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The ASA Westin Two-Step

20 Oct

Note: A recent bout of comment spam has caused me to turn my troublesome spam block back on.  If anyone is trying to post legitimate comment and is having trouble with the CAPTCHA code, send them to me and I’ll post them directly.

Well the doofuses who run the American Studies Association (ASA) have found themselves in a conundrum that even those of us without PhDs could have anticipated.

I won’t rehash the whole sordid tale whereby the leadership of that organization, hell-bent on passing an academic boycott resolution directed at one nation and one nation only (guess which one), won a “landslide” victory (consisting of 16% of the membership) after the most lopsided faux-debate in the history of academia.

Almost immediately, their action was condemned by (among others) the American Studies Association’s own largest branches, American Studies Departments across the country (many of whom left ASA in protest), hundreds of college and university Presidents, and the largest academic associations in the country.

Initial attempts to explain their position (notably the statement by former ASA Presidnt Curtis “One has to start somewhere” Marez) were so embarrassing that the group’s leaders decided to “go to ground” and stop giving interviews (strange given that the justification for their boycott was to “open up conversation”).

Now their disappearance was not total.  For instance, when current ASA Prez Lisa Duggan thought she was talking solely to fellow BDS activists, she squealed like a schoolgirl over the chance to spend a weekend with like-minded partisans.  But, other than that, her communication to the world seems to have consisted primarily in situations that don’t allow for cross-examination.

This includes occasional one-time posting in the comments section of various web sites.  For instance, she recently commented on this story, one which describes how the hotel where ASA is planning its upcoming convention is being asked to confirm that they are not hosting a meeting that is in violation of California’s anti-discrimination law.  Apparently, that state has some pretty strict guidelines about events that discriminate by (among other things) national origin.  And so the entire ASA leadership team has had to double down on its whole “we’re not discriminating against individuals (like Israelis, although just the Jewish ones), we’re just targeting institutions” gambit.

As my regular reader knows, using legislatures and courts to win BDS battles is not my strategy of choice, especially if it drags a third party (in this case, the Westin Hotel) in the middle of someone else’s conflict.  But now that someone who doesn’t share this philosophy has raised the stakes over ASA’s BDS vote, it’s intriguing to watch the increasingly frantic dance those boycotters are breaking into in order to avoid any consequences related to the choice they forced onto the organization.

According to the story linked above, the original description of ASA policy was amended in recent days to try to bolster the “we’re only discriminating against institutions, not actual people” storyline (although, like most last-minute broomers, they missed a few files and forgot about the existence of screen-grabs and Internet caches). Meanwhile, leaders of the organization have taken to the airwaves demanding that any other possible interpretation of their policy is a lie that must be retracted.

Why a policy whose description ASA itself has had to amend has only one possible interpretation is unclear to me.  And their claim that even the Israeli Prime Minister could attend their event (so long as he only did so as “Mr. Netenyahu”) seems to indicate that any Israeli scholar who insists on representing their institution of learning (or anyone or anything other than themselves) would be discriminated against (vs., say, a professor from Fudan or Birzeit universities attending as representatives of those institutions).

Given that no American Studies department in the entire country has actually implemented the ASA’s boycott policy, and (as mentioned earlier) the organization’s largest chapters had rejected it, there seems to be no possible place for Lisa Duggan and her colleagues to put into practice the policy they insisted be the law of the organization except at their own events and programs (including their annual conference).  But, at least from we’ve seen unfold in the last few days, it looks like those bold defenders of the BDS cause cannot bring themselves to even take action there (or even explain what implementation of their policy would look like).

In other words (and as many of us knew when the vote was first taken), it’s all pose and no action by a group of “leaders” who are BDS activists first, academics second, desperate to give their prime consistency (fellow BDSers, not American Studies professors) something to brag about.

In my own comment on one of these stories (a reply to Lisa Duggan, as it happens), I pointed out that if Westin Hotel does indeed refuse to host ASA’s annual event, that the people who would have attended this year’s conference are completely free to register at the hotel as individuals and the ASA leadership team is free to hold the meetings they planned at various libraries and restaurants in the area near the Westin.  Under this scenario, the hotel chain would be simply following the rules outlined by the American Studies Association itself and shunning ASA as an institution while welcoming them as individual human beings.

We’ll see if Professor Duggan is ready to apply such a distinction to the institution she runs vs. those she is so desperate to have others shun.

Denormalizing Denormalization

23 Sep

With the Gaza war behind us (for now), things seem to be unfurling on campuses about as expected.

While anti-Israel activity is usually more of a second-semester phenomenon, the BDSers have been trying to leverage momentum from last summer’s war (and associated anti-Israel hysteria) to get their propaganda program rolling early at colleges and universities, even as chapters of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are just raising recruits and getting off the ground.

Given the thuggish tactics these groups were trying on for size at the end of the last academic year, it’s no surprise that early tales of SJP on campus involve violence and intimidation as tactics of choice.  And given the amount of information coming out of Gaza that they need to suppress, we can expect the usual tactic of ignoring anything others have to say to be accompanied by ever-louder shout-downs of those who choose to mention little details like 4000+ rockets fired at Israeli civilians from behind Palestinian ones.

But a decade of manufactured anti-Israel hostility has also generated counter-measures in the form of bigger and better-organized pro-Israel campus groups that have proven their skill (and patience) again and again.  And following a dynamic I described nearly a decade ago, these groups have been given the leeway to take the lead on their own campuses, pulling in resources from the wider Jewish if and when they are needed.

Within this battlefield, Israel’s foes have some decided advantages.  To begin with, as the propaganda arm of a war movement, the BDSers – by definition – have militant goals which means they can be perpetually on the attack.  In contrast, Israel’s supporters are not interested in destroying anyone and thus do not have the incentive to spend semester after semester smearing Palestinians (or other Arabs) or even telling stark truths about what the Palestinians have done to bring so much misery upon themselves over the decades.

Similarly, the sociopathic nature of the boycotters mean they are free to pick the battlefield unhindered by worries over the damage they may cause to others.  Again, in contrast, pro-Israel groups are hesitant to drag the Middle East conflict into every civic space in the land and thus must wait until the Israel haters act before they can react to any situation (such as a BDS vote) that requires a fight.

Those advantages are somewhat mitigated by the fact that most college populations consist of roughly 5% of students hostile and 5% of students supportive of the Jewish state with the other 90% indifferent (above and beyond wondering why this particular political conflict must be in their face 24/7).  In theory, this vast majority can be swayed, possibly by propaganda (the BDSers preferred choice), possibly by reasoned argument.  But, in general, this large group tends to support dialog and are looking to see which groups seems most sincerely dedicated to working things out via genuine communication vs. screaming matches.

This makes the over-the-top nature of groups like SJP a liability, which makes an aspect of this year’s campaign – one having to do with “denormalization” all the more surprising.

If you recall, “normalization” means treating Israel like a normal country whose citizens have the right to participate in all of the activities allowed by citizens of any nation in the world.  Which means that “denormalization,” making normal life impossible for Israelis (and their friends), is at the heart and soul of the BDS project.

For instance, any scholar in the world is allowed to be part of the community of academic discourse – even if they come from nations rules by monstrous, murderous regimes that suppress academic freedom at home.  But an academic “denormalization” campaign seeks to make just one exception to this rule through attempts to bar Israelis (although just the Jewish ones) from the scholarly community.

Similarly, product boycotts and divestment campaigns are designed to make buying Israeli goods or investment in Israeli companies seem extraordinary, just as last year’s marches in Europe and elsewhere want to “normalize” the notion that just one country (the Jewish one) has no right to defend itself when enemies shower its cities with rocket fire.

But among anti-Israel campus groups, “normalization” would require treating interaction between pro- and anti-Israel student groups as a normal form of human discourse.  Which is why they reject it, insisting that any dialog can only begin once those that disagree with them accept every BDSer fact and opinion in advance.

While the term “de-normalization” tries to smooth over some rough edges, the proper description of this position would be “anti-dialog” and “anti-peace” which pretty much sums up the alpha and omega of the BDS “movement.”

Which means that it is worth it for pro-Israel groups on campus to continue extending a hand to their opponents and then communicate out every time it is slapped away, thus demonstrating that the only thing abnormal going on is what takes place in the minds and meetings of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine.

Are the Presbyterians Really Peacemakers?

16 Sep

During this summer’s Gaza conflict, two organizations that made news earlier in the year when they passed boycott or divestment resolutions – the American Studies Association (ASA) and Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) – issued statements on the conflict.

Of the two, ASA’s call to immediately terminate all aid to Israel (taken this time without any pesky interference from the rank and file) simply demonstrated the organization’s true nature: as a membership group made up of scholars largely indifferent to ASA’s political posturing led by a cadre that is nevertheless happy to make politically charged statements in the name of those they purport to represent.

The inability of ASA leaders to argue their positions or explain their behavior outside of like-minded audiences has exposed them as charlatans and cowards long ago, which may explain why their summer Gaza statement made no news beyond the usual BDS fever swamps.  But PCUSA’s public rhetoric that claims their various statements and motions (up to and including a decade of divestment votes) represent a desperate craving for peace makes their behavior regarding the Gaza war more worthy of scrutiny.

As I noted previously, a statement made early in the conflict by PCUSA’s Stated Clerk followed a familiar pattern of making Palestinian victims concrete and visceral while retreating to the passive voice when it came time to “condemn” violence directed towards Israelis.  And while there is no question who PCUSA considers to be the victimizer when it comes to Palestinian casualties, it’s not at all clear that they are ready to place responsibility for missile fire and tunnel terrorism (successful and thwarted) where it belongs.

But another statement, made in late July (in the name of the entire church membership), one which calls on President Obama to “press for an immediate ceasefire,” is far more telling when looked at in the context of the many ceasefires declared and then broken between July and the final cessation of hostilities in August.

If you recall, this round fighting in Gaza was marked by countless calls for a ceasefire (made by, among others, the US President to whom the Presbyterians appealed).  But, each and every time, those truces ended when Hamas finished using them as occasions to reload and redeploy, allowing them to start firing once again.

The second to last ceasefire (in August) was the most bizarre since everyone (including Israel) thought the fighting was over, only to see it start again when Hamas decided that rocket fire would continue until their demands were met.

During each of these ceasefires (especially the last one), the leadership of PCUSA never managed to deliver some of the “tough love” they routinely deliver to their Jewish “friends” to the Palestinians they have spent the last several decades cultivating by embracing their narrative and joining in their divestment calls.  In fact, the relationship they have built (at the cost of their relationship to the Jewish community) placed them in the ideal position to have their voices heard.  Yet, as far as I know, no such “tough love” emanated from Louisville explaining that PCUSA’s continued support was contingent on Palestinians doing what everyone else was begging them to do: stop firing rockets and thus restarting the war.

Remember that PCUSA could have made such a call without compromising its all-but-official positions on who is right and who is wrong in the Arab-Israeli conflict in any way.  For placing blame on Hamas for causing this particular war to continue when it could have stopped much earlier in the summer does not necessarily require condemning Hamas for the many other things you or I could list (diverting development supplies into tunnel and weapons manufacture, hiding and firing among civilians, etc.).  It just requires you to ask the party that seems to be doing things that are prolonging the war PCUSA claims to desperately want to end to stop doing those things.

Just imagine the headlines you would have seen if the church had put its divestment position on hold unless and until Hamas agreed to the same truce everyone else had.  And think about the impact such a bold move would have had in demonstrating to the world (including the Palestinians) that PCUSA’s commitment to peace took precedent over their seeming pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel partisanship.

No doubt there are hundreds of bureaucratic reasons that might make it difficult for the organization to move in such a direction (although such bureaucracy never seems to keep PCUSA from taking all kinds of actions directed at Israel, up to and including Zionism Unsettled).  But one would think that an organization that is truly dedicated to peace, one which really wanted a particular conflict (the Gaza war) to stop, would do anything in its power to turn that desire into reality – even if it meant temporarily condemning someone other than their usual target of criticism.

Given that the church remained silent when their voice might have helped, it seems that there is something more important than peace on PCUSA’s agenda.  Which means we should take their demands that we treat them as peacemakers with the same grain of salt we treat their claims of love and friendship.

SodaStream Re-Lo?

11 Sep

During the dog-days of August, when stories of the latest Hamas war in Gaza understandably dominated the news, a BDS story began to effervesce involving another piece of disputed territory: one claiming that SodaStream was planning to close their Mishor Adumin plant – a facility that has been used to anchor worldwide boycott activity targeting the Israeli soda-machine manufacturer.

Now we can guess what the press release from the Omar Barghouti’s brigade might look like if a decision to close the Mishor Adumin plant gets made: a claim of total victory that makes it clear any move made by SodaStream was entirely due to BDS efforts.

At least one Israeli supporter (my favorite Italian brand of Chicken Little) has beaten Barghouti to the punch, using the potential move to anchor another call that people wake up to the BDS threat and stop it at all cost.  But even less hyperventilating friends of the Jewish state used the possible SodaStream re-lo to demonstrate the utter indifference on the part of BDS activists to the fate of hundreds of Palestinians who would find themselves unemployed if a campaign against their employer “succeeded.” But while pointing out the BDSers total lack of concern for actual living, breathing Palestinians is worth doing, such an argument takes as given that BDS plays much of a role in SodaStream’s thinking.

The best candidate for an alternative explanation is, as usual for a publically traded business, economics.  And if you look over this story covering Soda Stream from an investment angle, it’s clear that there are many reasonable factors that can explain the company’s choices that have nothing to do with politics. These factors include the need to consolidate manufacturing, availability of government subsidies for employing people in the Negev, consumer challenges the company faces in the critical US market, and the possibility of having Coke as a competitor – requiring the need to redirect spending towards product development and marketing. With such multi-million-dollar considerations on the table, it’s easy to see why small bands of dopes invading hardware stores a few times a year might not factor into corporate risk analysis.

But all this analysis does not take into account the human factor, notably the personality of SodaStream’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum.  For in addition to creating a company that has taken on the world’s largest beverage manufacturers, Birnbaum has also been trying to almost single handedly keep Shimon Peres’ notion of a New Middle East – where economic cooperation would supplant political enmity – alive.

A heartless plutocrat might keep the Mishor Adumin factory open just to take advantage of government grants or low wage workers (as SodaStream’s critics accuse).  But would such a plutocrat subject himself to a strip search in solidarity with the Palestinian workers he brought to an Israeli event celebrating the company’s achievements?  This type of behavior, coupled with his insistence that Jewish and Arab workers be treated equally in any factory his company runs, indicates that there was a political element to his decision-making, one which tried desperately to keep the original Oslo spirit alive by demonstrating that Jews and Arabs can work together to replace hostility with prosperity.

Now if you’re nothing more than a money-grubbing businessperson, accusations of being a greedy, exploitive scumbag are easy to take since that’s what you, in fact, are.  And part of that profile includes indifference to the criticism of others (or the ability to rationalize your misbehavior as part of some nebulous higher good).

But if you, like Birnbaum are actually altruistic as well as capitalistic, if you’ve made sacrifices – financial and personal – over the years to create a successful, growing company and use that success to improve the lives of Israelis and Arabs that other Israelis and Arabs say can never be reconciled, how are you supposed to respond to accusations by unproductive cretins like Omar Barghouti that you are actually running a slave labor camp and that all the good you’ve tried to do amounts to little more than Apartheid?

I obviously can’t read the mind of Birnbaum (or anyone else), but I do suspect there exists a combination of risk-reward calculus and plain old hostility to being lied about (not to mention being used as part of someone else’s political game) that would make any person – no matter how generous – say “f**k it” at some point and move on.  So while I don’t believe decisions to close the plant were made in reaction to BDSer exploits, I could imagine such insults playing a role with regard to whether or not management would fight to keep that factory open if it didn’t make economic sense to do so.

While such speculations about SodaStream’s CEO amount to little more than armchair psychologizing, no such guesswork is needed to understand the belief system behind a political movement ready to lie and see Palestinians suffer in order generate headlines and propaganda.  For if the Oslo Accords were meant to foster an environment where cooperation was an alternative to conflict, the BDS movement is fighting to close off any and all options other than war.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Reputation

23 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

Few outside of British academic circles had ever heard of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), a UK-based union of university level instructors and professionals, until earlier this year when the organization voted to boycott two Israeli universities on a series of trumped up charges.

For veterans of divestment debates in the US and abroad, the details of the AUT debate will sound familiar.  An organization whose primary mission is support of its members through collective bargaining and other union services, the AUT also had a “social justice” constituency that was hijacked by a group of anti-Israel activists, led by Birmingham lecturer Sue Blackwell (an declared anti-fascist with a preference for Palestinian Flagwear who nevertheless links her Web site to various Nazi organizations).

Through relentless parliamentary maneuvering within a bureaucratic organization, Blackwell and her allies managed to pass a resolution calling for British academics to break all ties with Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities.  World reaction to the move was swift.  Jewish groups scorned the decision while anti-Israel activists hailed it as another “victory.”  More importantly, academics worldwide condemned the AUT’s assault on intellectual freedom, and AUT members revolted against the usurpation of their name by a small group of fanatics, overturning the decision in an overwhelming vote that reversed the short-lived AUT boycott policy.

By then, the damage was done.  If AUT is known outside of UK and teaching circles today, it is known as an organization that was willing to sacrifice the one virtue upon which its reputation rested, the value of unimpeded academic freedom, upon the alter of anti-Israel activism.

Seen through the AUT prism, the Somerville divestment debate represents a similar attempt to “leverage” the reputation of an institution, in this case the city of Somerville, towards a narrow political end.  All of their talk of “fairness” and “evening the playing field” is simply a ruse to appeal to the better nature of Somerville’s leaders and citizens, the better nature that is the basis of the city’s reputation as a friend of human rights.  The goal (as boasted on various anti-Israel Web sites during last year’s divestment debate) is to “sign on” Somerville to their cause so that the city’s name, a name built on its reputation, can be used to maneuver other cities and towns to also join the boycott-Israel bandwagon.

I’ve thought a lot about reputation recently as more and more “mainline” Protestant churches have followed the lead of the Presbyterian Church which last year started the machinery that would lead to divestment of church assets in companies doing business with the Jewish state.  As bragged on the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project’s (SC-SDP’s) Web site, the New England Methodist Church and Anglican Church in the UK are ready to follow the Presbyterian’s down divestment’s blind alley.

As with the AUT, these churches have convinced themselves that an economic attack on a tiny Jewish state is a demonstration of the highest virtues of their faith: fairness, peace, human rights.  Yet one only need look at the spurious charges, the faux history, the absolute unwillingness to consider the other side that underlay each church’s resolution to understand that divestment is a gross example of little more than institutional bullying.

As we were all taught in Saturday morning cartoons from the 1970s, most bullies are actually cowards.  And these “mainline” churches certainly have a lot to fear.  Their flocks are diminishing rapidly, even as competing faiths like evangelical Christianity and Islam are expanding rapidly.  It’s been years since these churches had a major voice in a political or moral debate and when they have tried (as in their stand on the Iraq War or last year’s presidential election), they have found themselves on the losing side.

As their relevance declines as rapidly as their numbers, the leadership of the churches pushing divestment have found they can do something: they can bully one of the smallest states in the world, even as they fail to put their assets where their mouths are when confronting the rich and powerful.

Yet in taking these actions, these churches are mortgaging more than their own reputations.  Just as the AUT that was willing to wreak havoc on academic freedom under the guise of protecting it, these bullying mainline churches are using the voice of religious moral authority in general, the same voice that proved so important during the desegregation, anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements (movements supported in partnership with American Jews) to support narrow and partisan ends pushed by a small but highly vocal minority.

If it’s been hard to take the voice of the Church of England or the Presbyterians seriously during serious moral and political debates in recent years, how much harder will it be to listen to any religious authority in the future when the public realizes that this authority is susceptible to hijacking and moral blackmail by the rich and powerful against the small and vulnerable?

Even worse, these churches are also mortgaging assets they do not own: the ethical power of social investment, the economic power of the boycott, responsibly wielded as it was during the anti-Apartheid era, in order to float a morally bankrupt Israel divestment policy.  One can imagine a time in the near future when a corporation or nation that truly deserves censure can point to the actions of the churches as a demonstration of how legitimate boycotts directed at them are just another example of partisan politics wrapped in ill-fitting moral garments.

Just as Somerville’s aldermen (and, one hopes, its citizens) realize that the reputation of the city was not theirs to give away, one hopes that leaders and followers in cities, churches, schools around the world will reject the cynical lures of divestment, refusing to sell their reputations, and the reputations of what they represent, to those most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of virtue.

Rolling Stones BDS Bust

11 Jun

Rolling Stones

The other big BDS news story that broke while I was riffing on Rules for Radicals was the Rolling Stones flipping Roger Waters the bird (figuratively, anyway) as they played to a packed 50,000 person stadium in the Zionist Entity, providing one of the best examples yet of the kind of fun (enjoyed by Jews and Arabs alike) that the Squaresville killjoys of BDSland would like to make history.

By now you know the drill:

  1. A big name band puts Israel on its tour schedule
  2. The boycott brigade bombards the band’s web sites with sorrowful appeals to not play “Sun City” (assuming everyone will automatically accept their Israel = Apartheid South Africa comparison, just because they refuse to respond to anyone pointing out it’s a propaganda lie)
  3. The band in question sends the BDSers some friendly (“our music promotes peace”) message or simply tells those harassing them to piss off
  4. Said band comes to Israel where both they and their fans have a grand time
  5. The boycotters either ignore what just happened (while insisting that we accept some obscure Icelandic  mariachi band’s giving into their bullying as a sign of immanent Israeli collapse), or accuse the rockers they were recently showering with praise of being nothing but a bunch of immoral slime-balls only playing Israel for the shekels

Now I’m all in favor of the kind of fun an event like the Stones concert brings to tens of thousands, and in no way want to diminish the kind of knock-on effect (as in the photo above) that arises when groups like the Stones say Yes to Israel and No to BDS.  But I’m also going to stick to my guns regarding how much (or little) concern I have for celebrity opinion on the great issues of the day.

As you can read here, here and here, BDS has a strange symbiosis with celebrity, given the shot in the arm they receive PR-wise when this or that artist decides to succumb to their lies and moral blackmail and declare themselves a boycotter of the Jewish state (even if they never had any plans or intentions of visiting in the first place).

But even with the Stones tour demonstrating that looking to music and film stars to spread your message is a double-edged sword (with #BDSFail lighting up the Internet during the band’s visit to Israel), my preference is still to say thank you to folks like Jagger for not falling for the BDSers lies, for showing their Israeli fans a good time, and for enjoying themselves in ways that are only possible when you visit the real Israel (vs. the nightmare hell-hole of the boycotter’s fantasies) – so long as I’m not asked to take their political pronouncements any more (or less) seriously than I would those of my pharmacist.

In fact, the only reason such visits have become political events in the first place is because the BDS “movement” has insisted on it.  Had they just kept their mouths shut, visits by The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Paul McCartney and hundreds of other artists would be treated as what they are: decisions by talented men and women to perform for fans around the world, including fans in nations where debates and even conflict might be part of the political landscape.

But just as every global conflict in the world (save Israel) is not being dragged into student governments for a vote, rock-and-rollers playing any political hot spot (again, save Israel) does not trigger global harassment campaigns like the ones we’ve seen play out again and again whenever the Jewish state is chosen as a concert site.

In other words, the Stones (and all the rest) have become political events for one reason and one reason only: the boycotters demanded that this be so.  And if even Keith Richards can notice that Israel bears no resemblance to the dystopia described by the BDSers in their endless Facebook comment spam, think about how clear this message comes through to those who haven’t put their brain and body through a half century of sex, drugs and rock & roll.