As calls gain momentum for boycott against Israel, its supporters are looking for ways to push back against Palestinian activism
NEW YORK, United States - Nikki Haley is the new pro-Israel rock star in the United States. At the sound of the UN ambassador’s name at a pro-Israel conference on Wednesday, the crowd broke into applause.
When Haley walked on to the General Assembly stage to address the “Ambassadors Against BDS” conference at the United Nations, attendees gave her a standing ovation.
“Winds of change are blowing even here, at UN Headquarters,” said Robert Singer, the CEO of the World Jewish Congress, a co-host of the conference. “In the few months that Ambassador Haley has been here, she has made clear she stands with Israel.”
Haley’s presence at a nakedly pro-Israel forum underscored how the Trump administration has strengthened the already close US-Israeli relationship. And it was a signal that, as Israel pursues a crackdown on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the US will follow suit.
The ambassador has battled calls for economic pressure on Israel at the United Nations. Meanwhile, the US Congress is considering anti-BDS bills and state governments are passing measures designed to crack down on the boycott movement. Such laws are modelled after a bill Haley signed while governor of South Carolina, barring state contracts from going to companies that boycott Israel.
Ambassadors Against BDS
“The effort to delegitimise the state of Israel being waged on college campuses and the anti-Israel obsession at the UN are one in the same,” Haley told the pro-Israel confab. “They both seek to deny Israel’s right to exist. They are both efforts to intimidate her friends and embolden her enemies. They are both extensions of an ancient hatred.”
'They’re patting themselves on the back for these great achievements as if they’re doing something to stop this movement, but the movement has been growing'
-Radhika Sainath, Palestine Legal
Other speakers praised Haley for pressuring the UN to withdraw a recent report, which concluded that Israel is an “apartheid” state and called on countries to back the BDS movement. The UN ultimately removed the report from its website.
The Ambassadors Against BDS conference Haley addressed was hosted by the Israeli Mission to the UN and sponsored by a range of pro-Israel groups.
Part pro-Israel pep rally, part strategy session, the conference brought together thousands of students and Israel advocates, all trying to figure out the best way to combat BDS, which they painted as an anti-Semitic movement bent on destroying Israel.
In 2005, Palestinian civil society groups issued a call for boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israel over its human rights abuses. The movement’s demands are: an end to the Israeli occupation; full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Since then, the initiative has spread around the world and found a home in the US among progressive groups, particularly on college campuses. The movement has yet to make a significant economic dent in Israel. But the growth of BDS in the US has alarmed the pro-Israel community.
In Israel, intelligence agencies collect information on and monitor foreign BDS activists. In early March, the Israeli Knesset passed a law barring BDS supporters from entering the country. And on 19 March, Israeli tax authorities began to interrogate Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of the BDS movement, over alleged tax evasion. The BDS movement has called the charges fabrications designed to “tarnish his image and intimidate him”.
In the United States, efforts against the movement have taken a different form. On college campuses, supporters of Israel try to counter BDS by bringing pro-Israel speakers and organising events meant to cast Israel as a beacon of democracy in a repressive region - one message repeatedly voiced at the anti-BDS conference at the UN.
Pro-Israel groups have also pressed the US Department of Education to declare that pro-Palestinian activism has created a hostile environment for Jewish students on campus, though the department has so far declined to do so.
Max Samarov, who directs the pro-Israel group StandWithUs’s campus strategy, urged Israel advocates to “start reclaiming our story”.
“At its core, Israel’s story is about an indigenous people overcoming 1,900 years of oppression,” he said. “Being pro-Israel fundamentally is about standing on the right side of history.”
There are divisions in the Jewish community about how best to combat BDS. J Street U, the youth wing of the liberal pro-Israel group, sent its own delegation to the Ambassadors Against BDS event.
Ben Gellman, co-president at the John Hopkins University chapter of J Street U, told Middle East Eye he attended the conference to “offer a different vision of what it looks like to fight BDS”.
Gellman says advocating for a two-state solution and calling for an end to the Israeli occupation is the best way to combat calls for boycotting Israel.
His message, though, was largely dismissed by the right-wing crowd. At the closing conference session, a J Street U member asked how students should work against BDS while also opposing the Israeli occupation.
Alan Clemons, a Republican who serves in South Carolina’s legislature, responded by calling J Street “anti-Semitic,” and said “there is no illegal occupation”.
Earlier in the session, Clemons also praised the spate of anti-BDS laws being passed in state legislatures. He said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson just signed legislation prohibiting state dollars from going to companies that boycott Israel. Arkansas is the 17th state to pass such legislation.
But Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that protects the civil rights of pro-Palestine activists, said the anti-BDS laws are not having their desired impact.
“They seem to think this wave of anti-BDS bills is some kind of victory. It’s really clear that this is not the case,” Sainath told MEE. “At the end of the day, you cannot, in this country, legislate against protest. And boycotts are protest. So these bills are just symbolic. They’re patting themselves on the back for these great achievements as if they’re doing something to stop this movement, but the movement has been growing.”