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A Look Back at 2013: Stephen Hawking

23 Jan

Of the three major BDS stories that broke last year, the only one I didn’t take time out of my hiatus year to write about was Stephen Hawking’s decision to turn down an invitation to Simon Peres’ President’s Conference in Israel.

At first, the story piqued my curiosity when there was a possibility that it might have constituted another BDS hoax.  But when that turned out to not be the case, I lost interest – not because I wanted the story of a BDS win to go unmentioned, but because Hawking’s decision represents the least significant category of boycott, divestment and sanctions activity: personal decisions made by individual celebrities.

When an institution (such as the Presbyterian Church, the City of Somerville, The Park Slope Food Coop or the ASA) gets dragged into a BDS fight, those are important battles to join since (1) they cause harm to innocents – notably members of the organization who do not want to be associated with an ugly political agenda; and (2) they stand the chance of being replicated as BDS activists fan out to leverage any win they receive at a church, municipality, school (or whatever) to try to convince similar organizations to follow suit.

But when an individual chooses to exercise his or her right to not travel or participate in an event, they only harm themselves (as Elvis Costello discovered now that even Deep Purple feels comfortable dissing him from the stage in Tel Aviv).  And as for triggering an avalanche of similar personal boycotts, the hundreds of prestigious academics who have chosen to participate in Peres’ President’s Conference over the last half decade, not to mention the thousands of intellectual superstars who travel to Israel every year to participate in conferences or work with colleagues, would seem to indicate Hawking’s personal opinion is shared by very few great minds of the day.

Now I will admit that Hawking’s personal story, as a man who overcame tremendous physical disability to become a scientist of world renown, is a moving one.  But this simply means he straddles the line between intellectual and celebrity, which makes him one of the few intellectuals who routinely travel to Israel (as I believe Hawking has in the past) whose name the public might recognize.

But even if Professor Hawking has a higher profile than do other equally brilliant men and women who haven’t appeared in a Star Trek Next Generation episode, we’re still talking about a celebrity boycott (albeit by an academic celebrity).  And as I’ve stated here, the opinion of a famous person (whether a rock star or physicist) speaking outside of their field of expertise should be given no more weight (although certainly no less) than that of any really smart person. Doing otherwise leads to what are called Appeal by Authority fallacies that try to leverage the enormous authority someone like Hawking has in matters regarding physics to a completely different domain (in this case, Middle East politics).

Having been in this game for close to ten years, the closest parallel I can come up with for this particular episode was Pete Seeger who, at the age of 92, was dragooned to hand over his scalp so that the BDSers could hang it on their “victory wall” (in a story far more ambiguous than the one related to Hawking).  But in both cases, members of “the movement” felt perfectly comfortable delivering to an aged and/or infirm celebrity the same message they spent weeks posting on the Facebook page of Elton John: that their only moral choice is BDS and failing to embrace it will tarnish their reputation forever.

Unfortunately, they failed to mention to Hawking that moral taint derives not from a rejection but an embrace of the BDS agenda.  So while the BDSers might have gained a bullet point on their next victory slide and Israel will continue to go from strength to strength, regardless of who does or does not visit, the only victim in this whole sordid tale is a brilliant and crippled man at the end of his career who title of “great” must now appear in quotation marks, a sad fate for a person who deserved to be left alone.

Park Slope Boycott Revisited

7 Dec

Given my proclivity for exposing BDS hoaxes, I guess this piece should touch on the latest bit of fraudulence (in this case a sports hoax) from our friends over at BDS Europe.  But since CAMERA has covered this story so well, the only thing I can add is this question: If the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is truly so awe-inspiring and unstoppable (especially in Europe), why must they resort to lies and potential forgery (yet again) regarding who is and who is not a supporter?

Feel free to ponder your own answer to that query (and if any friendly BDS lurkers out there care to join in, they can explain to us why a “movement” that has again been caught so many times trying to mislead the media and public should be taken seriously about anything).

In the meantime, I’d like to point out another example of general BDSholiness closer to home.

When I recently added the website of long-time commenter Barbara from Park Slope to the Divest This blogroll, I decided to see what was new with the Park Slope boycott by reading some of the co-op’s Linewaiter Gazette newsletters published since the boycotters mega defeat last Spring.

Imagine my surprise to discover that months after membership of the co-op told the boycotters they wanted no part of their ugly little project, that BDS proponents continue to shower the Gazette with letters to the editor listing the crimes of the evil Jews. (Whoops!  I meant “the Zionist Jews,” whoops, I mean “The Occupation.”)

Actually, it’s not that surprising.  And, to be fair, most of these letters seem to be coming from the same thoughtless fanatic (who no doubt considers herself a selfless champion of the oppressed – so long as they are Palestinian living under Israeli jurisdiction – the only candidates for human rights in the Middle East according to the BDSer’s demented and self-serving moral arithmetic).

The letters page of a self-published newsletter for members of a small community food retailer is one of those soft targets I’ve mentioned in the past, especially since the writer of these endless missives understands that leaders of the organization have made the decision to publish anything they’re sent, even if they know it’s irrelevant to the mission of the institution and likely to offend countless co-op members.

For just as the boycotters were willing to exploit loose rules the co-op had in place covering product boycotts motions (since the makers of those rules assumed good will on the part of members bringing such motions to the floor), the losers of last March’s boycott vote are ready to take advantage of the organizations unwillingness to leave anyone’s voices out, a policy again based on assumptions of good will.

Anyone familiar with the Park Slope Food Coop knows that many of its thousands of members are dedicated to a wide variety of political causes.  Yet all these dedicated activists are satisfied finding outlets for their political activism that do not require creating needless conflict in the community where they shop.

This is why organizations like the food co-op can live with less-than-airtight rules and regulations regarding boycotts and letters to the editor since the vast majority of the membership understands that they are part of a wider community that includes those who do not share a particular set of political opinions.

But the BDSers can only get their way by breaching that trust in order to remake the world in their own image, a world where everything is politicized to the point where anyone who either buys or eats food is “taking sides” and must therefore be forced to vote on the boycotter’s pet issue or read endless letters denouncing the Israel hater’s political enemies.  But this represents just one more example of BDS fanatics finding some justification to drag the Middle East conflict into every civic space in the land.

To their credit, the newsletter editors have recently taken to segregating BDS-related letters to their own section where members are free to ignore them and get on with their lives.  And to their even greater credit, Israel’s friends have not fought fire with fire by writing their own endless denunciations of Israel’s foes, but have responded to BDS taunts with appeals to the wider needs of the community, as well as hilarious send offs of the “movement” written by one Jesse Rosenfeld who demonstrates the power of humor to pierce the ludicrousness and hypocrisy of those who demand they be immediately and irrevocably be given a moral high ground they can never earn.

PennBDS: The Cultural Boycott

20 Jan

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

When BDS first came on the scene at the beginning of the last decade, it primarily focused on divestment (notably, on five years of failed efforts to get prominent colleges and universities, churches and municipalities to divest form the Jewish state).

Later, it added boycotts to the mix and rebranded itself to “BDS.”  This not only gave anti-Israel advocates a catchy TLA to pop into their mouths.  It also provided them a much wider range of targets they were ready to ask to participate in academic, consumer and cultural boycotts.

I’ll be dealing with academic and consumer boycotts in upcoming postings focusing on PennBDS agenda items covering those topics.  But before leaving them to the side, it’s worth noting that consumer boycotts have generally been focused on trying to get actual retailers to remove Israeli products from their store shelves vs. asking individual consumers to engage in personal boycotts. The reason for this is obvious once you realize that a boycott consisting solely of individuals choosing to not buy Israeli food or wine simply represents unremarkable (and, more importantly, un-newsworthy) personal choices.

But there is one group of people whose consumer choices do make news: celebrities.  After all, we buy the shoes they wear (and tout), follow their home and luxury purchases on cable TV, and analyze the gowns they show off at the Oscars and Emmy’s.  So why wouldn’t their choices vis-à-vis whether or not to come to Israel make news?

Efforts to get celebrities to shun performing in the Jewish state got a boost in 2010 when Elvis Costello chose to cancel the Israel leg of a tour after being subjected to protests by anti-Israel activists at his concerts (as well as online).  This followed similarly successful harangues of the older (and recently deceased) Gil Scot-Heron who had previously bagged out on his Israeli fans at the behest of BDS advocates.

As I’ve discussed before, what these two (and other pop stars fingered by the boycotters, including the 92-year-old Pete Seeger) have in common is that they are all well into or well past the end of their careers.  And given a choice between watching their last tours turn into public protests against their alleged immorality vs. a peaceful retirement, a few of them took the easy way out and caved into BDSers demands, turning into poster-children for the anti-Israel crusaders in the process.

The key word in the above paragraph is “few,” for while the actions of Scot-Heron and Costello in particular briefly made news headlines (and continue to be touted in BDS press releases), efforts to capitalize on these “successes,” were all for naught.  Loud demands that heavy hitters like Elton John and Paul Simon (also in the aging rock star class) similarly cancel their Israel gigs were met with simple rejection or, in Elton John’s case, ridicule from the stage while playing before packed Israeli concert halls.

In fact, defying boycott calls has become a sort of badge of cool since Costello let down his fans (and tried to explain himself by posting hundreds of mealy-mouthed words on his Web site).  It’s one thing when Johnny Lydon (former Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) gives you the finger for your cowardice in refusing to play Israel.  But when participating in BDS gets you dissed by Deep Purple you know the jig is up.

I’ve heard that a group of Hollywood impresarios has decided to counter the cultural boycott threat by creating an organization designed to bring celebrities to Israel and help dispel myths being peddled by BDS propagandistas.  And, as much as I applaud their efforts (or any efforts to expose more people to the truth), the main impetus driving defeat of the cultural boycott is that Israel is a pretty appealing place to visit and perform, which is why thousands of artists, musicians, theater and film stars visit the country annually, a number that’s been growing and growing year upon year.

Absent the ability to get all but the most obscure “stars” to follow their lead, the BDSers had one more resource to draw upon in their efforts to impact cultural events: their own limitless ability to act like assholes.  For it you can’t get American or European celebrities to bend to your will, why not show up at Israeli cultural events held in the US or Europe (such as performances by ballet dancers and concert musicians) and start shouting or blowing air horns?

Such “cultural boycott” protests did achieve one major goal of the BDS movement: the production of digital video of their naughty (I mean edgy) behavior to post on BDS YouTube channels.   But in terms of turning public opinion away from support for Israel, as Britain’s Cultural Minister tweeted during the disruption of a concert of the Israeli Philharmonic in London, “Demonstrators seem to have turned [the] entire audience pro-Israel.”

As we’ll see when we start discussing academic and consumer boycotts, it is very difficult to get people to abandon their principles (by rejecting academic freedom in the case of academic boycotts) or their ability to make personal choices (in the case of consumer boycotts) simply because partisan activists insist that this is their only moral choice.  And even celebrities, many of whom spend their lives insulated from the result of the choices they make, know to avoid the BDS like the rotting dead-fish that it is.


10 Sep

I had neglected one possible mutation of the BDS virus in the wake of dawning realization that the original goals of the “movement” (to get major civic organizations like universities and churches to embrace their “Israel = Apartheid” propaganda message) are growing ever beyond reach.

There have always been elements of threats, intimidation, and even violence within the range of internally acceptable activities carried out by BDSers over the years. While originally isolated to howling pro-Israel speakers off the stage at colleges like Berkeley and Hampshire, this tactic has moved from the periphery to the center of chosen BDS tactics as more and more people are rejecting their central message that BDS represents some kind of a “peace movement” worthy of respect.

When you look at what the BDSers brag about as “victories,” they include items like getting an landlord to not renew the lease for an Ahava store in London, largely by making life hell for Ahava’s retail neighbors through non-stop protests (including violent protests) that disrupted business activity for years. Today, you can see the same tactic being employed in Australia (although Down Under, Australian civil society has reacted by defending the target of these attacks and condemning the attackers).

Lately, the boycott brigade has moved from disrupting pro-Israel speakers (to ensure their voice never gets heard) to shouting and blowing bullhorns at artistic performances that dare to include Israeli dancers and musicians (most recently the nasty interruption of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra playing the Proms concert event in the UK).

This switch from trying to convince to threatening and intimidating has accelerated over the last several months, to the point where it is clearly becoming the central choice of strategy from the BDS playbook. And, in a sense, who can blame them for going down this route? After all, if you cannot demonstrate your relevance by actually achieving a political objective, you can still garner a headline by throwing a public tantrum, even if such effort simply turn more and more people against you and the Palestinian cause you claim to represent.

And property targeted, even the threat of violence and disruption can bend people to your will (as this example illustrates). The fact that such “achievements” convince no one means nothing as the BDS “movement” moves from trying to win actual victories to trying to keep its own members from realizing their own impotency and irrelevance.

I’ve noted before that Israel does not face a de-legitimization problem so much as it faces a propaganda problem (i.e., the well funded effort of enemy nation states and their allies abroad to besmirch the Jewish state’s reputation in every possible forum and at every possible opportunity).

But with this recent turn to threats and violent protest as the primary pillar of BDS strategy, I think I’ve got to revise that statement to say that Israel is primarily facing an asshole problem, i.e., the decision by the nasty, the brutish and the shortsighted to pursue the tactics of intimidation, regardless of how ultimately ineffective they have proven to be and how counter-productive these choices are for their own claimed cause.

When is a Boycott Not a Boycott?

11 Aug

Apologies to my reader for the uncontextualized reference to a BDS press release in my last posting, one which gave the impression that the boycotters had racked up a win with regard to International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Youth and Student Organization (a mouthful that fortunately acronyms to the simpler IGLYO) cancelling an event to be held in Israel.

As the BDS press release itself makes clear, this story is – at best – a murky one. As near as I can tell, BDS groups had put pressure on IGLYO to cancel participation in an international summit to be held in Tel Aviv in December. That request was politely rejected by both the organization’s leaders and a poll of members. But after the Israeli parliament’s recent anti-BDS legislation was passed, the issue was re-opened with input by local Israeli gay groups protesting that legislation (note to Israeli politicians: be careful of unintended consequences).

Given that IGLYO’s mission is gay rights and not Middle East politics, a compromise seems to have been reached whereby the organization continues to encourage member organizations to participate in the Tel Aviv event, while also moving its own General Assembly meeting out of that city as a means to balance the needs of all parties.

The notion of BDS activists asking for anything in the name of “Palestinian queer groups” (given just what would happen if the Tel Aviv Gay Pride parade was replicated in Gaza City) is a story for another time. But for now, the IGLYO non-boycott highlights a phenomenon I’ve noticed recently with regard to reversed or non-boycott activities continuing to be heralded in BDS press releases as wins for them.

The most notable example of this is the restoration of ties between the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and Israel’s Ben Gurion University, ties that were severed earlier this year by a vote in the U. Johannesburg Senate. Apparently, the administration of the prestigious South African university decided that a relationship that both supports academic freedom and promises safe drinking water for the South African population is more important than allowing boycotters to strike a pose in front of their friends. And so the lynchpin of the BDSers “See, Israeli really is just like Apartheid South Africa…South Africans themselves say so!” strategy is exposed as just another empty shell, a bone one group of self-centered anti-Israel activists threw to another before grown-ups showed up to explain that principle and the lives of the local population took precedent over the needs of the boycotters to Tweet about their latest “victory.”

David Hirsh, a University of London professor who has been tirelessly battling attempts at academic boycott in the UK for the better part of a decade, highlights other examples of these non-boycott boycotts (such as academics and celebrities who rejected calls to cancel appearances in Israel being declared in compliance with BDS dictates since they spoke or performed to mixed Arab and Jewish audiences).

Now David makes the claim that “Even when the [BDS] campaign loses… it also wins, when, unlike other antisemitic campaigns, it is treated with respect,” an argument I hear frequently, especially when writing the umpteenth story about BDSs latest fiasco or defeat. And I understand this argument, especially when it comes from someone I respect as much as David (vs. from the boycotters themselves who, understandably, would like to portray everything they do – including losing – as a victory).

With all that said, I would offer the humble alternative that a political project that has never achieved any concrete results despite a decade of tireless effort, which has to resort to fraud, hoaxes, hiding reversals (like U. Johannesburg) and self-serving interpretation of other people’s decisions (like IGYLO) to maintain momentum has to be judged by its own achievements (or lack thereof), rather than by the volume of their bombast.

It’s intriguing that of the three legs of the Israel de-legitimization stool (which consists of manipulating non-governmental organizations or NGOs, lawfare and BDS), BDS has by far been the least successful.

But if you step back you’ll realize that while the corruption of NGOs (or organizations like the UN) can be accomplished by powerful political players (i.e., the wealthy nation states that are or support Israel’s foes) throwing their weight around, and “lawfare” campaigns can be purchased with money (which the de-legitimizers seem to have, given their ability to charter and purchase ships to sail across the Mediterranean), BDS requires the ascent of common citizens acting through civic organizations such as schools, churches and towns. And to date these common citizens seem to be showing enough common sense to not be suckered into buying the snake oil being peddled by partisans of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Give Peace No Chance

18 Jul

A couple of weeks back, the New York Times ran a piece on YaLa, a loose-knit virtual organization of young Israelis and Palestinians trying to bridge the ever-widening gap between their societies using social media like Facebook.

I’ll admit to looking at the story a bit skeptically at first, especially given the media’s ability to lose all perspective (intellectual, emotional and historic) the moment Facebook is involved with a political movement (demonstrated mostly notably during the so-called “Facebook Revolutions” of the supposed “Arab Spring”).

But then I reconsidered. After all, if Jews and Arabs are trying to make peace with each other at ground level, any effort along those lines should be celebrated. And such support is especially needed for those Palestinians courageous enough to buck their own mainstream media and school curricula which erupts constant demands that every Settler/Israeli/Jew (take you pick) be boycotted/kicked-out/blown-up (again, take your pick).

But apparently the forces of BDS are not quite so open-minded regarding other people’s political choices. As noted here, the Electronic Intifada (an enforcer of the BDS “consensus”) has declared the YaLa group treif in BDS eyes, condemning its Palestinian leaders for (among other crimes) being involved with past efforts to find peace between Jews and Arabs.

As noted previously, such lashing out at Palestinians trying to maintain the people-to-people connection envisioned by the original Oslo peace accords seems to be part of a pattern. For as the forces of BDS have less and less to brag about after a decade of failure abroad, the one and only place where they can enforce their edicts are in territories under Palestinian control. And since they take it upon themselves the right to declare what makes up the Palestinian people’s general will (i.e., to participate in boycotts of Israeli people and companies), they seem to have no trouble clamping down on any effort to normalize Israeli or Palestinian lives in any way.

Once again, BDS has shown itself to be a “movement” dedicated first and foremost to eliminating any alternatives to conflict. And since its practitioners return to stony silence (or start screaming condemnations of Israel at the top of their lungs) the moment someone mentions that groups like Hezbollah and Hamas seem to be successfully stockpiling weapons for the next outbreak of violence, we are left with a political program dedicated to (1) assuring that conflict is the one and only choice available to both Palestinians and Israelis; and (2) trying to put the issue of those they support arming themselves to the teeth beyond discussion.

I’m not sure what you would call a “movement” dedicated to such warlike and propagandistic goals, but the words “peace” and “justice” certainly don’t shoot the top of the list.