Israel mulls new strategy on muzzling its critics
Jerusalem conference will discuss ways of thwarting campaigns urging a boycott of Israel.
Israel’s foreign ministry is preparing to hold the fourth international conference of the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, a gathering that has served as an important focus for efforts to fight Palestine solidarity activism and boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns.
Meeting in Jerusalem between 28 and 30 May, the conference is officially hosted by Zeev Elkin, the deputy foreign minister who is currently standing in for Avigdor Lieberman, while the latter’s trial for fraud continues. The Global Forum was established in 2000, with international conferences in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Those coming from around the world to participate in this month’s conference will be attending an “anti-racist” meeting being run by a government guilty of institutional discrimination and apartheid. In fact, Elkin is himself a settler, opposed to a Palestinian state and a supporter of anti-boycott legislation.
It is evident from the conference’s official agenda and “working group mission statements” that this year, as on previous occasions, delegates will have Palestine solidarity activists in their sights.
The 2007 conference ran working groups on “academic and economic boycotts: pre-emptive strategies” as well as “means of response to hostile faculty and student bodies.” In 2009, the conference ran a working group intended to “come up with imaginative, effective and successful solutions to counter this evil [of BDS],” with participants coming from a variety of Jewish communal organizations and hasbara groups. (Hasbara is the Hebrew term for “explaining” but has become synonymous with Israeli propaganda.) Topics discussed included a “five-year plan” involving the implementation of “legislative prohibitions vs. BDS,” taking into account “different legal traditions.”
This year’s gathering is no different, with three working groups of particular interest for anti-apartheid campaigners. The first is “the working group on the guise of delegitimization and anti-Zionism,” whose goal is “to identify… new legal, political, economic and other strategies [that] can be employed to pre-empt and defeat these campaigns” such as “changing the law to sentence boycott activists.”
Aside from a commitment to further “lawfare” strategies — challenging Palestine solidarity campaigns in court — this group also aims to “improve communication and intelligence about the delegitimizers” and “identify offensive steps that can be taken … to help create a more positive image of Israel.”
Another task force of interest is the “working group on law, legislation and enforcement in combating anti-Semitism,” which notes the role of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act in the US context, and that “anti-Israel demonstrations on campuses … have not been banned and create a hostile atmosphere for Jewish students.”
A goal for the group is to discuss “the feasibility of implementing the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights’ working definition of anti-Semitism in university campuses,” and “recommend [its] adoption … within university campuses and law enforcement agencies.” (The EU “definition” — never formally endorsed by the Union — was drawn up by pro-Israel lobbyists and deliberately conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.)
Finally, a third working group is dedicated to “anti-Semitism on campus and education for tolerance and mutual respect.” The preamble talks about college campuses having become “increasingly hostile to Jewish students and scholars,” when in fact, what they are referring to is “Israel [being] increasingly delegitimized and demonized on campus.”
The explanation for this state of affairs includes “the impact of funding, and potential funding, from Gulf states to academic institutions in the West” and, in the case of France and Belgium, “a convergence between brown, green and red ideologies.”
“Prosecutor not victims”
The group explains that hasbara efforts by “most pro-Israel organizations, including diplomatic representatives” have been focused on countering “the negative campaign against Israel with a strategy of positive messaging about Israel, unrelated to the conflict.” This is a reference to the “Brand Israel” project, which aims to distract from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by depicting Israel as liberal and sophisticated.
But “Brand Israel” is deemed to be insufficient. There is a need for “a new effective strategy to confront the demonization of Israel” that “put[s] the focus on Israel’s detractors, rather than on Israel itself,” according to a preparatory document. The group proposes using “the language of human rights” as “prosecutors not as victims.”
Other suggestions include “research … to discern the group or groups that may be funding, directing, influencing and/or manipulating anti-Israel agitation,” and “critical studies of Palestinian society, and other Middle Eastern societies, its politics and culture for developing a new symbolical weapon in this struggle.”
Overall, the tone of these working groups suggests that years of successes for BDS campaigns have increased the desperation of the Israel lobby, boosting support for “offensive” lawfare-based tactics, alongside “positive” hasbara. Ironically, given that the conference is hosted by a settler, delegates forget that colonialism and state-sanctioned racism are what continue to “delegitimize” Israel.