One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from covering and writing about the BDS “movement” over the years is how to deal with setbacks. And, ironically, this is a lesson that’s been taught to me by the BDSers themselves.
For example, when students in Oxford overwhelmingly voted down BDS by a margin of 7:1 last week, did the BDS Movement’s official web site fly into outrage and despair over this setback for their academic boycott project (in that decidedly non-Zionist environment of British academia no less)? Did Mondoweiss express deep disappointment at this resounding defeat (never mind use the vote as a moment of reflection on the current state of BDS “momentum”).
No, they simply ignored the fact that the vote ever took place.
But if later this week the University of California at San Diego Student Senate joins a handful of other student governments who have passed toothless and largely ignored divestment measures over the years (remember that big vote at Wayne State in 2003? I thought not), as sure as night follows day this story will break across the BDS ether with pronouncements that this is just the beginning and that students across the country should join their comrades in San Diego in denouncing “Apartheid Israel.”
More importantly, supporters of Israel are not likely to follow the course the BDSers generally take of simply pretending that any setback never occurred. Rather, we are likely to condemn the decision, fight to have it reversed, and argue about it for weeks on end (at least in the Jewish mainstream and online press).
But is it incumbent upon us to always rise to the boycotter’s bait?
This is not a simple question since, unlike members of the BDS “movement,” supporters of Israel are not wired to throw their latest wins in the faces of our opponent day after day, week after week, month after month, all the time demanding that they respond to our taunts.
Even in a situation like Oxford (where it was the boycotters - not us – who demanded a vote on this issue), beyond a few news stories celebrating a rare moment of sanity within British academia, our side’s coverage of this event all but died out within a few days.
And if you look at the real stories that provide insight into how well BDS is faring, stories of Israel’s massive economic expansion, the success of Israeli brands like Ahava and SodaStream in global retail markets, the stampede of colleges and universities to build ties with their Israeli counterparts (all of which took place during the period when the boycotters were working tirelessly to bring the Israeli economy to its knees and isolate its academic institutions globally), you find a similar reticence on our part to portray these as political victories for pro-Israel forces.
This is because few (if any) of the thousands of decisions leading to Israeli economic and academic success have anything to do with politics. Rather, they represent the benefits that accrue to an inventive, energetic, academically minded people who have managed to overcome adversity and win in some of the toughest competitive arenas in the world: academia and the high-tech marketplace.
And while it would be easy to play the BDSers game and portray each and every investment decision (by companies such as Intel, Apple and Google) in the Jewish state as a slap in the face of the Israel haters, there is an understandable reluctance to drag business partners and colleagues into a political debate against their will. And thus we find ourselves in a situation where the boycotters can still kvell about some dopey food co-op in the top left corner of the country no longer selling Israeli ice cream cones while we keep the fact that the world’s most important companies have made Israel their second home out of the political arena.
Now we are faced with that ongoing dilemma of whether to respond to BDS taunts (and thus get caught up in an argument that the boycotters control) or ignore them completely (and thus allow the boycotters to define the story to their advantage). But this is just another variation on the current Jewish dilemma of whether to strike out against Israel’s defamers (which could give them the publicity they crave) or not mention them at all (and leave them free to do whatever they like at our expense).
Which is why I have chosen, after years of dealing with this issue, to engage directly with the boycotters, but to do it on my terms rather than theirs.
They, after all, want the discussion to begin and end with their accusations (whether based on context-free facts or invention) that they claim prove Israel to be “Apartheid state” (after having assigned themselves the role of prosecutor, judge and jury). Or they demand we respond to their latest trivial accomplishment, while all the time ignoring any facts making up the counter-narrative described above.
But just because they have assigned the rest of us the role of the accused, does not mean we have to play it. For there are other subjects that need to be brought into the discussion, such as the BDSers long history of failure, fraud and manipulation, their cageyness with regard to their ultimate goals, and their hypocrisy with regard to assigning themselves the mantle of human rights champion while they ignore the human rights of everyone on the planet that does not serve their immediately political needs.
In fact, as far as I’m concerned these should be the first and only topics that come up in any debate about BDS. And only when our questions have been answered (rather than shouted down or ignored) should we be ready to listen to whatever they have to say.