Some current goings on in the world of academic divestment (at Oxford University as well as the University of California system) provide insight into the next lesson I learned while studying the BDS “movement,” a lesson regarding the nature of the organizations supporting and opposing BDS propaganda programs.
I’ve already talked about the sociopathic and fantasy-laden nature of individuals pushing boycott and divestment projects. But those individuals make up groups, including the alphabet soup of BDS champions (JVP, SJP, PACBI, et al), and these groups also have a nature.
The key power of such groups is their willingness to continue pushing their agenda ruthlessly and relentlessly, regardless of the cost to themselves and others (best exemplified by their demand for an umpteenth student council divestment vote at the University of California at San Diego next week).
Over the years, many people have asked me where BDS groups get their money. And while anti-Israel activists obviously need a source of funds to fly Omar Barghouti and other BDS/Israel Hate Week speakers around the country (never mind leasing flotilla ships to sail across the Mediterranean), most of the anti-Israel campaigns we have to deal with at schools, churches, etc. are led by smaller, networked groups whose most important resource is not money but their own fanaticism.
This fanaticism comes at a cost, however. For just as BDS-proponents will use underhanded tactics to subvert third parties (such as student councils or food co-op boards) they also use these same tactics to try to grab power within their own organizations. This tale from someone once involved with the now-defunct Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM) is extremely telling with regard to how a once-successful political organization dedicated to anti-Israel divestment fell apart in the process of repelling non-stop attempts at internal subversion that leveraged the same tactics BDS uses to subvert others.
This is why anti-Israel organizations tend to be unstable, breaking apart and reforming under new names every 8-10 years (with Students for Justice in Palestine being the current flavor of the month).
In contrast, the pro-Israel community suffers not from instability, but from too much stability. Specifically, we need to deal with a political landscape made up of: (1) grassroots activists working at ground level; (2) entrepreneurial pro-Israel groups (such as StandWithUs, CAMERA and The David Project) who focus on specific types of activism, and; (3) very large organizations (JCRC, Hillel, AIPAC, AJC, etc.) with multiple missions who have taken an understandable interest in fighting against BDS.
A network of small to large institutions provides grassroots activists expertise and resources to fall back on when needed. But as anyone who has ever worked within an institution understands, getting big (or even medium-sized) organizations to move or change course can require a lot of effort, especially since these institutions have their own long-term goals that will generally take priority over responding to the crisis of the day.
Despite the complex nature of the pro-Israel community, over the last 5-6 years a consensus has emerged regarding how to deal with the issue of BDS. First, there is now a common understanding that regardless of how open the “Big Tent” is going to be for Jews with different opinions about Israel and the Middle East, support BDS remains a bright red line separating those inside the tent vs. those outside of it.
Just as importantly, an informal consensus has emerged which says that the best people to deal with a particular BDS problem are those on the ground (student groups on college campuses, anti-divestment organizations within churches, etc.). So rather than descending on a campus and telling students what they should and shouldn’t do, the network of pro-Israel organizations have contented themselves to let the locals call the shots, providing support and resources only when they are asked for.
This approach comes at a cost, especially in situations when a well-organized and/or well-informed set of activists are not available at a particular institution. This is common on college campuses where high student turnover means pro-Israel (like anti-Israel) organizations may be strong or weak during any particular year. But it’s also common in places like food co-ops where I’ve only seen local members organize themselves to repel a boycott project about half the time.
But as we saw with the recent Brooklyn College blow up (where, absent a locally organized response, politicians jumped in on their own), letting anyone run their own anti-BDS effort without a local focal point can cause more harm than good.
And so activists up and down the pro-Israel food chain (from the leaders of 100-year-old Jewish organizations down to individual activists like myself) have had to learn to keep our peace, even in situations where we can think of a hundred ways that this or that community could repel a BDS attack, unless and until the people on the ground reach out to ask for our help.
While this hands-off approach can be frustrating, it does provide a healthy dose of perspective. For example, when BDSers got a divestment resolution through the UC Irvine and UCSA student government organizations last year, this barely made a ripple in the media (outside of hyperventilating BDS web sites for whom any achievement, no matter how irrelevant or trivial, represents impending triumph).
This lack of panic on our side grew out of an understanding that the militancy of the BDSers and their endless search for new categories of institutions to subvert means we are always going to win some (like Oxford) and lose some (like, potentially, UCSD).
More importantly, with three years separating the UC Irvine (and potentially UCSD) votes from a similar vote at Berkeley (which did make international news), most of us now understand that student council BDS resolutions demonstrate nothing more than the ability of BDSers to subvert or morally blackmail student leaders into striking an irrelevant pose that (1) will never be acted upon by the grownups who run the university; and (2) in no way represents the opinion of the students these leaders are supposed to be representing.
Perhaps because BDS has been with us for so long, most people now understand that, regardless of whether they win or lose this or that particular vote, they have yet to demonstrate that their Israel=Apartheid hate message represents the opinion of anyone other than themselves. And it is to the subject of who gets to speak for whom that we shall turn to next.