Thanks Sheldon Adelson, But Beating BDS Doesn't Need to Cost a Penny

No matter how much money is granted, the recent pro-Israel summit in Las Vegas will only succeed in defeating the haters if "hasbara" groups fundamentally change their strategy.

Ari Soffer

OpEds Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer
Ari Soffer

With the anti-Israel boycott campaign (or "BDS" movement) going into overdrive over the past several weeks, the timing could hardly have been better for last week's mega-summit of pro-Israel groups in Las Vegas to fire its opening salvo, by riding that wave of attention and gaining plenty of headlines of their own.

Yet organizers and participants of the much-touted anti-BDS extravaganza have remained notably tight-lipped about the proceedings. Save for one journalist from Yisrael Hayom - the paper owned by one of the conference's multi-billionaire organizers, Sheldon Adelson - no press access was granted, and participants were warned not to give any statements to the media.

As a result, almost nothing is known about what was decided, or what to expect in the coming weeks and months from the 50 or so pro-Israel groups who took part in it.

Apart from one thing, that is: lots of funding.

As related by the Forward:

Pro-Israel activists headed home from Las Vegas last weekend resting easy that raising money to fight boycott and sanction campaigns on campus just got a lot easier.

Although checks have yet to be written, deep-pocketed donors like summit organizer Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban pledged tens of millions to their cause.

“You work together and we will raise you the money,” promised Israeli-American businessman Adam Milstein following the conference for Israel activists that took place there over the weekend. “You no longer have to worry about financing and fundraising. You just need to be united.”

...Many of the groups attending prepared presentations to donors. After taking into consideration the pitch and additional information included in a book of programs given to participants, these funders will decide who gets funding and at what level. Presentations varied in form and topic, but all included suggestions for taking on anti-Israel expressions on campus.

On the one hand, the "gag-order" placed by organizers could be a good thing - it's usually a clever idea to leave your opponents guessing, rather than giving them advanced warning of your plans. On the other hand, it seems somewhat counter-intuitive to make zero capital out of media interest if you are trying to wage a PR campaign for the hearts and minds of the public. In that sense, the enforced silence could just as easily have been an attempt to shield organizers from criticism. 

From the little we do know, however, there are a number of reasons to be positive about the summit.

For a start, promoting unity and a joint strategy between disparate groups all essentially trying to achieve the same thing is definitely key to fighting the battle effectively, and something pro-Israel groups have all too often failed to do. 

In contrast, over the past several decades anti-Israel activists have been busily forging an informal - but very real, extensive and effective - network, even when it has meant putting aside their own gaping ideological divisions (ranging from European fascism to Marxism to Islamism) to fight their common Jewish enemy.

Even more importantly, however, is that the unity on show in Las Vegas was a unity of purpose.

Event organizers drew flak from liberal Jewish media outlets for excluding far-left organizations such as J Street, who have made great efforts to try and infiltrate the wider Jewish community to gain the legitimacy they crave. In fact, organizers deserve praise for doing so. Without restating the obvious reasons why such groups aren't part of the "pro-Israel" camp just because they say they are (for example, the fact that they never actually do anything pro-Israel), excluding them sent a very clear message: that the summit wasn't about back-slapping, cocktails and empty statements of "unity," but about people with a common agenda coming together with the intention to act.

Clearly, the event - which participants tellingly dubbed the Campus Maccabees Summit - seems to have focused on the right people; namely, the organizations and activists who daily fight Israel's corner without apologizing, even when it isn't popular to do so. There also was a focus specifically on the youth - particularly university students - who really are manning the front lines in the struggle against anti-Israel demonization in the US.

All of this indicates that the initiative was genuinely well-intentioned. Its initiators and sponsors - billionaires Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban - hardly needed the "exposure," and from their statements to the press they do seem to have been prompted to act by a real desire to make a difference.

Nevertheless, in the absence of any public agenda - and based on the sad history of previous such mega meetings, which failed to translate into meaningful action - there are some niggling concerns which I feel must be voiced. If these concerns prove unfounded I will be the first to celebrate, but without an open discussion about the fundamental direction the pro-Israel movement is taking it will be impossible to move forward no matter how large the budget.

Clearly, no amount of money can solve the fundamental mistakes pro-Israel organizations are repeating again and again in terms of strategy and messaging. Simply throwing money at the problem will not solve it.

The same is true about forming a "united front." No matter how united or well-funded an initiative is, if the pro-Israel movement is indeed pursuing a failed strategy it will only make their journey off the edge of the precipice a little more comfortable - and all the more devastating when they realize they have failed regardless.

The failure of pro-Israel groups is apparent from very fact that such a summit was called in the first place. The need to "fight back" against BDS - a relatively recent movement - is only necessary because prior efforts at countering its pernicious spread on a grassroots and media level have not been particularly successful. Of course, BDS has abjectly failed in its stated primary goal of crippling or isolating Israel economically - indeed, the movement does not pose an existential threat to the State of Israel per sa - but that is due to the strength of Israel's economy, not the work of Israel advocates. In contrast, BDS has been very successful in the one field where advocates can and should be pushing back - poisoning the mainstream popular discourse against the Jewish state.

Key to understanding the failure of pro-Israel groups in fighting the battle against the anti-Israel network (BDS or otherwise), is the very term commonly used to describe their activities: hasbara. There is no precise English translation for the term, but it comes from the Hebrew word "lehasbir" - to explain. And that is precisely what the vast majority of pro-Israel initiatives have been doing; reacting to the assaults on Israel's legitimacy by explaining why it is doing one thing or another. In taking such a track they have, from the very start, totally ceded the initiative to their foes and taken a static, permanently defensive position.

Or, as one activist put it: "To talk about ‘fighting anti-Israel college activism’ is to fuel the fire," which means entering "into a never ending game of whack-a-mole - a game that is as unproductive as it is exhausting."

So deeply has this way of doing things become entrenched in the pro-Israel camp, that even events or projects aimed at "taking the initiative" usually take their cue from the anti-Israel discourse instead. Messages like "Israeli apartheid? No way!" or "Israel didn't commit war crimes in Gaza because..." or - worst of all - "Israel has a right to exist!" are the PR equivalent of taking two steps back to take one step forward, because their starting point is acknowledging the accusation itself, which means that even total "victory" in such a case only amounts to demolishing a self-created straw man.

By habitually acknowledging the (usually totally spurious) accusations of anti-Zionists, Israel advocates merely fall into their trap by implanting the premise of the accusation deeper into the popular discourse. Indeed, most onlookers will naturally ask, what normal, decent country needs to defend its "right to exist," or to "prove" that it isn't practicing apartheid in the first place?

Israel advocates often complain (rightly) of a media double-standard regarding Israel. They correctly note that while the most minor of Israeli actions is nearly always scrutinized with astonishing zeal by international media and organizations, ongoing atrocities across the world receive scant coverage by comparison.

But although there will always be people out there obsessed with victimizing Israel no matter what, pro-Israel groups have also become unwitting accomplices in this game themselves by agreeing to play along in such a way. By contrast, the Palestinians and their supporters consistently refuse to be drawn on accusations surrounding their often brutal and criminal conduct, and instead relentlessly re-frame the discussion in terms of a struggle by them to attain their ostensible rights.

When pro-Israel groups do break away from the anti-Israel discourse, it is nearly always to promote peripherally important messages about Israeli technology, democracy, tolerance towards homosexuals, and the like. To be sure, all of these are things we should be proud of, but none of them address the core issue at hand: Whose land is it? Whose cause is just? (Similarly, abstract arguments about a "right to self-defense" only make sense if one's position is actually morally defensible.)

The solution, then, lies not in more financial support for existing efforts alone, but in creating an effective, unapologetic and assertive counter-narrative. In this sense "counter" does not mean reacting to false accusations or assertions by the anti-Zionists, but forming an alternative, independent discourse altogether.

Doing so is hardly rocket science - all it requires is being honest with ourselves. We must strive to educate young Jews in particular about the historic value, achievements and, above all, the justice of Zionism as the Jewish liberation movement, and to take pride and confidence in its contemporary struggle to preserve Jewish independence in our homeland. After all, that is our inalienable right.

This means educating young Jews about the historic and legal rights of the Jewish people to sovereignty in the entire land of Israel - including Judea and Samaria - instead of spending untold resources producing reams of fact sheets responding to one accusation after another, which, let's face it, are only actually read by people already sympathetic towards Israel.

This, then, must be the starting point: A focus on the Jewish people's legitimate rights and the justice of our cause, not a constant litany of excuses or explanations for our actions.

A message like that would go a long way towards correcting the defeatism which permeates much of the American Jewish student body, as was recently graphically detailed by Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit (if you can't access the full article, a useful synopsis can be found here). 

Far from Shavit's absurd conclusion (and that of leftist groups such as J Street) that the key to empowering Jewish students to fight back is for Israel to retreat and somehow give them less to be "ashamed" of, the solution to the rather pathetic picture painted in his article - of deflated Jewish students afraid to voice any support for Israel due to constant intimidation - is to remind Jewish students that they, and Israel, are very much in the right. They have nothing to apologize for or to "justify" to anyone. They should be confident and proud, and ready to fight for those rights, even in the face of hateful and at times aggressive recrimination.

Once such an confident, alternative narrative is successfully fashioned and communicated, the struggle on campuses will turn from one of endlessly "defending Israel" from relentless attacks, to a positive campaign to reestablish Zionism's rightful place within the popular narrative as a revolutionary liberation movement. 

Simultaneously, those standing opposed to the Jewish people's legitimate rights will find themselves isolated and increasingly exposed for what they are: the mouthpieces of Arab and Islamic imperialism throughout the Middle East. And, in no small measure, pure anti-Semites. These are, after all, people who wish to turn back the clock to a time of Arab dominance and Jewish submissiveness in our own native homeland, and who openly support theocratic, Islamist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as unabashed secular Arab chauvinists such as Fatah.

But it is important to note that one cannot achieve the latter - exposing Israel's enemies for what they are - without the former - that is, reclaiming Zionism. 

ZOA President Mort Klein - a tireless and unapologetic campaigner for Israel himself - called on "all groups (to) work together to demonize the demonizers." However this cannot be achieved while the popular discourse fundamentally views the Palestinian Authority, and even Hamas, not as "racist terror organizations," but as part of a legitimate "liberation" movement, whose misdeeds can always be overlooked or justified in view of their greater, "noble" goal.

Finally, and on a related note, is one grave error the summit's organizers appear to be repeating. As has become almost second nature for Israel advocates in the US, they appear to have written off the struggle for Israeli rights in Europe, by focusing exclusively on American organizations.

Firstly, as someone who lived in and attended university in London - one of the major hubs of BDS in Europe - not so long ago, I can personally say that such an assessment is simply incorrect. While there is an alarming rise in anti-Semitism in Europe to be sure, there is also far more potential to mount a fightback than many Americans appreciate. The problem is primarily that the confidence of European Jewry is far, far lower than that of their American brethren - thanks in large part to their own leadership's impotence, weakness and defeatism.

The idea that "Europe is lost" stems from the same defeatism which permeates the struggle on US campuses. Tellingly, once again this attitude stands in sharp contrast to that of Israel's detractors, who - far from sticking to their "home turf" in Europe - have taken the fight aggressively to the US, determined to chip away at the still broadly pro-Israel sentiment which exists there.

If the struggle for Israel is to be won, those fronting it must totally shed their defensive mentality. As the old adage goes: the best defense is a good offense.

But first, they must return to fundamentals. No more "hasbara." Liberate our Jewish youth from the counterfeit, uninspiring "Zionism" of hi-tech, bikinis and liberal democracy, and reintroduce them to the beauty of authentic Zionism. It'll barely cost you a penny.