Archive | Israel Boycotts RSS feed for this section

Is Orange Really the New Blackshirt?

7 Jun

Wow!  A lot going on in both the BDS and anti-BDS universes this last week.

I’m going to focus on the BDS-related story that’s created the most news and havoc all year, statements (albeit conflicting ones) regarding the European telecom provider Orange and their Israeli customers/partners.  And, in a subsequent piece, I’ll take a look at a pair of high-profile anti-BDS efforts also announced recently.

At the heart of the Orange story, there seems to rest a relatively mundane (i.e., non-political) decision by the global TelCo giant to try to get out of a business relationship with an Israeli company which has been acting as licensee for the Orange product line and brand.

The fact that Orange does not operate under similar licensing arrangement in other countries signals that the Israeli partnership might have been an anomaly (although not atypical for companies interested in pushing the overhead of working in small complex markets onto local partners).  And if (as Orange announced) their general business direction is to bring all international operations “in-house,” then a decision to work directly in Israel vs. through a partner can hardly be seen as a boycott move (political or otherwise).

The situation was made more complex, however, when the company’s CEO – Stephane Richard – made statements on Egyptian TV which implied he could not wait to get out of the Israeli market, and that this strong desire was based on political wishes near and dear to the hearts of Egyptians (not to mention Orange’s other clients in the Arab world) to see the Jewish state punished economically for political reasons.

Now it’s kind of a toss-up whether one should suspect a European CEO vs. the Egyptian media as being more duplicitous.  But once the latter broadcast the former’s words in a way that made them seem like support for a boycott (leading, unsurprisingly, to global outrage), Richards and his company released a torrent of official statements implying that no one had ever heard of BDS, and that Orange would never boycott a Jewish market they loved with all their individual and collective corporate hearts.

With benefit of a few days of perspective, there are a few things to be learned from this still-unfolding story.

First, as much as I loathe the media boost the BDSers get when one of their manufactured controversies goes viral, politically and economically the Orange controversy seems to indicate that safeguards against corporations participating in anti-Israel boycott and divestment activity that began with US anti-boycott legislation in the 1970s seem to be working.

After all, unlike genuine boycott and divestment programs (such as the one against Apartheid South Africa which the BDSers like to pretend they are heir to), a company saying something that can be interpreted as giving the thumbs up to an anti-Israel boycott move is not showered with praise but buried in opprobrium, leading not to momentum-building support but embarrassing apologies.

While fast condemnation by Israel and its friends certainly hastened the aforementioned clarifications and apologies, so did the fact that major corporations (unlike food coops and obscure academic associations) have lawyers (who understand the ins and outs of anti-boycott law) and mechanisms for accountability, including a CEO who must report to a board of directors who are in turn accountable to shareholders.  And I would guess that a lot of people up and down that chain were asking why an executive hired to increase the value of their global brand was instead generating a week of controversial (and mostly condemnatory) headlines.

And if a global brand can be damaged by even the perception of support for BDS, that’s a strong indication that other corporations will learn from Richard’s experience that taking Omar Barghoutti’s phone calls comes at a price.

Another reason this might be considered good news is that recent events (notably the bandwagon of anti-BDS legislation passing in US state houses) could have paved the way for more corporate CEO-types to profess their support for boycott and divestment (in order to appease local constituents and non-Israeli Middle East customers), using American legislation as an excuse to refuse to act on those supportive words.  But if the Orange story teaches anything to executives running companies operating in global markets, it says that publically sucking up Egyptian political sensibilities (or the equivalent) at the expense of Israel is not cost free.

And “publicly” is all that really matters when it comes to BDS success or failure.  For many companies over the years have chosen to not participate in the small Israeli market for fear of pissing off the much larger Arab one.  But those choices are treated (internally and externally) as what they are: business decisions that carry no political or moral weight (except, perhaps, as demonstrating kinship between greed and cowardice).

This doesn’t mean that the boycotters won’t read into those decisions anything they want to include in their latest press releases and Tweets.  But unless we should also be treating the massive investment other companies are making in the Jewish state (and not in neighboring states or territories) as political statements condemning Arab nations, the PA or Hamas, we return to a formula that should be applied to any situation where the BDSers are demanding we hail their latest triumph: Prove It!

Justice Prevails in Olympia

4 Jun

The most welcome bit of good news all year comes from Olympia Washington where the Washington Supreme Court not only threw out a punitive (and absurd) six-figure fine imposed on Olympia Food Coop members who brought suit against the Coop, but chucked out the state statute that allowed such a travesty of justice to be imposed in the first place.

For those who were not around when the Olympia Food Coop BDS tale unfolded five years ago, the sequence of events leading up to last week’s decision goes something like this:

In 2010, leaders of the Olympia Food Coop voted to boycott Israeli products at a meeting where no one but those leaders and local BDS activists knew a boycott vote would be taking place.  And when the membership became aware of what had happened (through public announcements that the Coop was now onboard the Israel = Apartheid bandwagon) they protested and highlighted that the decision was made in violation of Coop bylaws.

After several years of failed attempts to work within the organization to get the decision reviewed and possibly rescinded, several members chose to sue the Coop for violating its own rules.  Boycott advocates counter-sued, claiming that the original suit fell under so-called “SLAPP” rules meant to exact a high price on anyone bringing frivolous lawsuits in order to stifle genuine political speech or advocacy.  And, as described in this piece, the original judge in the case decided in favor of boycott proponents, “slapping” anti-boycott advocates with a huge six-figure fine.

An appeal was launched, and just last week a judge determined that not only was the original case not a SLAPP suit, but that the whole SLAPP statute in Washington had become the means to stifle legitimate free speech and advocacy, leading to the law’s revocation.

So now the original case will continue.  And regardless of how you feel about the use of the courts to settle BDS-related disputes (a topic I’ve spent too much time dwelling on over the last few months), it’s fair to say that the only unambiguous (and colossal) injustice in this whole sordid affair has now been buried, and that an unjust law has been buried with it.

I hesitate to hail this as a victory for our side (or the latest #BDSFail) since the now-resumed original case could still go either way, and even ultimate win in the case might come with a cost (albeit not a six-figure one).  But I do think there are important things to learn from this whole sequence of events, above and beyond the fact that our legal system still contains enough safeguards to ensure that good people don’t have to suffer for turning to the law to correct a perceived wrong.

To begin with, if you needed any further illustration of the monstrous selfishness of the BDS “movement,” think for a moment how the Olympian boycotters reacted to the fact that their behind-the-scenes coup at the Coop led to member outrage, resignations, protest and – finally – a lawsuit.  Any normal political organization might have stepped back for just a moment to reflect on the suffering their single-issue partisanship had visited on a community.  But if you read the original gloating responses to the original SLAPP verdict, it’s clear that the BDSers were overjoyed that their neighbors might not have to only eat the boycotter’s shit but pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege.

The Olympia story might also demonstrate what happens when those fighting against a perceived injustice feel as though they do not have enough options at their disposal.

Having been involved with the Olympia story since it began (an involvement which included a visit to the city – and the Coop, as well as contribution of expert testimony in the original court case), I’ve met members of the Olympia community and come to understand their unique predicament.  For while the anti-Israel community is organized and united around a common cause (holding onto their precious boycott at all cost), those fighting BDS never found their footing when it came time to devise a common political strategy.

Understandably, they tried to work within the system – a system many of them had built as members, leaders and even founders of the Olympia Food Coop.  But when those attempts at rectification and reconciliation were thwarted at every turn, they decided there was no alternative but to turn to the courts.

But, if history is any guide, some of the most successful political action takes place outside “the system” (just ask Martin Luther King – or Saul Alinsky).  Even at Olympia, one of the most successful moments for anti-boycott members came when one of them spent a week camped out at the store in protest, arguing  the injustice of the boycott decision while simultaneously performing hundreds of hours of community service for an organization he loved (despite being hurt by its current leaders).

Such a move represents the kind of direct political action that threw the boycotters off balance without harming anyone in the process (quite the opposite).  And while it’s hard to tell what might have happened if the campaign against the boycott focused on further “controlled conflict” (or even mischief making), I think it’s safe to say that the Jewish community in Olympia (like most Jewish communities, I’m afraid) has never developed a taste for creating conflict that work towards political ends.

Such an attitude is perfectly understandable, given that (like Israel) most Jews (and non-Jews) fighting against propaganda campaigns like BDS would like nothing more than to live in peace and tranquility.  And most of us are understandably appalled at the type of antics routinely practiced by pro-BDS advocates (who are perfectly comfortable sewing conflict to further their ends), which gives us pause when it comes time to decide what our political strategies should be.

I wish I could point to dozens of examples where Israel’s supporters have discovered clever (and unanticipated) tactics that got under the skin of their opponents without causing hurt to those uninvolved with any given BDS conflict, but in many ways the Olympia community resembles the rest of us in that we all try to work within the system when we can, and turn to higher authority (the wider “official” Jewish community, college administrations, or – in the case of Olympia – the courts) when that fails.

But looking back at the great impresarios of political theatre (think Abbie Hoffman), you’ll find that Red Sea Pedestrians make up a large percentage of their ranks.  So I suspect our side has more than enough creativity needed to fight battles using these kinds of tactics.  So what can be done to develop a taste for it in our ongoing fight against a ruthless enemy (one who think he knows everything we’re going to do next)?

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.