Israel has many American partners fighting side by side with it in the trenches against BDS; but in Europe, where the Jewish communities are smaller, finding fellow brothers in arms is more difficult.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry, headed by Minister Gilad Erdan, is working to boost those Jewish communities and help them answer this critical question: How do you go head-to-head with an organization that purports to care only about human rights, but in actuality has ties to terrorist groups, spreads antisemitism and castigates Israel as a pariah state?
A battle against the new face of antisemitism
Pascal Markowicz, head of CRIF’s legal task force against BDS: “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France is mostly an economic problem,” Markowicz, who specializes in BDS matters, said. “It’s a problem that mostly manifests itself in supermarkets where a glaring sticker saying ‘made in Israeli settlements’ appears on products. It is a result of the EU’s decision to implement labeling products made in the West Bank and the Golan Heights that went into effect in 2015.”
France is the first country in the EU to enact this measure.
However, due to a law instituted in France, the Lellouche law, activists like Markowicz are fighting back in court.
Passed in 2003, the law is named after Pierre Lellouche, the Jewish politician who spearheaded it. The law’s anti-discriminatory measures have virtually annihilated the BDS activists who dare challenge it.
“It is a unique law in the world. It prevents people from boycotting not only Israel, but Iran and America too. The law says it’s forbidden to boycott someone [because they belong] to a race or a nation,” he explained.
“In judicial matters, we’ve won a lot and had success,” he admits. “A lot of people think antisemitism is not the same as fighting against BDS; they think BDS is a good thing because it’s freedom of speech. In court, I say this is not true. This is discrimination by law.”
This success, in Markowicz’s view, indicates that the French government doesn’t support BDS.
“This is very important,” he asserts, adding former French prime minister Manuel Valls’s proclamation four years ago that “anti-Zionism is new antisemitism” backs that claim.
It seems that France’s new leader agrees. As recently as July 16, President Emmanuel Macron uttered very similar words at a Holocaust memorial event with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying: “We will never surrender to the messages of hate; we will not surrender to anti-Zionism, because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.”
In Markowicz’s view, Israel’s real problem in France is not BDS, but branding and a lack of understanding.
“It’s not a problem of hasbara [public diplomacy], but of communication. In France and in the majority of countries in Europe, they think the land is occupied by Israel. We have to use good terms to demonstrate that this is not a legal occupation,” he said.
The uphill battle against institutional discrimination
Angel Mas, president of ACOM, a Spanish pro-Israel lobbying group: If BDS is an economic problem in France, in Spain, it is an institution. “It began as a cultural and academic [movement] then became institutional, which is unique,” Mas explained.
With support from far-Left parties, some 70 local municipalities have attempted to jump on the pro-BDS bandwagon in the country by passing resolutions favorable to the movement. ACOM is dedicated to getting courts to strike each of them down one by one.
“In their short list of priorities, BDS is at the top of that,” he said, referring to Spain’s far-Left parties like Podemos. “For these guys it’s the top five [in a list of priorities].”
It would be somewhat comforting if these BDS activists were on the fringe, but according to Mas, their influence is felt in many major cities across Spain. As such, city councils in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville have all grappled with pro-BDS legislation.
“This is an existential threat. This is not about Israel and Spain, it’s about normal Jewish life and Spain,” he lamented. “If we are allies and friends, Spain can’t promote activities hostile to the Jewish state, and that’s what’s happening.”
ACOM hopes to unmask these laws as “declarations masquerading as human rights concerns,” he said. The organization has assembled a group of lawyers who appeal against these BDS resolutions in court, arguing that they are a form of discrimination.
Like in France, so far their work has been met with resounding success. “Each court declared that these BDS resolutions were unconstitutional because they breached a number of constitutional principles,” he explained.
Just last week, in the Galicia and Valencia regions (northern and eastern parts of the country, respectively), two administrative courts repealed BDS motions that passed last year.
For Mas, the big win here is that BDS activists now have to “think twice” before proposing an anti-Israel resolution in court, as even their own legal counsel advises them that they are likely to lose.
The onus on improving ties between Israel and Europe, though, should be on the latter party. “I’m much more ashamed about what we as Europeans should be doing differently,” he said.
“The narrative is perverted,” he said bluntly, saying words like “occupation” and “settlements” are not conducive to either solving the conflict or improving relations with Israel.
However, Mas is optimistic about the future of Israeli-Spanish relations.
“We have a number of people who are finding for the first time that our values and interests are common; Europeans are feeling more sympathetic [to Israel] than ever before.”
Europe down, but not out for the count in the global sphere
David Siegel, CEO of the European Leadership Network (ELNET)-Israel: Given Europe’s many crises – terrorism, refugees and Brexit to name a few – its critics are quick to discount the region’s influence, but Siegel argues that Europe is still very relevant.
“It is important to understand that Europe, despite everything we hear, remains an important part of the world,” he said. He points to strong international bodies and groups like the G7 and the P5+1 team that negotiated the historic Iran deal as evidence of Europe’s strong influence worldwide.
It is an influence, in Siegel’s opinion, that Israel should still try to court.
The European-Israeli relationship is one of many challenges and opportunities, he said, which is why his organization is dedicated to enriching a connection between Europe and Israel that is based on shared values and interests. The organization, which has four offices in Europe that operate as their own independent NGOs, fosters a network across the region that taps into the highest echelons of its leadership.
He is concerned about a growing trend in the region that seeks to separate Israel and the settlements. It is a development that Siegel fears may translate to a slippery slope leading to an overall boycott of Israel in general.
“We see in this is a big danger. We’re against that, because it can translate to an overall boycott of Israel,” he said.
It is an approach that can appeal to the moderates in Europe and not just the extremists.
“It has more of an appeal. It confuses people. It’s a more pernicious way of calling for an overall boycott of Israel,” he added.
To combat this, ELNET is engaging with leaders across the continent so they can gain a deeper understanding of Israel. Through strategic dialogue and hosting delegations in Israel, Europeans are able to see what makes Israel tick and see that they have much in common with the Jewish state.
Bringing them to Israel is key because many simply have not experienced Israel firsthand. According to Siegel, only 10% of MEPs have visited Israel, while 85% of US congressmen have.
This kind of diplomacy is needed not only on the BDS issue, but on the Iran file, antisemitism and trade as well, he explained.
“[It is essential] to work together in this neighborhood and focus on our shared interests. The more allies and partners we have at the top, the more we’ll have in fighting BDS,” the former diplomat who served as consul-general to the Southwest US, argued.