PennBDS: BDS and Community

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.

The PennBDS talk entitled “BDS as a Community-Wide Political Campaign” originally had the word “Winning” or “Victory” in the title (I can’t remember which).  I can only guess why a word indicating progress was removed from the talk’s name, but as with this discussion that hung on the word “Beginners,” the key term in the newly crafted title mentioned above is “Community.”  And by “Community,” I’m talking about a very specific, very unique community: Olympia Washington.

To provide some background, as I’ve noted before support for Israel tends to hover at around 60-70% in the US and wherever it lands in that range on any particular day, it tends to outpoll support for Israel’s foes by a factor of 3:1.  But this does not mean that two-thirds of the US population (which would add up to 200,000,000 people) is active in pro-Israel organizations or that a third of this number supports BDS.  While these numbers indicate general support levels, the number of Americans actively involved with fighting (politically) for one side or the other in the Middle East conflict can probably be measured in the tens of thousands.

And these activists are not spread out evenly across the country.  In fact, they tend to bunch up in cities (notably places like Boston, New York and San Francisco), especially cities with large university populations (colleges and universities being places where supporters and defamers of Israel are fairly evenly matched).

In most of these places, Israel’s supporters still tend to outnumber their opposition and even if we are less aggressive in our political activism than are BDS proponents, when we decide to get off our duffs and do something, the result tends to be defeat and humiliation for anti-Israel forces.

But there are a few isolated places where anti-Israel activists are in the clear majority (or at least have the unquestioned upper hand).  These places tend to be college towns where Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) types easily outnumber their opponents AND such college activists can count on heavy support from the broader community.  In fact, I can think of only two places that fit this description: Western Massachusetts (home of Hampshire College, which may explain why Hampshire’s SJP group feels entitled to runamok) and Olympia, Washington.

In the case of Olympia, this formula of a strong anti-Israel presence on campus (in this case, the campus of Evergreen College) plus well-organized anti-Israel activists outside of campus is supplemented by the “Great Big Thing” that comes up whenever one discusses Olympia: Rachel Corrie.

Corrie was an Evergreen student recruited by a group called the International Solidarity Movement (or ISM) to enter Israel for the purpose of staging militant protests.  And while in Israel, she placed herself between a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian house built on top of a tunnel used to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.  And while standing in this position, she was hit by the bulldozer and killed.

Now whenever the issue of Rachel Corrie comes up, one must maneuver carefully to avoid the trap being laid by supporters of her cause.  For the ISM (and like-minded individuals and organizations) make endless political use of Corrie’s “martyrdom,” making all kinds of political statements and judgments based on her tragic death.  But if one responds by making political statements the BDSers disagree with, you quickly find yourself staring at photos of Corrie as an infant or young teen and accused of gross insensitivity to the death of a young girl and her family.

I’ve actually mixed it up with one of the people on this PennBDS panel over this very issue, and to avoid the whole thing becoming a focal point for debate again, suffice to say that there are various people and organizations to which you can apportion responsibility for Corrie’s death including: Israel, the Caterpillar bulldozer company, the International Solidarity Movement which brought her to Israel and convinced her to put herself in harm’s way, Corrie herself (who agreed to go this route) and the Palestinians (who decided to build weapons tunnels under civilian structures and ally themselves with folks like the ISM). Corrie’s supporters assign 100% of the blame to the first two members of this list, while the rest of us tend to spread the numbers out a bit more broadly.

But getting back to Olympia, this is one of the few places where a mix of numbers, aggressiveness and (in Olympia’s case) the Corrie factor (in the form of a foundation named after her and run by her parents) means that you can’t walk down the street without condemnation of Israel staring you in the face (literally).  Anti-Israel films and cultural events are almost weekly occurrences in the town and Evergreen College (even more than Hampshire) is a school so unwelcoming to people not willing to toe the anti-Israel line that students have actually transferred out to avoid harassment.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back happened in 2010 when the local food co-op decided to become the first (and, so far, only) co-op to pass a boycott motion stripping Israel-produced products from their shelves.  Now I’ve written about Olympia so many times that I won’t dwell in the details here (although feel free to punch “Olympia Co-op” into the search box to the right or just look at  “Tale of Two Co-ops” in the Divest This manual to read a synthesis of the discussion of how boycotts have played out in the co-op community).

But in the case of Olympia, the result was not a “Community-Wide Political Campaign” but an assault on the community (in this case members of the co-op) which woke up one morning to discover that a bunch of partisan activists had worked behind their backs in order to speak in their name.  This was followed by a revolt of that same community against the co-op featuring resignations, a vigil of protest and, now, a lawsuit.

We’ll be joined by a guest writer later in the week to talk about another co-op impacted by BDS partisans.  But for now, its worth remembering that in one of the few places where the BDSers have the muscle to get their way, they were more than ready to shaft their neighbors in order to create and maintain a trivial victory, regardless of the pain it has caused to everyone around them.

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One Response to PennBDS: BDS and Community

  1. Anonymous January 26, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    Nice editorial in the Harvard crimson, written after reading Omar Barghouti's book:

    “So because this movement will not broadcast its ultimate aims loud enough, I will do it for them. If you support the BDS movement, you are supporting an organization that is actively working to undermine the Jewish state. Utilizing the vocabulary of international norms, the movement actually systematically attempts to undermine the international consensus that recognizes Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. And if you support this right—regardless of your politics, regardless of your stance on the occupation, and regardless of your feelings towards the current Israeli right-wing government—then there is only one moral option. Boycott the BDS movement.”

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