While the session at the PennBDS program entitled “Packaging the Movement – Apartheid or Jim Crow” will likely focus on the “Apartheid” and “Jim Crow” parts of that title, I’d like to zero in on the “Packaging” portion for a moment.
As I’ve described a number of times before, BDS is essentially a branding exercise, marketing-speak for a program designed to associate one thing with another. When you reach for a Kleenex to blow your nose, buy a Coke to quench your thirst or use the browser you’re currently reading this blog on to Google for more information, your use of brand names (instead of “tissue,” “cola,” or “search engine”) is the result of successful efforts over the years to get you to use the name of a company’s specific brand instead of a generic noun.
While techniques for getting you to associate one name with another can be sophisticated and expensive, one of the simplest and cheapest methods for achieving this goal is constant repetition. This is why the branding exercise associated with the BDS “movement,” to get you to associate the words “Israel” and “Apartheid,” consists first and foremost with never writing a sentence that includes one of those words without the other.
If you look at some of the back-and-forth on the PennBDS conference that took place in the comments section of this article, you’ll notice this marketing trick playing out with near perfect discipline. Regardless of the quality of thought put into any posting by a BDS proponent, they will never fail to write, speak and even shriek “Apartheid! Apartheid! Apartheid!” at every possible opportunity.
If you understand BDS to be a branding exercise, you will also understand why it is difficult – if not impossible – to get BDS advocates to respond to any arguments that claim Israel is nothing like an Apartheid state or why places like Hamas-ruled Gaza are (at least with regard to attitudes towards women, gays, and religious minorities – including Jews). For expecting BDSers to defend their opinions with facts and arguments (as opposed to cherry-picked links and shouted accusations) is like expecting the Coca Cola Company to give Pepsico a space for rebuttal at the end of every Coke commercial. Simply put, discussion and debate, which are part of any legitimate political process, have no home in the type of political branding exercise that is BDS, an exercise more commonly referred to as “propaganda.”
If you read this statement by the person who will be speaking on this subject at the PennBDS event, you will see that “Apartheid” is not the only word in his vocabulary (although it is the one he seems to use most frequently). In addition to the “A-word” (and “Jim Crow” which is also in his session title), you have a whole panoply of terminology and names meant to associate the Israel-Palestinian situation with the repression of darker-skinned people by lighter-skinned ones. The speaker’s credentials as a union leader, an activist against Apartheid South Africa and – yes – an African American who has been involved with both African American and anti-Israel organizations also helps to cement the link between the struggle for justice for blacks in the US and South Africa with the Palestinian cause.
We will get to the subject of BDS and the Black community in a few days when we get to the Penn agenda item with that title. But for now, I’d like to analyze this linkage with the context of another marketing concept: market segmentation.
Not just the article linked above, but virtually the entire BDS vocabulary is designed to reach a very specific section of the political marketplace: progressive audiences. In fact, the reason why anyone choosing to defend Israel and counter these accusations (including this blog) is frequently condemned as “right wing” is because the BDSers want to claim full ownership of the left end of the political spectrum.
Beyond just trying to gain adherents to their cause among progressive individuals and organizations, the boycotters make it very clear that their agenda item is not just one among many but is the single defining issue for left-leaning audiences with anyone who disagrees cast out as a member of the “racist right.”
Now I have friends and colleagues that are driven to distraction by the fact that anti-Israel polemics are cast entirely in progressive terminology, including actual progressives bitter at the hijacking of their vocabulary and conservatives who use this phenomenon to prove that the left is intrinsically anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.
I tend to avoid these two extremes of bitterness, knowing something about the history of how anti-Israel politics nested itself in progressive circles, but also knowing about the damage caused by using the Middle East conflict and Peace Process as surrogates for other partisan political issues (especially in the US and Israel itself).
It’s also worth noting that because boycott and divestment advocates have chosen to sink their talons into progressive organizations (colleges and universities, Mainline Protestant churches, unions, etc.), that this is where the BDSers have fought and lost all of their major battles, meaning that their message has been actively looked at and rejected almost entirely by left-leaning audiences.
These marketing tricks (repetition, staying on message and ignoring responses, market-segmentation, etc.) work for products that actually do what they are supposed to do. Kleenex effectively wipes tears and mucous, Coke refreshes a parched throat, and Google will find what you’re looking for (based on just tying a few letters – a gift of Israeli technology, BTW).
But no matter how frequently or effectively they are employed, these techniques can’t convince most people that a sow’s ear is actually a silk purse. Simply put, they are not that helpful when trying to sell a lie (such as the “Israel = Apartheid” formulation).
Given the rejection of BDS by virtually every audience to which it has been targeted, it’s safe to say (so far at least) that the BDSer’s belief in Barnum’s adage that “a sucker is born every minute” has yet to be proven true.