10:33 GMT20 January 2021
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    After US President Donald Trump signed an executive order promising to withhold federal funds from colleges that discriminate against Jews or refrain from tackling anti-Semitic sentiments, many in Israel sighed with relief.

    Danny Ayalon, who served as Israel's ambassador to the US between 2002 to 2006, was one of them. "Apart from being symbolic, the decree has practical implications too as it sends a clear message to the various pro-Palestinian groups [that disseminate anti-Israel tropes and that support BDS] that Israel is no longer an easy prey", he said over the phone. 

    In 2017, the US government gave some $40 billion to public and private colleges for research and development, so taking those funds away could be a blow for many universities relying on the federal budget.

    A Tough Nut to Crack

    Yet, enforcing the decision promises to be a tough task, primarily because the BDS (Boycott, Divesting and Sanctions) movement in the US is a well-oiled, well-funded and a well-organised machine, believes the former ambassador.

    BDS first appeared on the scene in 1950, after Israel won the War of Independence, with Arab countries vowing to boycott and consequently destroy Israel. The modern movement appeared much later, in 2005 when several US colleges tried to link Israeli policies with the practice of racial segregation in South Africa.

    By making that comparison, BDS proponents hoped they would be able to convince US citizens to adopt the same type of boycott and sanctions campaign that eventually led to the collapse of the South African apartheid regime.

    Since then, anti-Israel demonstrations, boycotts of Israeli speakers, and pro-Israel professors, as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks on US campuses, have become a common sight.

    A Pro-Palestinian Gaza Beach protestor holds a placard reading BDS (Boycotts, divestment and sanctions) during a gathering on the sidelines of Tel Aviv Sur Seine (File)
    A Pro-Palestinian "Gaza Beach" protestor holds a placard reading "BDS (Boycotts, divestment and sanctions) during a gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine" (File)

    According to the AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organisation that documents anti-Semitic activity on hundreds of US campuses, 2018 saw an increase of 70 percent in Israel-related harassment on campuses, rising from 71 incidents in 2017 to 121 the following year. Similarly, expressions demonising and delegitimising Israel have increased by 32 percent, while expressions promoting terrorism against the Jewish state went up by 67 percent, the study found.

    "Campuses make fertile ground for the various BDS groups because they contain young people who are more prone to radicalisation than the older generation. But this is also where future leaders are made. It will be them who will shape America's public opinion", Ayalon explained.

    While Israel has the means to defend itself militarily, economically and technologically, the former diplomat thinks Israel is still vulnerable when it comes to public diplomacy, "and this is exactly where pro-Palestinian movements attack us", said Ayalon, adding that despite efforts the movement has still failed to hamper US-Israel relations on a governmental level.

    Quite the opposite: US-Israel relations have continued to flourish. On the economic level, total trade reached $50 billion in 2018, making the US Israel's second-largest trading partner after the EU, while in the political arena Washington has not only recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its embassy to the disputed city, but also acknowledged that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank were no longer illegal.

    Tides Can be Changed

    Combatting BDS is not a lost battle, says Ayalon, who created a website Truth About Israel that aims at advocating for the Jewish state by putting up short explanatory clips about history, politics, and the country's security.

    "This was our answer to BDS groups that brainwashed people on campuses. We wanted to catch those people before they actually got there", he explained. 

    But his website was not the only one, created to resist BDS. In 2017 alone, Israel invested some $57 million into the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, responsible for promoting and explaining Israel's stance to the world and combatting various BDS groups. Yet, with the country currently crippled by another general vote, expected as early as March, budgets to the ministry, as well as other governmental offices, remain frozen.

    © AP Photo / Ariel Schalit
    A Palestinian man works on a farm near Bardala, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election eve vow to annex the Jordan Valley if he is re-elected has sparked an angry Arab rebuke and injected the Palestinians into a campaign that had almost entirely ignored them. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

    Fighting BDS is not only a job for Israel, believes Ayalon. For the battle to be successful, the country should join forces with NGOs and governments "and this is where decrees like the one President Trump has just signed is crucial", stressed the former diplomat.

    "If Israel doesn't fight those groups in the US, we will end up having the same situation like in Europe, where BDS groups are winning", Ayalon explained.

    The former ambassador believes that forty years ago Europe was on good terms with Israel. Now, however, the situation is different primarily because some elements in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who were responsible for fighting Israel's battle in Europe, dismissed the threat of BDS, letting them flourish under the nose of Israel's embassies.

    "For forty years these groups have been working hard on campuses, city councils and labour organisations explaining why boycotting Israel was crucial. After it succeeded in Europe, pro-Palestinian groups were trying to import the same strategy to the US", he explained.

    But that won't be easy. "Although the situation has deteriorated from the time I was in there, I believe the US is much more aware now [of the anti-Semitism that's lifting its head], and as such, it is easier to fight this problem", he concluded.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

    Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Anti-BDS, BDS, Israel, antisemitism, jews
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