Now, more than ever, it is crucial that our community embrace the most effective way to counter the toxic boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. The exponential growth of bilateral ties between Canada and Israel over the past decade, which have occurred under a number of provincial and federal governments culminating in Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s recent and exceptionally successful trade mission to Israel, strongly suggest that the best way to build support for Israel in Canada is to deepen economic, cultural, and academic ties between the two democracies.
An effective strategy begins with understanding the true objective of BDS, for which it is worth looking at the experience of German Jews targeted by the Nazi boycott of 1933. Scholars note that the boycott had very limited economic effect but significant psychological impact. While many Germans continued to buy from Jewish businesses, the boycott spurred debate throughout Germany about the place of Jews in society. It in turn engaged the entire country in a national conversation, fuelled by vitriolic Nazi propaganda, which was a pivotal step on the road to dehumanizing Jews.
Without suggesting a direct parallel to the modern (and markedly different) BDS movement, there are lessons that should be drawn from the pre-war German experience. It is clear that the true threat of BDS is psychological rather than economic. Certainly here in Canada (as elsewhere), we are seeing a deepening of the bilateral relationship with Israel across a broad range of sectors. The economic impact of the movement remains negligible. So what are the real objectives of BDS?
BDS activists openly talk of a strategy to de-normalize relations between Zionists and the rest of civil society, in effect isolating Israelis and – by extension – supporters of the Jewish State around the world. Victory for the BDS movement is not measured in economic impact but in the psychological damage inflicted on Israelis and supporters of Israel.
In combating this dangerous dynamic, we must differentiate between symbolic gestures and meaningful actions with far-reaching strategic value. This is why Wynne’s trade mission is so important. Within days after arriving in Tel Aviv with a provincial delegation of business and academic leaders, the premier announced more than $120 million in new agreements between institutions in Ontario and Israel. This includes partnerships with Israeli universities signed by York and McMaster universities, both of which have been targeted by BDS activists.
These initiatives are a powerful testament to the benefits Canadians accrue in the Canada-Israel relationship. It is ultimately on this basis and through this prism, rather than any ideological commitment to Zionism or opposition to BDS, that most Canadians’ view of the Jewish state will be formed. This experience also suggests three key lessons that should inform a strategic response to BDS.
First, we must be energetic and proactive in increasing positive transactions between Canadians and Israelis. Every interaction and partnership humanizes Israelis and promotes Israel’s contributions to the world. Moreover, a strategy centred on tangible co-operation – rather than one relying solely on conventional hasbarah techniques – has proven infinitely more effective in cementing relationships and generating non-Jewish allies in the fight against BDS.
Just as the Zionist movement a century ago engaged in advocacy while building the Jewish state from the ground up, Zionists today will not be successful if we focus solely on argument or rhetoric. We must build the economic, academic, and civil society partnerships between Canada and Israel that will serve to benefit Canadians, while providing a growing safety net for Israelis targeted by BDS.
Second, we must refuse to allow Israel to be clouded by a haze of controversy and defined as a state under siege. While we should not be shy to expose the discrimination and anti-Semitism inherent in the BDS movement, we must be strategic in how we do so. Raising the topic of BDS at moments and in forums in which it is not a real threat provides our adversaries undue profile. It also introduces untold numbers of Canadians – many of whom are motivated by good, though misguided, intentions – to the idea of boycotting Israel.
Doing so is a gift to our adversaries, who want nothing more than for our community to raise the profile of the BDS movement and restrict discussion about Israel to the conflict. They know that back-and-forth debates alienate most Canadians and detract from the real story of Israel: its remarkable values, discoveries, and contributions that attract interest, generate investment, and cultivate pro-Israel support around the world.
Third, we must recognize that how we advocate ultimately sends a message about the nature of Israel and the Jewish community. By emphasizing similarities between Canadians and Israelis and the dynamic nature of Israeli society, commerce and culture in Israel, we connect with segments of Canadian society otherwise uninterested in the Middle East, and we have a broad, unifying impact on Canadians of various political stripes.
In contrast, employing aggressive tactics, using ideological language, and attempting to out-shout Israel’s detractors is counter-productive because that approach emphasizes conflict and distracts attention from Israeli contributions. Worse, those who engage in tactics that reasonable observers would see as an effort to silence Israel’s critics risk turning BDS activists into free speech martyrs. Such moves have the potential to turn an otherwise fringe movement into the figurehead of a national conversation on censorship, with Jews cast in the role of censor.
Our community is right to be concerned about the BDS movement and its toxic agenda, particularly with the alarming rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. It is imperative that we make sure the European experience is not replicated in Canada and that BDS remain relegated to the margins of society. To do so, we must ensure that our efforts to do good are not undermined by our understandable desire to feel good. This can only be accomplished if our community maintains a laser focus on achieving results and avoids taking actions that are ineffective, empty, or merely symbolic.
Shimon Koffler Fogel is the CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.