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The ostrich approach to BDS

The insouciant approach to BDS blinds some pro-Israel advocates to BDS’ real-time influence.

We can take it. We’re big enough. We are not afraid of self-criticism. It helps us. Pity those foolish people who think self-criticism hurts us. They live in such a small, defensive, shuttered world.

Actually, in the case of Israel, it all depends on what the self-criticism is for. If it is for overreaction to an anti-Israel tactic that has little impact, then yes, the rejection of self-criticism does reflect a small, defensive, shuttered mind. But when it comes to small and shuttered minds, no one side on the Israel question has a monopoly.

Case in point: An essay by Zev Chafetz issued through Bloomberg View and printed in the Denver Post.

Chafetz takes Israel to task for stopping a 22-year-old student, a BDS activist, at Ben Gurion Airport, not allowing her to enter the country, holding her to determine whether she still retains her BDS stance, which she says she no longer does. Why is this wrong? Because, writes Chafetz, the BDS movement is really no big deal. It has no significant impact. It does not succeed in convincing universities to divest from Israel. It has achieved no more than “a few toothless student council resolutions.” Its danger is “wildly exaggerated.” There- fore, let the kid in. It’s not going to make a difference. Besides, Israel mocks its own claim to be a liberal democracy if it bars critics from entry.

As to whether Israel overreacted, or reacted in a counterproductive way, in the case of Lara Alqasem, Chafetz may have a point. (As of this writing, her case is tied up in the Israeli courts.) But as to whether BDS has a significant impact which should worry Israel, and whether BDS harms American Jews, it is Chafetz, not the Israeli authorities, who lives in a shuttered world. It’s an odd kind of a cocoon, a distortion based on Israeli military and technological success, within which genuine dangers are not dispassionately perceived.

BDS is an anti-Semitic, intellectual infection, not just a college campus tactic. The harm inflicted by BDS far transcends whatever actual boycotts it may, or may not, succeed in stimulating. BDS has  significantly recast the whole conversation around Israel throughout the US and beyond, including, very significantly, the American Jewish community.

The image of Israel that BDS  has succeeded in spreading is that Israel is an unmitigated  oppressor of, not of a contributor to, humanity. Israel is Nazi-like; the terrorism against Israel is justified; Israel’s invention of medical and other technological devices that save millions of lives is unnoticed or irrelevant; Israeli democracy is a sham;  etc., etc. This is the intellectual BDS.

It is far more subtle and subversive than its practical policy impact. Chafetz does not even address this. It’s off his radar. Far beyond legitimate differences over Israeli policy toward the Palestinians or toward religious pluralism, BDS has succeeded in no small measure in blackening Israel’s name. As a policy instrument, the  impact of BDS may well be limited, as Chafetz writes, but as an intellectual instrument, BDS has succeeded beyond its proponents’ fondest imagination.

BDS taps into deep-seated anti-Semitism, not just into an anti-right-wing vision of Israeli policy toward Palestinians. As a stream in the zeitgeist, BDS has served to legitimate and sharpen complaints against Israel by many liberal American Jews. Yet, Chafetz writes, “BDS poses no serious threat to American Jews, much less to Israel’s internal security.” Chafetz does not  grasp that a grave threat to American Jews these days is internal division and polarization, with a direct cause being the impact of BDS, the intellectual movement, and a direct corollary being the distancing of American Jews from Israel. At least at this stage in history, the internal security of Israel does depend in part on the degree of enthusiasm and success of American Jewish lobbying for American arms sales to Israel.

The greatest evidence of BDS’ impact  is the adoption of an anti-Israel stance by countless groups and individuals who have no involvement in, or perhaps even no knowledge of, the BDS movement per se.

Item: Musicians and other artists cancel their performances in Israel.

Item: Professional academic associations have factions advocating for boycotts of Israeli academics.

Item: At the University of Michigan, a required lecture featured a speaker who compared the Israeli Prime Minister to Adolf Hitler. Two professors declined to write letters of recommendation to students who wanted to study in Israel.

Item: Effective or not in its policy goals, BDS does cow Jewish students on campus.

Item: Many Protestant churches entertain, or pass, BDS motions, thus reducing American Christian support for Israel and limiting it to Evangelical circles. The upshot is another major  arena in which Israel becomes a subject for debate rather than a focus of solidarity.

Item: Literally each week, news items arrive on our desk with another instance (or two or ten instances) of BDS or BDS-type efforts to defame and isolate Israel.

BDS is not about where Israelis should live, BDS is about whether Israel should live. On this malignant plane, BDS is a new and effective enemy that some supporters of Israel do not fight because they do not perceive its intellectual dimension, or do not appreciate the power of ideas to change history.. Perhaps hamhandedly, but the Israeli government at least has faced up to the nature and dimensions of BDS — to its modus operandi and influence — which only on the surface is about boycott, sanction and divest. The only divestment that BDS will be satisfied with is for Israel to divest itself of its nationhood. With this intellectual goal, BDS has become a real poison.

It takes a special kind of ostrichlike self-confidence and intellectual isolation to see Israel as strong enough to downplay its response to an ideational movement that crosses international borders and changes the conversation on Israel.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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