UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Over 1,500 students filled the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday for a conference sponsored by the Israeli mission on how best to combat a movement on many U.S. campuses calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians.
Taking place in the same hall where 40 years ago 72 nations voted to equate Zionism with racism, Israel's Ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon called the conference an "historic" event. Separately, Palestinian Ambassador Riyad Mansour dismissed the conference as "no big deal."
The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) seeks to ostracize Israel by lobbying corporations, artists and academic institutions to sever ties with the Jewish state. Supporters say the boycott is aimed at furthering Palestinian independence, and they have modeled their efforts on an earlier campaign against Apartheid South Africa. Critics say the campaign is aimed at delegitimizing Israel itself.
"BDS is not about helping the Palestinians or bringing peace. Their only goal is to bring an end to the Jewish state. This is the reality and we won't be afraid to say it out loud, everywhere. BDS is the true face of modern anti-Semitism," Danon said in his opening remarks.
Danon cited a recent resolution passed by the Human Rights Council that calls on the U.N. human rights chief to set up a database of businesses operating in settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights as evidence that BDS movement had spread beyond college campuses.
"With this disgraceful resolution the U.N. crossed a red line. Can you imagine that seventy years after the holocaust the U.N. is creating lists to encourage the boycott of Jewish companies? This is exactly the kind of hatred that the U.N. was founded to eradicate," Danon said.
The conference entitled "Build Bridges Not Boycotts," united members of Jewish organizations, business people and academics to discuss strategies aimed at countering the narratives of the BDS movement. It also featured a performance by Jewish-American reggae singer Matisyahu, who had a concert in Spain cancelled over pressure from a local branch of the BDS movement. The festival later welcomed him back amid a barrage of criticism.
Gilad Skolnick, director of campus programming for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, said that of the 26 U.S. college campuses that voted on BDS resolutions last year, 12 were approved and 14 were rejected.
"So while it is a problem, BDS is often times a symptom of hatreds and anti-Semitism that starts on campus so CAMERA's strategy is to set up before that happens so that it doesn't become an issue," Skolnick said.
Daniel Birnbaum, CEO of SodaStream International Ltd, whose factory in a West Bank was forced to close after it was targeted by the boycott, urged the students to do all they can to fight the movement but he added that wouldn't be enough.
"At the same time we do that, give a chance to the bridge that's the name of this conference," he said. "Build trust and the only way to build trust is to get to know them as human beings, not as Palestinians, as terrorists. Find a Palestinian friend.
There were even a couple of Palestinians on hand to address the students.
Mosab Hassan Yousef, who worked undercover for Israeli intelligence between 1997 and 2007, and Bassam Eid, founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, voiced messages critical of the Palestinian leadership that were greeted by applause from the students.
In a telephone interview, Mansour, the Palestinian ambassador, dismissed the conference as "an admission by the Israeli leadership that they're losing ground at American universities and colleges to BDS."
He added that BDS is not on the agenda of the U.N.
"Is (Danon) suggesting to bring it to the agenda of the U.N? If he is, bring it on," Mansour said.