Well the PennBDS conference has come and gone and before looking at what it all adds up to, I’d like to start by congratulating the organizers for the impressive job they accomplished.
I know this might seem strange coming from someone who has done so much to criticize the event, both at the PennBDS-Oy site and in the local Philadelphia Jewish paper. But having organized programming in the past (and having also put a great deal of effort in a PennBDS-related project over the last month), I appreciate the time, energy and logistical effort needed to pull off a program of this scale. And just because my appreciation of their efforts will never be reciprocated, that’s no reason not to express such sentiments.
Needless to say, I found the content of the program misguided at best. And recognizing the various tricks they played to give the appearance of debate while never actually engaging in it did not make watching such manipulative behavior any less distasteful. But now that the event is over, it’s best to step back and get some perspective on what might emerge from the last few days.
Regarding U Penn where the program was held, my first instinct was to use the last few weeks as another example of stalemate between pro- and anti-Israel forces on US campuses. After all, the BDS group clearly had the people, resources and wherewithal to pull together a reasonably large conference just as Israel’s supporters put together program of generally comparable size in opposition.
But after visiting campus last week, seeing who was doing what, and thinking through the long-term results of efforts started over the last month, I may have to give the long-term edge to Israel’s supporters vs. the players at PennBDS.
After all, the organized Jewish community on campus received a lot of attention as well as resources targeted at long-term programming related to Israel-related political action. More importantly, students that might have spent four years indifferent to Israel (or focused on apolitical Jewish or Israel-related issues) have been galvanized to action. And, as we’ve seen on campus after campus, all it takes is one energized and skilled organizer to make a difference.
In contrast, if a goal of group called PennBDS was to make the University of Pennsylvania divesting and distancing itself from Israel more thinkable, all they managed to do was to focus a spotlight on the warm relationship between U Penn and the Jewish state and force the school’s administration to articulate their support for that relationship openly. With actual BDS closed off to them, chances of even getting a toothless, symbolic divestment resolution passed by the student council are practically nil, leaving little practical outlets for their energy outside of hummus boycotts (which failed as well).
So if on the U Penn campus Penn BDS is remembered as a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, what about the “free media” they got from the event? Might that have some long-term outcome outside of campus?
Well if you subtract stories that appeared in the U Penn paper, stories penned by the BDSers on their own web sites, and what I’ve written about the subject, you end up with an event that generated maybe a dozen stories (mostly in the Pennsylvania or general Jewish press, and mostly negative). And even at U Penn, the press bandwagon is moving on, with remaining stories wondering what all the fuss was about.
This is important since; despite increasingly ludicrous claims by Omar Barghouti that his political position represents the unspoken will of that mythical “99%,” the vast majority of college students remain indifferent to either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict and distrustful of partisans in either camp. Sure they support human rights and justice (who doesn’t?), but they show no indication of believing that groups like PennBDS represents those values, just because they mouth the words incessantly. And, as mentioned before, those unaffiliated with either side tend to favor the party that shows a willingness to engage in dialog. Which means that the BDSers decision to ban journalists they don’t care for (while all the time insisting they be allowed to do whatever they want, all in the name of free speech) might leave the most lasting impression of their entire effort.
Moving off campus, there is the legitimate concern that students energized by attending the conference will get back to their schools and use what they have learned to inflict BDS on their fellow students for the coming months or years. But as we have seen for over a decade, BDS has been a complete dead end, particularly at colleges and universities. So the notion of anti-Israel forces doubling down on a failed tactic for another decade or three should actually fill pro-Israel hearts with joy.
And for those who hope (or fear) that BDS is simply a transmission belt for pumping the Israel = Apartheid propaganda message into public discourse, keep in mind that the level and scale of rejection of BDS over the last 11-12 years cannot be explained as bad luck or a conspiracy of the 1%. For when boycotts and divestment have been put to a vote (even in places like the Mainline Protestant churches which have been increasingly unfriendly towards Israel over the last few decades), it was voted down by 95-100% i.e., by almost the entirety of the grassroots who understood that everything about BDS: its arguments, its message its presentation of facts are simply a tangle of lies and propaganda masquerading as virtue.
And so as the BDSers pack up their tents, pat each other on the back and claim victory on every blog and twitter feed where they maintain control of the conversation, the rest of us can take satisfaction that outside the fantasy world of BDS activists themselves, their event will barely leave the footprints you see in the sand before the next tide comes in.