In a gathering that resembled a giant pro-Israel rally, some 2,300 opponents of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement filled the United Nations General Assembly hall March 29 to hear American and Israeli voices forcefully denounce what they consider attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
On many other days, the halls of the UN are viewed by supporters of Israel as hostile territory. But buoyed by the appointment of former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as America’s ambassador to the UN, the pro-Israel activists in attendance at the conference expressed optimism — for the most part — regarding the fight against BDS at the conference, sponsored by the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Israel’s mission to the UN.
Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, Danny Danon, began the proceedings by delivering what he called a “simple message.”
“We will keep fighting until we eliminate BDS completely from the campuses, until we eliminate BDS completely from the UN, and we will keep fighting until anti-Semitism is finally defeated,” he vowed.
Later, in an interview with NJJN, the ambassador said Israel “cannot declare we have won the fight against BDS; it is ongoing.” But, he said, in the past year, 17 U.S. states have approved legislation against the movement.
“Yes, we are optimistic,” he declared. “But we still have to fight back.”
Many in the audience seemed to share his positive stance about winning the fight, partly because of President Donald Trump’s appointment of Haley to the UN post.
Pointing out that her state of South Carolina has a Jewish population of only 1 percent, Haley boasted that its legislature was the first in the nation to outlaw dealing with firms that engage in boycotts.
“We said we will not do business with any company that discriminates on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin,” she told conference attendees. “Make no mistake: that is exactly what the BDS movement does.”
She said BDS movements on college campuses and at the UN are “both extensions of an ancient hatred. And how tragic is it that, of all the countries in the world to condemn for human rights violations, these voices choose to single out Israel…. Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other barbaric regimes are excused by the BDS movement. It makes no sense,” said Haley.
Attorney Jay Sekulow, a Jewish convert to Christianity and self-described “Messianic Jew,” addressed the gathering. BDS efforts on college campuses, he said, are “a lot less this year than they were last year or the year before.”
Sekulow won a strong round of applause when he praised Trump. “Let me tell you what we don’t have to worry about. Because of the president of the United States, we don’t have to worry about defense of the Jewish state.”
Robert Singer, CEO and executive vice president of the WJC, attacked the BDS movement for hypocrisy. “It says it wants peace. It claims to fight under the banner of human rights. But this movement is based on lies, incitement, and deception.
“BDS is not about peace,” he said. “BDS is not about helping the Palestinians. BDS is not about human rights. What BDS really wants is to deny the Jewish people’s right to a homeland in Israel.
“The State of Israel is not up for negotiation,” Singer declared. Pointing to recent measures taken by governments and other institutions against BDS, he added: “Operation Fightback is under way, and we are winning.” Singer noted that the “winds of change are blowing even here at UN headquarters.”
But some pessimistic notes were sounded at an afternoon session on countering BDS on social media, as several hundred delegates contemplated battling BDS on the battleground of “digital warfare.”
Leading off the discussion was Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “We and many other groups have big tsuris,” he said, using the Yiddish word for trouble. “We have a lot of problems ahead of us.”
Pointing to Internet platforms and social media outlets such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, Cooper said they have failed to screen out postings by terrorists. “You have to know we are not the only targets out there. This is a great opportunity for social media activists of all ages to look to create some new opportunities for coalitions in the struggle against hatreds old and new,” he said.
Gilad Skolnick, director of campus programming at the pro-Israel media watchdog group CAMERA, displayed a set of on-line images of anti-Israel propaganda disseminated on social media. Among the examples were captions saying, “The masses are with the Palestinian” and “Even the Jews are against Israel.”
Anti-Israel posters “are telling fictional stories and telling them well,” Skolnick said. “It is the ‘Big Lie.’”
William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy at the Jewish Federations of North America, said it was urgent that pro-Israel activists on campus “talk to people who can be useful, people like progressives on the Left who are struggling with how to find the right direction through wars and peace.”
“Progressives should know that Israel is a leader on women’s and human rights and union rights and democracy and freedom,” Daroff said.
Danielle Desta, an Israeli woman of color who attended college in California, told the audience she was able to build a bridge between Hillel and the Black Student Union on her campus and that her efforts paid off when the on-campus group Students for Justice in Palestine attempted to enlist African-Americans in their cause.
“I am happy to say that the Black Student Union refused to endorse the Palestinian cause…,” said Desta. “That should be a wake-up call for all of us.”
The emotional high point of the afternoon was when a man raised as a Muslim in Kuwait and schooled in an intensely anti-Israel environment told the group about his discovery that one of his grandmothers was born Jewish.
Mark Halawa, now an observant Jew and resident of Jerusalem, said, “Ladies and gentleman, I was robbed of my childhood. I was taught to hate.”
As a youngster, he said, he never learned about six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust “just because they were Jewish. I realized I, too, would have been sent to a death camp.”
When he visited Israel, Halawa said, he “saw people of all backgrounds, Arabs and Jews living together, happy and proud,” with Arabs treated as “full citizens” who worked as police officers, doctors, store owners, and “even members of the Knesset.”
Unhappy with the way Arab-language television and newspapers in the Middle East reported terrorist attacks and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he began using social media to offer commentary on the issue in Arabic from a pro-Israeli point of view.
He said he is trying to reach a younger generation of Arabs who are uncomfortable with radical Islam and wish to embrace Western cultural values and democratic principles. “The truth can no longer be disputed,” he said. “The new media is our alternative.”
Hal Crane, a Morganville resident who attended the gathering, told NJJN in an e-mail that “the conference was a major success. To have so many supporters of Israel gathered in the place which has been at the forefront of fostering anti-Semitism and anti-Israel actions, the United Nations, is a rebuke to those who hate us.”
He added that supporters of Israel are “making gains” but “opposition to Israel is extremely well-funded, and it is not easy to erase the blind hatred.”