topics heading our media of late, the Iranian nuclear deal and BDS, both posing threats to this one Jewish state.
There are those who would argue that the two are not to be compared.
Iran, with its continual threat to annihilate us, is an existential threat, while the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign cannot be placed in the same category. Or can it? Let us begin by recognizing that the United States is of enormous significance to the State of Israel. Its importance is twofold: first, because of the US’s steadfast support of Israel, in terms of military aid and, often, unique support at the United Nations; second, because of its Jewish community.
Yes, this is the reality today – but what of tomorrow? Tomorrow begins with what is happening on campuses today, because the graduate of today will become the leader (both national and Jewish) of tomorrow.
An Anti-Defamation League review of the past year clearly shows that anti-Israel activity on American college campuses is largely dominated by BDS. Jewish students throughout the country are facing hatred, accused of supporting an “apartheid state” and often have to cope with blatant anti-Semitism. This is a situation the likes of which their parents and grandparents never had to confront.
The truth is that the majority of today’s Jewish students are totally unprepared for the barrage of abuse and hatred toward Israel that has now become the norm. There are numerous reasons for this, including a lack of knowledge relating to Israel and its history. This, in turn, has increased the number of students being attracted to relatively new Jewish groups that firmly believe Israel should be at the receiving end of BDS, a trend that in itself should create a sense of foreboding.
image from, with caption: WIZO book fair in Strasbourg, France, 2009
WHEN AND how did BDS begin? Wikipedia states that it began in July 2005. However, as the leader of the WIZO [see]delegation to the infamous and so-called UN Conference against Racism, held in Durban in 2001, I believe this is where BDS was born. There, numerous NGOs came together for the prime purpose of delegitimizing Israel.
Israel was portrayed as an “apartheid” state. One Uri Davis, an academic born in Jerusalem, brought up in Kfar Shmaryahu, was busy giving away his book Israel: An Apartheid State.
As an Israeli Jew, he was the flavor of the month, invited on to TV and radio talk shows. He and other academics, such as Ilan Pappé, are well known on the campus circuit as Israeli Jews who propagate BDS and are promoting the now annual “Israel Apartheid Week” on campuses worldwide.
Back to the Durban conference. Before leaving with our WIZO team to participate in this “Anti-Racist” conference, I contacted the Israeli Foreign Ministry to request materials to help us prepare for what we imagined would be a challenging situation.
However, in our wildest dreams we could not have foreseen that it would turn out as bad as it did.
The answer to my request was that nothing was available at this time, but “not to worry,” for when the governmental delegation came out for the second conference (the first was NGOs only, followed by the governmental conference), it would bring with it suitable material.
We arrived at the conference and were overwhelmed with the most sophisticated and multiple anti-Israel materials – from T-shirts to posters and leaflets.
WIZO – the one organization that had a “Z” in its name – had nothing. So we spent hours at the Durban Jewish Community Center producing – as best we could – our own material, which paled compared to the professional material we had to combat.
When the governmental delegation arrived, its idea of appropriate hasbara (public diplomacy) material came in the form of thick books – which were, of course, totally useless.
On to the governmental conference where the Foreign Ministry decided – in its “wisdom” – to send a low-level delegation to represent the State of Israel.
What transpired was little short of a disgrace. Rabbi Michael Melchior, who was the foreign minister at the time, did not come to Durban but he wrote the speech to be read by someone in the delegation. Those of us sitting there squirmed in our seats as the person who read what was an excellent speech on paper clearly could not read English very well. Enough said.
A FEW years later at an International WIZO conference with a gathering of 1,000 participants from all over the world, as the World WIZO chairwoman of public affairs, I again contacted the Foreign Ministry requesting material, to be told once more that none was available.
Fortunately, I have a good friend who, together with her sister, produced an excellent small brochure which answered the hasbara questions of the day.
She donated 1,000 of these effective booklets, which were distributed at our conference during the hasbara session addressed by a member of the Foreign Ministry. The following day I received a phone call from the secretary of the Foreign Ministry representative requesting some 5,000 copies of the brochure.
When I asked if this was something that would be purchased, I was told: “Oh no, the Foreign Ministry has no money available for materials.”
Perhaps you are now wondering what tales of yesteryear have to do with today? It is quite simple: Israel has neglected the entire area of hasbara or the battle of the word for far too long. It is only now – when BDS has taken a firm hold – that our leadership is beginning to recognize it is time to do something.
The question is what to do? A Jewish People Policy Institute report presented to the Israeli government at the beginning of July on the state of the Jewish people suggests that Jerusalem take the initiative.
Yes, there is Sheldon Adelson who has pledged a vast sum of money to combat BDS. Yes, there is Rabbi Shmuley Boteach whose involvement has been sought as one experienced with campus challenges. Yet Boteach maintains that there is no clear direction or organization to deal with the ever-growing hostility toward Israel.
Tomorrow remains the priority, but it can be ensured only by what we do today. There can be no doubt that today’s greatest friend – the United States – will not automatically be there for Israel tomorrow. Israel’s anti-BDS effort should be clearly focused on campuses worldwide but especially in the United States. We should be in touch with leaders of America’s Jewish community to help seek out incoming freshmen with leadership potential.
If Sheldon Adelson has money available, then it should be utilized to bring over these youngsters for as long as possible – three months, six months or, better still, one year. We must ensure that they are in touch with the real Israel – yes, with all its faults – but an Israel that is far removed from the “apartheid” state being propagated internationally. Birthright – a 10-day free visit to Israel – has proven to be great in contributing toward a strengthening of Jewish identity.
Today we are facing a tsunami in terms of our image abroad. If we do not begin to address the campus issue with the urgency, funding and outreach it deserves, there will be no guarantee that Israel’s most important supporter will be there for us in the future.
While BDS may not be an existential threat in terms of our personal survival, it is a potent and dangerous threat to the tomorrow we would wish for our children and grandchildren.
■ The writer is co-chairwoman of ESRA, and has been active in public affairs and statusof- women issues.