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BDS Fail at Greenstar Food Coop

14 May

In retrospect, many a BDS failure seems inevitable.  For instance, last night’s decision by the leaders of the Greenstar Food Coop in Ithaca, New York simply continues the 100% failure rate of BDS among food cooperatives (or at least those cooperatives where all members are aware of and allowed to participate in debate on the matter).

But such victories are never really spontaneous.  Rather, they are the result of smart and strong people within a community (like Greenstar) doing the right things at the right time on the ground.  And even if my “BDS is a loser” meme can be legitimately criticized as being overly optimistic with regard to the frailty of the BDS strategy, I’m really more of a pragmatist when it comes to taking on the boycotters.  And the pragmatic maxim that best describes the situation at Greenstar (and elsewhere) is that victory goes to those with the best ground game.

So what’s been going on in Ithaca?

To begin with, the BDSers got their claws into Greenstar using the same techniques we’ve seen across the country since food coops became a target for anti-Israel propagandists.  Like similar organizations, Greenstar is a non-profit with relatively loose rules of governance – especially rules surrounding member ballot initiatives.

Those less-than-airtight rules usually demonstrate trust within an organization that one set of members won’t take advantage of the situation in ways that can hurt others or damage the institution.  Which is why the BDSers proposed their boycott motion and demanded it be put to a vote – the needs of Greenstar and its members be damned.

Giving members options to strip different Israeli or Israel-related products from store shelves was no doubt a gamble that at least one of their choices would get the majority of a minority needed to prevail, just as aggressive arguments that coop leaders had no choice but to do what the boycotters said (lest they be accused of betraying democracy and stifling debate) was a gamble that they could find someone to fall for arguments that have failed elsewhere.

But as other coops (and similar non-profits) have articulated and demonstrated, democracy does not necessarily mean that a simple majority (or, more specifically, a majority of a minority) of voters gets to take a political stance that will be associated with every man, woman and child in the institution (especially once the BDSers start broadcasting such an association around the planet).

In this particular instance, an elected leadership Council for Greenstar has a responsibility to ensure a particular member initiative would not be financially or legally irresponsible or conflict with the organization’s bylaws before it be given a stamp of approval and sent on for a member-wide vote.  And local members opposed to any boycott were both organized and able to focus on explaining/demonstrating to the Council why Israel boycott measure fell afoul of all of these conditions.

No doubt in-store tabling and presentations at public meetings also played a part in the Council’s ultimate decision, given that they allowed an articulate set of boycott opponents to state their case (while also demonstrating the acrimony that would inevitably visit the organization if they did what the BDSers claimed was their only allowable option).  But, in the case of last night’s vote, it was the arguments specifically targeting conditions for rejection (legal irresponsibility, economic irresponsibility and conflict with the bylaws) that proved decisive.

While the Council based their decision on legal arguments provided by outside attorneys unaffiliated with any partisan group, the work that local activists performed to demonstrate the risk the coop faced on both the legal and economic fronts should not be minimized.  For example, an economic analysis of what the cost of a boycott would be to Greenstar’s brand (written by a local business professor) is one of those new and intriguing documents one runs into when doing anti-BDS work that makes you wonder why our side spends so much time repeating old mantras asking why the boycotters don’t give up their cell phones.

And even the legal argument, focused as it was around whether or not a boycott would violate New York anti-discrimination law, entered public discussion thanks to anti-boycott forces and supporters.

It should also be noted that rejecting the boycott for legal reasons highlights the role recent anti-BDS legislation working its way through state legislators (and the US Congress) can play in subsequent boycott and divestment debates.  For, in this case, the very existence of relevant anti-discrimination law in the state of New York gave coop leaders the legitimate justification they needed to show BDS the door.  And the fact that the legal advice upon which they based their decision came from experts without an axe to grind in the Middle East conflict allowed the Greenstar Council to say “No” to BDS without having to take sides between competing groups.

This last point is instructive since it is highly likely that all of the arguments, debates, presentations and materials (not to mention hostility) generated by the boycott fight meant the Council was looking for a way to get out of having to go to a vote, with all the pain that would have caused the organization, its leaders and its members.   In which case, New York law provided them the means to get BDS out of Greenstar’s system without requiring the coop’s leaders to seem to agree with one side vs. the other.

Given the squishiness one often finds within volunteer organizations built around consensus confronting ruthless BDS partisans insisting their demands be met, I think it’s an open question whether this same legal argument would have been so decisive absent a well-organized and firm opposition showing up at every meeting, talking to coop leaders face-to-face, and generally leveraging the trust they had built up over years of involvement with Greenstar to get people to listen to something other than BDS blandishments and moral blackmail.

That aforementioned branding study highlighted a point that comes up whenever boycotts are proposed: that the boycotters are absolutely free to not buy all the Israeli products they like (or hate) and to convince others to do the same (just as Israel’s supporters are free to buy out those same products to show their opposition to BDS).  But, as everyone knows, Israel haters not buying Israeli goods is not news.  Which is why those pushing for this motion at Greenstar were so desperate to generate an event they could spin as their propaganda message representing more than the belief of a marginal fringe.

But as with every other coop in the country (save one), that attempt was stopped cold thanks to wise leaders and state legislators, but mostly due to the hard work of a dedicated group of on-the-ground activists which history continues to demonstrate to be one of the most unstoppable forces in the universe.

News from the Campus BDS Front

7 May

Several striking bits of good news on the campus-wars front from both the Right and Left Coasts.

Here in New England, it looks like the student body of Bowdoin College shot down an academic boycott measure by a massive margin of nearly 5:1.

In this case, the BDS measure was particularly sweeping, consisting as it did of a call for the school to reject any and all academic and cultural connection with the Jewish state.  And while the school administration (as always) explained that they had no intention of acting on this measure if it passed, the decision of the student body of a well-respected school to say “Yes” to the BDSers’ maximum demands would certainly have given the boycotters a major propaganda boost.

Fortunately, that student body shouted a definitive “No.” And while I don’t expect to hear anything from our friends in BDS-land beyond more “by losing we really won” rhetoric, when you combine this defeat with the many others they have been handed this semester (including Northeastern, Princeton and UC Santa Barbara – all of which rejected divestment by comfortable margins), it seems as though the “domino effect” BDS champions were planning on (and illustrating) has encountered steel rather than the expected mush as the school year comes to an end.

This phenomenon is best illustrated by the extremely high-profile double defeat that was handed to BDSers this week in California.

First off, the student government body representing all Community Colleges in California rejected a divestment motion by another large margin.  No doubt, those advocating for this motion expected to find another student government body detached from the actual needs of those they represent ready to strike a pose (a la UCSA).  But instead they found a group that seems to have understood what they were really being asked to do (attach their name and reputation to someone else’s political vendetta).  And, as usual, such understanding tends to spell disaster for the forces of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Speaking of disasters, remember that victory orgy the boycotters threw at UCLA earlier this year (not to mention the appalling behavior they demonstrated on campus before and after that vote)?  Well the party that has been at the nucleus of those controversies, the party which has embraced (or been infected by – take your pick) Students for Justice in Palestine and their ever-devouring agenda, was just handed a resounding and historic trouncing at the polls.

Apart from the good news all these stories represent in and of themselves, they also reflect a few points we should keep in mind as we prepare for more BDS battles over the coming months and years, namely:

(1) When divestment seemed to be cropping up on campus after campus this year, many saw this as a sign of increasing momentum for the forces of BDS. But remember that this particular propaganda campaign has a penchant for chasing after any win that seems close at hand, no matter how meaningless or trivial.

For instance, once a boycott had been stuffed down the throat of the Olympia food coop, the boycotters spent the next two years trying to get other cooperatives to follow Olympia’s lead – all to no avail.

Similarly, finally getting a few UC Student Senates to pass divestment resolutions after years and years of failure convinced SJP et al that the dominos were finally falling their way, leading to a tripling down on student government resolutions.  But, as with campaigns targeting different civic organizations, tainted wins create antibodies that immunize similar organizations from the BDS virus.  And while we will likely see anti-Israel campaigns continue on college campuses for years to come, there now far more precedent for saying “No” vs. “Yes” for other student governments to follow.

(2) Getting back to the UCLA election story, as easy as it might be to think ill of the party that lost, given the corruption scandal they found themselves in (not to mention the knee-jerk effort by some louder members to claim their defeat was based solely on racism), the Principle of Charity (as well as familiarity with student politics) inclines me to believe that this party includes many, many kids genuinely interest in making a positive difference for minority students on campus.

If those hopes are being taken advantage of by more aggressive (and self-serving) party leaders, that is certainly a tragedy (albeit one repeated endlessly in politics – with or without the corruption scandals).  But it also needs to be noted that the priority this party gave to divestment – at the behest of their SJP allies – was a significant reason for their defeat against a coalition of student groups opposed to BDS and those who wanted to see student government actually focus on the needs of their constituents (not play Model UN and embarrass them on national television).

Now I don’t know how much effort SJP put into the recent election campaign, but it’s safe to say that whatever campaigning they did on behalf of the losing party was not enough to overwhelm the damage caused by their insistence that divestment be at the top of everyone’s agenda – food for thought for any other minority organization or coalition being asked to make the BDSers’ goals their #1 priority.

(3) The steel vs. mush reference above is a repeat of an old Lenin proverb I’ve highlighted previously on this site: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, advance. If you encounter steel, retreat.”

Another aphorism worth pairing with that one is: “You can’t defeat something with nothing.”  And in each and every case when Israel’s supporters have been victorious, it is because they got their act together, put aside differences and focused on the challenge at hand: showing BDS the door.

Such victories should not be seen as the start of a new Zionist Renaissance on college campuses.  For the campus is certain to remain a war zone in the Arab Israeli conflict (and – as the Prophet Ruth Wisse points out – a laboratory for mainstreaming anti-Semitism in America) for the foreseeable future.

But Wisse has also pointed out that the way to win the propaganda war is for Israel and its supporters to start acting like every other self-respecting nation and community in the world and stop apologizing for the continued existence of and love for the Jewish state.  Instead we should demand that others show us the same respect they insist we pay to their nations, ethnicities and causes.  And while such universal resoluteness is still a distant hope, all of the stories you’ve read about in this piece demonstrate that it is a concrete goal worth working towards, not some impossible dream or Utopian fantasy.

Academic Boycott – A Case Study

28 Feb

Over the last two years, whenever critics have condemned anti-Israel academic boycotts as an attack on academic freedom that would, by necessity, harm individual scholars, we were told by academic boycott proponents that their actions were targeted solely at institutions and would thus have no impact on professors, students or scholarship.

It’s been hard to put that theory to the test with regard to programs like the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott since, as far as I know, not one American Studies Department in the country has implemented a boycott program that was voted in by an ASA leadership claiming to represent the scholars making up those departments.

And even when ASA leaders themselves had the opportunity to put the boycott they forced onto the organization into action at their December national conference, they chickened out – allowing Israeli scholars to proudly march around the conference brandishing their institutional affiliation (in defiance of ASA’s new policy) while ASA leaders avoided questions from whatever press they had not managed to ban from their event.

There has been talk that a furtive boycott might be in place, one where US American Studies professors are shunning their Israeli colleagues (by refusing to attend their conferences, referee their papers or participate in hiring and tenure projects).  But even if this is the case, such secretive boycotts cannot be described as a form of political action since genuine political acts (vs. secret acts of bigotry) require the world know that such shunning is being done in the name of a stated political goal.

Since un-implemented (or secret) anti-Israel academic boycotts that have not been translated into action provide no information on the whole institution vs. individual punishment issue, we need to look elsewhere to see how the matter might play out if a boycott of an academic institution was actually put in place.  Fortunately for this discussion (but unfortunately if you happen to work there), we have an example of an implemented institutional boycott to draw upon: the one currently underway targeting the University of Illinois.

While this boycott is not specifically about Israel, it certainly derives from the mainstreaming of academic boycotts that have resulted from recent BDS campaigns within academia, involving as it does the now famous (or infamous, depending on your attitude) English professor and anti-Israel polemicist Steven Salaita.

I suspect everyone reading this knows the tale, but just in case: Salaita, who taught at Virginia Tech, was offered a teaching position within the American Indian Studies department at University of Illinois, pending approval by the school’s Board of Trustees.  And, assuming that such approval was just a formality, he resigned his current tenured position in Virginia and prepared to relocate to Illinois.

But during the period before final approval, a series of vulgar, infantile, over-the-top tweets Professor Salaita sent during the recent Gaza war hit the media, making him a controversial figure which contributed to the Board not approving the hiring decision, and leaving Professor Salaita without an academic home.

I’ll leave it to the legal courts to determine whether the original unapproved offer made to Salaita represents a binding contract U of Illinois breached, just as I’ll leave it to the court of public opinion the question of whether Salaita’s hiring was nixed because of a conspiracy of Likudnik donors threatening university leaders, or because Salaita’s tweets woke those leaders up to the fact that they were about to reward life employment to someone with little scholarly experience in the field in which he’d be teaching and – at least with regard to his politics – no maturity or self-control.

Others, however, were not willing to wait for these various courts to declare their verdicts and a boycott of University of Illinois was put in place by Salaita supporters who demanded that the decision not to hire him be reversed.

So has this clear-cut example of a boycott of an institution impacted individual scholars after all?

Well according to Professor Susan Koshy, a Professor of English, Asian-American Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at Illinois (a supporter of Salaita as well as someone who signed on to a petition calling for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions) the answer is unquestionably yes since it includes:

“Planning and then canceling or redefining searches. Deferring program reviews. Canceling talks, conferences, and speaker series. Dealing with the irrecoverable costs of airfares and room bookings from last-minute cancellations. Taking “no” for an answer time and time again when searching for reviewers for manuscript workshops. Documenting all the rejections and cancellations.”

You will notice that her list of problems resulting from the boycott of her institution all directly impact individual people (including Koshy herself and many of her colleagues).  And given universities are in the people business, how could it possibly be otherwise?  Higher ed institutions, after all, do not grow grapes or manufacture garments that can be shunned in the grocery or department store.  They “produce” interaction between teachers and students and between professional colleagues (all protected under the umbrella of “academic freedom”).  So boycotting the institutions where interaction is the primary activity requires boycotting the people participating in those interactions.

I’ll leave it to William Jacobson to wrangle statement from Professor Koshy regarding how she feels about her support for an academic boycott of Israelis now that she is on the receiving end of such an effort.  But I should note one other ongoing BDS-related issue that the whole sorry U Illinois story illustrates.

For here we have one more element of civic society (University of Illinois directly, but I would say academics more generally) where BDS supporters dragging the Middle East conflict into an institution ends up harming not Israel but the organization that caved in to BDS blandishments, moral blackmail and demands that they “do something” (that “something” consisting of participating in the boycotters’ squalid little propaganda program).

We’ve saw it in places like Somerville MA and the Olympic Food Coop (although, fortunately, those instances helped immunize municipalities and food coops almost entirely from the BDS infection).  We see it at places like the Presbyterian Church which will soon enter the grave grasping onto its anti-Israel animus as the few members under the age of 70 look elsewhere for spiritual salvation.

And we’ve seen it on college campuses where anti-Israel propaganda campaigns have been woven into the fabric of student life, making it impossible to participate in student government or even walk across campus without having this issue – alone among international conflicts – shoved in your face again and again and again.

In other words, the University of Illinois story simply proves what many of us have known for years: that BDS turns everything it touches into shit.

History Has Spoken – The AHA BDS Blues

5 Jan

As some of you might have heard, the latest attempt to bring an academic association on board the BDS “bandwagon” collapsed last night as the American Historical Association voted 144 to 51 to not bring two anti-Israel resolutions up for a vote within the wider organization.

The specifics of the decision will likely seem Byzantine to most non-academics, but the nut of it comes down to:

  • The proposals skirted the issue of an academic boycott (as did last year’s votes by the MLA), with the BDSers instead pushing resolutions condemning Israel for practices that they claim harm academic freedom (of Palestinian academics and American academics working with them). This might simply reflect a strategy of phases whereby this year’s condemnations would lead to next year’s boycotts, although it might also indicate a recognition that academic boycotts are radioactive after everything we saw ASA go through in 2014.
  • Decision-makers within the organization had already taken boycott votes off the table, and last night’s vote was over whether or not to take the extraordinary step of adding new resolutions to an agenda that had been closed in November (a deadline the BDS cru missed)

It is too early to tell if this decision reflects the start of an auto-immunization process within the academy, or if the boycott/condemnation bandwagon will continue across more and more academic associations in the coming year (including AHA which is likely to see the same resolutions submitted – within the deadline this time – for next year’s conference).

I was pleased to see that discussion over the resolution focuses on whether or not history professors at American universities (very few of whom have any expertise in Middle East history) equip them to make decisions that involve (among other thing) understand military choices made during last year’s Gaza war.  This  reflects a degree of intellectual humility that alone provides a certain level of protection against partisans insisting that an organization has the right – and responsibility – to make political statements in the name of the field (although only statements of which the boycotters approve).

I suspect that this recent vote will be used by critics of inter-disciplinary fields like American studies to make the case that academics representing more traditional fields (not to mention non-humanities fields like science and engineering) are better prepared to resist politicization and hubris.  But I think there is a simpler explanation as to why the boycotters seem to have lost so badly among History vs. American Studies professors.

For in this case, the AHA seems to be led by people who value scholarship, the needs of their members and the general cause of academic freedom over the requirements of a particular partisan agenda.  In contrast, organization that have passed anti-Israel boycott resolutions (notably ASA) chose to place the BDS “mission” of the leadership over scholarship, the needs of colleagues and the good of the academy as a whole.

Now there is no telling if the BDS tactic of infiltration will make AHA or some other academic organization vulnerable to the boycott infection in the future.  But I think the telltale sign of trouble moving forward is not the nature of the discipline, but whether or not a specific organization is run by a bunch of partisan hacks ready to trash everything and everyone for their own selfish gain.

 

Infiltration

11 Dec

Since returning to the anti-BDS fold earlier this year, I find myself doing more analysis of recent BDS-related stories, rather than covering breaking news as it happens (although I can’t resist pointing readers to the latest BDS hoax story, something we’ve not seen in a while).

But moving right along, today, I’d like to talk about the brouhaha over the recent defection of Holly Bicerano, the former Campus Out-Reach Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel, an organization you have met on this site previously.

It will come as no surprise that many on this side of the aisle understood Open Hillel to be just another attempt by BDS activists to infiltrate the mainstream Jewish community under the guise of “openness” and other words with positive connotations.  And I don’t think I’m the only person to have noticed that the groups that form the backbone of Open Hillel (notably Jewish Voice for Peace) or the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization which Open Hillel warmly welcomed to their recent national conference have always erected high barriers around their own institutions and events to limit those of differing opinions from participating.

But Ms. Bicerano’s decision to publically break with the group and expose how much BDS and anti-normalization advocates are driving Open Hillel’s agenda is obviously newsworthy, given the former Open Hillel leader’s position in the organization she left, and her general attitudes towards BDS (which she supports, at least with regard to the Presbyterians) and Israel (which she blames for last summer’s Gaza war and for thwarting Palestinian democracy).

It is always interesting to see if this kind of “defection” represents the start of a journey by someone like Bicerano, or simply represents a red line over which even someone active in anti-Israel political activities and programming will not cross.  If it’s the former, I wish her well.  But even if it’s the latter, the activities that turned her off from Open Hillel provide an interesting window into why anti-Israel organizations tend towards instability.

Unlike Jewish organizations like Hillel (and the alphabet soup of community institutions – some of which have been in business for a century), anti-Israel organizations tend to form, rise, fall, break apart and either disappear or reform into new organizations with a cycle that seems to repeat every 5-7 years.

For example, when I first moved back to the Boston area, a group called the Middle East Justice Network (MEJN) got up my nose, but I was too busy to do anything about it.  Yet when I finally did get around to putting time into pro-Israel activism and tried to find out what the group was up to, no trace of it could be found.  But within a few years a new group (the Somerville Divestment Project, or SDP) was in the driver’s seat, pushing the first municipal divestment program in my then home city of Somerville MA.  And lo and behold, this group seemed to include the very same people I remember from MEJN days.

Today, SDP consists of a cobweb and new groups with names like The New England Committee to Defend Palestine and Ads Against Apartheid have come and gone (or formed for the soul purpose of engaging in a single activity – like running anti-Israel bus ads).  Similarly, while pro-Israel organizations are rightly concerned over the aggressive behavior of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on campuses, almost no one remembers the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSM) that drove divestment back in the early 2000s.

The rise and fall of PSM provides an interesting window into why anti-Israel groups tend to be so unstable.  For once that group gained momentum (especially on college campuses where their petition-driven divestment activity was centered), everyone from every side of the anti-Israel continuum (Left to Right, Secular-Marxist to Islamist) vied to seize control of the organization – to the point where its leaders had to spend more time fending off infiltrators than tending to their own mission, leading to the group’s demise.

If this tactic of infiltration sounds familiar, it is exactly what BDS activists do all the time to third parties (student government, academic associations, Mainline churches, etc.) in order to drag those groups under the boycott or divestment umbrella (regardless of how much damage such moves cause to the organizations they have infiltrated).  So it should come as no surprise that the infiltration skills they use on outsiders also come in handy when it comes time to drag the latest ascendant anti-Israel organization under this or that partisan umbrella.

Reading Bicerano’s piece over with this history in mind, it is clear that what she calls anti-normalization activity within Open Hillel (“anti-normalization” refers to a policy which says all pro-Palestinian organizations should reject dialog with any Jewish group that does not accept their pro-BDS stance and opinions on the Middle East in advance) is really just another example of the infiltration of a group formed with one agenda (Open Hillel – which allegedly wants to up dialog on campus) by another group (anti-normalization activists who want to shut such dialog down).  And as the former Campus Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel discovered, when such infiltrators want in, they are ready to do whatever is necessary to get their way.

As I mentioned earlier, it will be interesting to see if her experience with Open Hillel opens Bicerano’s mind to what others suffer when BDS infects this or that civic society group.  But for the rest of us, the lesson to learn is that, left on their own, anti-Israel groups (including Students for Justice in Palestine) contain the seeds of their own destruction in the form of their allies rather than their adversaries.

In a way, this situation is analogous to what we see in the Middle East where an Israel which focuses on staying strong and tending to the needs of its own people (including the need to protect them from harm) can grow and prosper, even as more numerous, wealthy and politically powerful adversaries fall to pieces as they contend with the contradictions built into their own societies and historical choices.

As much as BDS has been in the news this year (and as important as it is to continue to fight it), Israel’s supporters abroad also need to be ready to play a long game which will never involve total victory but will hopefully involve more wins than losses stretched over enough time to let Open Hillel and SJP join their predecessors in the cemetery of anti-Israel organizations whose names have long been forgotten.

What to Do About Academic Boycotts

9 Dec

As I described last time, academic boycotts can be treated with outrage, with contempt, with fear or with defiance.  But if any of these reactions are going to lead to specific actions, it’s best to understand the true nature of such boycotts and those that are trying to push them onto an organization.

Long time readers can skip the next two paragraphs where I’ll be spinning my favorite broken record.  But for everyone else, the goal of the academic boycotters (like the goal of all BDS activists) is to get their propaganda message – that Israel is the next South Africa, alone in the world at deserving global punishment – to come out of the mouth of an someone more well-known and respected than the BDSers (which pretty much includes everyone).

And in order to score such “wins” in their campaign, virtually any tactic is allowable.  Students from every nation on earth (including nations at one another’s throats) attend University of California schools.  But only the Israel question is dragged before student government year after year after year.  Academics across the planet are suppressed, imprisoned and killed, or provide the intellectual justifications for the monstrous dictatorships under which they live.  But only Israel is considered for banishment from the community of scholars.

So charging the leaders of ASA or some other academic group of hypocrisy for their boycotts or attempted boycotts misses the point that they are being true to their core (and only) mission: the BDS propaganda campaign.  What they are in fact guilty of is of leading an organization in order to subvert it, turning academic associations (and the members these leaders are supposed to represent) into mere means to the boycotters ends.

But also keep in mind that the boycotters are fundamentally cowards, which is why they rarely, if ever, work to enact their boycott and divestment programs in any way.  Partly, this is because their primary goals (spreading propaganda and speaking in someone else’s name) can be achieved just by getting their motions debated and/or passed. But they also understand that actually implementing a boycott (by publically refusing to contribute to Israeli journals or accept submissions from scholars working in “boycotted” Israeli universities, for instance) could mean putting themselves at personal risk.

Now tenure acts as a prophylactic providing a certain amount of protection for many of the most active boycotters.  But as Mona Baker learned in the UK, actually implementing (rather than just talking about) academic boycotts can lead to serious and long-term damage to the boycotter’s reputation and career.  Which is why folks like Curtis “One Has to Start Somewhere” Marez have chosen to begin and end with words and not deeds.

With these psychological factors in mind, here are some thoughts regarding what to do to slow, halt or reverse the trend of academic associations flirting with boycotts.

Obviously the best option would be to ensure that academic associations are led by people who put scholarship and the profession before politics.  And given that there exist hundreds (if not thousands) of academic associations in the US and overseas, the fact that boycotts are being considered by just a handful of smaller ones (most of them in the humanities and social sciences) means that the bulk of academia (so far, anyway) seems to be in responsible hands.

But like the terrorist who only has to be lucky once (while those protecting against them have to be lucky all the time), the BDSers are constantly on the hunt for those organizations that are particularly susceptible to takeover or manipulation.  So while it would be great if every academic organization was led by those who are academics (vs. BDSers) first, it’s unrealistic to assume there will always be enough thoughtful scholars ready to step into leadership roles in an organization that others are busy turning into a political vipers’ nest.

So for organizations that have already had their leadership subverted, the next best option is to organize opposition within the group.  In the early days of BDS, this was actually the dynamic that ended up checking the excesses of radicalized leaders in groups like the UCU/AUT teachers union and NUJ journalists union in the UK, both of which passed boycott motions which were immediately overturned by protests from an outraged membership.  Internal opposition was also responsible for keeping BDS at bay within the Presbyterian Church for most of the last decade, despite PCUSA’s leadership doing everything in its power to force the organization to vote in a divestment policy.

But the BDSers (as well as being ruthless) are also relentless which means if they are ever told “No,” they will simply keep asking the same question over and over until they get the “Yes” they demand (as happened with the Presbyterians last summer).  And while we’ve seen a well-organized minority opposition overcome corrupt processes at places like MLA, this option still requires people who may have otherwise opted out of association politics to instead not just participate but participate at a level that can counter highly aggressive political opponents.

So do we have to give up in places where the opposition’s majority of a minority is bigger than our majority of a minority?  Not necessarily, for there are still a number of things that individuals or small groups of boycott opponents can do that leverage the huge gap between the boycotters’ claimed courage and their actual cowardice.

At last month’s ASA convention, for example, Lisa Duggan and the rest of the organization’s leadership were forced to swallow hard as Israelis defied their boycott calls and journalists used the occasion to expose that while ASA was ready to destroy the reputation of the organization in order to pass a boycott motion, no one in that organization actually had the guts to implement it.

In similar ways, Israelis allied with boycott opponents can flood an organization that is allegedly participating in or flirting with an academic boycott with paper submissions, refereeing requests, conference opportunities and other everyday academic interactions and publically document what happens next.  Similarly, boycott opponents can build new partnership with their Israeli counterparts (possibly under the umbrella of those who refuse to take part in a boycott – like the New England and California chapters of ASA) and defy the boycotters to do something about it (with the whole drama playing out in public, of course).

Then you’ve got the old Alinsky standby of making your opponents play by their own rules.  So if that grad school union out in California passes a motion urging members to start politicking in the classroom, for instance, find a grad student that is actually doing this, publicize this breach of academic protocol (and U of C rules) widely and lay blame for the entire sordid affair at the feet of the union leadership.  Similarly, before a single Israeli is boycotted, opponents should find out all the venues where anti-discrimination rules/laws are enforced, prepare their briefs, make sure everyone knows what will happen if a single act of discrimination occurs,  then dare union leaders to live by the discriminatory rules they forced onto the organization they purport to lead.

Sticking with that student union for another minute, a pro-boycott vote will immediately be met with condemnation by college administrators and fellow union members (including their umbrella union, the UAW).  Like the ASA leaders who have ignored the condemnations that have rained down on them from much larger academic associations (all the time insisting that their own association condemnation of Israel be treated with the utmost seriousness), the student union boycotters cannot be personally shamed.  But they can be publically shamed before their peers as having destroyed the credibility of the entire union for their own political gain (with this condemnation expressed more in sorrow than in anger, of course).

Some have suggested even harsher approaches to any academic boycott.  For example, Martin Kramer (a long-time opponent of Middle East Studies Association) has drawn up a list of consequences if MESA ever does pass the BDS motion many members are dying to push through.  And a Jerusalem Post columnist suggests scrutinizing the work of pro-boycott scholars for plagiarism or other academic misdeeds.

As you might guess, I’m more pre-disposed to Kramer’s suggestions (since they simply force a boycotting organization to play by its own rules), rather than open up a footnote battle among warring factions within academia.   That said, it would be worth researching (and publically demonstrating) whether (as I suspect) the academic work of the boycotters is thinner and weaker than that of those they want to shun (opening up a discussion of whether boycotts are being proposed by third-rate academics jealous of far better scholars).

Finally (and most easily), those who are fighting against academic boycotts need to ceaselessly express their views in every forum they can (especially those professional forums over which groups like ASA exercise no control).  And in every one of those exchanges, they should stick to the simple message: that boycott leaders have screwed over the membership in order to facilitate their own political vendetta.  And, like the boycotters (who stick to their own Israel = Apartheid message and never reply to critics), our side should take the fact that groups like ASA et al have been discredited within academia as bigots and rogues as a given, and simply repeat this characterization over and over again, regardless of how opponents respond.

Like Duggan and Marez who run/ran the now-discredited ASA (see how easy that was to type?), any BDSer will remain defiant – even as they are forced into humiliating retreats.  But like the crab that bears its claws as it digs its way backwards into the sand, such bombast will eventually end once those shouting it have disappeared beneath the earth.

So go for it!