Yesterday’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) conference held in Jerusalem, under the auspices of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, was nothing more than a headline grabbing festival. There were no serious discussions or analyses of the BDS movement at the meeting, at which every government minister or Jewish macher on the right wing of Israeli politics who wants to identify with this new great cause was present. From the president to philanthropist Ronald Lauder (who it must be assumed covered a significant part of the costs of the meeting), it was one of those events, such as the Herzliya or INSS conferences, where you had to be seen and heard if you are to be considered a serious player.
The assumptions underlying the conference were all pre-determined and were not up for discussion:
1. BDS and boycott is the greatest new strategic threat facing the State of Israel.
2. All proponents of BDS are anti-Semites, and are intent on delegitimizing the existence of the Jewish state.
3. Arguments that BDS is about continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the denial of a Palestinian state are just an excuse and should not be allowed to divert the attention from the real issue of anti-Semitism.
4. BDS is impacting not only Israeli academia, but also significant financial and economic projects.
5. The growth of radical Islam is one reason for the growth of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish feeling around the world, but it is also strengthened by the evil machinations of the liberals and the intellectual Left, using the false argument of human rights.
6. Jews who support BDS, both in Israel and throughout the world, are self-hating Jews who have no understanding of their own heritage and who fuel the fires of anti-Semitism.
They are akin to traitors to the Jewish people.
7. Israel, in its self-appointed role as defender of world Jewry, must take the lead in fighting BDS on campuses.
Large amounts of money (tens of million of dollars) should be invested in the cause and new jobs and agencies created, with the immediate dispatching of emissaries to fight the boycotters and to educate the weak and uninformed Jewish students and communities who are ignorant and do not know how to deal with the problem.
8. BDS will become an even greater problem during 2017 when the world commemorates (some for the good, some for the bad) 50 years since the Six Day War.
But while one cannot ignore the growing number of calls for a boycott of Israel, we should also be tuned in to reality. The actual number of people boycotting Israel and its universities remains marginal (which does not in any way justify even a single case), while scientific collaboration with the rest of the world, and participation of Israeli scientists in international academic meetings, continues to grow as befits the high-quality scientific community that exists in Israel.
Just recently, both the British and Canadian governments passed legislation outlawing boycotts on the basis of ethnic and national affiliation, the University of California threw out a boycott Israel proposal and many academic associations have voted against proposals recommending their members not do business with Israel. The counter-boycott movement is growing and strengthening by the day, including many people and organizations who are not necessarily happy with the way Israel conducts its affairs vis a vis the Palestinians, but who realize that blanket boycotts have no role to play in science or commerce, especially not in cases where the specific scientists or businessmen in question are some of the most sought after in the world.
Fighting BDS has become a lucrative business for everyone wanting to proclaim their patriotic credentials. It is today’s equivalent to the conventions which used to take place on behalf of Soviet Jewry, rallying the world Jewish community to the cause. Minister for Strategic Affairs Gilad Erdan has been given the resources necessary for a new strategic unit, under the direct auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, which will provide a lot of jobs for the boys, while Knesset member and the head of the Yesh Atid Party Yair Lapid, has transformed himself into the minister for anti-Semitism as he seeks to promote himself to the Center and Right as an alternative leader.
The holding of yesterday’s anti-BDS festival with such a host of prominent figures is sure to create the headlines around the world, a feat which the proponents and supporters of BDS rarely achieve. There are, of course, many more subtle ways of fighting anti-Israel delegitimization, such as those outlined by former Knesset member Dov Lipman in an article in this paper two weeks ago. And although this author may not necessarily agree with all of the points raised by Lipman, his approach is far more sophisticated than that outlined yesterday for the sake of the media and the headlines.
Perhaps the only meaningful session was the one in which university presidents, not politicians, journalists or community machers, took part, putting things into perspective based on their own intimate knowledge of what is really happening in the academic world.
Racism and discrimination cannot be accepted wherever they take place. Where Israeli or Jewish speakers are shouted down or prevented from speaking because of their affiliation, strong action must be taken by the respective university authorities – and in almost all cases such action has been taken. The heads of universities, both in Europe and North America, strongly oppose any form of discriminatory boycotts – regardless of whatever their personal views on Israel are. Contrary to popular opinion that the whole world is concerned about Israel, most university presidents are not interested in what is happening in the Middle East, as they focus on the strengthening of science within their own institutions and ensuring that budgets and funding remain strong in an era of scientific privatization.
If individual academics decide not to visit Israel or to collaborate with Israeli scientists, they should be pitied rather than automatically publically exposed as such, as there are always tens of other good scientists standing in line waiting to take their place. And more often than not, they only take a stand to become heroes within their own small radicalized communities – which is precisely what the headlines give them.
Yes, there are cases which we cannot always quantify.
We never really know whether a post-doc application has been rejected because he/she is an Israeli, nor do we know whether a scientific paper has not been published because it has been written by an Israeli. But the cases are rare, and are nowhere near the number one would believe listening to all the frustrated Israeli academics whose applications for research funding or fellowships, or papers submitted for publication, have been rejected by their peers, and who are convinced that were it not for BDS, the result would have been different. There is strong competition for global scientific excellence and every academic will, at one point or another in his/her career, experience disappointment when his/her paper is not automatically accepted for publication or funding.
Yesterday’s headline grabbing festival has done absolutely nothing to address the real issues Israel is facing in counteracting boycott and delegitimization. The problem is real but far less significant than it is made out to be, and it needs to be addressed by the professionals in the field rather than those who are simply out to strengthen their political standing both in Israel and among Diaspora Jewish communities.
And when it does take place, it is not just a concern for the Right wing, as anyone looking at yesterday’s line up, with a few notable exceptions, would have assumed. It is a bipartisan problem, and should be seen as such if it is to be addressed properly in the coming years.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.