There are a number of ways to approach the latest campaigns against Israel within academic associations like the American Studies Association (ASA), the UAW graduate student union in California and, most recently, the American Anthropology Association (AAA) and Middle East Studies Association (MESA).
One option would be to simply express outrage at the sheer ludicrousness of targeting the only nation in the entire Middle East where the academy has the same freedom enjoyed by those who are condemning it (and the ever-lamer excuses these groups use to justify their highly selective outrage).
Another option would be to panic that perhaps, this time, BDS really is “on the march” and that if we don’t do something immediately then we’re All DOOMED!!!!! (I’m waiting for my favorite overwrought ally in the anti-BDS fight to publish something along these lines any minute – which will then get retweeted a million times by the BDSers to prove their success.)
Then there’s the option of treating the whole academic boycott movement as a subject of academic study, something that’s been done remarkably well by the people behind the recent book The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.
But today, I’d like to focus on a more practical aspect of this latest form the BDS “movement” has taken on, one which may provide answers to that all-important question of “What do we do next?” (other than freak out or simply wash our hands of the academy altogether).
For this analysis, keep in mind that BDS is an ever-morphing virus, ever on the lookout for new targets of opportunity to infect.
When I first learned about “the movement,” their target was college administrations whom they thought could be convinced by student/faculty/alumni petition campaigns (which would lead to sit-down meetings) to embrace the agenda of having colleges and universities divest from companies doing business with the Jewish state (and thus “prove” that Israel was the new South Africa – the last nation schools divested from for political reasons).
When that ended up not panning out, the target list widened to include municipalities (notably Somerville, MA) and Mainline Protestant churches. And while municipalities went nowhere after divestment was defeated three times in Somerville, a 2004 vote by the Presbyterian Church to begin a process of “phased, selective divestment” from Israel gave BDS (just called “divestment” back then) an anchor client which they used to their advantage until divestment was overturned by the Presbyterians two years later.
After a brief period of remission, BDS was reborn in 2009 after Operation Cast Lead galvanized activists and a BDS hoax at Hampshire College (still being fraudulently presented as true on college campuses today) put a newly formed and energized Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization in the driver’s seat with regard to campus-based divestment activity. Meanwhile, other Israel-hating individuals and organizations took advantage of their simplicity and low barrier to entry to start new boycott and divestment campaigns at food coops, student government and, most recently, academic associations.
The food coop boycott fad was kicked off when single such store (in Olympia Washington) passed a boycott motion behind the backs of the membership which allowed BDSers to fan out across the nation urging other coops to follow suit. And even though the loose rules of governance at most coops gave the boycotters an opening to drag their squalid little project into any such store they liked, it turned out that the coop community was pretty resistant to the BDS virus, self-immunizing against it within a few short years.
But just as that coop experience taught the boycotters how to maneuver within an organization with minimal governing rules regarding boycotts, their involvement with Mainline Protestantism showed them how much could be done within an institution where leaders have little involvement with (and feel little responsibility for) those they lead (and where few members paid attention to what those leaders did or said).
Student government falls into this category, given how few students actually vote in elections or pay attention to what those elected to office do after they’re voted in. Under normal circumstances, people who run for these leadership positions (even those who do so primarily to pad their resumes) have the interests of the student body in mind for the most part, which means the system can work even if civic engagement is not what it should be. But as I’ve said before, BDS is not in the normal business. Which means limited student engagement in the election process is an open invitation to vote in leaders who see student government as having but one role: to pass anti-Israel divestment resolutions (student opinion on the matter be damned).
But with academic associations, the BDSers seems to have discovered a way to parlay their ability to put boycott activists into leadership positions (by taking advantage of low voter turnout at most leadership votes) to give their odious program a veneer of democratic respectability.
ASA provided the template for this approach, which basically involves:
(1) Organizing a vote on a highly contentious issue (an academic boycott targeting one nation and one nation only) that is sure to cause controversy (and likely harm) to the organization;
(2) Taking advantage of the aforementioned loose governing rules within most civic organizations to ensure that vote only requires a majority of voters vs. members (ensuring that the win goes to whoever can organize the biggest minority – the ASA boycott was passed by a “landslide” of just 18% of the membership, for example);
(3) Shrinking the time for members to consider the motion as much as possible (to both drive-down turnout and limit the chances for their opponents to organize); and
(4) controlling communication so that the boycotters are free to fill the airwaves with their own propaganda (culled from members and non-members) while freezing members opposing boycott measures out of official communication channels (forcing them to find their own way to get the word out to fellow members about what is about to be done in their name).
These steps have played out pretty much intact at UAW grad student union vote I mentioned earlier. And if AAA and MESA are hedging their bets before proceeding with an actual boycott, that’s only because leaders within that organization have yet to figure out a way to implement a boycott in a way that won’t harm them personally.
So if you put aside the emotionally charged nature of a bunch of academic hacks dragging colleagues who don’t put politics before scholarship into messes like the one ASA finds itself in, what we’re dealing with is basically a new target of opportunity (academic associations) and a new tactic (manipulating a majority of a minority vote) that can give the BDSers what they want (the ability to speak in the name of an organization) without having to pay a price for the damage they cause.
And ways of dealing with this particular challenge will be the subject of my next entry.