Well, after a set of productive diversions, it’s time to get back to a subject I promised to write about a couple of weeks back: the bullying tactics that seem to be growing in prominence among BDS practitioners, especially at colleges and universities.
Extra-political tactics that include threats, intimidation and even occasional violence have always been sporadically used by divestment champions, usually taking the form of shouting down pro-Israel speakers who dare to speak on campuses that BDSers consider “theirs.” In Canada several years ago, actual riots took place when Benjamin Netenyahu was scheduled to speak at Concordia University. But in the US, such tactics were rarely seen, outside of a few West Coast universities.
But over the last couple of years, as BDS has lurched from one failure to another, such tactics have taken center stage. The orchestrated disruption of Michael Oren when he spoke at the UC Irvine set the template for subsequent activities, which included disruptions at Hampshire and, most recently, UC Davis.
Historically, it’s taken forever for college administrators to step in when pro-Israel events such as these are disrupted, preferring to treat the right of Israel’s supporters to speak and protestor’s right to shout them down as equal expressions of “free speech.” But as these activities became more widespread and pronounced, adults have had to step in (although this only sparked more creative tactics on the part of the BDS censors to ensure others could not hear the words of people whom they oppose).
In some cases, students (and their supporters) have put pressure on campus administrators to act, going so far as to threaten legal action for creating an unsafe environment for Jewish students who dare disagree with the anti-Israel sentiment being cultivated on campus. But this approach turns out to be a two-edged sword. For if one pro-Israel student or supporter was free to press charges against those that threatened them or disrupted their events, what was to prevent the BDSers from accusing a hundred of their opponents with whatever charge they could trump up?
The mechanisms for dealing with such accusations turn out to be as flawed as most institutional policies that are built on the premise that people know they are supposed to treat each other respectfully and politely, with behavior codes existing only for extraordinary cases. But if you’ve got a group that has chosen to throw all social norms out the window and only sees such policies as a means to pressure and intimidate their foes, then school speech codes and other devices become not a means to keep the peace, but a weapon for a war by other means.
That’s when you get situations like UC Davis (California again) where opponents of a failed BDS effort were brought up on charges of racism and harassment. Or, more ridiculous yet, this situation in McGillwhere pro-Israel students parodying the local Israel Apartheid Week by throwing an event called “Israel: A Party” (I know, fairly lame), got hauled before the student council and had their funding threatened unless they changed that name. In other words, one group of students was free to hold a week of events under the label “Israel Apartheid” that accused Israelis and their supporters of the ugliest crimes in history while another group of students was threatened for even considering a slightly mocking version of that same phrase.
For the most part, pro-Israel students have not taken the bait and returned intimidation and violence with intimidation and violence of their own, creating a situation where the non-committed are able to contrast the atrocious behavior of one side of the debate with the responsible behavior of the other. And even among those who have no opinion on the Middle East, this contrast shines through above any details of a particular divestment debate.
As with most BDS tactics, this type of bullying almost seems designed to turn off those whom the boycotters claim they are trying to convince, demonstrating the fanaticism and rudeness of those who adhering BDS principles. And when such behavior has been rightly wrapped around the neck of the BDS movement as a whole, it has helped continue the process of de-legitimizing the entire effort to de-legitimize the Jewish state.
It’s an open question as to why the BDSers continue to escalate, given that this kind of behavior is so counter-productive to their cause and (on some occasions) can bring official rebuke and even punishment upon the most extreme actors. But if you step back and think about the effort to which certain Israel haters go to disrupt events (for example, paying $500+ to get into the AIPAC Policy conference for 15 seconds of unnoticed heckling), things being to make sense.
For an understanding of this phenomenon, we once again need to return to our old friend fantasy. For in the mind of the boycotters, the attendees at AIPAC are as unreal as the students at Hampshire, Irvine and McGill. Like real Israelis and real Palestinians, human beings not in the boycotter’s own little groups simply serve as props in a drama taking place in the heads of the BDSers themselves, a drama that casts the boycotters as white knights, the only truly moral beings on the planet whose every act of vandalism and violence is actually a demonstration of bravery and resolve.
But here on earth, they are not acting bravely, or even dramatically. They are simply making a nuisance of themselves or acting as censors, while all the time claiming (without evidence) that it is they who are being censored and menaced – a naked demonstration of projection and pre-emptive disarming built on a keen understanding that it is their opponents who truly embody the virtues (including commitment to free speech and open debate) that the boycotters simply (if loudly) feign