Building momentum from small victories is a time-honored tactic for political activist groups. And BDS proponents have been more effective at this than most, anchoring two years of heavy-duty campaigning on their 2004 victory in getting the Presbyterian Church to pass a divestment resolution (an admittedly not small, but ultimately ephemeral win).
The trouble is that defeat also creates momentum, and as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement” closes in on twelve years without being accepted by a single major institution they have been courting for over a decade (indeed, with massive rejections by previous supporters, including the aforementioned Presbyterian Church, in their wake), the need to redefine what victory looks like becomes paramount.
This is what’s behind all those “by losing the vote, we actually won” -type statements that accompany each boycott or divestment rejection, whether high profile (like Berkeley) or lower profile (like every food co-op, save the one in Olympia). While claiming that “lack of concrete victory is incidental to the movement’s success” may seem idiotic or self serving on the surface, it allows the BDSers to claim nothing more than their continuing existence as a form of victory (with BDS campaigns positioned as simply the means to an end, the end being the injection of the Israel = Apartheid propaganda message into public discourse).
Absent “concrete victory,” the other metric the boycotters have gravitated towards to prove their importance is the reaction of Israel and its supporters to their program. This is the focus of the PennBDS session entitled “The Zionist Response to BDS.”
At one level, this choice for defining victory seems to resemble a bad pickup artist using his rejection by every woman at a bar and being laughed at on their Facebook pages as “proof” he’s making progress (“Hey, at least they’re talking about me!”) But at another level, redefining anything done by your political opponents as another example your own accomplishments serves two important purpose: (1) giving the “movement” something (anything) upon which to hang claims of success; and (2) getting your political foes to question what they do (lest they “hand you another victory” by publically opposing you) while all the time allowing the BDSers to do whatever they like, whenever they like.
This conundrum says more about the psychology of pro- vs. anti-Israel activists than it does about the actual political issues being debated. For if you pointed out to members of PennBDS that, by their own standards, the fact that they are holding a BDS conference just demonstrates the success of Israel and the effectiveness of its supporters (otherwise, why run a conference against them?), they will do what they do with every challenging question and simply ignore it. Similarly, highlighting the many reasons why Jewish organizations openly condemn BDS that have nothing to do with the program’s alleged effectiveness is greeted with total silence.
Now I’m happy to admit that there have been excesses in Israel’s response to the alleged BDS “threat,” (some grandstanding anti-boycott legislation being the best example). And even here in the US, I’m not a big fan of some of the legal or governmental remedies people have flirted with regarding dealing with anti-Israel political activities (particularly on college campuses). Not that these actions can’t be justified, but it’s not entirely clear why they are needed, given how well we seem to be doing countering the BDS “movement” politically. And, the Internet being what it is, it’s always just a matter of time before someone posts something complaining about this BDS activist or event and says something incorrect or inappropriate.
But here we get to the biggest challenge facing divestniks who want to use criticism by their opponents as a demonstration of their own strength. To illustrate this challenge, take a look at this hysterical response to the fact that people who don’t agree with the BDS agenda have organized their own modest counter-program. Or the anger that greeted this obscure blog where the writer mistakenly claimed that the PennBDS conference was sponsored by the organization Penn for Palestine vs. a different anti-Israel group on campus called PennBDS. Rather than take this as a simple, understandable error (along the lines of Brian’s mistaking the Judean People’s Front for the People’s Front of Judea), it is treated as proof the dishonest nature of the Zionists. And naturally, the BDSers will blog, tweet and Facebook these and other accusations over and over for days, claiming them as proof of the impact they are having.
At the same time, when presented with a series of specific arguments that respond point-by-point to every item on the PennBDS agenda, these same indignant poseurs have clearly made the decision to pretend that these arguments do not exist. And I’m not just being self serving here. I’ve mixed it up with an organizer of the conference here and here, so they clearly know someone has been giving them the debate they claim to crave. And they are obviously Googling “PennBDS” on a regular basis so that they can post comments on other sites that do no more than mention them in an unflattering light.
Given that Divest This postings vie for position with PennBDS’s own public statements on Google, it is painfully obvious that the this allegedly triumphal “movement” – a “movement” that claims a monopoly on truth, virtue and courage – has decided to avoid addressing any genuine criticism while simultaneously striking an indignant pose and jumping at every mild error or sloppy condemnation they find anywhere else on the Internet.
And this demonstrates the greatest problem with using your opponents’ political activity as the basis for proving your own success. For only if you are actually engaging with those opponents and challenging their strongest arguments (rather than just hunting down and jumping on the weakest ones you can find) can this tactic be effective. Absent this, the folks gathering in Philadelphia next week come off looking cowardly and hypocritical, two adjectives a “movement” trying to build a reputation for strength and devotion to justice cannot afford.