The divestment virus

Having spent quite a bit of time over the last five years tracking and, in some cases, battling those trying to mainstream boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, it’s interesting to note changes in divestment’s target list over the last several years.

When I first got into this game, divestment seemed like a genuine threat. The Presbyterian Church had just voted yes on a divestment resolution at its 2004 bi-annual conference, and many other Mainline Protestant churches were following suit. A divestment petition drive at Harvard and MIT created similar “copy cat” petition-driven divestment projects on campuses across the country. But it took divestment coming to my own home (at the time Somerville, MA) to make me realize that this virus had to be taken seriously.

Fortunately, a number of people took the issue seriously enough to do something about it. While many of us may have been asleep at the switch when divestment was plying its way into various well-known civic organizations, hoping desperately to be able to stuff the BDS mantra of “Israel is an Apartheid state” into the mouth of a famous school, church or city, we were able to quickly make up for lost time. I’d like to say that it was the effort of pro-Israel activists that turned the tide, but we soon discovered that the most powerful anti-divestment force out there were the members of the organizations divestment advocates were trying to subvert. Once members of a school, church of municipality became aware of what was being done in their name, they collectively gave BDS the heave-ho in some of the most lop-sided defeats I’ve ever seen in an organization.

Divestment was rejected by 95% of the Presbyterians, by 100% of the Methodists, by all of Somerville’s leadership. And at universities, anti-divestment petitions out-signatured pro-divestment ones by margins of 10:1. Since ’06 when divestment came off the agenda of the Mainline Protestant churches, it seemed like it would be all downhill for BDS from then on.
And, to a certain extent, it has. Just this year, two more divestment stalwarts (the UCC in Canada and Episcopalians in the US) added their names to the long list of people who wanted nothing to do with BDS. And divestment champions seemed to have to go further and further afield to find something they could characterize (or mis-characterize) as a victory.

Thus we find ourselves at an interesting juncture where divestment forces are trying to build momentum on the back of outright fraud (Hampshire, Motorola, TIAA-CREF), or on choices made not by institutions, but by individuals. Artists refusing to take part in relatively little known festivals (such as the recent dust up at the Toronto International Film Festival) seems to be tactic cropping up of late. This is understandable, given that it takes a lot less effort to get an individual to do something than an institution.

Yet even at this small scale, the BDS virus demonstrates its ability to do damage. In the case of the Toronto festival, one artist boycotted, divestment claimed a victory, sensible voices protested, Israeli films (the subject of the boycott) were sold out, and dozens of good people who thought they were created a welcoming cultural event instead ended up presiding over a political circus and found themselves cleaning up wreckage left from a BDS crew that had long since left town, laughing at yet another institution they’d suckered into their orbit.

I have little doubt that divestment will run its course, only to be replaced by a new tactic that, we can hope, will be equally unsuccessful. But between now and then, I can only sigh at the amount of pain the self-righteous champions of divestment will cause to countless civic organizations whose only crime is too much sincerity which prevents them from knowing they are being played.

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