Having been directly involved with or covered all of the big BDS fights over the years, the specific observations I can bring to last night’s victory in Park Slope have to do with the repetition of certain important themes.
First off, there is the high drama of the lead-up to a vote with an unknown outcome. In theory, last night’s vote should have been predictable (and thus anti-climactic). After all, whenever BDSers have had to face scrutiny in the light of day (vs. skulking around at night to secretly manipulate others into doing their bidding), their arguments are always exposed as hollow and self serving. And when these issues get subjected to a genuinely democratic vote, BDS’s loss rate is pretty much 100%.
But as with most votes, outcomes are never assured. That’s why we stay up so late on Election night every four years, waiting for that last set of returns that will put one of the candidates over the top (even in years such as 1984, 1996 and 2008 when everyone knew by 8 o’clock who would be the next President of the United States). For hope (and fear) spring eternal, and the behavior of voters can still surprise us, which is why Park Slope was such a nail biter until all the votes were counted (even if yet another defeat for BDS now seems to have been inevitable).
A second theme derives from a quote Hussein Ibish made after divestment advocates failed to get their motion through the student council in Berkeley. “…if you can’t get divestment through UC Berkeley, you’re done,” he said, indicating that with the number of potential targets for BDS activity so limited, if you can’t get that school to play along, what chance do you have in all of the parts of the country that don’t resemble Berkeley?
Remember that BDS only targets progressive communities who they hope have limited immune systems with regard to appeals to the manipulative exploitation of the language of human rights. Which is why they don’t bother plying their wares to the thousands of colleges, cities, retailers or churches that don’t identify strongly with progressive politics.
In other words, places like the Park Slope Coop represent one of the few places in the country that might listen to what the BDSers have to say. And even there, they had to game the system in order to force a vote the leaders and most members of the organization didn’t want. And even after forcing such a vote, they still lost. BIG (2:1 by the membership, and 5-0 by the Coop’s board that immediately ratified the membership’s decision).
This is why I’m not all that bothered by the fact that the pro-boycott forces received 500+ votes out of 1500+. Some locals have looked at these numbers and wondered how so many of their neighbors could take a position that seems so ignorant and destructive. And, naturally, BDS spin doctors are trying to present this number of votes as representing high levels of support (in the heart of New York, no less).
But if you look at statistics representing general support for Israel vs. the Palestinians, this ratio tends to hover consistently at 3:1 (which is really an average of 2:1 support you find for Israel in many urban locations and a 4:1 ratio everywhere else). So at the end of the day, last night’s 2:1 vote against a boycott simply means that even at one of the most progressive organizations in the country, support for Israel pretty much looks like it does everywhere else.
I’m sure there will be the chance to Fisk some of the aforementioned spinning that will be coming out of the BDS camp in the coming hours and days, starting with claims that last night’s vote was NOT democratic, despite the fact that the BDSers would have embraced the result and hailed it across the world had they won last night (defining democracy – as always – with them getting their way).
But rather than go there now, I’d like to highlight one last trend that seems to repeat itself again and again in nearly every community I’ve worked with on this issue. And that is the success that flows when people within an organization targeted by BDS take matters into their own hands.
One of the many ego-salving explanations as to why BDS loses all the time is the claim that vast and powerful Jewish institutional forces endlessly conspire against poor and pitiable BDSers who go into battle with nothing more than truth and justice on their side. But, point of fact, whenever boycott or divestment has been trounced it has been because able leadership emerged from within the school, church, coop or other institution that understood BDS to be poisonous, regardless of the sweet rhetoric this poison pill was coated with.
Now just as BDS advocates tap into their own world-wide support networks, locals who oppose BDS will reach out to others for help, sometimes to individuals (such as myself), sometimes to organizations (such as local JCRCs or entrepreneurial groups like StandWithUs). But success on our side has always come most easily when these groups followed the lead of people on the ground, rather than having to take the lead themselves.
And how do these local leaders emerge? They emerge spontaneously when people within a city (like Somerville), church (like the Presbyterians) or food coop (like Park Slope) realize that the institution is being asked to do something supremely unfair and supremely hurtful in their name. That’s when something snaps and people who might have just been occasional pro-Israel activists (or done nothing Israel related) in the past, suddenly understand that they can no longer sit idly by and let the Israel haters own the discussion and dominate an institution with which they identify.
At Park Slope, ordinary people realized something needed to be done and did it. And few things in politics are more powerful than that.