PennBDS: BDS 101

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

Fortunately, the next item on the PennBDS agenda is the topic BDS 101, something I’ve written about in the Divest This Manual, although not something that’s appeared as a separate piece on this site.

No doubt the BDSers gathering at U Penn have their own run down of BDS basics, placing themselves at the center of a heroic struggle against titanic, sinister forces that are trying to suppress them.  But here on planet earth, BDS has a specific origin, goals and track record, all of which are at odds with how this “movement” likes to portray itself.

The following is actually an extract from a set of responses to frequently-asked questions (FAQ) regarding BDS.  As ever, comments are open to anyone who disagrees with this assessment:

What is the origin of BDS campaigns?

While economic warfare (such as the Arab boycott of Israel which began in 1921) has been part of the Arab-Israeli conflict since before Israel became a state, the current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) program pushed by anti-Israel groups to try to delegitimize the Jewish state began in 2001.

The goal of BDS is to “brand” Israel as the new Apartheid South Africa (South Africa also having been the target of economic boycotts and sanction).  While this strategy was used sporadically after the fall of Apartheid in the 1990s, it was only after the 2001 Durban I “anti-racism” conference (which degenerated into an orgy of Israel bashing) that various anti-Israel organizations focused on BDS as their tactic of choice. This, by the way, is the origin of the BDS “movement” (not the 2005 call from “Palestinian Civil Society” the BDSers will tell you inspired their political project).

What are the goals of BDS campaigns?

Because the desire to punish Israel economically represents such a small minority of public opinion, the goal of BDS activists is to attach their message (that Israel is an “Apartheid state” worthy of economic punishment) to a well known institution such as a university, church or city.  This allows them to “punch above their weight” by declaring their anti-Israel message is not simply emanating from a small, non-representative minority, but rather represents the policy of a respected organization.

Another goal is to infuse a campus or other institution with their Israel=Apartheid messaging, attempting to make this slander stick, even if boycott or divestment motions themselves get defeated (as they have been, time and time again).

OK, I get that boycotts and sanctions always indicate political disapproval of someone, but what’s the story with divestment?  Don’t people “invest” and “divest” (i.e., buy and sell) stock every day?

This is an extremely important and relevant question since BDS activists are responsible for many false claims related to divestment.

As you note, divestment is simply the selling of an investment, such as a stock, bond or mutual fund.  Every time you see someone shouting “Sell!” on the floor of the stock exchange, for example, divestment is taking place.

Divest-from-Israel campaigns fall into the category of political divestment.  Rather than selling investments for economic reasons (such as fear that share price will go down in the future), political divestment involves selling an investment due to a political disagreement with the company or country the investment benefits.

This is an important distinction since, without a public explanation or announcement that investments are being sold for political, rather than economic reasons, political divestment cannot be said to have taken place.

I’ve heard that divestment campaigns are very big on college campuses.  Have any schools divested from Israel?

To date, no college or university has divested a single share of stock identified by BDS activists as targets for divestment.  In addition, at schools where divestment has been driven by online petitions (such as Harvard and MIT), counter-petitions denouncing divestment have received more than ten times the number of signatures as pro-divestment petitions.

In 2002, the leadership at Harvard University took a public stance against divestment, with the then President of Harvard criticizing divestment activity as potentially being “anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent.”  While college divestment programs gained considerable media attention between 2001-2006, institutions of higher learning generally followed Harvard’s lead in rejecting divestment out of hand.

Campus divestment campaigns made a comeback in 2009 and 2010.  Background information is available elsewhere on this site with regard to Hampshire College and UC Berkeley.

If BDS has failed at colleges and universities, has it been successful anywhere else?

In 2004, a number of Mainline Protestant churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) passed resolutions calling for divestment of their retirement portfolios from stocks identified by BDS activists as supporting the Jewish state.

As with universities, however, support for divestment in the churches turned out to be extremely shallow.  While some church leaders and regional churches supported divestment, the rank and file categorically rejected divestment calls, voting down divestment by margins of 95%-5% (the Presbyterians) or unanimously (the Methodists).

During this period, divestment was also attempted in some US cities (notably Somerville, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington), but lost badly in both places.  When BDS made a comeback in 2009 after a three-year lull, new “soft targets” were chosen such as food co-ops and aging rock stars, demonstrating that (at least for now) BDS is all but dead at major institutions.

If BDS has been so unsuccessful, is it really a threat?

Despite its losing streak, calls for BDS have gained considerable momentum based on a single victory, such as the temporary support divestment had with the Presbyterian Church which was used to inspire hundreds of divestment projects between 2004 and 2006.

BDS controversies also tend to distort debate on college campuses, creating a discussion over whether or not Israel should be punished for its “crimes,” rather than pointing out the inaccuracy and unfairness of these very accusations or the responsibility of Israel’s accusers for the situation in the Middle East.

Finally, calls for boycott or divestment do tremendous damage to the institutions which embrace them, poisoning the atmosphere and creating hostile environments on campuses and elsewhere.  For all these reasons, BDS needs to be fought whenever it rears its head within any civic institution.

What kind of damage do BDS projects cause others?

At its heart, BDS is an attempt to import the bitterness of the Arab-Israeli conflict into a civic institution such as a college, church, city or union in order to leverage that organization’s reputation for the narrow partisan gain of divestment advocates.

Historically, attempts to win a well known organization into the divestment fold are accomplished by maneuvering behind the backs of members (and sometimes committing outright fraud).  On several occasions, students, church members or citizens simply wake up one morning to discover their school, church or city is calling for a boycott of Israel in their name, causing bitter divisiveness (frequently along religious or racial lines), accusation and counteraccusation, leading to breaches and long-term damage to a civic institution.

Divestment activists, with their single-minded objective to gain the support of a well-known organization – by any means necessary – time and time again fail to reflect on the hurt they cause in an attempt to achieve their aims.

One thought on “PennBDS: BDS 101”

  1. Just one thing about the origins of the BDS movement – it actually started well before 2001 with far-right groups calling for a boycott of Israel (in the UK, at least, I'm not sure about elsewhere).

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