I had planned to give the whole PennBDS thing a rest over the weekend in order to let that group have their say. But after this story broke yesterday, it seemed negligent to let the group’s decision to ban a member of the press from their event go without commentary.
As the linked piece above describes, the organizers of the PennBDS conference decided that they didn’t like an article written about their event by a journalist from Jewish Exponent, Philadelphia’s one Jewish paper (one which was generous enough to let me pen an editorial for them last week). And so they denied her press credentials to cover their conference. Now they did claim willingness to let a different Exponent reporter in, but by a strange coincidence they selected a reporter who was out of town and thus unavailable.
Whether this de facto expulsion of the Exponent was intentional or just an accidental by-product of the PennBDS organizer’s decision that they be allowed to pick and choose which members of the press could cover them, this incident really encapsulates everything that BDS is about.
First off, you’ve got a group (PennBDS) which has used the phrases of “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” as blast shields, accusing anyone who criticizes them or criticizes the University for allowing their event to take place as enemies of both. And yet within the civic space they control (their own conference), they demand full authority to decide who is and who is not allowed to hear what they say. And apparently that decision was based entirely on the fact that they didn’t like a member of the free press using her freedom of speech to say something they didn’t like.
Now this is par for the course for BDS across the board which routinely demands that everyone else’s civic spaces be opened to them unconditionally, while greedily protecting their own spaces just as unconditionally. The refusal of BDS organizations to make their Web sites two-way streets in terms of communication is a symptom of this phenomenon that I’ve commented on before, but you can generally count on them only being willing to engage in “dialog” when they’ve got the upper hand (for instance, after every hour-long talk at their conference, they are willing to allow 5-10 minutes of Q&A – but only so long as they get to pick the questioners and continue to control the microphone).
Most people have talked about the banning of the Exponent in terms of hypocrisy, which is more than relevant. But I would like to look at it through a different lens: that of courage vs. cowardice.
This too is relevant, especially with folks like BDS generalissimo OmarBarghouti (who demands an unconditional boycott of Israeli academia from his comfortable perch as a University of Tel Aviv grad student) declaring that the across-the-board negative public reaction to PennBDS is evidence that BDS critics are panicking and running scared.
Now to me, the many events set up to counter the PennBDS program seem like nothing more than groups of people lining up to give Barghouti’s cause the swift kick it deserves, but in terms of panicking and running scared, just who do these descriptions fit better, the BDSers or their critics?
The Exponent banishment scandal helps to answer that question, but so does the PennBDS group’s choices regarding how to engage with critics. As I’ve noted before, this group is fully aware that at least one person (me) has taken them at their word that they are starved for meaningful dialog with those who oppose their “movement,” that I have provided a detailed response to each and every item on their conference agenda, and even offered them space to post transcripts from their event (or any other response they like) in a place that is open for two-way dialog.
Yet their reaction to someone who they understand has their number is to dodge discussion and debate through the simple expedient of avoiding engagement with these arguments: never acknowledging them, never linking to them (despite the numerous links I’ve made to their sites), in fact doing everything in their power to pretend they do not exist.
Now contrast this with their reaction to one letter to the editor that criticized them with less than measured language. Once that was published, suddenly they found their voice issuing endless denunciations and demands that others condemn this letter, coupled with complaints that they feared for their lives all because a 60+ year old professor dared to use language half as intemperate as the BDSers will using all weekend long to describe the Jewish state.
There is a word for this behavior which is cowardice. And the bullying we’ve seen since this event started making news (condemning those who criticize them as enemies of free speech, banning the press, etc.) is just a demonstration of something we learned from Saturday morning cartoons: that bullies are cowards (and vice versa).
One of the most important things I’ve learned in participating in debate over the years is something called the Principle of Charity. This principle says that those participating in debate are obligated to take on their opponent’s strongest arguments, rather than just pouncing on their weakest (and pretending that those weak arguments are all that there are).
Despite the fact that my writing is probably too long-winded to attract a wide audience, and my viewpoint somewhat eccentric, I will at least be able to go into next week knowing that by choosing to take on my opponent’s chosen arguments (all of them) I was willing to live by the Principle of Charity and to not chicken out or take shortcuts to demonstrate the hollowness of the whole BDS enterprise.
Human beings being what they are, the organizers of PennBDS know in their heart of hearts that they cannot say the same thing. When given the chance to argue and defend their positions they dodged, they weaved and they hid. They found (or invented) arguments they would rather take on (such as claims that anyone criticizing them were just hurling empty accusations of anti-Semitism) in order to avoid more substantial ones.
No doubt they will try to ameliorate feelings of spinal inadequacy by congratulating themselves on their courage for standing up to dark, all-powerful Zionist forces that opposed them. But in the years to come, when most of them have left radical politics behind in order to focus on applications to dental school, a little voice will continue to speak to them reminding them that when they had the chance to truly fight for a cause they claimed to believe in, they chose to do anything but.