By Way of Deception

Some readers may recognize the title of this piece from the 1990 book of the same name by Victor Ostrovsky (someone with whom I had one of my first online debates on UseNet lo those many years ago – a story for another time).

Ostrovsky’s book purported to be about the nefarious activities of the Israeli Mossad, but the title could equally apply to the 2009 strategic plan for the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaign currently being waged against Israel.

Hampshire’s faux divestment “triumph” is Exhibit A for this deception stratagem, and from the “other side of the pond” comes Exhibit B. The story will be pretty convoluted and meaningless for anyone who has not followed academic boycott politics in the UK, so let me provide a quick recap.

From 2004 until the present day, the main teacher’s union in the UK has been wracked by debate over whether or not British teachers should boycott their Israeli counterparts: refusing to invite them to conferences, denying them access to their publications, or otherwise disallowing them into the community of scholars. At some times, calls came for specific boycotts of teachers at certain universities in Israel. In other cases, it was a blanket boycott against all Israeli academics that refused to swear a “loyalty oath,” by publically renouncing the actions of their country before being allowed back into the academic family.

A series of controversial votes on the matter were always taken within various governing bodies of the union, a union with far more members than voters whose leadership included a small but dominating clique whose top priority has been to get the union to sign onto their political anti-Israel BDS agenda. As those involved with unions or other civic organizations know, the single minded individual or group often has the ability to push through measure that may be noxious, or at least outside the scope of an organization’s mission. In this case, anti-Israel activists (partnered with members of the Socialist Workers Party or SWP) managed to hijack the union’s leadership bodies on several occasions, getting the organizations name attached to a series of boycott proposals.

Remember that the mission of divestment and boycott programs is to get a respected institution (like a school or union) to attach its name and reputation to the boycotters anti-Israel agenda. And in order to achieve this goal, any tactic is considered legitimate, even if it damages the institution in the process.

The problem for BDS leaders in Britain is that the rank and file of the union hated these motions, forcing the boycotters to struggle just as hard to keep the issue from coming to a vote among members (which they knew they would lose) as they did to get boycott motions passed in the first place. After a string of embarrassing defeats, the boycott campaign had to satisfy itself with a generic promise from the union to study the matter.

But, as union leader John Pike describes, this compromise was not good enough for Israel’s detractors who chose – like the SJP at Hampshire College – to mischaracterize the union’s decision (which made no judgment about Israel or the Middle East in general) as another example of the union’s alleged support for their political positions. It was this mischaracterization that John Pike dismantled, partly to ensure honesty, partly to ensure that the union he loved was no longer being manipulated by those who only saw the institution as a way to punch above their own negligible political weight.

After all, the Socialist Worker’s Party calling for a boycott of Israel is what we used to call in the news business a “dog sniffs another dog’s anus story” (i.e., unremarkable and unnewsworthy, if somewhat gross). But the University and College Union (UCU) adding their weight to the subject: well that’s a story BDS activists felt worth pushing, never mind the damage it would cause the organization, and never mind the fact that it’s not true.

In a way, it’s good to know that divestment has gotten so unpopular that those pushing for BDS have to rely on pretend divestment or boycott “successes” to get any traction at all. At the same time, it’s good to know there are people like John Pike (and even old Alan Dershowitz) out there to keep these institutions honest.

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