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An Israel dialogue against the BDS darkness




This is the key point that Middle East political and diplomacy expert Neil Lazarus made last week in proposing strategies for combatting the narrative of BDS.

“There is an inability (in Israel advocacy) to speak a language that appeals. BDS is brilliant at this… (Its rhetoric) enables liberals, or so-called liberals and progressives, to find a cause… They come with calls and passion that they feel the world is unjust and we need to change it.”

Yet, when it came to those advocating for Israel, “we come with the fact that Israel invented the cherry tomato and the flash drive”, said Lazarus.

Without a suitable retort, BDS – which Lazarus suggested was simply “passive anti-Semitism” – was allowed to liberalise itself.

In a venue lit by solar lanterns and cell phones due to a scheduled load shedding stint, Lazarus offered suggestions for how better to respond to this type of attack on Israel.

He was speaking at an event in Johannesburg hosted by the South African Zionist Federation, the Israel Centre, as well as Yeshiva College and King David Schools.

Born in London, Lazarus studied politics before emigrating to Israel in 1988. He lives in Jerusalem and has served as a consultant to the Israeli government, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the Jewish Agency and various Jewish student groups.

BDS brands itself on its website with the tagline “freedom, justice and equality”. It describes itself as a movement that “works to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law”. However, Lazarus’s interpretation of the organisation’s mandate is that it simply seeks “the destruction of the State of Israel”.

He said the economic impact of BDS was currently not a key concern. Instead, the damage was in the emotive power of the narrative it sells about Israel. “Globally, it attracts people who are critical of the Israeli government into a much more extreme movement.”

Lazarus said outreach through dialogue was a key step towards a better understanding between people. “Peace can only come when people are actually talking to each other.” Yet, he said, “BDS calls for separation of the two groups (pro- and anti-Israel)”.

He said when dialogue was possible, there were key strategies that those advocating for Israel should adopt. For example, the choice of words needed to be particular. When espousing Zionism, it could be defined as the right of an “indigenous population returning to its land”. This would be better than simply declaring “Israel was given to us by G-d. That makes you sound like a Jihad Jew,” he quipped.

“You have to speak the language of the people that you are trying to convince… It’s not what you say; it’s what they (BDS supporters) hear.”

Humility was also a key quality to adopt when discussing Israel, said Lazarus. “What we always do is automatic answering. (Instead), before we do anything else, we have got to show understanding of the other side.”

Lazarus said that the common argument – suggesting that the blame for BDS’ surge in popularity lay in the Israeli government’s own bad publicity – was counterproductive. Instead, the South African community needed to take responsibility for the work it could do against BDS. It should adopt a three-fold strategy, he suggested.

First, the community needed to decide a clear “red line” of what it would, or would not, accept going forward in terms of the repercussions of anti-Israel sentiment in public life. “If you don’t have an agreed red line, then anything goes… They will keep marching.”

Second, the community needed to embrace coalitions with the Christian community that does support Israel. “The reality is we have some very good friends here,” said Lazarus.

And third, the focus had to be on the younger generation in the Jewish community, including support for university students who were on the frontline of the struggle against BDS. It was also vital to work closely with schoolchildren who needed to be equipped for their foray into the wider world.

While in South Africa, Lazarus met with the leadership of the South African Union of Jewish Students. He said these students had been absolutely clear about what they wanted: “The basic right to define themselves by their Jewish identity, including in their relationship to Israel.”

As such, the rest of the community had to assist them by offering whatever support they needed for this to be their reality.

Lazarus asked a group of Jewish scholars in the audience what they believed to be problems in terms of their role in Israeli advocacy. They suggested they often did not know how to answer back, got too emotional, and sometimes also felt they did not stand their ground because they did not feel entirely clear about their own Jewish identity.

“These are the challenges of the community,” stressed Lazarus. The youth needed to be informed about the country’s history – most of which was far beyond their frame of reference. They also needed to have personal ties with the homeland. “If you want to build a next generation, make sure that they spend time in Israel… You need to build a relationship.”

Ultimately, the rise of BDS was a sign of a much larger problem – that of surging anti-Semitism. Furthermore, its popularity also indicated that the Jewish community was not sufficiently organised in terms of its Israel advocacy.

“BDS is a cancer, and it not going away without the correct treatment,” said Lazarus.

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