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Is This The Way to Beat BDS?

How a little humor - and a lot of determination - is turning the tide against BDS in a sleepy British seaside town.
By Ari Soffer
First Publish: 4/23/2014, 7:49 PM

Standing with Israel in Brighton
Standing with Israel in Brighton
Oren Teichmann

The campaign to isolate Israel internationally through calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions - known as the BDS Movement - has undeniably gained traction in Western Europe in the past several years.

Although the campaign's actual impact on Israel's economy and international ties has been negligible, its main success has been in uniting disparate anti-Zionist groups and riling up anti-Israel sentiment on university campuses, online and in the public sphere.

For years, Jewish and pro-Israel groups have been debating how best to combat the movement, but according to British activist Simon Cobbs, the answer may be simpler than they might think: "By laughing at them."

Cobbs is the co-founder of Sussex Friends of Israel (SFI), a grassroots pro-Israel activist movement based in the British seaside town of Brighton.

The topic of boycotts is, of course, a serious one - and the BDS Movement itself is no laughing matter, as Cobbs himself well knows. Like many other British Jews, he accuses BDS of stoking anti-Semitic sentiment through its "bullying tactics", by singling out the Jewish state not just for criticism, but with calls to dismantle it completely.

He points to the links between groups individuals associated with BDS, and anti-Semitic groups spanning the far-left and far-right, including Islamist hate preachers. That atmosphere has spawned violence on many occasions, including one particularly "nasty anti-Semitic incident" in Brighton in 2007, when anti-Israel protesters assaulted a passing Jewish motorist.

"They noticed there was a Jew in the car and they just pulled him out and beat him up," he recalls.

The next year the march was provocatively organized to take place in the town's Jewish neighborhood.

But he says his group has found a way to take the wind out of the sails of anti-Israel campaigners, and stumbled upon a secret weapon in the struggle against the anti-Israel network.

SFI stands at the forefront of an eccentric yet undeniably effective strategy, which Cobbs says he wants others to learn from.

"We're taking it to them... but with fun," he grins.

Common cause

On the face of it, Brighton is an unlikely place for the fightback against the BDS Movement to begin, with a Jewish community numbering roughly 2,000, most of them retirees. 

And it all began with a chance encounter one Saturday morning when Cobbs - who is not religious and had never previously been involved in Israel advocacy, but identifies as a "proud Jew" - was surprised to encounter a group of BDS activists inside his local grocery store.

"They were wreaking havoc, trying to glue themselves to the wall," he recalls.

Taking exception more to their intimidating behavior towards customers than anything else, he took it upon himself to "encourage them to leave", and was joined by another man, Daniel, who lived above the store and happened to witness the commotion.

"I'm not exactly the shy type," he chuckles in his cheeky cockney accent. "And we're both big lads, so we weren't worried. We stood at the door and said 'you're not coming back in.'"

Unbeknownst to Simon, Daniel was a staunch Christian Zionist, and though the two had never met before they hit it off immediately.

"After the protesters left I looked at Dan, and he looked at me, and he said 'I'll be here again next week'; I said, 'so will I.'"

And SFI was born.

From those modest beginnings the group has expanded rapidly, uniting Jews, Christians and scores of other residents in the fight against anti-Israel boycotters.

The focus of its activities now center around a local Israeli store being targeted by boycotters. The shop, Ecostream, is a subsidiary of the better-known SodaStream, which only a few months ago found itself in the middle of a high-profile row between Oxfam and Hollywood superstar Scarlet Johansson over the charity's support for BDS.

Like SFI, its presence in Brighton is an unlikely one. In fact, according to Cobbs, the town is "the last place the company should have chosen" to open its first UK store due to the strong presence of anti-Israel groups and its relatively small Jewish community.

The decision was made on the naive assumption that Ecostream - which prides itself as being a green alternative for environmentally-conscious shoppers - would find a natural ally in the UK's only Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, who represents Brighton.

But Lucas is also a prominent supporter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), and notorious for her anti-Israel views - which ultimately trumped the green policies she was elected for as she threw her support behind the boycotters.

"She was elected to help local people on a green mandate, and she has totally thrown them out the window," Cobbs notes. "She'd rather the shop closed down or became a McDonalds."

But if Ecostream's initial decision was not the cleverest business move, it has provided "a focal point" for pro-Israel activists which SFI has duly capitalized on.

"On a bad day we get about 30-40 people - on a good day we get around 150, sometimes more," says Cobbs.

Sussex Friends of Israel Oren Teichmann

And he says they're also winning the wider battle for hearts and minds; the negative comments they used to sometimes get from passersby have all but stopped, and many regular shoppers have actually joined in with their campaign.

Ducks, pies and bagels

More often than not, when Israel advocates face off against anti-Israel groups the atmosphere is tense and generally unpleasant. Jewish students on campus and grassroots activists often complain of the aggressive, threatening and downright abusive treatment they are subjected to when trying to push Israel's case forward. 

Yet as I browse through some of the dozens of videos SFI has posted on YouTube and its Facebook page I am struck by the overwhelming sense of positive energy and momentum - and the very clear impression that it is pro-Israel activists who have the initiative, despite a determined and aggressive campaign by the BDS Movement in Brighton.

So how have they done it?

The key, says Cobbs, is to always stay on the front foot, keep it simple, and avoid falling into the trap of being reactive - and a good dose of Jewish humor.

SFI's first ever major campaign, for example, was titled "Bagels Against Bigotry," and simply involved supporters turning up to share bagel sandwiches at the regular SFI rally. "It was so successful we ended up giving three carloads to the local homeless shelter."

That was soon followed by "They Bring Hate, We Bring Cake," and the group's most successful event to date: "They Tell Lies, We Bring Pies," ("It was the only thing which rhymed with lies!")

"Pies Against Lies" Oren Teichmann

Behind the lighthearted names, Cobbs says the aim is twofold. Firstly, to provide a positive vibe to a campaigning environment which is so often characterized by negativity.

"The best way of attracting people from the Jewish community is not through letters about why you should support Israel, but with food!" he quips.

The second reason is to take the sting out of the BDSers themselves by "revealing their true face."

"The topic is incredibly serious... but the way to combat that is to laugh at them... to ridicule them. Because they really are foolish.

"When you say to them 'you say you support gay rights and women's rights but you also support a regime that would outlaw homosexuality and sideline women...' at that point they go quiet, because they are unable to answer the questions.

"That's why we stand up to them week after week, because when you scratch the surface and stand up to these bullies and show them for what they are, the truth comes out."

And, he chuckles with a sense of incredulity, "they do it to themselves... they keep giving me stuff that is video gold!"

In one recent incident, for example, SFI released footage of a well-known local BDS activist ("Dick") screaming uncontrollably and unintelligibly in the face of a pro-Israel campaigner, before being led away by police.

The video was shared widely by Israel advocates as yet more evidence of the kind of threatening behavior BDS groups engage in.

But more importantly for SFI it was proof of the effectiveness of their latest secret weapon: ducks.

Inspired by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's famous "nuclear duck" speech (which itself became the butt of many jokes), Simon and SFI have found a euphemism for the anti-Semitism inherent within the BDS movement which is both funny and, apparently, appears to be getting under the skin of their opponents. 

"For weeks we've been calling these people ducks because if it looks like an anti-Semite, quacks like an anti-Semite and walks like an anti-Semite... chances are it's an anti-Semite," he said.

"They know damn well what we're talking about... we've made duck banners and posters... someone turned up that Saturday with loads of duck-calls and I think it pushed him over the edge eventually.

"They're not used to it. They've never had anyone face off against them before."

Some instances caught on camera are less humorous, such as one in which a BDS protester can be heard making holocaust references against Jewish pro-Israel activists.

But far from deterring them, the attacks simply spur SFI  on.

"There is a war going on in Brighton - and its soldiers are Jewish grandmothers, Christians, and the British people"

"Every Saturday, come rain or snow, they stand up and they give it to these guys like you won't believe.

"To quote Frank Sinatra: We're doing it our way. And we're winning."