In 2004, the forces of BDS (which just traveled under the name of “Divestment” at the time) scored their first municipal divestment victory when the Aldermen in Somerville, a city next to Cambridge and Boston, passed a resolution calling on the city’s retirement funds to rid themselves of assets (including stocks and Israeli bonds) with ties to the Jewish state.
The victory was short-lived. In fact, it wasn’t a victory at all since one of the Aldermen – troubled that such a decision was being made with only divestment advocates in the room – delayed a final decision in order for the wider community to weigh in on the manner.
The divestnik’s panicked at the thought of other voices being heard, and with good reason. For in the month between the divestment vote first being taken and a final deciding vote on the matter, the Aldermen went from near 100% agreement on the divestment motion to close to 100% rejection.
The entire saga is written up here, and I archived most of my proto-Divest This writing on this first great municipal divestment battle here. Suffice to say, municipal divestment has remained on the periphery of BDSlandia since Somerville said no.
For purposes of this discussion, however, I’d like to focus on the hay the boycotters made of their tenuous and short-lived victory since it might provide us a lesson on what to do with some of the firmer and longer-term wins our side has been scoring lately, particularly in state governments.
Like their Hampshire hoax victory, the BDSers leveraged their temporary win in Somerville for years afterwards. Nearly all BDS literature in the 2000s that listed divestment victories included the original Somerville vote (with no mention that that vote was rejected, followed by voters turning down divestment ballot questions twice in the years following).
Given that BDS strategy requires leveraging previous “wins” (no matter how marginal or fake) to convince other civic groups to join their bandwagon, the tactic of inflating small (or pretend) victories makes some sense. After all, how many people are going to do the research needed to discover the truth regarding the names and organizations the boycotters are pushing as precedent?
Most importantly, the BDS project as a whole is all about getting a civic group, such as city or town, student government, church governance body or academic association, to pass a divestment or boycott resolution of any kind, and by any means necessary. And once they close the deal, the next step is to portray such a vote as the embrace of the entire community of the Israel=Apartheid propaganda message.
Keep in mind that the reverse is never true. At no time will the BDSers view rejection of their proposals by a civic group as representing that community’s rejection of their anti-Israel message or views. Rather, such “No” votes become an invitation to bring the same proposals back to the organization again and again until they finally get the “Yes” they’re looking for (no matter how much damage they do to the civic group in the process).
I bring up this background to highlight the contrast between the BDS messaging around tiny or faux victories, and what our side tends to say about our much larger and more significant wins.
For instance, over a dozen state legislatures as well as the federal government have passed or are in the process of passing anti-BDS legislation. Votes in support of such resolutions have been bi-partisan (even Obama signed federal anti-boycott law). And unlike the boycotters who have been struggling for nearly two decades to get any government anywhere to embrace their cause, anti-boycott legislation has gained momentum the BDSers can only dream about, momentum that mirrors the success of genuine divestment movements: like those targeting Apartheid South Africa, Iran and Sudan.
Given that even one state legislature (or even a small rural town) passing something mildly friendly to BDS would trigger fireworks in Ramallah and Olympia, Washington, followed by demands that everyone agree that boycott and divestment have achieved unstoppable momentum, one would think our side could spin a narrative that talks about anti-boycott laws representing widespread public consensus that the people hate BDS.
Surprisingly, however, we have been much more adept at convincing political leaders to pass these measures that we have been at capitalizing on our success. In fact, after all the hard work of generating momentum for our side, we tend to immediately get caught up in the boycotter’s narrative regarding whether or not anti-BDS legislation represents an attack on freedom of political speech.
Others do a better job at dismantling the freedom-of-speech argument than I can. But for purposes of this discussion, the key question we should be asking is why we are letting ourselves get sucked into that conversation at all? After all, the boycotters will never answer our questions based on the legitimate fear that if the conversation ever veers away from their “narrative” they will lose. Nor have they ever interpreted the many “No” votes they have received over the years (or the “Yes” votes we receive) as saying anything about people’s opinion regarding their “movement,” or their project’s success or failure. Given this, we are more than justified to ignore their arguments until they are ready to answer ours.
If we must engage on the matter, we should simply use their accusations as leverage for some rhetorical ju jitsu (as in “I don’t understand. These are the same state governments you’ve been lobbying for years to pass your BDS motions. Are you saying you’ve been advocating against free speech for all that time? That’s quite an admission!”).
But better still would be for us to skip the clever repartee, and simply point out incessantly that American hate the BDS movement to such a degree that the long-sought sanctions the boycotters have been fighting for have finally been enacted: against them. And by BDS standards which says sanctions automatically translates to the sanctioned entity being loathsome, we come to the inescapable conclusion that BDS is an immoral enterprise.