PennBDS: Success? Challenges, Options…

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.

I’ve been seeing an uptick in BDS news stories, blog entries and the like (especially towards the end of the year) that seem to be going out of their way to stress what they claim to be the success (sometimes the “colossal success”) of the BDS “movement.”  In fact, one of the first talks at the PennBDS event (the one that inspired the piece you are reading) is entitled “BDS Successes, Challenges, and Options for 2012.”

To a certain extent, this emphasis on victories just represents the understandable need of a political project to create an atmosphere of momentum, both too inspire activists and to create what is called the “Bandwagon Effect” in the hope that one BDS win might lead to another which would lead to another, eventually creating an dynamic where boycotting or divesting from Israel becomes a “normal” or default choice.

At the same time, I can’t help but scratch my head over these boasts, given the sheer magnitude of BDS failure over the last 10-11 years, failure that I and others have been documenting and communicating under what has become by now a common phrase of “BDS Fail” (or “BDS Fail of the Day”).

The difference between our (admittedly partisan) communication of BDS failure and the BDSers (even more partisan) communications of victory is that “BDS Fail” is actually based on a huge number of uncontroversial data points.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions program has been active on college campuses (including the University of Pennsylvania where the PennBDS conference is taking place) for over a decade and yet during that time not one college or university has divested a single share of stock on the BDS blacklist.

The program has targeted churches (especially Mainline Protestant churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists) for just as long, and despite some brief initial success (especially among the Presbyterians who actually passed a divestment resolution in 2004 – a year before BDSers claim their “movement” was even born, by the way) it’s been all downhill since then with the Methodists rejecting divestment unanimously and the Presbyterians rescinding their 2004 divestment position by a margin of 95%-5% in 2006.

In municipalities, unions, retailers, state pension funds, in fact every major institution where boycott and divestment has been advocated, the results have been the same: utter and complete rejection of BDS (usually by majorities at of 90-100%, as we’ve seen in the churches).

This may explain why in recent years the boycotters have turned to hoaxes to give their program a sense of inevitability (starting with frauds like Hampshire College and TIAA-CREF appearing and being exposed in 2009) as well as “soft targets” such as food co-ops and aging rock stars (which seem to provide the only concrete examples of actual BDS victory in the BDSers various communications).

But even here, the only food co-op victory the boycotters can boast about is the OlympiaFood Co-op, an institution that has been discussed on this blog extensively, where an overly eager board managed to get a boycott implemented behind the backs of the membership (some of which are now suing), a decision that created such mayhem that it helped inspire a rejection of boycotts by every other food co-op in the country where they were proposed.

In terms of entertainers participating in what’s been called the “Cultural Boycott,” this started with a bang when Elvis Costello was convinced (or bullied) into cancelling his gig in Israel at the urging of boycott advocates, but soon devolved into loud but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get other big stars (such as Elton John and Paul McCartney) to follow Costello’s lead.

Absent cultural icons of any significance going down the boycott route, BDS press releases stress decisions by such cultural behemoths as Marc Almond and Tubba Skinny (I know, I don’t know who they are either) and even play the hoax game adding names like Roger Waters (who did play Israel) and Pete Seeger (who never planned to appear in Israel) to their list of cultural boycott “successes.”  And while I’ve never been a big fan of using the support of music or film stars as a barometer of political success, if we use the boycotters own metrics of concerts = political victory then the long, long list of cultural icons that are increasingly putting Israel on their tour lists would translate to Israel being one of the most popular countries on the planet.

The backdrop to all of these attempted (and indeed failed) efforts of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project is that during the very decade when they have been working tirelessly to bring the Israeli economy to its knees and diminish its popularity (especially in the eyes of Americans), that economy has doubled in size and support for Israel in the US has shot up twenty percentage points.

This likely explains why BDS supporters (like the folks behind PennBDS) have been reduced to using the existence of critics (including this site) as their latest (not to mention most self-serving and preposterous) metric for success.

3 thoughts on “PennBDS: Success? Challenges, Options…”

  1. What about the idea that BDSers are actually not concerned with 'victories' in the sense we are defining it, because the whole point of their exercise is just to get the insipid “Israel=apartheid” meme into the general discourse?

    Given that they keep going at this, after years of no successes, and are having no effect on the Israeli economy, I think this possibility needs to be contemplated.

  2. You bring up an excellent point, fizziks, which (I can be allowed to paraphrase) asks whether or not the BDS “movement” actually uses BDS as a transmission belt for their propaganda message of “Israel = Apartheid” which they hope will sink in through repetition, even if they are not able to win any of the specific battles they choose to fight.

    First off, I agree that this is a way they hope to achieve their aims, by creating a mechanism for delivering a steady drip of propaganda, especially to younger audiences. But even with this being the case, the question is what should we do about it?

    Generally, the answers pro-Israel advocates give center on (1) positive campaigning: creating a discourse on campus that highlights positive themes about Israel (democracy, high tech, contributions to environmental and medical sciences, rights of women and gays, etc.), and (2) negative campaigns directed at Israel's foes (notably the Arab states, the PA and Hamas.

    Both of these have their place, and even though option (1) is often denigrated as meek and defensive, I think it is an important strategy, especially if done on an ongoing basis (giving the negative messages of the BDSers less soil to grow in).

    But I also urge us to point out that BDS has been rejected again and again, if only to highlight that this rejection has been at the hands of the country's most progressive institutions (colleges, Mainline churches, etc.), showing that disgust with BDS cuts across the political spectrum.

    Just as importantly, highlighting the frequent use of frauds and hoaxes by BDS advocates (Hampshire, CREF, etc.) points out that this is a movement that is ready, willing and able to lie about almost anything. And if we demonstrate that they're happy to lie about their own “successes,” what credibility will they have when they insist that they (and they alone) are telling the truth about Israel and the Middle East?

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