Time for yet another thought experiment, this one designed to answer the question I ended my last piece with, namely, what makes the nature of BDS so unfathomable to those who (like ASA and Oxfam) become its willing victims?
To kick things off, think about a political issue you care passionately about. Maybe it’s pollution or global warming, or perhaps you are outraged by the genocide the government of Sudan has practiced in Darfur or the behavior of China in Tibet. This political passion might even have to do with the Middle East conflict. For instance, I happen to hold beliefs no less passionately regarding who is right and who is wrong in that conflict as do the BDSers (although hopefully more informed by facts and reason).
OK, now think about the various institutions you belong to and possibly even lead: perhaps a church or synagogue, maybe a professional or civic organization. And from this list, pick one that, if they endorsed your political beliefs, would help amplify your positions far beyond what you can do on your own.
But let’s say that after some consideration and talking with other members of the civic group you have chosen, you learn that others do not share your beliefs (or, going even further, hold beliefs opposite to yours with the same vehemence as do you). And in addition to offending these members (who may, in fact, hold a minority view within the chosen group), you know with certainty that getting this organization to officially endorse your views will cause significant damage to its central mission.
So what do you do next? Well, if you are a normal person, you might find other outlets for your political activity (such as joining or starting a different organization that has advocating for your beliefs as its primary purpose). Or, if getting this or that civic group to participate in your chosen political activity is absolutely vital, you might spend time educating members in order to achieve consensus around both your beliefs and the need for the organization to act on them. But even if you went down this controversial route, I would guess most of you would try to find some form such an endorsement could take that would minimize wider fallout. And I suspect you would be willing to ultimately take “No” for an answer.
Now that you have thought through how a normal person (or political movement) might behave, think about how much this diverges from the behavior of those pushing boycott, divestment and sanctions directed against Israel.
To pick a couple of examples, when BDSers determined that their boycott program would offend many, many members of food coops around the country, they simply leveraged the loose rules those coops had in place regarding product boycotts (rules that never had to be air-tight since they were based on the assumption that coop members would take one-another’s needs into consideration) to force boycott votes (or simply implement a boycott behind the backs of the membership).
Or how about the Presbyterian Church which has official voted down anti-Israel divestment motions in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Again, a normal political movement would get the message and move on. But, as we’ll see when the church meets this summer for their 2014 General Assembly, the BDSers are willing to force a vote again and again and again (possibly forever) until the organization “gets it right” by doing what they say.
This type of militant politics must seem strange to the typical groups targeted by BDS: progressive organizations with a concern for human rights (even if acting on that concern is not central to their mission) who presume that anyone bringing a political matter before them is sincere about their goals and acting in the normal fashion outlined in the thought experiment that started this piece.
The notion that a food coop, or the Presbyterian Church, or the American Studies Association or Oxfam are just a means to an end for the BDSers is what is unfathomable to these organizations. For most people participating in a civic institution understand that members of that institution have different (often opposing) beliefs and needs – which makes harmony within such groups a marvelous thing since it means those individuals have put aside differences to work together for a common good.
In contrast, the BDSers perceive these groups as existing for one purpose and one purpose only: to pass their BDS resolutions. And not just pass them, but do so in ways that will cause maximum damage to the institutions primary purpose.
I happen to sympathize with critics of ASA’s boycott policy that are equally hostile to some of the anti-boycott legislation being proposed at the state and national level. But then why are statehouses and Congress even talking about ASA, except for the fact that the association decided to take a stance that has brought the wrath of the academy and others down on everyone’s heads? And rather than contemplate the role their own behavior played in creating these controversies, the very same ASA leaders who triggered a crisis are now demanding everyone in the field take sides in a debate that should never have gotten started (one over who gets to decide where and how much academic freedom can be limited based on political need).
Moving onto Oxfam, this is an organization dedicated to doing good in the world (they are one of the most important groups helping victims of Syria’s civil war, for example). And, no doubt, having Scarlett Johansson as one of their ambassadors has also done some good in terms of raising their profile and funds.
But rather than allowing the organization to express disappointment and agree to disagree over the film star’s decision to endorse a soda manufacturer, members of an alleged “international human rights community” who are BDSers first, Oxfamers second, required – once again – that everyone choose a side.
One of the dilema’s Oxfam finds itself in has to do with ambiguity. For, from my perspective anyway, the role of the SodaStream (a company that is consciously trying to build bridges to peace through economic activity) and its location (on a piece of disputed territory likely to end up as part of Israel in any peace agreement) is complicated. And while Oxfam is free to claim that this situation is, in fact, crystal clear, that leaves them limited room to claim ambiguity as a defense when it comes time to explain why a branch of the organization giving money to organizations central to BDS are doing so for purposes other than promoting BDS.
One of those organizations happens to be called “Who Profits?,” and to end this piece (finally), I’d like to ask the question of who profits when an organization is attacked, lets down friends and allies or is torn apart in order to ensure Omar Barghouti has something to boast about on the pages of The New York Times? Not ASA (or its members). Not Oxfam (or the people it is trying to help). No, the only people profiting from the manufactured BDS controversies over the last few months are the boycotters themselves, which makes the real question why other people are willing to pay such a high price for someone else’s political bragging rights.