The BDS Wars, Close Up
Wed, 05/28/2014
Special To The Jewish Week
Ricky’s NYC, a popular cosmetics store, refused to stop selling Ahava products. Michael Datikash/JW
Ricky’s NYC, a popular cosmetics store, refused to stop selling Ahava products. Michael Datikash/JW

The call demands my attention and I prepare myself with a deep breath. I know the reason for this call from Jerusalem, and I also know my answer won’t satisfy them. I rarely have good news these days. The caller is outraged about the latest tactic in the ongoing effort to delegitimize the State of Israel — this time under the guise of “socially responsible investing.” We review the strategies employed in previous battles, and analyze their relevance; one strategy, for instance, involved combating the pressure on TIAA-CREF to drop Caterpillar from its portfolio. (Activists in the BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, demanded that the retirement fund remove Caterpillar, as they claimed that the company “profits from the Israeli occupation”).

After I hang up and prepare to reach out to our allies in the socially responsible investing community who will assist us in this latest skirmish, I get a text from the Upper West Side with information about the protest outside Zabar’s demanding that they stop selling SodaStream, the latest target of the global BDS movement against Israel. Comforted by the assurances from Zabar’s that they have no intention of removing SodaStream, the popular beverage maker whose factory is located east of Jerusalem in Mishor Adumim, the industrial park located in Ma’aleh Adumim, the gnawing feeling that we are engaged in ongoing trench warfare is more present than ever. How many stores will be as strong as Ricky’s NYC when it was hounded relentlessly for its sale of AHAVA cosmetic products (made from minerals from the Dead Sea), and how can we effectively fight off the aggressive BDS movement when we don’t know where it will pop up next? The growing and spreading network of anti-Israel, pro-BDS activity emerges anywhere at any time and presents us with a singular challenge: Will we be able muster the persistence and unity demanded by this assault on Israel?

Later that day I learn that the professor who coined the term “pinkwashing” (the claim that Israel only promotes its strong record on gay rights to “distract” the world from its treatment of the Palestinians), now works as the faculty adviser for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on a nearby campus. This is the same professor who convened a conference entitled, “Homonationalism and Pinkwashing,” and claimed that she was open to receiving proposals from all sides of the issue. With our encouragement, progressive Israeli academics submitted professional papers on the topic for review, and each one was systematically rejected — revealing her own bias and discrimination towards anyone who would dare try to present a more balanced approach. Despite our “achievement,” her peers still fear to confront her. Professors on her campus ask the same questions that were asked during the time of the conference — what would support for Israel mean for their tenure? Will they become pariahs in their faculty lounge?

With each day and week the issue grows more complex. In this battle in defense of Israel’s legitimacy, questions without answers abound. When an anti-Israel event takes place on the college campus or in the commercial sphere, we are confronted with a host of daunting challenges: How do we protest the presence of anti-Israel events on campus without setting off the trip-wire on issues of free speech and academic freedom? How do we fight efforts to boycott Israel when we know that, at times, it is our response that gives them the PR that they so desperately desire? How do we explain the nuances of our tactics to the segments of our own community who believe that there is only one effective response to all of these events? How do we assist students on campus while at the same time empowering them to do more on their own? How do we translate the community’s passion for Israel into compelling and persuasive arguments in support of Israel?

In trying to learn from our victories and setbacks, I realize that more often than not we do succeed, and that our most important work does not garner publicity and is rarely touted. In the Park Slope Food Coop fight, in which BDS activists demanded that the Coop stop selling all Israeli products, we knew the battleground and we had the right partners on the ground. We knew that with the right message and messengers we would win, and we did. When we have the opportunity to make our case, we are, by and large, successful, as the arguments against BDS are basic and deeply compelling. Most people understand that blaming one side for a conflict is not only simplistic but also unjust, yet we often don’t have the opportunity to make our case.

While the victory of Park Slope has been replicated in other battles, such as the American Public Health Association (BDS supporters within the APHA were promoting a one-sided resolution which called on the APHA to allow for “occupation-free investing”), I always try remind myself of one very fundamental fact: The goal of the BDS movement is not to economically punish Israel — its members know that by all metrics, Israel’s economy is a booming success — rather, the purpose of the BDS movement is to create the impression that Israel is the new South Africa, a state worthy of excommunication. I know that Ahava and SodaStream will continue to be financial successes, but in the meantime, the image of Israel is being slowly eroded. Are we winning the battles but slowly losing the war? At the end of the day, the pain of having to defend the legitimacy of the State of Israel in its 67th year is ever present.

An alert from Twitter catches my attention, and I learn that not only are the Rolling Stones committed to playing in Israel but also that Mick Jagger said, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. So we decided to add a concert.” Although there are days when I find myself thinking in terms of his famous lyric (“I can’t get no, satisfaction”), the truth is, I get tremendous satisfaction being associated with the most important job that any Jew can have: defending the most inspiring story of Jewish history, the rebirth of an ancient nation in its ancestral homeland, the story of the Jewish people and story of Zionism. Nothing is more satisfying. 

Hindy Poupko is managing director and director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.