Being a Character Witness for Israel

By Ben Crome.

On Monday, I attended a question and answer session with former Israeli Finance Minister and leader of the Yesh Atid party Yair Lapid, where the young audience was introduced as representatives of ‘a cross-section of communal organisations and people active on the front line against BDS’.

Some time ago, I was enlisted as a foot-soldier in the battle to salvage Israel’s internationally deteriorating reputation. The role was first handed to me at a pre-university seminar run for participants on Shnat Netzer and other youth movement gap years, and again once I had revived and chaired my university’s Israel Society. As a movement worker for the UK’s second-largest youth movement, here I stand, once more, armed with the most potent weapons in 21st-century warfare: a Twitter app and the unwieldy hashtag #onlydemocracyinthemiddleeast. I’m now a veteran soldier in an army I never chose to join.

In case my introduction sounded sarcastic, let me make it absolutely clear that I think the BDS movement, which campaigns for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, is wrong. BDS is morally wrong, because it targets Israel, whatever its flaws, with a ferocious obsessiveness that downplays human rights violations elsewhere and fosters anti-Semitic discourse, knowingly or otherwise. BDS is historically wrong, falsely attributing the collapse of apartheid in South Africa to sanctions from abroad, when it was the internal economic pressure caused by an unsustainable political system that brought an end to the heinous regime. BDS is logically wrong, because it stokes division and hate for Israel, when conflict can only be resolved through dialogue and mutual understanding.

I also think that the importance of BDS needs to be placed in perspective. Since the Israeli election in March, which resulted in a resounding success for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s government has focused on BDS with unprecedented regularity. But its approach to BDS is oddly ambiguous. On the one hand, BDS is presented as somewhat farcical, a movement consisting of naïve foreign liberals that is incapable of making significant inroads into Israel’s export market and trading networks, thereby failing to affect Israel’s economic or diplomatic security.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s rhetoric depicts BDS as an existential threat for Israel, as those naïve foreign liberals, alongside critically-minded domestic NGOs, are ultimately propping up radical Islamic fundamentalism. We might remember that on election day Netanyahu rallied his core supporters by warning that foreign-funded, left-wing NGOs were bussing Arabs to the polling stations. A master politician, Netanyahu is at his vote-winning best when on the defensive, and exaggerating the threat posed by BDS plays into the hands of a prime minister who argues that the world is against Israel and therefore voters must opt for a party which prioritises military might and defence of Israel’s borders above anything else.

The leaders of Israel’s political opposition, including Zionist Union number two Tzipi Livni, who was recently interviewed about BDS on BBC’s Newsnight, as well as Yair Lapid, largely endorse Netanyahu’s narrative. This is a shame on two counts. Firstly, they could help to make debate about BDS more realistic. BDS has so far had little to no impact on Israel’s robust economy. What is impactful is the enormous cost of building West Bank settlements, and defending remote outposts which are illegal even under Israeli law. This expenditure diverts funds away from vital public services, and those who lose out the most are poorer Israelis living in the country’s periphery, who tend to vote for Netanyahu. There are many reasons why this is the case, but one is that the opposition isn’t articulating a credible alternative to Netanyahu’s status quo loudly or confidently enough.

Secondly, a strong and secure Israeli opposition would call Netanyahu out on his misleading and scaremongering statements. It would recognise that the battle for Israel’s future won’t be decided by British student unions, which British students themselves barely care about. It’ll be decided in, and by, Israel.

When Lapid spoke about BDS, my disappointment was less that I disagreed with what he was saying but more that we were having the wrong conversation. Instead of teaching British students how to explain to their peers that Israel stands for democracy and civil rights while its enemies are hanging homosexuals, I’d love it if Lapid could talk about cooperation between opposition politicians and the countless NGOs fighting for social change in Israel, about coexistence projects between Jews and Arabs, about bringing together religious and secular communities. Rather than looking to counter counter-arguments, advocates for Israel need to look for inspiration from within.

Personally, I’ve rarely used the term ‘advocate’; I preferred to see myself as a character witness for Israel, to use the term of Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to the UK. Saying “I’ve met Israelis who think x, and here’s why” is more genuine and therefore more convincing than “Israel thinks x, and here’s why”. The former presents Israel as a society based on freedom of speech, comprised of individuals expressing a diverse range of opinions, whereas the latter presents ‘Israel’ as a single entity with one opinion. It’s also BDS’s argument that all Israeli individuals or organisations are to be treated the same way regardless of their view on government policy. Sadly, it’s that cherished image of diversity that’s most under threat when the views of government and opposition become indistinguishable.

Ben Crome, Oved T’nua 5775, writes in his personal capacity.