Thursday, January 7, 2016

BDS and the power of storytelling

Annika Hernroth-Rothstein,

image from

On Wednesday, there was a multiparty discussion in the Knesset on the threat of anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and how to counter it hosted by representatives from both politics and civil society, including Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Kulanu MK Michael Oren and Likud MK Anat Berko, among others.

The meeting was meant to focus on the BDS movement that has gained ground throughout the world in the past year, with a wave of new BDS initiatives targeting all aspects of Israeli life from the economy to culture and academia. The EU initiative to label Israeli products made in Judea and Samaria has gotten the most attention, alongside FIFA's short-lived consideration of the Palestinian motion to exclude Israel from international competition. However, the real battle is smaller in scale but monumental in impact, and it is taking place on campuses across the Diaspora.

The strength of the BDS movement has always been the appearance of it being a grass-roots movement and the David and Goliath effect that BDS activists have spun into their narrative. The fact that they have played the role of the underdog has attracted a youthful set of minions. Campuses are setting for these dramas, filled with young people looking for a cause but lacking the depth of experience and maturity to question the flaws of the theory or the ulterior motives of those peddling the lie. With the BDS movement, they are getting a package, a villain and a downtrodden hero in chains. The anti-Israel machine, and it is surely a well-oiled machine, is handing these kids a story too good to be checked, and faced with the young crowds reminiscent of actual freedom movements of old, most of world media are eating it up with a spoon.

The Israeli anti-BDS initiative is focusing on the wrong thing. One of the factors that has made the BDS movement so successful is the typical lefty collectivist homogeny, but it could never be achieved without a Diaspora Jewry detached from its center -- its home.

The BDS movement is attempting to divide and conquer (and nearly succeeding), and this is where the first aid needs to be administered. Jewish students on campuses across the world, and particularly in the U.S., need closeness to the story of Israel, and to have that, they need closeness to Israel itself.

Hasbara (Israeli public diplomacy) has been historically awful, perhaps because Israel does not trust the magic of the story it was literally born to tell. Obsessed with startup nation and Tel Aviv coolness, it has forgotten that the history we hold is the only thing strong enough to compete with the lies the BDS movement peddles. The Palestinian cause is focused on land, peoplehood and oppression, and there is no way we can fight that with IT wonders or pride parades. Only our original truth can compete with their original lie, and rather than commissions and meetings, we need the plainness and honesty to tell it. This is the true test for the Foreign Ministry and the government -- to connect campus leaders with the country they, like it or not, represent, and to make them feel that when they are attacked, there are millions of us backing them because we share that very same story.

Stories get handed down in history for a reason. There is real power in the black-and-white narrative, in the seemingly simple and good-and-bad trope. There is big money and big power behind the BDS movement, but it stays hidden and lets its work be done through the innocent and the mundane. To think that we can fight that through committees or legislation is sweet but misguided, because we are sending suits to fight hoodies, which only reaffirms their ideas. Sure, we can take on companies that boycott Israel and go the legal route to stop the flow of madness, but that does little to stem the tide and even adds to their base of recruitment. They work in ideas, and we have to, as well.

When it comes to storytelling, the one who is telling the truth is always limited, but although Israel may be held back by facts in a way the BDS movement never will be, we can certainly use their methods in order to bring the message home. They have promoted their lie as a freedom movement, so we need to remind ourselves that we are the original freedom movement, freed from bondage and brought back home.

We don’t need more hasbara because it really isn’t that complicated. What we need to do to fight BDS is teach our history so that our story can be told, and we must have the back of everyone who tells it.

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