BDS: To protest or not to protest?

Protests are not the answer


THERE is a cryptic Hebrew expression which conveys a great deal in two words – derech eretz.

Translated as “the way of the land”, it derives from Ethics of The Fathers and means one should deal wisely with one’s neighbours and be judicious in the way one conducts one’s business. And there is an English expression, less cryptic but equally compelling: “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”

Believed to have originated in West Africa, it gained currency after Theodore Roosevelt, as governor of New York, used it in 1900. He believed it important to negotiate foreign policy in a moderate tone while retaining the option of more direct methods of engagement. He used the aphorism as a guiding principle as president of the USA.

Taken separately and together, these twin gems encapsulate the approach of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies when advocating on behalf of the community.

The Board of Deputies handles as core business a vast range of issues. We work with state government and media, we build bridges to faith and ethnic groups, we engage with civil society, we respond to attacks on the community and we strive to generate understanding of Israel. We are also active in combating attacks on Israel, and it is in this arena where opinions differ as to effective responses.

One of the most pressing issues to preoccupy the Jewish world is the global campaign to delegitimise Israel. BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – is the sharp end of a drive to destroy Israel itself.

It is important for the community to be aware that our response to BDS forms part of a coordinated national strategy. Furthermore, this strategy is endorsed by counterparts abroad and Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

That response has included, but is not limited to, engagement with civil society and politicians, patronage of boycotted outlets, cooperation with police, shop owners and centre managers, and exposure of the motives behind the BDS movement.

Significantly, no counter-demonstrations.

Police, shop owners and centre managers emphatically oppose counter-demonstrations, and for good reason: they play into the hands of BDS demonstrators and they resonate negatively with the public, which detests the import of foreign conflicts onto the streets of Australia – into “my backyard”.

Taking to the streets with Israeli flags around our shoulders and waving posters might make us feel good about ourselves for a fleeting moment, but it is counterproductive.

No-one absorbs the message on the posters, counter-demonstrators become subsumed in the public eye with demonstrators, the confrontation buys publicity for BDS, and the ultimate response is “a plague on both your houses”.

It comes down to derech eretz and the need to speak softly – with a suggestion of a big stick. We owe it to our neighbours and ourselves to manage our affairs with dignity and respect. We retain the option of more direct methods of engagement, but we invoke them selectively and judiciously. It’s not only about being right, it’s about being smart.

Vic Alhadeff is chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

The community can’t sit idly by

BARBARIANS are once again on the march. A motley coalition of far-left socialists and far-right jihadists is shutting down Zionist businesses through violent protest. Apparently, boycotting Jews has become the new cause célèbre among Melbourne’s radical fringe.

So when I learned that the Max Brenner chocolate shop in the CBD’s Queen Victoria Centre was on the target list, I felt obligated to do something. Maybe I’m just naturally feisty, but I wasn’t about to let these latter-day vandals do their worst without me trying to do my best.

So I downloaded a photo of a storm trooper standing in front of a shop bearing a sign “don’t buy from Jews”. I affixed a caption that read “Boycotting Jewish Businesses: Berlin 1933 – Melbourne 2011”. I then trotted down to the nearest Officeworks and blew it up to placard size.

I invited a few friends to join me in this informal counter-demonstration. The plan was to take up positions opposite the leftie/jihadi rabble and show our contempt in a silent, peaceful, Martin Luther King-esque manner. I made all participants take a vow of absolute nonviolence. No response to any provocation would be allowed. And most importantly, I organised for a video camera to be present.

The ultimate object of the exercise was to document the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) in all its vicious, anti-Semitic ingloriousness and then to post the footage online. After all, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

But then the story got complicated.

I received a call from a friend who works in the Victoria Police Security Intelligence Unit asking me to stand down.

It turns out he had information that the BDS rabble intended to provoke a violent incident. And naturally, the police didn’t want us caught up in the middle of what they expected – and what actually turned out – to be a small riot.

Fair enough. I assented to this police request. So we frustrated counter-protestors retired to the nearby Max Brenner in Melbourne Central to express our support through our hip pocket. And I’m happy to report that the hot chocolate was indeed delicious.

But therein lies the dilemma. We certainly don’t want to complicate the work of the police. But on the other hand, we don’t want to sit supinely by without challenging these new barbarians on their own terms. The argument that we should starve the protests of public relations oxygen doesn’t really cut it with me. The boycott of Max Brenner and other Jewish businesses promises to be a fixture of radical activity in the foreseeable future. The “ignore them and they’ll go away” thesis of dealing with this problem obviously isn’t going to work.

So the challenge to the community is to figure out a way of responding to the BDS actions in a way that doesn’t interfere with the police. And anything that can generate video evidence of the boycott mob’s inherent barbarism is an added public relations bonus.

I’m open to suggestions.

Ted Lapkin is a political analyst