One of the first lessons I learned when I became involved with fighting against divest-from-Israel campaigns is that, unlike other forms of anti-Israel propaganda, BDS involves more than just Israel, its foes and their mutual supporters. For a third party is always required for a BDS campaign to have any meaning.
Think about it for a moment. If an anti-Israel group like Students for Justice in Palestine or Jewish Voices for Peace declares that they will no longer be investing or companies to that do business with the Jewish state or are planning to stop buying Israel products, this is about as newsworthy as the Democratic Party expressing its support for a Democratic Presidential candidate, or an apple growers’ association broadcasting the health benefits of eating apples.
In contrast to other propaganda efforts (such as the latest Israel Apartheid Week rerun with their cardboard walls and angry-Palestinian minstrel shows) which may take place on a college campus but cannot claim support of the college, BDS must get its condemnations to come out of the mouth of a well-known and respected institution, such as a college or university, church, municipality, union or business. Absent the participation of such a third party, the BDSers can claim to speak for no one but themselves.
The centrality of obtaining institutional support is so vital to the BDS project that proponents of this strategy will go to almost any length to convince the public that their Israel=Apartheid condemnation is shared by well-known organization, using “by-any-means-necessary” tactics which include:
- Working behind the backs of members of the organization to try to get leaders to take votes on boycott and divestment before anyone knows such decisions are even being discussed (read Somerville, the Olympia Food Coop and the UCSA)
- When leaders are not amenable to such manipulation, suddenly turning into champions of democracy and insisting that members must be given a vote on some contrived BDS measure (read Park Slope)
- Returning to the same group over and over again, regardless of how much damage it might cause to the organization and how many times they are told no (read the Presbyterian Church)
- And, when all else fails, simply declaring a boycott or divestment win and hope that the press and public falls for the hoax (read Hampshire College)
At some level, the lengths the boycotters go to create momentum for their cause can seem positively insane (or at least totally counter-productive). For instance, their stunt at Hampshire virtually guaranteed that no college President or investment manager in the country would even take their phone calls out of fear of ending up with words stuffed into their mouths in the latest BDS press release.
In fact, the whole BDS hoax phenomenon has become so widespread that even gullible journalists who might have taken BDS press releases at face value five years ago no longer give their pronouncements the time of day. (Which is why BDS victory stories tend to only run in the anti-Israel press these days.)
But since third-party support is central to the BDS project, these campaigns must continue, even if the list of targets becomes ever more marginal and even when more and more BDS headlines translate to the now familiar self-serving formula of “When we lose we win!”
Now all of this reality does not mean the BDS tactic is without some utility. For example, BDS is a very simple concept, making it easy to get a campaign off the ground. And since ownership of a single share of widely held stock (such as Caterpillar and Hewlett Packard) can put a college or other institution into the cross-hairs, the BDSers are free to create controversy anywhere they like.
Boycott and divestment advocates also have the initiative to target new categories of institutions (such as community radio stations and food coops) as they like, which means Israel’s supporters will always be on the defensive, waiting to see where a BDS infection breaks out next.
In theory, we could turn the tables on our foes by campaigning just as ruthlessly to have institutions condemn our political adversaries (regardless of the cost to such organizations). But since we are not willing to harm others to get our way, the initiative remains with anti-Israel forces who endlessly demonstrate that they have no such scruples
But the need for third party support also demonstrates the greatest weakness with the BDS strategy. For even within organizations that show little sympathy with the Jewish state (such as Mainline Protestant churches), there is something more important than taking a political stand on Middle East politics: the health and well being of the institution itself.
This is why groups like the Presbyterians rescinded their 2004 BDS resolution by an overwhelming margin in 2006, and have voted down returning to a divestment policy three times since then. For while a Zionist heart does not likely beat in the breast of every member of the church, all Presbyterians are united in not wanting to see harm come to their struggling church. So even if the boycotters manage to manipulate their way into a Yes vote the next time around, the notion that their statements represent the will of millions of church members has long ago been exposed as a lie.
Just as importantly, if people from within these institutions arise to organize opposition, BDS is usually doomed. We’ve seen this in places like Park Slope, but also at colleges and universities where actual divestment is more of a distant pipe-dream than ever, and even a behind-the-scenes student council divestment votes in favor of divestment have been drained of all meaning, given that everyone involved knows that such votes do not reflect the opinion of the people student governments claim to represent.
So BDS contains within it the seeds of its own destruction. Which is why it continues today only because its proponents have not yet found something more useful to do with themselves.