BDS Breakthrough!

27 May

Having spent a decade and a half getting one food coop to stop selling Israeli ice cream cones (leading to every other coop in the land saying “No” to similar boycotts), getting a handful of student governments to vote for divestment that will never happen, and getting little known academic organizations to pass boycotts they’re too afraid to implement, the BDS “movement” has finally hit pay-dirt.

And not just some rinky-dink boycott or divestment measure, but the Holy Grail of the BDSers – Sanctions (i.e., elected governments taking action due to BDS activity).

The only trouble (for them, anyway) is that those governments have been passing resolutions condemning not Israel but the boycotters.  And if the recent unanimous passage of anti-BDS legislation in Illinois (inspired by and inspiring similar moves in Tennessee, Indiana and New York) is any indication, the Israel-disliking community is about to discover what genuine political momentum looks like.

If you add to these recent state-level initiatives to moves by the US Congress to tie trade with Europe to that continent’s steering clear of BDS blandishments, it seems as though three successful sanctions programs (against Iran, Sudan and now BDS) have all caught fire during 15 years when the boycotters have been struggling to get a spark from their increasingly damp book of matches.

As my regular reader knows, I’ve never been a big fan of government action (from legislators or judges) substituting for local political action when it comes to how to best win BDS battles.  But unlike previous attempts to directly intervene in specific boycott disputes (such as state sanctions directed against the American Studies Association that might have done more harm than good, or lawsuits that always go badly for those that bring them), these recent state and national votes just reflect the fact that elected bodies get to have a say on important political issues (which is actually what we elect them to do).

In fact, the last people who have a right to complain about sanctions legislation targeting BDS are the BDSers themselves who have been tirelessly lobbying local, state and federal government to support their cause for years.  And if they’re going to announce to the world that a one-month flirtation with divestment on the part of a single city (brought about by their behind-the-scenes machinations) is fraught with political meaning, who are they to claim that legislation targeting them – passed in the light of day – is meaningless?

The other thing that puts the Illinois (and similar) votes on the right side of the fine line I tend to draw in these matters is the fact that this legislation is prophylactic vs. punishing.

What I mean by that is that these bills announce to the world that any company engaging in BDS targeting Israel now has to take into account that such a decision requires them to sacrifice something tangible to do so (i.e., doing business in Illinois and – soon – elsewhere).  In other words, companies are still free to embrace the BDS agenda.  But if they choose to go down that path they need to really care about it enough to pay for the privilege, rather than assume that they can take a stance (or, more frequently, strike a pose) cost free.

An unstated assertion in almost every BDS campaign is that it costs nothing for an organization (be it the Presbyterian Church, the city of Somerville or some retirement fund in Scandinavia) to embrace the boycott or divestment cause.  Those of us who have seen divestment battles up close know the cost these organizations will ultimately pay in terms of poisoning civic life.  But when the BDSers show up screaming that everyone has no choice but to do what they say, issues of civic comity rarely get surfaced in time to make a difference.

But now that governments are getting onto the anti-BDS bandwagon, the unstated premise that joining the BDS movement comes with no practical price becomes more and more difficult to support (or keep hidden).

The reason that this is important is that, in many instances, those deciding whether to participate in a boycott or divestment project are looking for a reason to say “No” that avoids having to take sides in (or even fully understand) the fire pit of Middle East politics.

You saw this recently at the Greenstar Food Coop in Ithaca, NY where leaders who may have not had enough knowledge to accept or reject BDS claims were clearly looking for a way to get out of the whole mess the boycotters had gotten them into without seeming to choose between rival partisans.  So when the organization’s attorneys told them that passing a boycott (or even letting a vote go forward) might put Greenstar at odds with New York anti-discrimination law, those leaders were given grounds to tell the BDS cru “No Thanks” without having to adjudicate the Arab-Israeli conflict in the process.

US anti-boycott law (which few people were ever prosecuted under) provided a similar prophylactic for corporations looking to tell the Arab Boycott office in Damascus “I’d love to take your call, but…” followed by “No Thank You.”  And now that sanctions targeting BDS are poised to start running wild across the land (and with Damascus kind of preoccupied these days), these are phrases we can hope the boycotters start hearing even more today than they have since their program began at the turn of the Millennium.

RIP Robert Wistrich

20 May

It is with unmitigated sadness that I must join the chorus of the tearful mourning the passage of Robert Wistrich who died last night in Rome at the age of 70.

Like Barry Rubin, another lion who passed away recently (and far too young), Wistrich was a shocking powerhouse of productivity.

But while Rubin’s staggering output fell into the category of journalism and analysis, Wistrich was first and foremost a scholar.  And in an era when some people bearing that label might spend their careers hocking one book (or one idea taking the form of many books, only one of which ever needed to have been written), Wistrich took on the huge (and – sadly – ever-relevant) topic of anti-Semitism, both dissecting it as a scholar and fighting it as a champion of the Jewish people.

Wistrich’s writing has impacted my thinking for as long as I can remember.  And his recent masterpiece, From Ambivalence to Betrayal (which some of you might recall served as the basis for a five-part review a couple of years back) helped clarify mine (and, I hope, other peoples’) thinking about one of the most vexing political issues of our time: the prominence of anti-Semitism on the Left.

If you share my belief that ideas ultimately have more impact on the world than do mobs of clashing activists (or even armies, navies and air forces), then the body of scholarship Wistrich left behind will be continuing his life’s work for decades to come, hopefully contributing to a world where the phenomenon he studied and wrote about his entire career is no longer needlessly chewing up lives across the planet.

So Rest in Peace, Robert Wistrich, and rest assured that those you inspired and informed are ready to carry on the fight to the end.

BDS Fail at Greenstar Food Coop

14 May

In retrospect, many a BDS failure seems inevitable.  For instance, last night’s decision by the leaders of the Greenstar Food Coop in Ithaca, New York simply continues the 100% failure rate of BDS among food cooperatives (or at least those cooperatives where all members are aware of and allowed to participate in debate on the matter).

But such victories are never really spontaneous.  Rather, they are the result of smart and strong people within a community (like Greenstar) doing the right things at the right time on the ground.  And even if my “BDS is a loser” meme can be legitimately criticized as being overly optimistic with regard to the frailty of the BDS strategy, I’m really more of a pragmatist when it comes to taking on the boycotters.  And the pragmatic maxim that best describes the situation at Greenstar (and elsewhere) is that victory goes to those with the best ground game.

So what’s been going on in Ithaca?

To begin with, the BDSers got their claws into Greenstar using the same techniques we’ve seen across the country since food coops became a target for anti-Israel propagandists.  Like similar organizations, Greenstar is a non-profit with relatively loose rules of governance – especially rules surrounding member ballot initiatives.

Those less-than-airtight rules usually demonstrate trust within an organization that one set of members won’t take advantage of the situation in ways that can hurt others or damage the institution.  Which is why the BDSers proposed their boycott motion and demanded it be put to a vote – the needs of Greenstar and its members be damned.

Giving members options to strip different Israeli or Israel-related products from store shelves was no doubt a gamble that at least one of their choices would get the majority of a minority needed to prevail, just as aggressive arguments that coop leaders had no choice but to do what the boycotters said (lest they be accused of betraying democracy and stifling debate) was a gamble that they could find someone to fall for arguments that have failed elsewhere.

But as other coops (and similar non-profits) have articulated and demonstrated, democracy does not necessarily mean that a simple majority (or, more specifically, a majority of a minority) of voters gets to take a political stance that will be associated with every man, woman and child in the institution (especially once the BDSers start broadcasting such an association around the planet).

In this particular instance, an elected leadership Council for Greenstar has a responsibility to ensure a particular member initiative would not be financially or legally irresponsible or conflict with the organization’s bylaws before it be given a stamp of approval and sent on for a member-wide vote.  And local members opposed to any boycott were both organized and able to focus on explaining/demonstrating to the Council why Israel boycott measure fell afoul of all of these conditions.

No doubt in-store tabling and presentations at public meetings also played a part in the Council’s ultimate decision, given that they allowed an articulate set of boycott opponents to state their case (while also demonstrating the acrimony that would inevitably visit the organization if they did what the BDSers claimed was their only allowable option).  But, in the case of last night’s vote, it was the arguments specifically targeting conditions for rejection (legal irresponsibility, economic irresponsibility and conflict with the bylaws) that proved decisive.

While the Council based their decision on legal arguments provided by outside attorneys unaffiliated with any partisan group, the work that local activists performed to demonstrate the risk the coop faced on both the legal and economic fronts should not be minimized.  For example, an economic analysis of what the cost of a boycott would be to Greenstar’s brand (written by a local business professor) is one of those new and intriguing documents one runs into when doing anti-BDS work that makes you wonder why our side spends so much time repeating old mantras asking why the boycotters don’t give up their cell phones.

And even the legal argument, focused as it was around whether or not a boycott would violate New York anti-discrimination law, entered public discussion thanks to anti-boycott forces and supporters.

It should also be noted that rejecting the boycott for legal reasons highlights the role recent anti-BDS legislation working its way through state legislators (and the US Congress) can play in subsequent boycott and divestment debates.  For, in this case, the very existence of relevant anti-discrimination law in the state of New York gave coop leaders the legitimate justification they needed to show BDS the door.  And the fact that the legal advice upon which they based their decision came from experts without an axe to grind in the Middle East conflict allowed the Greenstar Council to say “No” to BDS without having to take sides between competing groups.

This last point is instructive since it is highly likely that all of the arguments, debates, presentations and materials (not to mention hostility) generated by the boycott fight meant the Council was looking for a way to get out of having to go to a vote, with all the pain that would have caused the organization, its leaders and its members.   In which case, New York law provided them the means to get BDS out of Greenstar’s system without requiring the coop’s leaders to seem to agree with one side vs. the other.

Given the squishiness one often finds within volunteer organizations built around consensus confronting ruthless BDS partisans insisting their demands be met, I think it’s an open question whether this same legal argument would have been so decisive absent a well-organized and firm opposition showing up at every meeting, talking to coop leaders face-to-face, and generally leveraging the trust they had built up over years of involvement with Greenstar to get people to listen to something other than BDS blandishments and moral blackmail.

That aforementioned branding study highlighted a point that comes up whenever boycotts are proposed: that the boycotters are absolutely free to not buy all the Israeli products they like (or hate) and to convince others to do the same (just as Israel’s supporters are free to buy out those same products to show their opposition to BDS).  But, as everyone knows, Israel haters not buying Israeli goods is not news.  Which is why those pushing for this motion at Greenstar were so desperate to generate an event they could spin as their propaganda message representing more than the belief of a marginal fringe.

But as with every other coop in the country (save one), that attempt was stopped cold thanks to wise leaders and state legislators, but mostly due to the hard work of a dedicated group of on-the-ground activists which history continues to demonstrate to be one of the most unstoppable forces in the universe.

News from the Campus BDS Front

7 May

Several striking bits of good news on the campus-wars front from both the Right and Left Coasts.

Here in New England, it looks like the student body of Bowdoin College shot down an academic boycott measure by a massive margin of nearly 5:1.

In this case, the BDS measure was particularly sweeping, consisting as it did of a call for the school to reject any and all academic and cultural connection with the Jewish state.  And while the school administration (as always) explained that they had no intention of acting on this measure if it passed, the decision of the student body of a well-respected school to say “Yes” to the BDSers’ maximum demands would certainly have given the boycotters a major propaganda boost.

Fortunately, that student body shouted a definitive “No.” And while I don’t expect to hear anything from our friends in BDS-land beyond more “by losing we really won” rhetoric, when you combine this defeat with the many others they have been handed this semester (including Northeastern, Princeton and UC Santa Barbara – all of which rejected divestment by comfortable margins), it seems as though the “domino effect” BDS champions were planning on (and illustrating) has encountered steel rather than the expected mush as the school year comes to an end.

This phenomenon is best illustrated by the extremely high-profile double defeat that was handed to BDSers this week in California.

First off, the student government body representing all Community Colleges in California rejected a divestment motion by another large margin.  No doubt, those advocating for this motion expected to find another student government body detached from the actual needs of those they represent ready to strike a pose (a la UCSA).  But instead they found a group that seems to have understood what they were really being asked to do (attach their name and reputation to someone else’s political vendetta).  And, as usual, such understanding tends to spell disaster for the forces of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Speaking of disasters, remember that victory orgy the boycotters threw at UCLA earlier this year (not to mention the appalling behavior they demonstrated on campus before and after that vote)?  Well the party that has been at the nucleus of those controversies, the party which has embraced (or been infected by – take your pick) Students for Justice in Palestine and their ever-devouring agenda, was just handed a resounding and historic trouncing at the polls.

Apart from the good news all these stories represent in and of themselves, they also reflect a few points we should keep in mind as we prepare for more BDS battles over the coming months and years, namely:

(1) When divestment seemed to be cropping up on campus after campus this year, many saw this as a sign of increasing momentum for the forces of BDS. But remember that this particular propaganda campaign has a penchant for chasing after any win that seems close at hand, no matter how meaningless or trivial.

For instance, once a boycott had been stuffed down the throat of the Olympia food coop, the boycotters spent the next two years trying to get other cooperatives to follow Olympia’s lead – all to no avail.

Similarly, finally getting a few UC Student Senates to pass divestment resolutions after years and years of failure convinced SJP et al that the dominos were finally falling their way, leading to a tripling down on student government resolutions.  But, as with campaigns targeting different civic organizations, tainted wins create antibodies that immunize similar organizations from the BDS virus.  And while we will likely see anti-Israel campaigns continue on college campuses for years to come, there now far more precedent for saying “No” vs. “Yes” for other student governments to follow.

(2) Getting back to the UCLA election story, as easy as it might be to think ill of the party that lost, given the corruption scandal they found themselves in (not to mention the knee-jerk effort by some louder members to claim their defeat was based solely on racism), the Principle of Charity (as well as familiarity with student politics) inclines me to believe that this party includes many, many kids genuinely interest in making a positive difference for minority students on campus.

If those hopes are being taken advantage of by more aggressive (and self-serving) party leaders, that is certainly a tragedy (albeit one repeated endlessly in politics – with or without the corruption scandals).  But it also needs to be noted that the priority this party gave to divestment – at the behest of their SJP allies – was a significant reason for their defeat against a coalition of student groups opposed to BDS and those who wanted to see student government actually focus on the needs of their constituents (not play Model UN and embarrass them on national television).

Now I don’t know how much effort SJP put into the recent election campaign, but it’s safe to say that whatever campaigning they did on behalf of the losing party was not enough to overwhelm the damage caused by their insistence that divestment be at the top of everyone’s agenda – food for thought for any other minority organization or coalition being asked to make the BDSers’ goals their #1 priority.

(3) The steel vs. mush reference above is a repeat of an old Lenin proverb I’ve highlighted previously on this site: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, advance. If you encounter steel, retreat.”

Another aphorism worth pairing with that one is: “You can’t defeat something with nothing.”  And in each and every case when Israel’s supporters have been victorious, it is because they got their act together, put aside differences and focused on the challenge at hand: showing BDS the door.

Such victories should not be seen as the start of a new Zionist Renaissance on college campuses.  For the campus is certain to remain a war zone in the Arab Israeli conflict (and – as the Prophet Ruth Wisse points out – a laboratory for mainstreaming anti-Semitism in America) for the foreseeable future.

But Wisse has also pointed out that the way to win the propaganda war is for Israel and its supporters to start acting like every other self-respecting nation and community in the world and stop apologizing for the continued existence of and love for the Jewish state.  Instead we should demand that others show us the same respect they insist we pay to their nations, ethnicities and causes.  And while such universal resoluteness is still a distant hope, all of the stories you’ve read about in this piece demonstrate that it is a concrete goal worth working towards, not some impossible dream or Utopian fantasy.

Rules of the Rude

28 Apr

Several years ago, a friend introduced me to the wonderful term “Workocracy” which described a situation in which leadership was established not by rank or popularity, but by the level of effort contributed by people working together on a project.

As with everything else they touch, those involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement” seem to have created an ugly doppelganger for the beneficent Workocracy construct, which I choose to call “Rudeocracy.”

Example #1: At a nearby food coop, the debate over a hummus boycott was brought to a standstill when the boycotters (who were both outnumbered and out-argued) burst into tears, decrying the fact that their voices (no matter how shrill and demanding for weeks and months beforehand) were being stifled.  And the kindhearted people in the room, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings further, decided to demur to the weepers and give them “equal” (i.e., extra) time to state their case.

Example #2: Close to a decade ago, the same anti-Israel activist who had created three years of mayhem in Somerville Massachusetts through multiple (failed) efforts to get the city to divest from Israel decided to bring the rolling propaganda wagon Wheels of Justice into the public school system where he taught in order to “educate” his captive charges.  Chaos ensued as parents (legitimately) protested, the school (appropriately) cancelled the event, the Israel-hater/teacher (inevitably) called in the lawyers and the program went on (albeit with a counter-program provided by The David Project).

Example #3: On dozens of campuses across the country, student governments consisting of 18-22 year olds (most of them sincerely interested in making the campus a better place, even if some of them might also be looking to strike a pose or pad their resumes) have been forced to sit through all-nighters as partisans for one and only one international issue (guess which one) demand that toothless divestment resolutions be passed immediately.  And when those student governments said no, the BDSers refused to take that as a final answer, demanding re-votes year after year (sometimes more than once a year).  And, when all else failed, they packed the Senate with people whose first and only agenda item was BDS – not the aforementioned making the campus a better place.

What these three examples have in common is that they were all instigated by people lacking even a scintilla of manners, empathy and propriety – people willing to bend (or break) every rule, manipulate people’s emotions, browbeat others to submit to moral blackmail, all so the boycotters can pretend to punch above their limited political weight.

While this might come off as simple criticism of people I disagree with, the concept of a Rudeocracy highlights and important reason why the Israel-Palestinian conflict is on the agenda of so many civil society organizations that have not taken (or been asked to take) stances on other political matters, like those that have left hundreds of thousands killed or homeless in every country in the Middle East, save Israel.

Often, this double-standard is chalked up to hypocrisy, and certainly that compliment vice pays to virtue is part of the story.  But without individuals and organizations (which I won’t dignify to call a “movement”) ready to push the boundaries of civilized behavior to the breaking point in order to get their way, BDS would not have gotten shoved up the agenda of so many organizations.

After all (and as I’ve noted previously), it’s child’s play to do what the BDSers do.

For if I shared their fanaticism and value system, I could blanket the communities I belong to with photos of tortured and murdered women and homosexuals and demand that anyone who claims to support women’s and gay rights must immediately and officially condemn my political adversaries or be exposed as traitors to the causes they claim to champion.

I could drag “experts” touting my beliefs into inappropriate situations (like my kids’ school or Scout troop) and insist everyone be exposed to a manipulative presentation of “facts” that are really my opinions.  And if anyone complained, I could burst into tears or start shouting so loudly that those around me would do anything to bring the temperature down, including (ideally) doing what I say.

The only trouble is that I would never cause harm to others, just so that I could use their names and reputations to further my political agenda.  I would never expose children (even my own) to one-sided arguments or highly contentious/truncated explanations of events and claim these to be important educational experiences.  And I’ve long outgrown crying and screaming to get others to do my bidding.

Apparently, though, those who live by the creed of Rudeocracy have no problems doing any of these things.  And while I suspect that in the long run such behavior brings more negative than positive consequences to those who practice it, dealing with individuals and organizations that mistake misbehavior for boldness and manipulation for argument is no fun (beyond the occasional schadenfreude that often happens when their ugly tactics leads to yet another defeat).

BDS Scorecard

23 Apr

I recently read some back-of-envelope calculations that said 20 student government divestment resolutions have been have been presented at 16 campuses this year (I’m presuming the four repeats are at places where the boycotters decided to not take “No” for an answer) out of which 6 student bills have passed.  (Whoops!  Make that 21 campuses where 15 #BDSFails took place – University of New Mexico just shot divestment down by a margin of more than 3:1.)

While that was going on, the Israeli economy apparently grew by 7% – a rate of expansion that seems to demonstrate that even three months of war last summer (never mind 15 years of unrelenting boycott and divestment activity) isn’t having much of an impact on an actual country called Israel that exists in the real world (as opposed to in the fantasy dystopia of the Israel-haters).

Oh, and at a recent chance meeting with an old family friend, I learned that the Chinese Ministry of Education decided to prioritize building official links between Israel’s top eight research universities and equivalent prestigious schools in China.  Which will likely have more of an impact on the role and status of Israel academia in the world than will the ASA’s continuing to pretend that they have a boycott in place against the Jewish state.

I bring this up not to renew the debate over my “BDS is a loser” meme since I fully recognize that the point of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns is to introduce a steady drip of hostility towards the Jewish state into public consciousness, rather than cause actual harm to the economy of that state.  And the data needed to prove whether or not the real purpose of the “movement” has been successful will come not from economic but social statistics (stats that could demonstrate whether or not graduates from SJP-stronghold colleges harbor animosity towards Israel a decade after graduating).

But until such data emerges, I think it is worth asking why – in an era of unprecedented economic and academic success – Israel and its friends have chosen other factors (like the prevalence of BDS campaigns  on college campuses) as our measure of progress and security (or lack thereof).

No doubt ugly propagandizing on the very campuses many of us attended in our youth is disquieting.  But should we really be so troubled over six toothless divestment Student Senate divestment resolutions passing when Israelis are enjoying prosperity known nowhere else in the world?  Does a debate over a hummus boycott at a food coop in Ithaca really matter when the nearby Cornell University is investing millions in an ongoing relationship with Technion?

Having spent a large chunk of my life writing about and fighting the boycotters, I don’t think I can be accused of not taking the BDS propaganda campaign seriously.  But I suspect that my concern is of a different type than that of others who fear BDS being “on the march.”

For belief in BDS ascendant requires conflating a number of things going on in the world that I believe need to be kept separate, at least when thinking through what our strategy should be to keep the forces of darkness at bay.

For example, it’s easy to look at SJP running amok at the University of California as the early onset of the full-blown violent Jew-hatred currently spilling out across Europe.  But what’s happening in places like Paris is ultimately about immigration patterns (including increasing Islamification within immigrant communities), demographic change (the so-called European death-spiral) and economic stagnation which creates the foot soldiers and environment where “The New Anti-Semitism” thrives.  And such circumstances would prevail even if the BDS “movement” had never come into existence.

Similarly, Israel’s current precariousness is being caused by factors few people (including few of us) can influence, much less control.  Violent Islamist armies are conquering territory, slaughtering their opponents (and one another), and visiting untold misery on much of the Middle East for reasons having nothing to do with Israel (or America for that matter).   Branches of those armies sitting at Israel’s borders (notably Hamas in the South and Hezbollah in the North) draw sustenance from their Islamist patrons and benefit from a wealthy and powerful Arab and Islamic world ready to supply them money and arms, overlook their excesses (as long as their guns are aimed solely at Jews), and erect a diplomatic blast shield around them the moment Israel starts to shoot back.

And here in the US, we have an administration that seems more than ready to let the whole situation go from bad to worse, while furtively downgrading relations with Israel and not-so-furtively denigrating its leaders (and, by extension, its voters) in an attempt to implement “peace in our time.”

Given how much of the world is heading in directions both troubling and horrifying, is it any wonder that many are detaching themselves from that world, either by retreating into our latest App or narrowing our political vision to where we can’t see beyond the latest partisan food fight? As we navigate an era more dangerous than any time since World War II, how much easier is it to inflate the importance of local enemies we can fight (such as the BDSers, who are only too happy to have their importance inflated) versus coming to grips with all the forces of history over which we have no power?

Which may explain why I diverge from some of my allies in a seemingly slight, but actually significant way.  For BDS to me is not the local manifestation of a global Green-Red front directed against Israel and the Jews but the weak link in that alliance.  For BDS only wins when others of good will are dragged or tricked into embracing its agenda.  And despite over a decade and a half of effort, we still see very few people or organizations embracing that agenda, which is why the boycotter’s “victory list” today consists of the irrelevant (student governments), the lame and cowardly (ASA) and the aged and dying (PCUSA, Hawking).

And since BDS requires the support of people of good will to succeed, the excesses it wallows in – especially in “victory” – makes it that much harder for them to win elsewhere (as the recent string of student government defeats demonstrates).   In other words, rather than embrace the BDSers narrative that says “Even when we lose, we win!,” perhaps a better (and more accurate) narrative we should be promulgating is that “Even when they win, they lose!!!”