A Guide Book of How to Effectively Fight BDS
On the evening of April 24, I learned that a panel was scheduled to foster a “community dialogue” on “Palestine and Social Justice” at the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, Maryland, the following day. I was immediately struck by the absence of the word “Israel.”
The panel was to include three proponents of the BDS movement — Reverend Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, DC, Omar Baddar of the Arab American Institute, and Phyllis Bennis of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Within a few hours, six members of the Alliance for Israel Response Team (five colleagues and I) prepared to attend the event by researching the views and past statements made by the speakers, and by formulating questions to expose their anticipated historical revisions and their portrayal of Israelis and Zionists as racists.
Hours before the event, one of our team members learned that the location had changed from the Waldorf School to the Cedar Lane Unitarian Church, a modest building in a tranquil, bucolic setting — with rainbow flags lining its driveway. As I drove past the flags, I thought about the exuberant gay pride parade that I attended in Tel Aviv — and, in contrast, about the recent death of Hamas commander Mahmoud Ishtiwi, who was executed by his former soldiers for the “crime” of engaging in homosexual relations.
After seating ourselves, the moderator informed us that the Waldorf School had canceled the event in an effort to censor Palestinian voices and silence Palestinian human rights concerns, which she described as a common tactic of “Trump supporting Jews.” The moderator then offered words of praise for the members of the Waldorf School’s diversity committee who had planned the event, and asked them to stand and be recognized.
Omar Baddar was the first panelist to speak, and he began by commenting on the “irony” of the cancellation, given that the panel was invited to present the “Palestinian narrative,” unfamiliar to a community in which the “Israeli narrative” dominated discourse.
The theme of Palestinian victimization at the hands of Zionists and the American administration continued throughout the evening. The panelists maintained their steady message of Palestinian innocence by omitting all mention of Arab aggression against Israel. They discussed the “Nakba,” the Arabic word for the “catastrophe” of 1948, without mentioning that five Arab nations attacked Israel to seek its destruction.
As expected from BDS proponents, the speakers also used inflammatory language such as, “Ethnic cleansing occurred when Israel was created,” “Israel shoots at unarmed civilians,” and Israel is “an apartheid state.” And, of course, the historical revisionists peppered the entire evening with inaccurate statements such as, “The occupation of Gaza never ended” and “Zionism was a colonial project.” As if on cue, the audience responded by shaking their heads to convey their anger at the false image of Israel being created before their eyes.
Despite the remarkable willingness of the speakers to convey historical inaccuracies, the most sinister comments of the evening were those made about Jews. Reverend Hagler’s loathing of the Jewish people was palpable, which he conveyed by accusing Jews of eclipsing the suffering of African-Americans. “My relatives didn’t arrive at Ellis Island; my relatives arrived in slave ships,” he proclaimed, as well as bitterly recounting the message he grew up hearing: “Racism is less tragic than what happens to Jews.”
Phyllis Bennis offered a bifurcated version of Hagler’s Jew hatred by arguing that there are good Jews and bad Jews. Remaining true to the central tenet of Jewish Voice for Peace, she portrayed Zionists as the bad Jews — greedy colonizers and selfish narcissists with no concern for the suffering of their Palestinians neighbors. She then described good Jews such as herself — those who oppose the state of Israel — as card-carrying members of the universal society of social justice warriors worthy of a self-righteous badge of honor.
In perhaps the most obscene statement of the evening, Bennis equated Zionists with the murderous Cossacks who subjected Russian Jews to unspeakable violence during the pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Bennis argued that Zionists exploited the suffering and vulnerability of the survivors of the Russian pogroms by pressuring them to go to Israel rather than staying and fighting alongside other persecuted Russians — the more noble choice.
Once the question-and-answer session began, three members of our group calmly sprang into action and went to the front of the room to the microphone. Our first question dealt with how boycotts of Israeli companies lead to job losses and the loss of health insurance for Palestinian workers; the second addressed the oppression of Palestinians under Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and the suffering of Palestinians in Lebanon and Syria; and the third focused on why BDS does not address human rights violations by North Korea, Syria, and other countries engaged in far worse atrocities than what they claim happens in Israel.
The panelists were noticeably surprised by our questions, responding with flashes of anger, rambling responses, and the ubiquitous BDS deflection tactics. “This is not a — quote — balanced panel. Nor was it ever intended to be,” Bennis responded. “This is not a — quote — balanced society. The press. Our schools. I don’t know what school books you use precisely at this school, but Palestinians are erased from history in US history classes … so one small pushback of having a program where there was no necessity to have — quote — the other side represented because that other side is on the front page of The New York Times…”
While we didn’t think that our questions would cause the speakers to reconsider their positions, our questions hopefully alerted the audience to the glaring omissions in the panelists’ presentations, and their lack of even-handedness. Most importantly, our presence and our words penetrated the indoctrination bubble that BDS proponents rely on to recruit new members.
With the help of playbooks, training workshops, faculty guidance, and vast budgets, BDS leaders are skilled at social seduction — persuading well-intentioned Americans who know little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the history of modern Israel to join their cult-like club of true believers.
Without the physical presence and immediate response of individuals who understand the complexities of the conflict and who know what questions to pose, the BDS machine will continue to roll across our campuses, schools, churches and even our synagogues, squashing dialogue and grinding historical facts into the ground. That absence of intervention provides fuel for their machine and sends a signal to their new recruits that they must be right.
It is my hope that leaders of the Jewish communities across the United States begin to realize that in order to slow, and eventually eradicate, the sinister grip that the BDS campaign has on so many of our children and on growing numbers of communities across the United States, a more pro-active and interventional approach is now necessary.