Fretting ourselves to distraction

Because of our history as Jews, we are particularly sensitive to signals of boycotts.

A balloon with the phrase "Boycott to Israel" is seen during a Euroleague basketball game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Barcelona in Barcelona  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A balloon with the phrase "Boycott to Israel" is seen during a Euroleague basketball game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and Barcelona in Barcelona
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As a people and as a nation, we fret, therefore we are.
And, goodness knows, there is what to fret about. We have all the right in the world to fret about Iran, Islamic State, Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism, rockets from Gaza and the future of Egypt and Jordan.
There is, in this little corner of the world, objectively, plenty to worry about.
Then why, with all that real stuff out there, do we go and look for new demons? Yet, we do. One of those new demons that we, ourselves, are amplifying and magnifying – especially following the Palestinians’ failed effort to get us kicked out of the world soccer association FIFA – is the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS).
Tune into any radio or television station in the country these days, or open up any newspaper, and the impression you can be forgiven for walking away with is that Israel is on the verge of becoming the world’s leper – that no one wants to play with us, talk to us, do business with us or invite our scientists to deliver scholarly papers.
Yediot Aharonot mobilized itself Monday in the war against boycotts with a front-page headline and an article on page 2 that warned we should not be lulled to sleep because of some recent legal victories against BDS in the US, “because BDS is winning the battle for perception.”
If it is winning the battle for perception – and that in itself is a debatable point – it is because the Israeli media, government ministers looking for budgets, the Jewish press abroad, as well as various Jewish organizations, are magnifying this threat beyond its real proportions. Fighting BDS and working to salvage Israel’s standing on US campuses are now the sexy buzzwords that can bring budgets in their wake, both in Israel and abroad.
Just last week, the American band OneRepublic played to 20,000 fans at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park. Hardly anyone noticed.
But had this group canceled because of pressure from the virulent Israel-hater Roger Waters, it would have been page 1 news in Israel, and – as a result – newsworthy abroad, as well.
Take the case of Lauryn Hill, the largely washed-up R&B star who was scheduled to play to a few thousand people in Rishon Lezion last month. Under pressure from the BDSers, she canceled. Her cancellation was major news here, and – as a result – abroad. Had she come and played, no one would have paid attention.
This represents a trend noticeable over the years: A few bands cancel – Elvis Costello, Santana, the Klaxons – 10 times that number come to the country, including Madonna, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Rihanna, Lady Gaga and Robbie Williams, but the perception we all walk around with is that there is a major cultural boycott of Israel. There isn’t. A couple of bands – some of them marginal – are caving in, while the vast majority are not.
Or take the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which meets every other summer and can be relied upon to pass some kind of divestment measure.
The Assembly met in 2014 and will meet against in 2016, and its deliberations about Israel always garner a lot of media attention, basically the only thing about those gatherings that do. When it votes to divest, and that is widely reported in the Israeli and Jewish media, the impression is created that America’s churches are turning on Israel.
What’s interesting is that this church is minuscule with only about 1.7 million members and that the mainstream Protestant churches in the US with which it affiliates are declining rapidly. While the US Christian population has shrunk from 2007 to 2015, according to a recent Pew poll, mainline Protestants have hemorrhaged members the fastest, while the Evangelical churches – most of whom do like us and want to invest, not divest – have dipped at a much slower rate.
And the list goes on.
At the end of 2013, Vitens, the Dutch water giant, canceled cooperation with Mekorot for political reasons. This was major news, part of a wave of reports at the time that seemed to bespeak an avalanche of canceled contracts with Israeli companies and banks.
And the facts? Well, in 2014 Israeli exports to the Netherlands rose 19 percent.
Exports to Britain, where the impression is that the BDS movement is especially strong, increased 5%. All told, Israeli exports to the EU countries climbed 2% in 2014, and Israeli exports worldwide were up 1.4%.
It is not that there is no problem. It is not that there are not attempts to marginalize Israel in the world. And it is not that this must not be fought. It is a problem and must be addressed. But you kill a fly with a fly swatter, not a cannon.
By using a cannon on a mosquito, you are exaggerating the power of the mosquito.
And, right now, all these BDS efforts add up to little more than a mosquito – an annoying buzz that bites once in a while and draws a drop of blood, but not much else, and is by no means fatal.
Because of our history as Jews, we are particularly sensitive to signals of boycotts.
We’ve had – and this is an understatement – some bad experiences with boycotts in the past. So our antennae are justifiably up for signs that the same thing is happening again; and when we see a sign, we pounce.
But over-pouncing only magnifies the situation. About three years ago, the Foreign Ministry conducted a study on “Israeli Apartheid Week” activities on US campuses to see how they were being covered in the press. The study found that the only press that paid attention at first were Israeli and Jewish, but that once they did, stories began to appear in the general press, as well. We are the ones who helped give Israel Apartheid Week its legs.
When the other side, the side that wants to delegitimize Israel, sees how worked up we get over every cancellation or meaningless divestment resolution passed by a university student government that is then not implemented by the school’s administration, they realize they are onto something.
Israel’s hysterical reaction to the FIFA developments, and its hysterical reaction even after it won in FIFA, obviously whets the appetite of the other side. If they see how worked up Israel gets over the prospect of being kicked out of one club or another, they realize they have found our weak spot and will press forward.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who committed the cardinal advertisement sin on Sunday of repeating everything bad that people say about you, said that in deflecting the delegitimization campaigns, Israel must arm itself with the truth, and “also internal pride and that we know who and what we are and what we represent.”
One thing worth remembering is that we are a powerful state, not a weak shtetl dependent for its bread on a farmer down the road whose boycott would starve everyone out.
Israel is a strong country with a robust economy and goods, products and services that others actually need and want. It is a country that can withstand a co-op in Olympia, Washington, that doesn’t want to stock Israeli products, and it is a state that has proven it has the diplomatic ability to counter moves to oust it from various world bodies.
For every store like the one in Washington state, there are hundreds more that want and are more than willing to stock what we supply. We overamplify the one, and play down the significance of the others, to our own detriment.
For every Lauryn Hill, there are more OneRepublics and Robbie Williams. And for every move Jabril Rajoub cooks up to oust us from an international forum, Israel has the diplomatic wherewithal – as it has now proven – to deflect it.
All that needs to be internalized before we fret over BDS to distraction.