WASHINGTON — Over the course of the three-day AIPAC conference in Washington, politicians delivered speeches overwhelmed by audience skepticism over the Obama administration’s Iran deal and what the White House’s Middle East peace process framework might look like in the end.
But one issue that took on a new life coming into the annual convention proved to be the glue that brought politics and the 14,000 AIPACers together: the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns.
Like the fizzy fruits of a SodaStream, BDS bubbled to the top of the one-liners that consistently brought the crowd to its feet and helped some political figures during addresses that were otherwise on shaky ground.
On Monday, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed with “every fiber of my being” to keep Iran from getting a nuke, stressing “we must keep tough sanctions in place until Iran agrees to give up nuclear weapons.”
He encouraged the crowd to look on the bright side of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations, though, claiming “whatever you think of President Obama on other issues, it cannot be disputed” that he made sanctions have enough teeth to get Iran to the negotiating table and lined up partners to accomplish this task.
Schumer didn’t bring down the house until he stressed the anti-Semitic roots of the BDS movements.
“It is very suspicious that those who promote boycotting Israel do not seek boycotts against any other nations in the world, particularly those nations in the Middle East whose human rights records include hanging dissenters from cranes in city squares and imprisoning and torturing critics of the government,” the senator said. “I believe that those who call for boycotts of Israel without calling for boycotts of other neighboring nations whose human rights records are in fact reprehensible are practicing, whether they know it or not, whether they admit it or not, a modern form of what we call anti-Semitism.”
“We will succeed if we strongly and constantly oppose those who call for boycotts of Israel and expose their double standard,” he said.
Without mentioning Obama and Kerry by name, Schumer got in a dig at both men, who have dropped controversial comments in recent weeks about Israel needing to accept a deal soon lest the boycotts start to really gather steam.
“Those who even with the best of intentions warn Israel that she must make agreements she feels unjust because the boycotting will only get worse in the future, those people have it all wrong,” Schumer said. “Those quote-unquote friends should be condemning the boycotts in every possible way and weakening them.”
While trying to sell the AIPAC crowd on a deal with the Palestinians that could be modeled after the Arab peace initiative, Kerry said the Jewish state could reap economic benefits from signing a peace agreement.
“And I believe that we need to stand together with a single voice to reject any of the arbitrary, unwarranted boycotts of Israel. For more than 30 years, I have staunchly, loudly, unapologetically opposed boycotts of Israel, and I will continue to oppose those boycotts of Israel. That will never change,” he said to loud applause.
Kerry got in hot water with the Anti-Defamation League and other groups, as well as the Israeli government, earlier this year for remarks he made at the Munich Security Conference urging Israel to sign a deal soon or face potential repercussions.
“You see, for Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up,” Kerry said. “People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?”
Fittingly, the most forceful beatdown of the BDS concept came from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the final speaker of the conference on Tuesday morning.
His speech struck several familiar notes on the dangers of Iran — he even quipped about his red-line bomb drawing at the United Nations — and opened with a reminder that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of the Jewish state.
Netanyahu had especially strong words, though, for the movement “that’s definitely on the wrong side of the moral divide.”
He stressed that the campaigns attempting to steer business away from Israel were also on the losing side of the financial divide.
“Beyond our traditional trading partners, countries throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America, where I’ll soon be going to, these countries are flocking to Israel. They’re not coming to Israel, they’re flocking to Israel. They want Israeli technology to help transform their countries, as it has ours,” Netanyahu said. “And it’s not just the small countries that are coming to Israel. It’s also the superpowers — you know, the other superpowers, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Facebook, Yahoo — they come because they want to benefit from Israel’s unique ingenuity, dynamism and innovation.”
“And I can tell you the BDS boycott movement is not going to stop that, any more than the Arab boycott movement could stop Israel from becoming a global technological power. They are going to fail,” he added.
Still, the prime minister continued, people shouldn’t get complacent and should continue to vigorously oppose the movements.
“Most people in the BDS movement don’t seek a solution of two states for two peoples. On the contrary, they openly admit that they seek the dissolution of the only state for the Jewish people! They’re not seeking peace. They’re not seeking reconciliation. But some of their gullible fellow travelers actually do believe that BDS advances peace. Well, the opposite is true. BDS sets back peace because it hardens Palestinian positions and it makes mutual compromise less likely,” Netanyahu said.
“…BDS is morally wrong. It turns morality on its head. This is the main point. And I can tell you, it’s not that Israel, like all states, is not beyond criticism. We have a boisterous democracy, where everyone has an opinion. And believe me, no one in Israel is shy about expressing it, about anything. In Israel, self-criticism is on steroids!”
The BDS movement, he said, is not about legitimate criticism but making Israel illegitimate, presenting “a distorted and implicit picture of Israel to the naive and to the ignorant.”
“BDS is nothing but a farce. Here’s why. Listen. In dozens of countries, academics are imprisoned for their beliefs. So the universities of which country does BDS want to sanction and boycott? Israel, the one country in the Middle East where professors can say, write and teach what they want. Throughout the Middle East, Christians are fleeing for their lives. So which country does BDS want churches to divest from? You got it, Israel, the one country in the Middle East that protects Christians and protects the right of worship for everyone. Throughout the Middle East, journalists are jailed, gays are hanged and women are denied their most basic rights. So which country does BDS want to sanction? Take a guess. Israel, the only country in the region with a free press, a progressive gay rights record, and where women have presided over each of the three branches of government,” the prime minister said.
“Now, when you hear this — and anybody can verify this — so you have to wonder, how could anyone fall for the B.S. in BDS?”
Netanyahu tied the movement to the history of blood libel, when “people believed the most outrageously absurd things about the Jews, that we were using the blood of children to bake matzohs, we’re spreading the plague throughout Europe, that we were plotting to take over the world.”
“Yes, but you can say, how can educated people, how could educated people today believe the nonsense spewed by BDS about Israel? Well, that shouldn’t surprise you, either. Some of history’s most influential thinkers and writers — Voltaire, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, and many, many others — spread the most preposterous lies about the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s hard to shed prejudices that have been ingrained in consciousness over millennia. And from antiquity to the Middle Ages to modern times, Jews were boycotted, discriminated against and singled out. Today, the singling out of the Jewish people has turned into the singling out of the Jewish state.”
“So you see, attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapters in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism. Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned! The boycotters should be boycotted! Everyone should know what the letters BDS really stand for — bigotry, dishonesty and shame!”
Netanyahu gave a shout out to SodaStream spokes-star Scarlett Johansson, who quit her role as an Oxfam ambassador over the boycott controversy.
“Scarlett, I have one thing to say to you. Frankly, my dear, I do give a damn! And I know all of you give a damn, as do decent people everywhere who reject hypocrisy and lies and cherish integrity and truth,” he said.
BDS activists vowed last month to take aim at Congress after Reps. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.) and Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) introduced a bill to block some federal funds from educational institutions that boycott Israeli academic institutions or scholars.
“It is ludicrous for critics to go after our democratic friend and ally Israel when they should be focusing on the evils perpetrated by repressive, authoritarian regimes like Iran and North Korea,” Roskam, co-chairman of the House Republican Israel Caucus, said at the bill’s introduction. “…Congress has a responsibility to fight back against these hateful campaigns, which contradict academic freedom and are designed to delegitimize the Jewish State of Israel.”
“The boycott of U.S.-Israeli academic exchanges proposed by the American Studies Association and Association of Asian American Studies would lead to negative effects on educational and research institutions in both nations,” said Lipinski, a former professor.
The U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which called the American Studies Association 2-1 vote a “watershed victory” for BDS campaigns, called the bill “Orwellian.”
“Make no mistake: the Israel lobby is so fearful of the BDS movement that it is trying to mobilize its allies in Congress to stop it,” said advocacy director Josh Ruebner.