Reconsiderations I – Is BDS Still a Loser?

While Israel, it’s friends and allies can be stubborn – even bullheaded – about issues (even when we’re wrong), I still give us the edge over our fantasy-laden opponents who don’t just ignore things they don’t want to hear but have constructed their own version of reality in which to dwell.

This is not to say that fanatical verve doesn’t pack a political punch.  But so does stopping to look – and relook – at reality as it is.  To draw from my most frequently used rhetorical quiver, the IDF’s ability to defeat much larger armies over and over is due less to sophisticated weaponry than to their ability to learn from past errors (strategic and tactical) when faced with an enemy that continues to make the same mistakes again and again.

I bring this up because my recent participation in the StandWithUs anti-BDS conference got me thinking about a couple of issues I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about here at Divest This over the years, and questioning whether my stance on those issues is still accurate or relevant.

The first one I’d like to publically consider is my whole shtick regarding BDS being a “loser.”  Long time readers know that this has been a theme of many a piece on this site, and characterizing BDS in such a way is an important part of the strategy I have either used or recommended to those fighting boycott and divestment activities in their communities. But few other positions have generated as many arguments between me and my allies in the anti-BDS project.

Now I could be come up with glib answers to questions regarding how I can call a “loser” a movement that is generating so much controversy on college campuses, and has even managed to knock off organizations like PCUSA after hammering on them for a decade.  Sure, it’s fun to mock the boycotters when they break into a riot or bust into tears when they lose a battle, but given that their strategy involves relentlessly refighting the same battle over and over again until they win, is “loser” still an appropriate term for the BDS “movement?”

But rather than dismiss such questions as examples of panic or falling for the boycotter’s own propaganda, it is worth giving consideration to the overarching question of whether the situation has changed since the fight against BDS began.

Keep in mind that my choice to use and reuse the “loser” term was not just an attempt to attach a label to our opponents that is very difficult for them to take off (since declaring yourself not to be a loser is only something a loser would do).  Rather, it was based on a set of facts – many of which are still highly relevant.

For example, a successful boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (like the ones that targeted South Africa, Sudan and – until recently – Iran) should involve significant numbers of people actually boycotting, divesting or sanctioning the target of that campaign and should at least be able to demonstrate the ability to deliver an increment of financial pain.

But after close to a decade-and-a-half of effort, the “successes” the boycotters keep pointing to – added all together – would barely sum to a rounding error on one month of Israel’s balance-of-trade figures.  In fact, just as Israel’s alleged “genocide” has resulted in a Palestinian population explosion, a fifteen-year program to make the Israeli economy suffer has been accompanied by an explosion in economic growth, exports from and investment in the Jewish state.

Similarly, even if you just presume BDS is a convenient tactic to get respected institutions to lend their reputation to the defamation of Israel and its supporters, consider whose reputation has been more tarnished over the last year: the American Studies Association and PCUSA that embraced the BDS agenda or the nation they formally chose to condemn?

And winning movements with serious momentum don’t continue to pass off pretend victories as real ones, or dress up their true agenda in fake outfits in order to trick people into voting for them by claiming the vote is really about something else.  In other words, the very deception that makes up so much of the BDS playbook is another sign of the “movement’s” weakness rather than strength.

All that said, I would be remiss to ignore the power BDS campaigns have to insinuate themselves into a community and generate headlines at the expense of Israel and its friends (not to mention at the expense of the insinuated organization).  And successful tactics (such as taking over student governments you failed to convince) are both clever and troubling since they are easy to replicate and generate headlines (and thus perceptions of momentum).

Still, I’ve never been convinced that the most recent incarnation of BDS which began in 2009 has ever truly generated its own momentum vs. attaching itself parasitically to the momentum of other events.  For example, BDS efforts always seem to get redoubled after a Gaza war breaks out, which is no accident since they are the propaganda adjunct of those who insist on starting and restarting those wars.  And the Red-Green alliance that has the Greens conquer territory while the Reds explain why the rest of the world has no right to stop them has become the greatest threat facing humanity since the fall of the last century’s dictatorships, with BDS such a small player in that alliance to hardly merit notice.

And let’s not forgot that claims regarding Israel’s imminent threat of isolation and official sanction only seem less the stuff of fantasy due to the appalling behavior of the current US administration which has decided to make Israel their preferred villain as the entire Middle East (and beyond) bursts into flames.  After all, a less unpredictable (and genuine, simple) “critic of Israeli policies” would have made sure the boycotters of the world understood that the US remained a bulwark against their efforts, even as they dinged Israel and its leaders over this or that disagreement.

I guess this is a long way of saying that, even though we find ourselves fighting against BDS on more fronts that before, that this still does not change my mind over the program falling into the category of “loser.”  A winning boycott or divestment program, after all, would have generated genuine results by now.  It would be able to leverage the gifts they enjoy (such as support of some of the world’s wealthiest dictatorships) to even slightly move the needle on the public’s support for the Jewish state. And it would lead, rather than follow, the rest of the well-funded, well-organized and well-staffed anti-Israel delegitimization campaign.

But BDS has done none of that.  Which means that rather than confusing mayhem with momentum, we should still consider it the weakest link in the de-legitimization chain, one we can continue to pull on by handing the BDSers their next defeat, and ignoring or dismissing their latest claimed victory as decisively as they ignore all of their massive failures.

7 thoughts on “Reconsiderations I – Is BDS Still a Loser?”

  1. BDS against Israel does not have to show any of the signs of success that a more normal boycott movement would. Its sole purpose is delegitimization – increasing the chances that anyone who thinks about Israel thinks BAD, EVIL, NO LEGITIMATE RIGHT TO EXIST. BDS can look at a lack of economic effects and just turn that into an argument to “prove” that Jews rule the world.

    1. I agree with Dian (Dina)’s comments, and I have to, again, agree to disagree with Jon.

      While the number of so-called measurable “successes” of BDS (i.e. actual boycotts and divestments, etc.) are relatively low in number, the BDS rallies, one-sided guest speakers, and other open demonstrations and rhetoric against Israel that are heard and seen increasingly more often around the world, have been contributing to the rise in anti-Semitism and actual threats and attacks against Jewish men, women and children all over our globe.

      These biased and skewed BDS efforts, in the name of their own one-sided freedom of speech and self-expression, have a direct effect on the fomented hatred against Israel and Jews that are being promoted at these events and demonstrations.

      BDS proponents and their cohorts have, unfortunately and strategically, been winning the hearts and minds of a growing number of unsuspecting, naive, misinformed and manipulated audiences. BDS and related anti-Israel groups are now targeting and indoctrinating students and teachers in our public elementary, middle, and high schools, in addition to our colleges and universities.

      As a result of these tactics and efforts, public support of Israel has been declining. The BDSers’ false rhetoric is affecting the public in many countries, as well as their governing officials. BDS is winning the public relations war and BDSers are successfully reaching their goal of intentionally reducing international support of the tiny Jewish nation of Israel. We must be aware of this real and growing BDS threat. They are not “losers.” Sorry, Jon….

      1. Well put, I have to sadly say.

        The ruler to assess BDS by is its effectiveness at advancing the norming of Jew-hate and Israel-hate. The general public accepts whatever message is repeated enough. The drip drip drip constancy causes the average uninterested person to “make a space” mentally for these extreme expressions of feeling “outraged” as something to assume validity for, as Dina described. By this process, masses of minds are weaponized – that is the process of vilification. And BDS is a vilification program.

        I feel this point is so strong that I honestly sort of fear to convince Jon of it. Because I love his easily optimistic indomitable spirit he now throws in the face of that darkness.

        We can show what liars, fools, and social vandals the BDSers are – as Jon does so marvelously – but their real work is accomplished by their mere noise-making.

        1. As the piece above attests, I have struggled with the exact point that you, Linda, Dian and others are making – regarding whether BDS “wins” by simply getting its propaganda message propagated into the ether. In fact, this attitude has become hardened wisdom within the pro-Israel community, which is why my “BDS is a loser” strategy often generates a negative reaction (if not outright hostility).

          But I don’t think that a failure to abandon this idea at the end of some soul searching is the result of misplaced optimism (which appropriately implies naivete) or a desire (possibly pig-headed) to push my own choice of tactics over others. For the “BDS wins by simply propagandizing” is perilously close to the “We win even when we lose” argument the BDSers use to constantly claim success and effectiveness. And if we only react to such arguments with our own teeth-gnashing at their progress (rather than reading our own progress into their defeats), I fear we will get stuck both playing their game and playing the role they have assigned to us.

          The problem always comes back to how to fight a one-sided propaganda war where the enemy wants to smear Israel and thus make its destruction seem desirably while we possess no such militant goal with regard to Israel’s enemies. The “BDS is a loser” meme is one way I have tried to square this circle via a communication strategy that (1) tells the truth; and (2) targets an enemy that everyone feels perfectly comfortable attacking (and even humiliating): the boycotters themselves.

          So perhaps the problem is not that they are winning the propaganda war (even if they lose any particular vote), but that our side is not only unwilling to match their militantism and tactics (which is probably the right call), but is not even willing to take the fight to our direct opponents by trying to stick negative labels onto the BDSers (such as “loser”) which they don’t know how to shake off.

          I’m open to other suggestions.

  2. I think the key is to say: OK, BDS *is* getting all kinds of wins – AND this is no reason to panic. It’s the panic that messes people up, creating despair or denial.

    It seems overwhelming, but there are many arenas for fighting back. Here are two that I’ve been inspired by from Voice of Israel during the past couple of days.

    (1) Companies that get targeted by BDS need advice and support. Doron Hindin, an attorney at Herzog, Fox & Neeman — Israel’s largest law firm — who works in its department of “Public International Law and Defense, Aerospace and Homeland Security,” joins VOI’s Yishai Fleisher in-studio. He says that, contrary to popular belief, BDS (Boycott/ Divest/Sanction) movements against Israel are not failing.
    His firm advises companies on international trade and there is increasing focus on helping companies targeted by BDS.
    The interview lasts about 20 minutes and is worth listening to at least twice: http://www.voiceofisrael.com/expert-bds-attorney-dont-underestimate-anti-israel-economic-warfare/?auto=1

    (2) “Hasbara” is too superficial. The Palestinians have taken over the discourse of justice, equality, and freedom. The Jewish people have a story that is just as compelling – probably more so, and this story must be told. Rather than bridging between the two stories, a bigger, more exciting story must be created that encompasses both.

    VOI’s Mottle Wolfe is joined in-studio by “alternative peace activist” Yehuda HaKohen, who shares his unique approach to Israel advocacy on campus (which, he says, is “getting it wrong”); his definition of “Zionist;” and the significance of the current World Zionist Congress elections.

    HaKohen’s work with university students is an extension of his main focus, the Alternative Action movement, which brings people together in Israel and the territories. http://www.alternativeaction.org The fact that he can share stories about people in the middle of the mess reaching each other makes him more credible when he brings opponents together on e.g. US college campuses.

    Is Israel Advocacy on Campus Getting It Wrong? 14 April 2015
    http://www.voiceofisrael.com/is-israel-advocacy-on-campus-getting-it-wrong/?auto=1 – about 45 minutes.

    During the show there are several references to a group of young people that have been inspired by HaKohen.

    The ALLIANCE FOR NEW ZIONIST VISION is a coalition of grassroots movements committed to inspiring a new vision for our current chapter of Jewish history. See e.g. “Jews Talk Justice”.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-Nvk8k7DGI – They are running for reprentation in the coming World Zionist Congress.

  3. One of the arenas I talk about above is based on getting people to think Israel -WOW! – the Levant – Double WOW! instead of Israel= Monster.

    The other is based on direct aid to businesses getting hit who not only recover and fight back, but join with other victims of BDS.

    But I’m also ok with directly battling the BDSers in the propaganda war. However I don’t think that calling them “losers” is useful. I prefer things like liars, unethical manipulators, moral narcissists, and such like.

  4. I thought that Jon had gone away to have a life! I am delighted to see that you changed your mind. I’m even linking to you (and the pdf) in an article be published in the autumn in a synagogue magazine in the UK on how to fight BDS.

    My take on this is that the fight is worth it for itself, whatever the result. The nay-sayers (to be polite about them) cannot be allowed to get away with their misrepresentations about Israel. Every time we write the truth and take on the anti-Zionists, we take the opportunity to convince the neutrals (those who haven’t yet made up their minds) to come over to the side of light and reason, evidence and facts.

    I started on this when I retired, 11 years ago, mainly by commenting (and writing occasional article) on the engage (UK) website. In that time, we have seen off many people who do not have any facts to support their allegations about Israeli human rights abuses and cannot produce them: they keep repeating mere assertion. I know full well that are those out there who need the evidence and the encouragement to join the fight.

    Every time a BDS supporter is forced off a site like this because they cannot produce genuine evidence of Israeli “wrongdoing”, we win and they lose.

    Keep fighting. No Pasaran! They shall not pass!

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