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Burden of Proof

21 Oct

As some of you know, I’ve become interested in the philosophy of argumentation over the last few years, with a particular interest in the fallacies people use to try to “prove” points that can’t be demonstrated using standard techniques (such as providing accurate and relevant evidence organized into proper and logical arguments).

I suppose interacting with BDSers has given me the experience needed to see this type of fallacious argumentation in action, since the boycotters seem to tap every fallacy in the book to push forward their storyline of momentum and victory (despite all evidence pointing to a starker reality of catastrophe and defeat).

Regarding calls in this piece making the humble request that BDSers actually prove their claims, and this one providing them examples for how comparable claims of divestment victory have been presented historically, my simple (and perfectly reasonable) request is motivated by the boycotters’ tendency to fall back on demands that the burden of proof falls on others to demonstrate the a BDS victory did not occur (vs. on the BDSers to prove that it did).

I could be a pretentious dweeb and provide the Latin name for this particular fallacy (okay, it’s called onus probandi).  But the key point is that if a company (like Blackrock) or retirement fund (like TIAA-CREF) or college (like Hampshire) has supposedly divested from the Jewish state, is it too much to ask that the actual organizations allegedly doing all this divesting tell everyone this is what they’re doing (and why)?

It seems like a straightforward enough request.  And, as noted previously, it consists of nothing more (but also nothing less) than the evidence provided by any other political boycott or divestment campaign in history.

But instead of such clear-cut, unambiguous statements, we get convoluted explanations that are supposed to be telling us why an institution that has never said anything on the subject of divesting from Israel (or who have explicitly said they are not divesting) have, in fact, joined the BDS “movement” wholeheartedly.  Or (as with the Quakers) we get unattributed quotes strung together with statements by people who had nothing to do with the decisions being described, all packaged together to create a press release claiming a divestment “win” that cannot be discerned without “helpful” assistance of BDS tea-leaf readers.

The latest example of this phenomena is this extended “analysis” from yet another Palestinian Solidarity Activist with a really Jewish name who spends over 2000 words trying to get around the fact that the companies his fellow activists have targeted for years and years have yet to even mention BDS as even being on their radar with regard to business risk.

As far as I can tell, the argument the author is presenting is that the fact that BDS bogeymen like SodaStream, Veolia and Caterpillar are not talking about the impact BDS  has had on their bottom line is itself evidence of the boycotter’s “impact” (which is so impactful that large powerful companies are afraid to even mention it).

The piece is littered with “evidence” of BDS “victories” that are supposed to be harming these companies as we speak, even though most of those victory tales (such as Veolia) have been exposed as fraudulent or irrelevant long ago.

Which means we are left with the fact that the only genuine controversies these companies face are controversies generated by the BDSers themselves.   In other words, the 2000+ words the author has written on the subject boils down a tantrum over why these companies don’t admit that they are suffering from the artificial controversies the author and his allies have manufactured.

I supposed these companies can simply be hiding their boycott decisions for fear of retribution from an all-powerful “The Jewish Lobby.”  But in the inductive logic game there is an old saying of “If you hear hoof beats behind you, assume it’s horses and not zebras.”

Which, in this case, the horse translates to: “Companies face business risks – including boycott threats based on bogus information – all the time, from partisans on all kinds of issues.  And if they’re not acknowledging the alleged importance of your particular boycott call, perhaps it’s because they haven’t even noticed you, much less thought about doing what you insist is their only choice.”

If and when BDS-land actually lands a big win, believe me we will all know about it.  For just as with “real” divestment projects (like those targeting genuine human rights catastrophes like South Africa, Sudan and Iran), the companies and universities and churches and municipalities and unions taking part in these boycotts and divestment decision will loudly and proudly tell the world what they’re doing.

But in the absence of such clear-cut, unambiguous evidence, the burden of proof remains on the boycotters to show us that BDS has taken place, rather than on us to prove that it hasn’t.


16 Oct

Last week, I talked about what a genuine BDS victory might look like, and how we would know when it had come about.

This has become an important issue since, in most instances when the BDSers sent out a press release announcing their most recent “triumph” (certainly any one that involved boycott or divestment decisions with a financial impact climbing above three figures), these announcements tended to be maddeningly ambiguous (read MSCI and the Quakers) or outright frauds (read Blackrock and HampshireCollege).

Fortunately, there is precedent for what a genuine divestment victory looks like.  For instance, if you think back to the actual Anti-Apartheid movement from the 1980s (the one the boycotters insist we accept them as a successor to), when colleges and universities, churches and even state governments pulled the plug on their South African investments, this involved:

1. Selling off thousands or even millions of dollars worth of equities – sometimes at a loss – in order to take a moral stand; and

2. Accompanying that moral stand with a clear, unambiguous statement from the leader or leaders of the institution doing the divesting which made it crystal clear what they were doing and why

To cite one example, in 1986 the state of New Jersey (following the lead of other states) pulled $4.3 billion of their pension fund out of companies that maintained ties with Apartheid South Africa (that’s billion with a “B”).   And this decision was accompanied by a proud and public statement by then Governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean, in which he said: ”We will not countenance the brutality that is apartheid by nourishing it with our investments.”

Notice the total lack of need to have anyone interpret the political and financial decision of the State of New Jersey in this instance of genuine divestment.  No single-issue partisan hacks were required to “explain” to us how we should interpret New Jersey’s action.  And no spin doctors had to be on hand to read us the tea leaves regarding why the institution (in this case, the state) was doing what it was doing.

For when genuine, political divestment takes place, it is accompanied by a clear moral pronouncement by those actually doing the divesting which leaves no ambiguity whatsoever.  In fact, since the type of divestment we’re talking about (selling stock for political vs. financial reasons) is a political act, the lack of an unambiguous announcement means such a political divestment act has not taken place.

You don’t even need to go back two-and-a-half decades to see what I’m talking about.  For during the BDS era, there have been other divestment projects (notably ones targeting Sudan and Iran) that have been wildly successful, even as anti-Israel BDSers ricocheted between defeat and fiasco.

To again cite just one example, when in 2007 the University of Massachusetts pulled the plug on Sudan-related investment (in this case to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars), the head of the school’s Investment Committee stated “We are taking this action because we believe that it is the right thing to do.” And the school’s President celebrated the decision as “consistent with the University’s traditions and values.”

Contrast this to BDS hoax at Hampshire College in 2009 when the boycotters were firing off one press release after another claiming that Hampshire had become the first US college in the country to divest from “Apartheid Israel,” even as the President of the college and Chair of its Board of Trustees were announcing that “No other college or university should use Hampshire as a precedent for divesting from Israel, since Hampshire has refused to divest from Israel. Anyone who claims otherwise is deliberately misrepresenting Hampshire’s decision and has no right to speak for the college.”

And this is just one example of statements just as clear as those made in the New Jersey or UMass cases noted above, except that this time they unambiguously state that the school has done nothing like what is being claimed by the BDSers.

Keep these quotes and dollar figures in mind the next time the forces of boycott and divestment insist that votes taken by a student council somewhere (often taken in the dead of night behind the backs of students, which are immediately condemned or ignored by financial decision makers) mean victory is within their grasp.

And keep it especially in mind when you are confronted by a BDS press release filled with unattributed quotes and ambiguous wording regarding what someone else was supposed to have done.  And if said press release lacks a statement as clear as what we’ve seen with every genuine boycott or divestment victory in history, you can safely assume that this “win” exists only in the BDSers own heated fantasies.

Prove It!

10 Oct

Well things seem to be a bit quiet on Planet BDS land these days.

The last big announcement I can see on the BDS Central web site has to do with the Quakers, and (as noted here), we have yet to hear from any of those crowing boycotters as to why – if their victory is so absolute – they needed to wrap it in the vaguest (and seemingly misleadingest) wording imaginable.

You know, at this point I think it might be time to formalize criteria for success of a boycott, divestment or a sanctions activity, just so everyone involve with either fighting for or fighting against such an action will know what they are dealing with.

And the best and simplest standard I can think of (one I’ve mentioned a few times in the past, albeit informally) would be as follows: we will all agree that a boycott, divestment or sanctions decision has been made when the people who are allegedly making this decision stand up and say that they (1) are boycotting, divesting from or sanctioning Israel and (2) are doing so specifically in protest of Israel or its policies (also specified).

This standard really shouldn’t be considered extraordinary in any way.  After all, in every boycott and divestment campaign that has ever existed (from the Montgomery bus boycott to the protests against Apartheid South Africa), it was the people doing the boycotting or divesting that took center stage, announcing what they had done and why.

Certainly activists from inside and outside those communities (be they colleges, churches or other institutions) played a role in getting those organizations to join in a boycott or divestment campaign.  But when it came time to announce success, it was the President of the College, the governing board of the church, or some other person actually responsible for the decisions that were being claimed to get up on stage, tell the world what they did, and announce in no uncertain terms that those boycott and divestment decisions were taken for specific political reasons.

In fact, the anti-Israel BDS program seems to be the only example I can think of where people who did not make these decisions insist on the right to make claims regarding someone else.  Whether we’re talking about Students for Justice in Palestine pretending to speak for Hampshire College (while the real decision-makers at Hampshire were saying something completely different) or BDS Central interpreting for us a series of unrelated decisions made by the Quakers, time and time again we’ve been faced with self-serving external groups telling us what we should believe another institution has done while the institution itself is remains mum on the subject or is saying something that completely contradicts what the boycotters are saying.

So the next time you see a BDS press release announcing this or that retailer has kicked this or that hummus off their shelves, or this or that church or government council has cancelled a contract at the urging of boycott and divestment forces, everyone’s first response should be: Prove It.  And in this case, proof can only come from one place: from a spokesperson from the organization allegedly doing this boycotting saying in no uncertain terms that they have done so for the specific political reasons assigned to them by the BDSers.

This new standard is really in everyone’s interest (including the Israel haters).  For Israel’s supporters, it provides an objective standard to ascertain the real progress (or lack thereof) of the BDS campaign so that resources to fight it can be applied appropriately.  For institutions being targeted by the BDSers, it provides them a way to clearly state what they are doing and not doing (to avoid being criticized for something they didn’t do, for instance).  And for the public, it ensures they are getting honest and accurate information.

Even inhabitants of Planet BDS will benefit from such a standard since it would help them avoid another decade of being exposed as liars and frauds attempting to pass off one BDS hoax after another or trying to flummox the public through manipulative wording regarding other people’s choices.  With such a standard in place, they will know exactly when an institution has joined their movement and will no longer need to hide their faces when their hoaxes are exposed (since there will no longer be any).

So what do you say, world?  Shall we all agree that the only way we’ll know when Harvard or the Quakers or the sandwich shop down the street has BDSed is when they tell us they did?  Seems an obvious choice for me.

Veolia – Ain’t the truth pretty?

25 Sep

Every now and then, someone steps up and does the legwork regarding debunking BDS claims so well that one can only stare at their work in silent admiration.

But having gotten that silent moment out of the way, it’s time to praise this remarkable piece of research by the UK groups Lawyers for Israel and Christian Middle East Watch which helps put endless claims of victory by BDS supporters campaigning against the French transportation and engineering firm Veolia into the proper context.

And what is that context?  Well, as we’ve noted before, Veolia has become the latest punching bag (along with Ahava and Soda Stream) of Israel haters endlessly searching for victory stories they can pump into a pipeline they have created for communicating with supporters about BDS momentum and triumph.

But, as Divest This readers know, such victories have been so thin on the ground (and, when they exist, so trivial and irrelevant), that BDSers need to apply a little creativity to generate fake victory stories that tend to not come about all that often here in reality (despite a dozen years of intense effort on the part of the boycotters).

A trend we’ve seen again and again in the financial world involves BDS press releases claiming that normal financial decisions were actually the result of anti-Israel lobbying.  This is similar to the hoax that re-awakened the BDS “movement” in 2009 in which Students for Justice in Palestine claimed that investment decisions at Hampshire College that explicitly had nothing to do with Israel were dressed up as divestment victories.

In the case of Veolia, you’ve got a company which contracts with numerous municipalities around the world.  And since these municipalities normally allow for public input into decision making, this has given the boycotters an opening to put the company on trial for “supporting ‘The Occupation’” due to their limited involvement in a light railway project linking Jerusalem and certain areas that are under dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

When this tactic has been tried in the US (as it was in California recently) the result has tended to be a firm and certain “No” to requests that municipalities make decisions based on the political whims of a shrill minority.

But in Europe, they have gotten around the problem of having to win an argument by simply attacking Veolia within any city or town it is doing business, and then claiming victory whenever the company loses a contract.

They seem to be counting on the public not understanding the fact that any company will win a few and lose a few in the game of government contracting.  And their hope seems to be that this public will buy into the BDSers post-hoc fallacy that since the boycotters complained to a government organization before Veolia lost a contract, that their protests much be the cause of such losses.

Fortunately, the aforementioned report provides a case-by-case breakdown of each and every instance where BDSers claimed success in a municipal boycott of Veolia, providing that in each case decision-makers made their choices based on normal business factors, not political ones (about Israel or anyone else).

We’ve seen in the last week how the forces of BDS cannot seem to shake themselves of the habit of sneaking behind people’s backs and subverting democracy in order to claim even a marginal success.  But with the Veolia report, we can now combine their contempt for others with that other fine feature of the boycott “movement:” that they’re a bunch of liars as well.

TIAA-CREF Hoax – Clarification

9 Jul

After watching the Presbyterians vote down divestment another 3-4 times on Friday (and seeing them boo someone trying to continue to drag it back on the agenda), I decided I could take a couple of days off before wrapping up the PCUSA story.

But before that, it’s time to keep a promise I made before the Presbyterians took center stage to clarify any remaining confusion over the recent TIAA-CREF divestment story/hoax.

Now that a week or so has passed before that story broke, we can now say with certainty that any story indicating TIAA-CREF itself has engaged in BDS activity (i.e., politically motivated divestment from Israel) is unambiguously false.

The company still maintains close to a billion dollars worth of investments in Caterpillar Tractor, and they have made statements before, during and since the recent “divestment” announcement that they are neither making investment or divestment decisions based on Middle East politics (Israel-related or otherwise), nor are they responding to any political campaign (by Jewish Voice for Peace or anyone else) to make politically motivated divestment choices.

So stories that announce or imply that CREF has done anything but make automatic buy and sell choices based on existing indexes (financial or otherwise), especially those like this one that assign specific human and political motivation to such decisions, should be seen for what they are: a deliberate attempt to deceive the media and the public.

The second story associated with recent events has to do not with TIAA-CREF but with MSCI, an indexing organization that is followed by CREF and others.  This organization, which maintains an investment index based on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues, did recently remove Caterpillar from its list of approved investments.  And because MSCI indexes are followed by TIAA-CREF, this is the reason why CREF removed Caterpillar from the one fund it maintains that is tied to MSCI’s ESG-related recommendations.

Now to be fair, MSCI did release a statement saying that “The key factors determining the rating include a January 2012 labor dispute and subsequent plant closing in Canada, an on-going controversy associated with use of the company’s equipment in the occupied Palestinian territories, management of environmental issues, and employee safety.”

But the company also made another statement indicating that they use an “established methodology” to determine which companies are listed and de-listed.  But, as previously noted, the company has an unambiguous way to specify a prohibition on certain countries (a prohibition they place on countries like Sudan, but not Israel).  It could be that MSCI was responding to campaigns by JVP and others which put Caterpillar on their radar.  The trouble is, MSCI also makes it clear that “decisions are not based on representations from interest groups.”

Fortunately, this most recent statement published by MSCI finally clears up this seeming inconsistency.

In it, they indicate where issues like the Middle East conflict fall into their decision-making matrix (as a component of “Community & Society” which constitutes 10% of their overall score for a company).

Significantly, they state explicitly that their analysts “do not make judgments on the positions of the interested parties” but rather follow political controversies (Middle East related and not) to determine if they might cause a risk to the investments or reputations of index members.  In other words, because a controversy regarding Caterpillar and Israel exists, MSCI is professionally obligated to follow it (as they must follow any political controversies related to an investment), but only to determine if they pose financial or reputational risks to investors (not to make moral or political judgments on the parties or issues involved).

Given that MSCI is not a BDS organization, they most likely don’t see the Arab-Israeli conflict as the only issue impacting “Community and Society” in the universe.  So, at most, this controversy must weigh as just a fraction of the 10% MSCI assigns the “Community and Society” category as a whole.  But was this fraction of a percentage enough to tip the scales against Caterpillar this year?

Well apparently, this item has been incorporated into MSCI’s calculus since 2004, an eight year period during which it caused no changes to Caterpillar’s status.  So was 2012 the tipping point when the boycotter’s cause célèbre finally got Caterpillar bounced?  NO according to MSCI, (the horse’s mouth), who says that this political factor “did not trigger the rating downgrade in February 2012.”

So there you’ve got it.  TIAA-CREF did not divest from Israel (again, defining divestment as the BDSers do as a decision to sell assets in order to make a political statement).  And if MSCI used as a factor in its decision making “an on-going controversy associated with use of the company’s equipment in the occupied Palestinian territories,” that factor (1) could only have been weighted as fraction of 10% of their decision; (2) reflected no political or moral judgment on the part of MSCI regarding Caterpillar, Israel, the Palestinians or anyone else; (3) has been included in their decision-making for close to a decade without affecting MSCI’s inclusion of Caterpillar in their ESG indexes; and (4) did not play a role in this year’s decision to remove Caterpillar from their list of recommendations.

Walking through these details takes some time, and I’m sure the “TIAA-CREF/MSCI divested!” meme will continue to propagate and morph faster than this speed at which the truth can catch up.  (In fact, a comment left here has somehow merged the TIAA-CREF, MSCI and Presbyterian stories to create a fiction whereby TIAA-CREF had divested not just from Caterpillar, but from other BDS targets – Motorola and Hewlett Packard as well.)

Now it is the propagandist’s job to stress any information that supports their version of events (even if it consists of a single phrase in a press release) and ignore all other information that might get in the way of their storyline (such as the subsequent statements noted above which provides the context and clarification needed to genuinely understand the issue).  And I don’t in any way want to deny BDS activists the right to do their job.

But the rest of us are allowed to look at a picture bigger than JVP et al would prefer others to not think about.  And we are also allowed to take into account the boycotter’s multi-year track record of trying to pass off business decisions as politically (i.e., BDSily) motivated, only to be exposed as trying to sell false information in an effort to generate momentum for their otherwise flailing cause.

TIAA CREF BDS Hoax – Social Investing

24 Jun

Having gotten caught with their hand in the cookie jar for the umpteenth time, the boycotters are trying to find some way to make their recent “TIAA-CREF Divestment Victory” hoax not simply seem like yet another example of them being exposed trying to deceive the media and the public. 

But a fraud so blatant that it was exposed within hours requires extraordinary spin to recover from.  Which is why their storyline has morphed over the weekend from “Our campaign to get TIAA-CREF to divest from Israel was a smashing success!” to “Never mind about TIAA-CREF, why aren’t you congratulating us about an even bigger victory with a financial indexing firm we never mentioned before?  Oh, and by the way, isn’t it great TIAA-CREF has divested from Israel?”

The most recent BDS hoax is similar to previous instances where the boycotters have tried to portray simple (sometimes automated) business decisions as political choices made by one or more investment firms.

In this case, TIAA -CREF apparently made no decision itself regarding buying and selling shares in Caterpillar (despite having been portrayed as doing so in defiance of a US Congressman in BDS fantasy press releases).  Rather, one (and only one) of CREF’s many funds sold its Caterpillar shares as part of a routine indexing mechanism after the Morgan Stanley company MSCI dropped the company from their ESG social responsibility index that is followed by CREF.

ESG is just one of many indexes retirement and investment funds tie themselves to.  For example, S&P funds are only chartered to buy and sell stocks listed on the S&P 500.  And if a company ever finds itself de-listed from the S&P, its stock would be removed from hundreds of indexed portfolios – automatically.

The fact that the CREF story is based on an index that falls under the heading of “Socially Conscious” or “Ethical” investing has given the boycotters a hook to distract the public from their now-exposed TIAA-CREF fraud.  For rather than continuing to claim that people within TIAA-CREF were responding to the boycotters campaigns, they are now claiming those campaigns bore even bigger fruit by causing Caterpillar to be de-listed from the MSCI index.

Now Caterpillar was indeed removed from the MSCI list several months ago and, strangely, this alleged marvelous, fantastic, humungous “victory” never even made the BDS press.  In fact, it only seems to have been discovered over the weekend while the BDSers were trying to change the subject from their recently exposed TIAA-CREF fraud.

But doesn’t Caterpillar’s removal from an index labeled “Socially Responsible” mean that it is now considered an evil company, an opinion in alignment with BDS activists who have been harassing Caterpillar for years?

As several commenters here have pointed out, the world of Socially Responsible investment is not quite so clear cut.  For unlike indexes designed around specific market sectors (such as energy or manufacturing) or certain regions (such as Asian or European funds), the choice of which company represents an “ethical” investment varies based on non-economic belief systems.

Generally, investments in tobacco, alcohol, gambling and weapons manufacturing are avoided by Socially Responsible investment funds (which increasingly travel under the banner of ESG for “Environmental, Social and Governance” investing).  But as that new label implies, other factors such as environmental impact and corporate governance (usually referring to the state of state of employer-employee relations) are also taken into account when deciding who is in and who is out. 

And even within these categories, lines are not clear cut.  If you look at slide 13 of this presentation, for example, the MSCI ESG index under discussion apparently does allow investment in cigarette, liquor and arms manufacturers, but draws the line at specific revenue percentages from these controversial industries.

But the most important bullets on this slide are the second and third from the bottom which illustrate what divestment from a country actually looks like.  For here MSCI lists two specific countries (Burma and Sudan) that have been specifically targeted as countries where investment should be avoided.  In fact, the MSCI index is even harsher on these countries than they are on specific industries (for example, you can make half your revenue on liquor or firearms and still be in the index, but you can’t be invested in companies that support tyrannies in Sudan or Burma).

Needless to say, a comparable inclusion of Israel into a similar blacklist is nowhere to be found within any ESG or TIAA-CREF materials, which makes the whole notion of drawing self-serving conclusions from who is included or excluded from those funds at best an act of speculation.

As it happens, there are a host of reasons why Caterpillar might be considered marginal in this specific ESG listing.  It is involved with the military (although at less than the 50% threshold).  And the company has also had challenging labor issues recently, which included shuttering a plant after failure to settle a union dispute.  Most importantly, any fund must contain only a finite number of investments, which means companies roll on and off these funds all the time – if only because they have been replaced by other firms that suit the fund’s portfolio more effectively.

Absent any official word from MSCI regarding this decision, the BDSers have had to make do with offhand comments by unnamed people at both MSCI and TIAA CREF implying that Middle East issue played some marginal role in the MSCI decision.  But naturally, no genuine proof (such as an official statement from either company) is offered since none exists (although the boycotters have gone into overdrive to condemn other people making equally speculative statements regarding why Caterpillar was delisted as liars and frauds – mirror, mirror).

The fact that some of this speculation appeared in a Jewish news source has allowed the boycotters to play the increasingly tired “See it’s not us making these claims, it’s the Jews!  So you have to believe it!” game.  But until we have more concrete information to work from, the BDS victory boasts of “TIAA-CREF divested from Israel and the MSCI de-listing of Caterpillar is an even bigger victory for us!” bombast would better be translated into a more reasonable claim of:

TIAA-CREF did not make any political divestment decision, but simply acted on a third-party indexing mechanism within its Social investment portfolio.  And reasons why Caterpillar was removed from that specific index are currently unknown. 

Not quite the bumper sticker quote folks like Jewish Voice for Peace are looking for, but it does conform a bit more closely to what the rest of us would call “reality.”