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Jay Michaelson’s Journey

3 Aug

I am usually of mixed mind with regard to sympathizing with those who were once part of (or even continue to support) this or that BDS activity who feel they must speak their mind about what they perceive to be the “movement’s” shortcomings.

On the one hand, you’ve got kooks like Norman Finkelstein who is too unpredictable to ever be seen as an ally, even if he has provided prime quotes regarding the cult-like nature of his former BDS buddies.  But then you’ve got those naïve individuals who were lured by the BDS sirens telling them they could partake in a political struggle of unquestionable evil (the Israeli brute) vs. undistilled virtue (the Palestinian victim).

We’ve been visited in the comments section by a few people who fall into this latter category, but the most vivid example of this type of BDS “turncoat” I remember was a young woman who joined the Somerville Divestment Project when it was doing its thing to my home city in 2004.  By 2005, however, she had abandoned the group, disgusted by the brutal and ruthless politics she saw taking place amongst the leadership (including the organization’s founder importing radicals from across the state into the group to ensure he would win all the votes), and shocked that she could be part of an organization that couldn’t decide if terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians should be considered immoral or not.

Between these two stands Jay Michaelson whose recent Forward article, entitled When the Right is Right About the Left, caused a stir this week.  More sophisticated than the “loose change” making up the rank-and-file of most college Students for Justice in Palestine campaigns, but less of a nut than Finkelstein, Michaelson first made a splash a couple of years back when he published a piece lamenting that Israel’s behavior was making him question the decades of devotion he had supposedly shown the Jewish state his whole life.

Truth be told, these types of “scales were lifted from my eyes/I haven’t left Zionism, Zionism left me” arguments have tended to leave me cold.

No doubt some people are sincerely and accurately describing their personal political journey.  But, more often than not, the people who embrace this storyline simply grew up in a run-of-the-mill Jewish household where support for and pride in Israel was taken for granted (similar to the way Irishmen and Italians identify with the old country without a second thought).

But by turning this unremarkable environment into an “Israel-Right-Or-Wrong” enclave that they escaped from only through their own courage and open mindedness, they get to make their arguments against the Jewish state not just “AsaJew” but “AsaFormerZionist.”

But even if we take Michaelson at his word regarding whatever conflict is going on between his past and current selves, he seems to be missing the actual conflict going on between his progressive and Zionist souls.

Because the boycotters tend to present their arguments entirely in the language of progressive values (to the point of insisting that the defining virtue for progressives is a full embrace of their political project), the notion that liberalism and Zionism are in conflict is often taken as a given.

But far from Israel’s behavior posing difficult choices for someone with progressive values, it is actually certain people’s weak grasp of what those values require that make them vulnerable to the pressures generated not by the Israelis/Jews, but by the war waged against them.

In any normal world, Israel would be held up as an example of how these progressive values can be built into a nation’s makeup.  Whether you’re talking about women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom, freedom of the press and speech, national healthcare or any of the subjects progressives claim as their moral lodestones, Israel has demonstrated that these freedoms and benefits can be embraced and implemented at a national level, even by a country that has been under siege since birth.

This obviously does not mean that Israel is perfect in each and every one of these regards.  But one does not measure these values by complaining about how far short a country has fallen in trying to create heaven on earth.  Rather, these are relative values which can only have meaning when compared to other real-world societies.

And in this case, the real-world societies that Israel’s detractors insist be given more of a fair shake than they current receive are built around values in direct opposition to everything progressives are supposed to believe.  Look over Palestinian society (in either the West Bank or Gaza) and take your pick: repression of women and gays, religious intolerance and state-sponsored fanaticism, jailed dissidents and journalists, politics based around strong men and clan loyalty, and an economy primarily designed to support corrupt oligarchies.

In his latest piece, Michaelson talks a great deal about BDS as it relates to the gay community he strongly supports.

Gay rights is one of those touchstone points since no other issue better demonstrates the yawning chasm between Israel and its rivals with regard to one of the top-priority items on the agenda of every progressive organization (including religious institutions like the Presbyterian Church).

This is why BDS defenders created the fake phenomena of “pinkwashing,” in order to make the conversation about something else (Israel allegedly exploiting its sexual freedom to cover up its wicked crimes) rather than the contrast between Israel and its neighbors on an issue so vital to progressives.

To his credit, Michelson lashes out against those who throw out the pinkwashing accusation, and makes other damning statements that will no doubt be considered blasphemous by soon-to-be former friends from “the movement.”

But the question arises as to why someone as thoughtful as Michaelson has taken so long to realize what anyone with eyes can see with regard to the true nature of BDS, and even then can’t bring himself to embrace Israel as a flawed country that still represents his values far more than the nation the BDSers would like to take its place.

Next time, I’ll try to answer that question.

IAW Comes and Goes

18 Mar

I was going to provide some coverage of this year’s “Israel –Apartheid Week” (IAW) campus activities, until I realized that IAW had come and gone already.

I was surprised that it made such a small ripple in 2012, even in the Jewish press (which – outside of BDS Web sites, is the only place that tends to cover IAW activity).  After all, according to IAW organizers more US campuses than ever before held Israel Apartheid Weeks (42 is the number I heard).  And (needless to say) the organizations behind those IA Weeks have universally hailed themselves as brilliantly successful.

Now some campus-based Israel advocates claim that their own efforts to counter IAW with Israel Peace Week programming (which took place on over 75 campuses) helped blunt anti-Israel messaging at colleges and universities.  And while that may be true, I suspect this primarily contributes to the campus stalemate I talked about at the beginning of the year.  On some campuses, opposing forces galvanizes both sides to higher levels of activity, while on others the existence of a strong opposition will dampen the spirits of BDSers who tend to “probe with bayonets,” advancing only when they encounter mush and retreating when they meet steel.

Checking on what went on in a few campuses, it also seems like IAW programming was fairly subdued this year with the ubiquitous Omar Barghouti speaking to no more than 30 students on one campus, and the same films and speakers making one more circuit around the country.  Even when BDS/IAW groups opted for “direct action” (i.e., obnoxious behavior) they seem to have not moved past the usual Apartheid Walls and mock checkpoints we’ve seen pop up on campuses for over a decade.

This sameness might have something to do with lack of interest in the whole subject, even by Jewish leaders and journalists who once paid more attention to this aspect of the overall anti-Israel propaganda parade.  Doing and saying the same things year after year (especially in the same venues) tends to create diminishing returns in terms of student interest and press coverage, and with pro-Israel activists ready to counter those propaganda messages IAW becomes just part of the background noise of anti- and pro-Israel messaging on campus (which tends to get tuned out by the majority of students who remain unaffiliated with either side).

But, adding my own guess as to why IAW seems to be running out of steam (even as it expands to more physical locations), I suspect that the continued embrace of BDS by the “I Hate Israel” community is beginning to take its toll.

For showing films, giving speeches and acting out in public is one thing (and whether or not those things happen is completely under the control of the IAW/BDS types).  But actually implementing BDS requires other people to agree with the boycotters and do something, and as I’ve been documenting here for years, that’s proven to be a nearly insurmountable goal.

Even as they show their movies and give their speeches, colleges and universities are falling all over themselves to expand their ties to Israeli academia.  And with Israel now the safest place for investors worldwide, university endowment and retirement portfolios will continue to include (and likely add) more and more Israel and Israel-related companies to their list of chosen stock picks.

As predicted, student union votes endorsing divestment continue to go nowhere (UC San Diego finally had a vote on the matter – just to get the whole thing over with – and, needless to say, BDS lost again).  Which leaves SJP types scrambling to organize hummus boycotts and other trivialities (which also fall flat, thanks the simple counter-tactic of Buycott).

Under these circumstances, a retreat to more IAW-type events (even big ones, like January’s PennBDS conference or the One State conference that took place at Harvard) which consists of boycotters repeating the same messages to the like-minded makes sense as a means of keeping the propaganda flowing and the troops ginned up in the face of growing opposition to both their message and their behavior.

And that behavior is the one part of the story I’d like to focus more time on next.  For the only really new thing I’ve seen this year is a dramatic increase in bullying on the part of BDS activists who seem to be ratcheting up the nastiness factor to eleven, either as a way to gain some attention, shut up their opponents or simply find an outlet for impotent rage.

PennBDS – Lessons from South Africa

10 Jan

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series BDS and South Africa

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

South Africa is so central to the BDS narrative that it’s warranted considerable coverage on this blog.  While I’ll be consolidating themes written about elsewhere in this PennBDS-related entry, anyone interested in learning more can start out here.

First off, remember that BDS is simply a tactic in the service of a wider strategy: to “brand” Israel as the new South Africa, the focal point of racism in the modern age which ultimately deserves the same fate as the Apartheid regime which ended in the early 1990s.

BDS practitioners tend to fall into two categories: people old enough to have participated in anti-Apartheid campus activities in the 1980s (a history I share, at least with regard to age), and those who were too young to remember anything that happened back then.

The former wear any political activity they may have participated in during that period (even if it consisted of nothing more than being on a campus when others were engaged in anti-Apartheid protests) as a badge of honor, entitling them to judge who is the inheritor of the Apartheid tradition they claim to have helped vanquish.

Putting aside the questionable link between campus protests and ultimate political change in South Africa, and putting aside the question as to whether being right about the nature of one national regime entitles one to judge all others (well, one anyway), it has never been clear why past anti-Apartheid activists who attack Israel deserve any more consideration than former anti-Apartheid activists who support it.

At the other end of the age spectrum, you have people attending college today who may not have even been born when Apartheid fell.  For them, “Apartheid” is a catch-all term for racism as national policy, rather than an historical event (which is why you routinely see the term misspelled on signs at “Israel Aparthied” or “Israel Aparthide” themed rallies).

The fact that the South Africa story is complex, with blacks and whites acting in the camps of both oppressors and liberators is lost on both of these groups, as is the true role of different states in supporting or protesting the Apartheid regime. This is why every aspect of the complex relationship between Israel and South Africa (no matter how marginal) is cast in the starkest terms as though these two states alone acted as brothers in bigotry.  Meanwhile the fact that it was Israel’s political rivals (notably the Gulf States) who supplied Apartheid South Africa with all of the oil needed to fund its machinery of repression has been dumped down the memory hole.

The support of actual South Africans of the BDS program is the key to the Israel=Apartheid narrative, saying in effect that if South Africans say Israel is an Apartheid state, then it must be true.  This is why the name of Desmond Tutu (one of two South African names most Americans would recognize and a strong BDS supporter) is invoked on nearly every anti-Israel petition, on nearly every BDS web site and in every BDS letter to the editor, speech and article.

The other universally recognized name is, of course, Nelson Mandela whose relationship with the Jewish state is more ambiguous than Tutu’s (which is why anti-Israel activists have gone so far as to create fraudulent anti-Israel quotes to stuff into Mandela’s mouth).

Beyond these two, the names and activities of other South Africans (including the many South African Jews who formed the backbone of anti-Apartheid protest within South Africa) are lost on both young and old BDSers, as is the fact that Israel as a multi-racial society bears no resemblance to Apartheid, a term that would be much better applied to state policies regarding gender, sexuality, religion and even race practiced by Israel’s self-declared political enemies (including the ones who rule in Gaza).

Underlying the need to wrap their anti-Israel branding exercise with South African flag is the assumption by BDSers that the political trials suffered by black South Africans has turned them into saints who cannot be criticized in any way, which is why any criticism of Desmond Tutu’s stance on Israel (for example) is used to support accusations of racism against Israel’s defenders.

Interestingly, this formula of suffering = sainthood is not applied to anyone else, especially to Jews who also suffered murderous racism (in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, and in the Middle East today).  Instead, many boycotters make the case that Jewish suffering created damaged souls whose suffering destroyed their empathy for others.  Some go even farther, suggesting that rather than learning mercy from the Holocaust experience, many Jews learned at the feet of their former tormentors, becoming Nazis (or Nazi-like) in the process.

This apparent double moral standard makes sense only if you understand that the BDSers have no moral standards, and no actual concern for Jews, for South Africans or for Palestinians for that matter, despite endlessly repeating and tweeting their universal love for all mankind.  For them, “Apartheid” (like racism generally) is not an actual thing suffered by actual people, but rather it is a slur and a weapon to be thrown at their political foes while ignoring it when practiced by their political allies.

PennBDS: Delegitimization

8 Jan

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

“Deligitimization” is an ungainly word, one which even Israel’s defenders don’t much enjoy using.

Descriptively, the term does the job in summing up a set of activities designed to deny to the Jewish state the rights to perform the same legitimate activities that are automatically granted to any other nation (including the right to its very existence).  But to get a better understanding of what this word means, it’s best to look at the role of each player in the delegitmization hierarchy.

At the top of that hierarchy are the 20+ states of the Arab League, nearly all of which have refused to politically recognize Israel since its birth, nations that have also enacted economic blockades and boycotts of the Jewish state they surround for even longer.  In fact, with a few exceptions, the only political relationship they maintain with their Israeli neighbor is a formal state of war which many of these nations have acted upon more than once in the last 60+ years.

These Arab League states are further aligned with over 50 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), giving Islamic states with an anti-Israel agenda a 50:1 advantage over the one Jewish nation they have targeted politically, diplomatically, economically and (in some cases) militarily.

This ratio is important because of the role played by international organizations such as the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations (NGO) in furthering this delegitimization agenda.  For while there exist a large number of trans-national organizations (the most prominent being the UN), the independent nation state is still the primary actor on the world stage.  And if you don’t believe me, just stop and think about how much easier it is for Saudi Arabia to get the United Nations to do what it wants rather than vice versa.

And what these 50 nation states (which between them control most of the world’s oil wealth) and their allies (notably members of the former “non-aligned” bloc) want is for these international organizations to rain condemnation on their political enemy, all in the name of noble principles such as “international law,” and “human rights.”

The fact that the nations who use organizations like the UN to target the Jewish state are themselves the worst human rights abusers on the planet is actually an important component of the equation.  For in focusing the attention of these global agencies (agencies originally developed to keep the peace and protect the weak) on their political enemy, the Arab League states and their friends both benefit from a propaganda victory while also taking the human rights spotlight off their own abhorrent behavior.

Specific anti-Israel groups like those who will be represented at the PennBDS conference are the beneficiaries activity that originates above them, using the condemnations that come out of institutions like the ghastly UN Human Rights Council to launder their own choices and activities through what NGO Monitor cleverly (if depressingly) illustrated as the BDS Sewer System.

This laundering allows anti-Israel groups (whether they prioritize the BDS tactic or not) to claim that they are fighting for noble causes  like human rights, or targeting Israel (and only Israel) because it is in violation of “international law,” which avoids having to admit that they are simply partisan advocates in one side of a political and military conflict.

And it is when the conflict turns military that these “Friends of the Palestinian People” show their true colors.  For during the months or years when groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are making war all but inevitable (by kidnapping Israelis or firing hundreds or thousands of rockets into Israeli territory, an act of war by any possible definition of the term), these groups are completely somnambulant.

Yes, if you back them into a corner, they will make a grudging condemnation of Hamas rocket fire and the like (usually with a “big but” as in “Yes, rocket fire is inexcusable, BUT it wouldn’t occur if not for “The Occupation”).  But once Israel does the inevitable and returns fire, these once silent organizations roar to life and take to the streets demanding an immediate ceasefire coupled with more political condemnation of a Jewish state that has dared do what any other nation in the world would do if hit with endless volleys of munitions for weeks and months on end.

As I’ve discussed before, the inevitability of massive street protests (coupled with demands for international intervention) when (and only when) shooting goes in two directions in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere becomes a component of the conflict itself.  In addition to providing a platform for the creation and propagation of propaganda (the primary role of third parties such as PennBDS in the Middle East Conflict), it’s also a factor that any military leader (in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere) must take into consideration when they decide how far they can push before triggering Israeli reprisals, or how long they have to hold on before international pressure forces Israel to cease military operations.

So in many ways, the term “delegitimization” really describes what the BDSers and their friends and allies do to themselves.  For while they would like to portray themselves as pure-hearted, human-rights champions fighting for what’s right against overwhelming odds, the truth is that they are simply partisan players allied with one side in a political (and sometimes military) campaign, a cog in militant machinery whose role is to provide crucial propaganda support for allies who represent many of the most wealthy, powerful and nasty political regimes on the face of planet earth.

Apartheid Oil

15 Nov

There comes a time when the hypocrisy of the BDS “movement” reaches such a level that one must simply stand back and marvel at their sheer chutzpah in stupefied awe. And we recently reached such a crescendo with the advent of the latest pithy phrase in the boycotter’s vocabulary: “Apartheid Oil.”

Might this refer to the Apartheid policies towards women, gays and religious minorities in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia? Or the cover the wealthy oil states provided countries like Sudan as they murdered millions of black Africans? Or the robust oil-for-gold trade between the real Apartheid South Africa and the Gulf states?

Heavens no! For the champions of human rights and justice have suddenly gotten religion on oil politics now that Israel is on the verge of having some.

You see, new discoveries of shale and natural gas in Israel (coupled with recently developed extraction techniques) means that the Jewish state might become energy independent and even an energy exporter over the next decade. And while such finds present environmental concerns (not to mention the risk of the oil curse), these are not the issues critics of “Apartheid Oil” are really troubled about (although they occasionally hide behind them).

No, their problem is not that oil and gas is being extracted from the earth (with all the upside and downside that brings) but who gets to benefit from it. When it was simply Saudi Arabia or Iran using oil money to fund police forces dedicated to beating women for exposing their foreheads or exporting Islamist ideology around the world, they could live with that. But now that it is Israel that may finally get a piece of the action, suddenly the link between oil wealth and human rights rockets up their priority list.

The use of the term “Apartheid Oil” is particularly rich, given that the BDS movement itself is the inheritor of investments made in the 1970s and ‘80s by the very petroleum tyrannies who maintained massive trade with Apartheid South Africa during all the years they were falsely claiming to partake in an energy embargo of the country.

After all, one of the few mineral resources South Africa lacked was oil. Yet somehow they managed to maintain a modern, oil-driven economy during the Apartheid years. And as far as I know, Saudi Arabia is distinctly lacking in gold mines. And yet they had (and have) shopping malls dedicated solely to the sale of gold (including South African gold) during the Apartheid era.

And while this oil-for-gold alchemy was going on, these same Middle East states used their wealth and power to condemn Israel for its (far more minimal) trade ties with South Africa, going so far as to get the United Nations to condemn Zionism as a form of racism during debates over Apartheid.

The African nations that were asked to line up behind the Arab states on these condemnatory UN votes were none too pleased that their own concerns about banning trade with South Africa were being ignored, with the Kenyan Daily News summing things up nicely when it pointed out: “Arabs are buying South African gold like hotcakes, thus helping to sustain that country’s abominable practice of Apartheid.”

Even now when South Africa’s Apartheid system is just a memory, with truth and reconciliation hearings come and gone, the fact that Apartheid stayed afloat on a sea of Middle East oil remains a topic beyond discussion within the BDS community. And yet, this same BDS community exists as the inheritor of the propaganda campaigns, the UN condemnations, and the corruption of the human rights community and vocabulary bought with blood gold traded for with genuine (not imagined) “Apartheid Oil.”

Confront a BDSer with these facts and (just as they do when confronted with any genuine human rights issue) they will simply ignore you and move onto their next accusation against Israel. But the next time you see them marching in the streets comparing Israel to South Africa, keep in mind that it is BDS, not the Jewish state, that exists because of the legacy of Apartheid economics.

All BDS Was Not Created Equal

10 Jun

An Internet ally sent some interesting thoughts pointing out that during the decade when the BDS “movement” has been spending morning, noon and night trying to get boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israel to stick (to little effect, outside of the occasional naïve rock star or easily-manipulated food co-op), similar efforts targeting Iran have been hugely successful.

I would also add that divestment activity targeting Sudan for its genocidal crimes in Darfur have also gained significant traction, again during a period when Israel-related BDS seems to be lurching from one fiasco to another.

Why the difference? After all, if you look back to the original BDS project targeting real South African Apartheid in the 1980s (as opposed to the fantasy “Israel Apartheid” that current BDSers project onto the Jewish state), clearly universities, churches, municipalities, unions and other civic organizations are ready to participate in boycott and divestment activities. And even governments are willing to sanction bad apples (notable since government-based sanctions against Israel remains the impossible dream for the “I Hate Israel” crowd).

With regard to Iran, there are some obvious reasons why it deserves (and has received) economic punishment for its behavior. As my friend succinctly sums up, Iran is “a country that actually IS a theocracy (run according to the tenets of medieval Islam), with a president who “won” a rigged election, a militia that shoots pro-democracy demonstrators in cold blood, a regime that keeps its women under wraps, that hangs gays from cranes in public, that funds the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah– and seeks nuclear weapons.” I would add that Sudan (another subject of successful sanctions) is also a repressive theocracy, one that is responsible for the deaths of millions of black Africans.

My friend goes on to add that, unlike the BDS campaign targeting Israel, “the movement to boycott Iran, to divest from Iran and to sanction Iran does not contain within it the demand that the country itself be dismantled. It does not insist that the Persian people have no right to their own state. It does not want to force Iran to merge with another country in which Persians would be a minority. It does even not deny the right of the Persian people to call their state an Islamic republic. It certainly does not claim that the existence of an independent nation of Iran is, under any circumstances, illegitimate.”

This last point basically says that those who have spent the last decade rejecting boycott and divestment projects targeting Israel are wise enough to “get” the real purpose and goals of the anti-Israel BDS “movement,” despite the smokescreen of human-rights rhetoric the boycotters endlessly belch out. But while I would agree that this might serve to explain general support for Israel (which is largely bi-partisan and tends to run around 3:1 in the US), it cannot explain the 10:1 or 20:1 majorities by which BDS tends to lose when it comes up for a vote at civic organizations such as Somerville or the Presbyterian Church.

I would argue that this larger gap comes from a place that has nothing to do with Israel or the Middle East itself, but instead emerges from civic organizations themselves and the strategies these different boycott campaigns use to win these organizations to their side.

After all, organizations signing up to target Iran or Sudan with boycott or divestment (just like organizations that joined boycotts against Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s) have known exactly what they were choosing to do. At state houses passing divestment bills, hearings were public and subject to democratic debate and negotiations. At churches and synagogues, proponents for the Save Darfur campaign have made no secret of what they were trying to achieve and why. In fact, by the time civic organizations have been approached to participate in divestment campaigns targeting Iran, Sudan or Apartheid South Africa, divestment was simply a capstone decision to what had already emerged as a consensus within the community.

Contrast this with anti-Israel BDS campaigns which sneak around in corners, work behind people’s backs, manipulate the rules of civic organizations, play endless bait-and-switch games (selling an institution on a simple human rights motion in the evening, only to turn around the next day and claim that the institution is all aboard the Israel=Apartheid propaganda bandwagon) or simply lie about who supports their campaign.

A 3:1 rejection of BDS by an institution would simply indicate that their attitudes towards the Middle East are in alignment with the country generally. But once you’re talking 10:1 or 20:1, then you’re dealing with an institution that understands BDS to be an assault on not just Israel but on the institution itself (certainly its right to not have someone else think and speak in their name).

To pick just one example, while I have had the pleasure to work with many fine Presbyterians over the last several years, I think it’s pretty safe to say that a Zionist heart does not secretly beat in the chest of 90+ percent of them. But I think it is equally safe to say that this type of majority is not interested in having a small, unrepresentative minority issuing denunciations of the Jewish state in their name.

Thus the epic failure of the BDS project, which stands in sharp contrast with other divestment programs that have achieved far more far faster, can most easily be explained by pointing out that while a majority of people reject the goals and target of anti-Israel boycott campaigns, an even larger majority despises both its aggressive behavior and its dishonest tactics.