Last Sunday I attended an even at Kol Shofar in Tiburon as part of their “Bridges to Israel” series. It was a panel discussion about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) effort aimed at Israel. The panelists were Andy David, the Israeli Counsel General to the Pacific Northwest; Eran Kaplan, Professor in Israel Studies at San Francisco State University; and California State Assembly Member Marc Levine.
This conversation was especially timely, after the Presbyterian Church voted last Friday to divest from three companies because they do business with Israel.
Professor Kaplan started off with a history of the BDS movement, going back to the formation of Israel. He explained the leaders of the movement support the “right of return” of the descendants of Palestinians who used to live there, and the elimination of the Jewish character of the state. He also went on to clarify that some others have joined the BDS movement who don’t take a position on the right of return, but who wish to put pressure on Israel to change some of its policies.
He also said the BDS movement hasn’t had much of an impact on students. For example, he said 90% of the students in the classes he teaches about the Middle East, and who are presumably more interested in that region than the general student population, had never even heard of BDS. He said he has refused invitations to debate supporters of BDS, because to do so would lend them unearned legitimacy.
Mr. David agreed that the BDS movement includes two types of people. First, there are those who honestly believe in changing the policies of Israel by applying economic pressure, and second, those who are involved in a smear campaign. He described some of the lies supporters of BDS espoused at a recent event he attended.
He said the Presbyterian Church holds a meeting every two years at which, since 2004, a BDS resolution has been proposed. He said Israel has been working with friends within the church for the last ten years. He suspects the resolution may have passed this year because of the number of Israel supporters who have left the church over time due to their dissatisfaction with the church on this issue.
He pointed out that many of the church commissioners who voted on the resolution have never seen an Israeli or been to Israel. They voted for the resolution despite the facts that were presented to them by friends of Israel, including a photo of Israeli-owned Caterpillar equipment (Caterpillar is one of the companies from which the church voted to divest) removing land mines from a Palestinian village in Jordan.
He said, however, that the relationship between the US and Israel has never been stronger.
Assemblyman Levine spoke about the newly-formed Jewish caucus in the state legislature, and the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed between Governor Brown and Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding cyber security, water, and bio technology. He said that despite BDS efforts, support for Israel in the California legislature and the California business community is as strong as it has ever been.
He said, however, that a survey of Jewish University of California students shows they are feeling hostility directed toward them, leading to feelings of isolation, and that actions need to be taken to reverse that trend.
Considering Marin County’s reputation as a left-leaning area of the state, I was surprised when none of the people who lined up to ask questions of the panel seemed to be in support of BDS. Although concern was expressed by audience members and panelists for the well-being of the Palestinian people, everyone seemed to understand that BDS would not help them. Which, I suppose, should not have been a surprise, since even Palestinian Authority President Abbas doesn’t support a general boycott of Israel.