L.A. conference looks at strategies to beat back BDS

los angeles  |  Here’s a fun fact about anti-Israel activity on college campuses: Of the 18 Israel divestment measures that have come before student senates this school year, five passed but 13 have failed.

Advantage Israel? Perhaps. But those who attended a conference in Los Angeles last weekend say the campaign to isolate Israel economically and politically rages on.

Anti-BDS activist Mike Harris at the conference photo/dan pine

“Combating the Boycott Movement Against Israel” was the first large-scale conference in the nation devoted exclusively to the subject of fighting the BDS movement. Held March 21-23 and organized by StandWithUs, a pro-Israel nonprofit, the event drew more than 250 people.

Speakers included a who’s who of anti-BDS activism, among them Harvard law professor and author Alan Dershowitz, “Divest This” blogger Jon Haber and NGO Monitor president Gerald Steinberg.

Pro-Israel Northern Californians on hand included Dr. Mike Harris, S.F. Voice for Israel founder, and Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, U.C. Santa Cruz lecturer and founder of the campus watchdog Amcha Initiative.

Several dozen student activists from across the country also attended.

Though strategy sessions were closed to the media, there were public panels covering BDS tactics on campus and in academia, churches, the cultural arts, social media and the legal arena. BDS financing also was examined.

StandWithUs senior researcher Max Samarov put forth the opinion that while the long-term goal of the BDS movement is “the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state,” its short-term goal is to turn public opinion against Israel.

For example, he said, the group Students for Justice in Palestine builds “diverse alliances and gets into positions of leadership on campus. They want to get people to see Israel with dehumanizing labels, such as ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and position themselves as representatives of human rights on campus. Not only does it turn people against Israel, it turns people against Jews.”

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz (left) and Roz Rothstein of StandWithUs at anti-BDS conference in Los Angeles photo/jonah light-jonah light photography

Noah Pollak, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Emergency Committee for Israel, said BDS activists have an advantage over most pro-Israel students. They are willing to be “aggressive” and “thuggish,” he said.

“If one side is willing to lie constantly, and the other side values truth more, that’s a big asymmetry to overcome,” Pollak said. “For our side, playing offense doesn’t come naturally. For the other side it does. They act as if they have nothing to lose.”

Kenneth Marcus, president of the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, urged pro-Israel activists to reverse that pattern. “When we’re defending, we’re losing,” he said. “That means we need to take the offense when appropriate.”

Marcus cited legal mechanisms for combating anti-Jewish hate speech, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, which equates egregiously anti-Israel speech with anti-Jewish speech.

“Using [legal strategies] we have made progress by filing and sometimes threatening lawsuits,” he said. “We’re not talking about free speech; we’re talking about violence, vandalism, harassment.”

Michelle Moreh, a 21-year-old junior at U.C. Santa Barbara, attended so she could learn new ways to fight BDS, though so far UCSB has kept divestment at bay, with its student senate twice sending resolutions to defeat.

“Part of it is we have a higher percentage of Jewish students than most U.C. schools,” she said. “We have a culture not into hostility … There are a lot of students willing to take part in dialogue.”

Elsewhere in the U.C. system, seven of nine undergraduate senates have passed divestment resolutions, although a passing vote at U.C. Davis was invalidated by a student court. Stanford’s student senate also passed a divestment resolution recently.

“Our students are on the front lines, but it’s not an even field,” said conference attendee Sara Bronstein, director of Hillel of Silicon Valley, which serves several colleges, including San Jose State (which hasn’t passed a divestment measure). “[BDS] is well funded; we’ve struggled. They have human resources; we don’t. SJP is passionate; our side is more intellectual. All these combined make it very challenging for us to win.”

Dershowitz addressed the conference on March 22, decrying the partisan turn in Washington, D.C., that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken lately. He criticized Democrats, including President Barack Obama, who directed hostility at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he accepted a Republican invitation to address Congress.

“Israel needs the support of Democrats and Republicans,” Dershowitz said. “Barack Obama does not love Israel. Whoever heard of a [U.S.] president criticizing the results of a foreign election? We don’t ever want an election to determine U.S. policy toward Israel.”

Though an avowed liberal Democrat, Dershowitz said he would no longer support politicians such as Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), two senators who refused to attend Netanyahu’s March 3 speech.

Though she would not discuss the strategy sessions, StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein hinted that pro-Israel forces were preparing a large-scale pushback against a BDS movement that is “in the business of attacking the state of Israel and trying to destroy its name.”

BDS activists, she said, are “dedicating resources to billboards and boycotts, bringing divestment into churches and onto campuses. There must be an answer to this. There must be a strategy coming from the people who can’t really take it anymore.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.