What Israel is doing wrong in the battle against BDS

"No more preaching to the choir," said Prof. Ron Robin, chairman of the Association of University Heads in Israel.

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August 9, 2019 11:35
PROF. RON ROBIN: The world is full of injustices, and the idea of singling out Israel as the center

PROF. RON ROBIN: The world is full of injustices, and the idea of singling out Israel as the center of all injustices in the world is ludicrous. (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)

On many of today’s college campuses, the hard Left and the hard Right think they have the truth, and that nuance has no place in the debate. This is especially true when it comes to the debate on the Middle East, explains Prof. Ron Robin, chairman of the Association of University Heads in Israel and the president of the University of Haifa.

Yet Robin, a professor emeritus at New York University, said it is not a black-and-white perspective on Israel that is the most dangerous, but rather what he calls “gray BDS.”


Scholars have launched their own private versions of BDS, he told The Jerusalem Post, regulating access to academic publications or conferences. These “gray boycotters,” as he calls them, have become proficient in camouflaging their decisions with seemingly bona fide arguments, making it one of the greatest concerns for Israeli academics and Israel in general.

“An article reaches an editor’s table, and he does not open up the envelope, but just throws it into the garbage. A paper is not accepted to a conference for very weird reasons,” Robins explained. “There is no grand statement.”

“All of the formal activities of the [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement have limited success,” he continued. “BDS is now an informal movement that is much more lethal than the official movement, and it has to be counteracted in a similar manner.”

Statistically, a 2018 study on the impact of BDS on the Israeli economy, which was published by the Hebrew business publication Globes, estimated the damage of the BDS movement on Israel’s economy at 0.004%, while showing that some companies even benefit from the boycott.

Robin, whose research focuses on the interface between culture and foreign policy in the United States, has become one of the most vocal voices against the BDS movement from the perspective of what he calls “ground zero”: the universities.

He said he sees two flaws in the way the Israeli government counters BDS. First, the Strategic Affairs Ministry focuses on legal tools and resolutions, which have limited impact on public sentiment. Second, he often sees the ministry preaching to the choir.

“I am puzzled by the government’s reactions, which often take place internally,” he told the Post. “They have turned to a domestic audience.”

Robin cited ads in Hebrew and reports broadcast on Israeli TV – “I am not sure why they do it.”

Rather, he said that the way to combat BDS is on social networks, by personal contact and by bringing counterexamples before one’s academic peers.

“I have not seen a concerted effort to involve the universities – ground zero for young people attracted to BDS – in a manner that makes sense to me,” Robin continued. “I am skeptical about preaching to the choir, which is what often happens at formal conferences. We want to work with the government and have a unified voice, but somehow we are not engaged, and somehow our offer to be involved has not been picked up. This is our neighborhood; we know how it works, and we should be involved.”

Robin further explained that he understands BDS to be not a logical but a “ludicrous” movement.

“The world is full of injustices, and the idea of singling out Israel as the center of all injustices in the world is ludicrous,” he said. “Behind it lies a deeper issue, an element of antisemitism and a lack of knowledge” about Israel.

There is a famous theory called the tunnel theory, which Robin said he believes is related to the growth of the gray BDS movement. The tunnel theory works like this:

Imagine you are driving in a two-lane tunnel with both lanes headed in the same direction. The traffic is jammed as far as you can see, which is not very far. Suddenly, the lane next to you starts to move. Initially you feel better, even though you are still stuck, because this signals to you that the jam has ended, and your own lane will soon start moving, too.

But after waiting at a standstill and watching the other lane moving for a while, your feelings change. You become furious. You and others stuck in the lane begin to suspect foul play. You start to search for a way to address the injustice of the situation by drastic action.

“The people in the left lane fall back on time-warped theories of Jews, money – Israel,” said Robin. “They are stuck for complex reasons; they are frustrated by the inequities in their own societies” – and the conspiracy they concoct is that somehow this is connected to Israel and the Jewish people.

“Whenever times are tough, the conspiracy of the international Jew always comes out and rears its ugly head, and we see that right now,” he continued.

Robin is correct about the growth of interest in BDS and boycotting Israel in general, according to a new report by Prof. Hillel Frisch that was published last week by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Frisch assesses the popularity of the BDS movement with the aid of Google trends, exploring whether Google searches for the BDS movement have increased over time.

He can show that since 2004, the movement’s popularity has risen in both the world at large and the US in particular. While the rise is moderate from 2008 to 2014, it has grown significantly higher from 2014 to the present.

“The common perception of the movement’s growing popularity is correct,” writes Frisch in his executive summary. “Since 2016, growth appears to have slowed considerably, but it has hardly reversed itself.”

IN WESTERN society it is now OK to hate, Robin said, and this has a lot to do with social media and the Internet.

“There are no gatekeepers anymore,” Robin said, noting that in more than one of the recent mass shooting attacks, the perpetrators first posted hate-filled manifestos on social media channels.

US President Donald Trump said his administration would ask social media companies to develop tools that could detect potential mass shooters.

“I am directing the Department of Justice to work in partnership with local state and federal agencies as well as social media companies, to develop tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike,” Trump said in a recent speech.

But Robin is skeptical.

“If you shut down one site, three more will pop up somewhere else,” he said. “Social media has unleashed a demon that was squashed at the end of World War II but remained simmering under the surface. It was there all the time, polite yet simmering. Now, the floodgates have opened.”

Robin said that the BDS movement benefits from this very skillful unleashing of hate across the Internet.

“We have to wake up to the fact that people use social media in a very complex manner,” he continued, referring to the understanding that it is not just a gunman who livestreams his attack on Facebook or posts a manifesto, but the reality that the Internet can make irrational viewpoints seem commonplace.

He said social networks in many ways amplify dehumanizing and hateful speech, allowing marginal ideas to spread faster and further, and creating an impression that they are less marginal and more mainstream than they really are.

“We cannot leave this uncontested,” Robin said.

He says he believes that if Israeli universities and their students and faculty members were better engaged and even at the forefront of the fight against BDS, they could counter anti-Israel messaging more effectively than the government on its own.

“The point of universities is argument and disputations,” said Robin. “BDS can only be fought by example, by our presence at conferences. We need to take our arguments to forums that are not friendly. We need to stop being apologetic.

“I am advocating to go to conferences where BDS seems to be a central motif, to stand up there and argue our case,” he concluded. “Let people scream and shout and try to shut us down. That is where we should be.”


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