The Beinart Effect

While this year has mostly been dark clouds for the forces of BDS, both small (failure at the Park Slope Food Coop), medium (another year of getting nowhere on college campuses) and large (the Methodist Church rejecting divestment yet again), there is a silver lining for them that we in the boycott-fighting business should take note of.

You saw it play out with the Methodists who rejected divestment and just as sensibly rejected various partisan resolutions that could be presented as the church taking sides in the Middle East conflict.  But they did pass a resolution supporting boycott of one segment of Israeli society, namely businesses located in the disputed territories (better known as the settlements, or – to use BDS parlance – “The Settlements”).

We saw a similar decision last month in the UK where the largest food cooperative organization in the country also passed a settlement boycott measure, and it’s very possible you’ll see something similar play out when the Presbyterians meet in June (although I still anticipate that they will reject divestment, as did the Methodists, for a fourth time).

The settlement boycott issue is a tricky one, for while general rejection of BDS has pretty much reached consensus across the entire Jewish political spectrum, attitudes towards what should ultimately happen with the disputed territories remains an issue of deep contention within Israel, among Israel’s supporters, and within the wider world.

And when these two issues (BDS and the politics of the territories) become conflated, it’s much easier to present a boycott of certain Israelis as the “moderate” option located halfway between “doing nothing” (which is deemed unacceptable) and broad-based BDS (which is deemed equally unacceptable).  This is the argument that was used (successfully) in the UK where decision makers thought they were actually being supportive of Israel by seeking this “moderate” option as an alternative to the blanket boycott that was being requested of them by anti-Israel partisans (who are quite strong in Europe).

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’m planning to start a series on the use of rhetoric in the Middle East/BDS conflict.  But just to give you a taste, what is described above is something called the fallacy of moderation which is often employed by partisans who want to convince you to do what they really want by presenting their preferred option as a compromise between “extremes” contrived for the sole purpose of locating their real goal in the mid-point between them.

To take a simple (fictional) example, a candidate who wants to raise the tax rate to 45% by insisting that this represents the moderate option between extremists in his own party who want to raise the rate to 90% and the opposing party that wants to eliminate taxes altogether, is intentionally using the fallacy of moderation to present what is really a major tax increase as the moderate choice located exactly between two extremes.  The fallacy comes in when you realize that the two extremes he is describing are not genuine, real-world options, but exist solely to locate his desired tax rate between them.

In the case of “partial BDS,” this too is an example of a moderation fallacy since there are any number of alternatives to “doing nothing” (defined as not having any boycott or divestment policy) and implementing a total boycott of all things Israeli.  You could, for example, pass a policy urging positive investment (as did the Methodists), which may not have pleased the BDSers but is certainly one of many alternatives to the false choices that frame an argument which says “well since you must do something, a boycott of settlements is better than nothing.”

When settlement boycotts are debated within the Jewish community, they are generally framed as an alternative to what is sometimes called “Full BDS” (meaning a boycott of companies within Israel proper).  But this analysis (like all analysis of which Israeli companies to boycott) misses the bigger picture.

For as I’ve noted ad nauseum on this site, the goal of BDS is NOT to hurt Israel economically, but to stuff the political positions of the BDSers into the mouth of a well-known, respected institution.  And once a boycott or divestment resolution of any size based on any target gets passed by one of these institutions, the message sent to the world is not “The such-and-such organization has passed a highly limited boycott of just a certain subset of Israelis…”  Rather, the message is “Such-and-such organization agrees with we the BDSers that Israeli is an Apartheid State.  And so should you!”

I titled this piece “The Beinart Effect” in honor of writer Peter Beinart who first proposed a Jewish version of BDS, not targeted Israel’s foes but targeted fellow Jews on the “wrong” side of the Green Line.  This was Beinart’s too-clever-by-half attempt to both subvert a BDS movement (which he claims to loath) by using their own tactics to allow some Jews (who think like him) to demonstrate their dislike of other Jews (who don’t think link him), thus proving their righteousness while showing what a virtuous version of BDS might look like in the hands of people as moral and forward thinking as Beinart himself.

But as anyone who knows anything about BDS could have told him, his complex and somewhat convoluted strategy was doomed to be boiled by the BDSers into a much simpler message: “Progressive Jews (like Beinart and those he claims to represent) want you to engage in a boycott of Israel, and we’re the ones to tell you how to do it.”

With a couple of settlement boycott wins under their belt, it’s just a matter of time before the BDSers re-align their strategy to push for more of these kinds of votes (as opposed to the general divestment measures that have been such a bust for them) and begin to claim any wins they receive regarding such measures (and not their many losses elsewhere) as the only metric with which the rest of us should judge their success.

Having seen BDS tactics morph time and time again, I’ve never been much for whining when they eventually stumble onto something that works.  Rather, those of us who fight against boycotts and divestment activities need to be just as flexible in finding tactics that can counter this new offensive, and let the world know that the success of both Israel and its supporters is not something to be measured by the embrace of a new gimmick by a bunch of narrow-minded, self-righteous partisans who (like their new-found accidental ally Peter Beinart) cannot think beyond themselves.

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6 Responses to The Beinart Effect

  1. Anonymous May 14, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    Sorry, Jon, but as someone who's been following your blog and these issues more generally, this is one of the few points where I vehemently disagree with you.
    A settlement boycott does not strengthen the BDS movement, but rather draws a clear line between legitimate and illegitimate criticism. It allows people who do love Israel and want the best for the future of the country not to have to blindly support policies that are silly and destructive. And as an Israeli, I can tell you that such a boycott – together with other actions that drive a wedge between the settlements and their inhabitants and Israeli society in general – may be the only way to get most Israelis to realize the futility of the settlement project. Because, unfortunately, now they have nothing to lose by either supporting it or being silent on the matter, while right-wing lunatics establish more and more facts on the ground.

  2. Anonymous May 14, 2012 at 6:01 am #

    A settlement boycott also makes a clear distinction from BDS,who does not accept Israel in any form.
    The Canadian Protestants have agreed to boycott products from the settlements but made clear that they will not boycott Israel or it's companies and will work for peace and reconcilliation.That completely opposes the BDS agenda.A two state solution is not what BDS wants, so I can't see how a boycott of settlements is nothing more than another loss for them.

  3. Jon May 14, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    I fully appreciate the passions both within Israel and within the community of Israel’s supporters regarding the settlement issue, and I don’t plan to argue one side or the other on that matter. But I urgently caution anyone who disagrees with settlements and settlement policy to avoid having that issue “blot out the sun,” preventing them from perceiving the true nature of the BDS “movement.”

    You may see wins regarding settlement boycotts at various institutions as a blow against BDS, but I assure you the boycotters do not. They are already hailing any such wins as a fantastic “first step” that will eventually lead to their ultimate victory which will include subjecting all Israelis (including you and all those aligned with you and against you politically) to boycotts and divestment, claiming all Israelis (including you and all those aligned with you and against you politically) as inhabiting the new “Apartheid State” that deserves the same fate as the last one.

  4. fizziks May 14, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    I'll tell you what – in the past, I supported a settlement boycott and even proclaimed so on the internet. Although I still think the occupation needs to be drawn down for Israel's own long-term survival as a Jewish and democratic state, there is a absolutely no way that I support a settlement boycott now.

    What changed?

    In the interim I became fully acquainted with the actual extent of the extremism and fundamental dishonesty of the anti-Israel side. I did this through interacting directly with them, on forums such as Daily Kos.

    Give an inch and they take a thousand miles, as Jon has pointed out in this article. I think that the occupation needs to end, but given the depraved and very dangerous nature of BDS and their allies, and the stakes involved, I think it is a fundamental mistake to ever mention the words 'boycott' and 'Israel' in the same paragraph without the harshest of condemnation.

  5. DrMike May 14, 2012 at 4:30 pm #

    This is a very nuanced topic; and, as we all know too well, BDS doesn't do nuance. (Hard to do nuance when you operate in a truth-optional reality to start with).

    Beinart, as much as I oppose his position, is at least very clear and very articulate in his support for Zionism–unlike, for example, Michael Lerner; you can read an interview of Beinart by Lerner at http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/building-a-jewish-and-democratic-state-a-conversation-with-peter-beinart, in which it is strikingly clear how much Lerner's position mirrors that of JVP. And Beinart's explicitly does not.

    There's also a lengthy but very substantive debate between Beinart and Daniel Gordis that took place a few weeks ago at Columbia; you can view it at http://www.facebook.com/TabletMag/app_142371818162 (don't click on the large screen that says “offline”; click on the small screen under it that says “debate” and it will play in the larger window). What is notable is the wide areas of agreement between the two– not on policies promoted by Beinart, but on the end goals.

    Beinart said that he would engage with non- and anti-Zionists; I would actually like to see him take on Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti, or other high ranking members of the BDS cru. Perhaps this is just vain hope, but the more that he can see and hear–not in print, but viscerally, face to face in front of him– how the BDSers will try to use him as a “first step” and use his own statements as part of their war against all of Israel, then the more likely he is to realize the effect of what he is doing.

  6. Anonymous May 20, 2012 at 3:50 am #

    It's already started. First Beinart brings the issue up. Then Co-Op announces its boycott. Now we have news of South Africa making labeling distinctions on goods from teh settlements vs. inside the Green line and Denmark announcing consideration of same. I think it is no coincidence – labeling is a prelude to boycott and Beinart opened the door by providing a Jewish fig leaf. he's a lot smarter than most of the BDS people, alas. My take is that labeling, then boycotting settler goods is Boycott lite, and lays the groundwork for the argument for full on boycott down the road.

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