I’ve frequently compared BDS to a virus that preys upon civic organizations unfamiliar with its tactics and ultimate propaganda goals. But like a virus, BDS has created its own antibodies that contribute to its rejection within whole categories of civic institution after a troubling infection breaks out and then is cured.
We’ve seen this play out at different stages with colleges and universities over the years. In the early 2000s, for instance, petition-driven divestment campaigns were big news when they cropped up at high-profile schools like Harvard and MIT, leading to their replication at schools across the country. But once these campaigns sprang up, so did counter-campaigns to resist them. These consisted of anti-divestment petitions that outpolled pro-BDS ones 10:1, as well as sound arguments for rejecting divestment.
When those arguments became accepted universally by schools administrators (all but blocking off genuine divestment at colleges and universities), the battle moved to student government. At first, BDS debates at schools like Berkeley became so ugly and divisive that other schools avoided similar fights since they tended to alienate students from their representatives, as well as invite condemnation from administrators, alumni and the media. But, as time went on, the BDSers found a solution to representatives refusing to speak in the name of those they represented on controversial international issues: replacing them with new leaders who were BDS activists first, student representatives second (if at all).
While calls to have BDS motions passed by student government are still rare, and the boycotters lose more often than they win, new antibodies continue to spring up to protect the organism (the campus as a whole) from the BDS infection. Most importantly, pro-Israel students have mobilized to ensure that no BDS call goes unanswered, with support from on-campus resources such as local Hillels.
BDS excess, especially with regard to shouting down pro-Israel speakers and bullying pro-Israel students, has also led to the involvement of responsible adults in the debate. The University of California system’s adoption of a definition of anti-Semitism that recognizes anti-Zionism as a form of Jew hatred was a huge step forward, as was this recent report from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) on the threat BDS poses to campus discourse, freedom of speech and inquiry.
As in the early 2000s, the most powerful contribution groups like UC leaders and ACTA have made are intellectual ones. For by providing a sound set of arguments for why BDS is not just one more form of legitimate protest, and focusing those arguments not on the Arab-Israeli conflict but the threat BDS activity poses to core values of academia, they have created a foundation others can build on to continue the fight against boycott, divestment and sanctions projects.
Years ago, another institutions (food cooperatives) immunized themselves from the BDS threat by creating similar arguments that showed how boycotting Israeli goods ran counter the founding principles of the Coop movement as a whole (called the Rochdale Principles) as well as showing how boycotts might run afoul of anti-discrimination law. As a result, today boycotts are all but dead in the coop movement.
The number of BDSholes involved with the campus branch of the global anti-Israel propaganda campaign is larger than those involved with the ultimately failed effort to turn food cooperatives into their latest weapons of war. But our side too is mobilized and is fighting back, not with shouts and manipulative rhetoric, but with sound arguments – strongly and confidently presented – that continue to win the day.