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Holy Land Comings and Goings

30 Oct

A couple of interesting items originating from the Holy Land (or by way of the Holy Land) recently.

First off, the Reut Institute – an Israeli think tank that has done valuable and original work on of Israeli domestic and international issues over the last decade – has recently returned to the subject of de-legitimization.

When they turned their attention to this issue a few years ago, the result was this interesting and thoughtful study about the nature of the de-legitimization threat, its strategic significance, and what could be done to build a firewall to protect the Jewish state from this form of diplomatic propaganda.  And building on this “firewall” theme, they recently kicked off a new project – The Firewall Hackathon – designed to put theory into practice.

Similar Hackathons in the past focused on other issues (such as a Tikkun hack-fest that resulted in a number of innovations designed to do good works, such as helping handicapped and protecting the environment).  But next year’s Firewall Hackathon (scheduled for January 4-6, 2015 in Tel Aviv) will revolve around building technologies and that can support those of us battling de-legitimizers, such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”

I’ve already submitted a couple of ideas (including one on the Web 2.0 communications gap I’ve long bemoaned).  If you have any suggestions, you can send them to Reut by filling out this simple form.

Second on the list, the University of Haifa has decided to test the American Studies Association’s increasingly wobbly boycott by sending a representative (i.e., someone who will be officially representing an Israeli university in defiance of the organization’s ban) to the ASA’s conference in November.

As noted last week, ASA leaders have spent much of October trying to break-dance their way out of the jam they placed themselves into when they forced a boycott vote on the organization.

Back when they were blaring to the world that their boycott was internationally newsworthy, they tried to make a distinction between boycotting individuals and institutions by insisting that any Israeli was welcome to participate in their events, so long as they did not come as representatives of a now-boycotted college or university.  But once that position placed them into hot water vis-à-vis California’s anti-discrimination law, they started to waffle on the “representative” part, with one ASA hack declaring that Prime Minister Netenyahu could attend if he liked (although they never explained what would happen if he registered as the Prime Minister of Israel).

Well with the CA legal system breathing down their neck, we will now see what happens when the University of Haifa sends someone who refuses to participate as anything other than a representative of his or her institution (in the same manner all scholars from any other country in the world will be representing themselves).  My only hope is that this Haifa representative uses his time at the event to organize as many partnerships as he or she can with ASA members, and perhaps even organizations within ASA (like their East and West Coast branches, both of which soundly rejected the boycott).  What a fun story that would be (which makes it an even greater pity that ASA has banned the media from their event).

Finally, a few weeks back I had an exchange with long-time reader and Times of Israel blogger Mike Lumish (who blogs at his own site) about how we could model some of the meaningful debate that is so lacking whenever the BDSniks show up to spout their accusations and then fly the coop whenever their prejudices are challenged with things like truth and logic.

One of the areas that tend to create controversy within the community of Israel’s supporters is the Left/Right divide with regard to attitudes towards the Jewish state as well as the broader Middle East conflict(s).  And rather than avoid or paper over that issue, Mike and I are going to hash it out over the next several weeks in periodic exchanges that will take place on each of our sites (both articles and comments).

Now there is always the issue of how the question anchoring such a debate should be framed.  Perhaps we can look at the meaning of the Left/Right debate generally, or zero in on the domestic front with a discussion of whether Jews are making an error by continuing to support the Democratic Party by large majorities, even during the current era when a Democratic administration has shown such hostility towards Israel (or at least its leadership).

If you read this series which includes pieces I’ve written over the years on this topic, you’ll have a sense of where I’m coming from with regard to Left-Right issues as they pertain to discussions of the Middle East.  And with that as backdrop, I’d like to suggest a debate topic of whether we should consider the political Left not as an ally or enemy, but as a battleground over which the Arab-Israeli conflict is being fought.

Stay tuned…

The ASA Media Ban

23 Oct

In case any more evidence was necessary to demonstrate how thoroughly BDS softens the brain, one need look no further than the latest misstep from our old friends in the American Studies Association (ASA) who just turned out a brand-spanking, freshly-minted, new policy that explains what sort of press is allowed to cover their upcoming annual conference.

When we last left the feckless leaders of that organization, they were spinning at 7000 rpm insisting that the boycott policy they so proudly proclaimed at the start of this year doesn’t actually involve boycotting anyone.  (At least that’s the explanation they’re giving to the press to avoid having the Westin hotel bar their event under California’s highly stringent anti-discrimination laws.)

And speaking of the press, no sooner had they announced that their conference was free and open to all than they issued a set of stringent and convoluted policies explaining what type of journalist would be allowed to cover their event.

Now I ain’t no high-fallutin’ American Studies PeeAycheDee, but as pappy always told me: if you catch whiff of a stench, yer probably standin’ near a skunk.

Let’s begin with the fact that this seems to be the first time the American Studies Association has put any rules in place whatsoever regarding which media is allowed to cover their annual meeting.  Perhaps this was the result of a rowdy press pack who attended last year’s ASA Confab, one that got plastered and started picking fights with visiting scholars over Shaker material culture.  Or, more likely, there are certain journalists they would like to ban from the vicinity, and so they contrived a “policy” that would achieve this goal without having to name names through a more specific blacklist.

For, if they were being more forthright, the people they clearly don’t want anywhere near their event include William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell (whose writings on the web site Legal Insurrection galvanized the massive backlash against the ASA boycott), and Eugene Kontorovich whose Volokh Conspiracy blog in the Washington Post broke the story of ASA’s recent run-in with California’s anti-discrimination rules.

Now writing a policy which bans these two by name (or one that refuses entry to anyone from the Jewish press) would probably not be the wisest move during a period when the organization is also trying to convince the world that they in no way discriminate by religion or national origin.  So instead we get a six-hundred word-policy statement that includes Criteria, Procedures, Required Supporting Documentation and Restrictions (each multi-part) that finishes with the statement the authors probably wanted to start and finish with, namely: “The ASA reserves the right to deny press credentials to anyone at any time.”

What makes this clumsy move all the more astonishing is that the only reason any media at all are interested in covering the activities of a small, specialized academic group is that the ASA leadership stuffed an academic boycott motion down the organization’s throat and then boasted of the significance and newsworthiness of that decision to media around the planet.

And now that some in the media have decided to follow up on the story (demonstrating – as Jacobson did – that the ASA’s largest chapters rejected the boycott policy, or revealing – as Kontorovich did – that ASA is modifying its boycott on the fly to avoid the consequences of its actions) ASA wants to seize control of the news flow, ensuring that they (and only they) get to decide what stories come in or out of the Westin hotel (presuming they’re allowed to use that facility).

This actually represents not the first, second, or even third but the fourth time ASA leaders have demonstrated fear over and contempt for the free flow of information.

Even before the boycott was enacted, these leaders were censoring important information (such as the condemnation the boycott vote received from much larger academic organizations) and limiting communication with members to a steady stream of bilge from “scholarly” web sites like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada.

Then, when Jacobson started contacting ASA members and regional branch heads to get their reaction to the boycott, these same national leaders urged those members to stay mum whenever the Legal Insurrection contributor rang.

And who can forget ASA President Lisa Duggan’s following up the drooling praise over a BDS event she was attending with a call that said “PLEASE DO NOT post or circulate the flyer. We are trying to avoid press, protestors and public attention.”

All of this should provide the context needed to see the organization’s convoluted, post-modern press policy for what it is: a ban on anyone ASA leadership doesn’t like.

It’s tempting to ding the organization for hypocrisy, given statements they have made again and again that their boycott was designed to foster discussion and grapple with difficult issues.  But even before today’s press-ban chapter in the ongoing ASA saga, we moved way past hypocrisy into thoroughly uncharted territory of egregious behavior.

In many ways, the twirling and attempted shut down of communication we’ve seen over the last few days reminds me of the behavior of a compulsive fabulist who finally lost track of which lies he told to whom, someone who just wants the whole nightmare he has created for himself to go away.

Unfortunately for ASA, the nightmare they created for themselves is going nowhere.  And the only sympathy I have is for the actual American Studies scholars (vs. the BDS activists who happen to teach American Studies that run the organization) who have to suffer just so Lisa Duggan can leverage them to get Omar Barghouti to answer her phone calls.

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.