For a movement that’s been kicking around for close to a decade and a half, BDS has generated remarkably few catch phrases.
Personally, I would have liked it if “Lack of concrete victory is incidental” had taken off, but there is no choosing what does and does not become a meme. And while the hashtag #BDSFail seems to have caught on, the only utterance I can think of that most people (or at least most people dealing with anti-Israel propaganda campaigns) would probably recognize is the one Lawrence Summers used when, as President of Harvard, he described divest-from-Israel programs as “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent” (a phrase he repeated recently with regard to American Studies Association boycott).
Given how much shouting and sign-waving the allegedly “muzzled” BDS movement does on a daily basis, you would think that something they (vs. their opponents) said in the last dozen or so years would have stuck in people’s minds. Well with the American Studies Association boycott, their long drought may be over.
In an interview with the New York Times, Curtis Marez, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego and (more importantly) President of an American Studies Association when it passed an academic boycott vote targeting Israel, was asked the most easily anticipated question in history: why, in a world full of human rights violators (including nations that actively suppress and murder academics) did the ASA decide to implement its first academic boycott against Israel and no one else. His response: “one has to start somewhere.”
These five simple words seem to have done more than anything else to make both Professor Marez and the organization he leads (now led) into a laughingstock. “’One has to start somewhere.’ Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?” said Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed as he and college Presidents across the country lined up to condemn the ASA contemptible hypocrisy.
Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New Republic, captured the essence of Marez’s phrase when he said: “his chillingly casual words are a measure of the moral and intellectual vapidity of what the ASA proudly described as ‘an ethical stance.’” And NY Post/Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg pointed out the broader implication of Marez’s sentiment when he said “Historically, it’s often been easiest to start — and end — with the Jews. The ASA resolution is an abomination to those who believe in intellectual freedom, but what gives it its special piquancy is its chosen target.”
Boycott supporters seemed to have recognized the scale of damage their President’s cloddish statement was causing, which is why they took to the comments section of nearly every critical article that mentioned Marez’s now-famous remark to insist that his words were taken out of context, and that if we simply read them in their entirety we would see that he offers ample explanation as to the question of “why Israel and no one else?”
Just so I can’t be accused of whatever Marez’s apologists are accusing people of, here is the New York Times paragraph containing the original quote, as well as the paragraph which came next which boycott defenders insist adequately contextualizes their former leader’s now notorious choice of words:
“The American Studies Association has never before called for an academic boycott of any nation’s universities, said Curtis Marez, the group’s president and an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, San Diego. He did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable, but he said, ‘one has to start somewhere.’
“He argued that the United States has ‘a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.’ While acknowledging that the same could be said of a number of oppressive governments, past and present, he said that in those countries, civil society groups had not asked his association for a boycott, as Palestinian groups have.”
If you find those explanations a bit less than satisfying (as well as awfully familiar), it’s because they are the same BDS pre-digested talking points that are always trotted out when someone asks why Israel and Israel alone must be given the boycott treatment. I’ve taken apart both the US Aid and Palestinian Civil Society excuses before, which you are free to read if you want to better understand the flimsiness behind the supposedly exculpatory claims associated with Marez’s now legendary “one has to start somewhere” phrase (although I also recommend you read this piece by an American Studies professor who has been blogging thoughtfully on the subject since the boycott debate began).
One of the reasons why the original “one has to start somewhere” phrase struck such a chord is that it provides opponents an open invitation to issue an unanswerable rebuttal by simply asking: “OK – so where do you plan to go next?” And the reason this rebuttal is unanswerable is that ASA, like any other organization trying to dress up narrow, partisan, anti-Israel BDS propaganda to look like a human rights campaign, will never apply the principle they’re willing to humiliate the organization over to any other state on the planet.
Next time: The Backlash