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Campus On Fire 2 – What to Do?

9 Nov

The two pieces of advice that I use as a mantra in the fight against BDS (don’t panic/don’t be complacent) are inexorably linked.

Last time (and over the years), I’ve pointed out things that should calm us when we hear stories of BDS and other anti-Israel activity “on the march,” such as the non-existent economic impact of a decade and a half of divestment campaigns, the triumph of buycotts over boycotts, and the rejection of BDS by some of the most progressive institutions in the country (such as food coops).

But the “don’t be complacent” recommendation requires us to appreciate the strengths the boycotters bring to the battle, notably:

  • The fact that they start from militant goals (the destruction of Israel or its weakening to the point where others can do the dirty work) justifies (to them anyway) the use of aggressive tactics that opponents (i.e., us – who are not interested in destroying anyone) cannot match or sustain.
  • Their indifference to the harm they cause others gives the BDSers the ability to select any target they wish (that school or municipality for divestment, this food coop or retailer for boycotting, etc.), which means they have the initiative when it comes to selecting the terrain upon which the next boycott or divestment battle will be fought.
  • The barrier to entry for BDS is virtually non-existent. For example, a couple of SJP-types on a campus can launch a divestment campaign (such as one that started recently in Princeton) by simply signing up for some free petitioning software, filling it with Barghoutian boilerplate, gathering a few hundred signatures, and claiming momentum (or even victory) regardless of what happens next.
  • The general media zeitgeist regarding stories about Israel combined with the BDSers’ demonstrated ability to use Web 2.0 communication tools to push their preferred spin means even trivial stories will get ink and are more likely to be shaped by an anti- (vs. pro-) Israel narrative.

These advantages are not trivial, but neither are they insurmountable, especially since the BDS project is predicated on coopting a neutral third party (such as a school, church or union) in order to make it seem as though the “Israel=Apartheid” propaganda message is coming out of the mouth of a respected institution.  And, to date, most civic organizations have proven resistant to being dragged into the boycotter’s orbit.

If you look at the influential constituencies that are now fully immunized from the BDS virus (college administrations, municipal leaders, food coop boards), it becomes clear that fights over irrelevant student council resolutions or hummus protests represent the pathetically low stakes battles the boycotters have been forced to pick after a decade and a half of failure.

But it is this very triviality that requires the BDSers to scream ever louder in order to mask the minimal limits of their support outside their own community.  And, at a time when thousands of Arabs (including many Palestinians) are being slaughtered daily in the non-Israeli part of the Middle East currently going up in flames, the need to ratchet up the volume to 11,000,000 becomes even more critical, lest anyone notice that the Palestinian suffering might have more to do with HamIsis than Netenyahu.

The combination of ruthlessness and infiltration that has led to the few BDS wins in recent years (such as some West Coast student government resolutions, or the ASA’s academic boycott) represents the tactics Lenin once summed up as: “Probe with bayonets.  If you encounter mush, advance.  If you encounter steel, retreat.”

Which pretty much means that those who want to beat back the BDS threat have to do so by ensuring those bayonets always encounter steel.

We have already seen this kind of resolve within broader Jewish community organizations (including Hillel) that have made it clear that the “Big Tent” they embrace will never include those pushing for boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting the Jewish state.  And the whining you hear from groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), or their latest front group Open Hillel, demonstrates what Israel’s foes are reduced to when they encounter firm resistance.

With regard to college campuses, the Jewish community has also made the de facto strategic decision to leave key decisions up to students on the ground (providing help and advice when requested).  This choice carries some risk since you never know how many students are ready to man the barricades during any given semester (or how skilled those students are politically and organizationally), which means we cannot always plan ahead for where steel (vs. mush) will emerge.

But as more kids step up to the plate (as they have over the last few years in increasing numbers), chances grow that you’ll see more situations like Cornell (where SJP has been reduced to pathetic blubbering over their own alleged victimization) than at places like Hampshire College where the boycotters feel dominant enough to direct their impotent rage at the few (largely Jewish) students who oppose their agenda.

Finally, don’t panic/don’t be complacent counsels patience.  Anti-Israel agitation, after all, has been with us as long as the war against the Jewish state.  And in that war it is Israel that stands stable and successful, a nation strong enough to defend its interests and continue the quest for peace, while those who have waged war against her for decades descend into the chaos as totalitarians battle to the death with religious fanatics with everyone screaming about the Jews as they bury knives into one another’s backs.

This same instability lurks within groups tasked to manage the propaganda component of the century-long war against the Jews.  Today, they travel under the banner of Students for Justice in Palestine – a name that will no-doubt change once it becomes apparent to all that what they stand for has nothing to do with the students or Palestinians (much less justice).

SJP Thuggery – Are the Campuses Burning?

6 Nov

If any DT readers are in the Boston area, I’ll be part of a panel discussion next week on the subject of Defamation of Israel on College Campuses sponsored by CAMERA.  Other speakers include Richard Cravatts, President of Scholars for Middle East Peace and Gilad Skolnick, CAMERA’s Director of Campus Programming.

Unsurprisingly, I’ll be taking the BDS angle vis-à-vis colleges and universities, and will be spending the next few days trying to figure out the right balance to strike before a concerned audience who may be reading about campuses in flames in the Jewish (and even mainstream) press.

The balance I tend to strike in this blog – Don’t Panic, but Don’t be Complacent – still seems appropriate, even in a year when groups like SJP have shown enough organizational muscle to pull off a national conference (where tactics and resources were shared) and enough aggression to make life miserable for pro-Israel voices (if not Jewish students in general) on many campuses.

On the “Don’t Panic” side, keep in mind that it has been years (over a decade really) since it became clear no college or university in the country (if not the world) was going to actually divest from the Jewish state.

Even back in the early 2000s when BDS was just “divestment” (and divestment efforts led by the now-defunct Palestinian Solidarity Movement – PSM – vs. the new SJP incarnation of anti-Israel activism), college administrators (i.e., the grown-ups who actually make investment decisions) made it clear that they were not going to listen to demands from a propaganda campaign masquerading as a human rights  movement.  And we should never forget the fact that SJP rose to prominence by pushing that BDS hoax at Hampshire College, one which (among other things) convinced college administrators of the peril of even answering the phone when the divestment cru calls.

Which is why BDS battles on campuses have basically been fought within student governments over whether they would pass toothless divestment resolutions that everyone knows will be ignored.  And, even here, after years and years of effort by the boycotters, less than ten such resolutions have passed.  And even then, such “wins” have been the result of BDSers infiltrating student government and midnight deals passed during Shabbat rather than the Israel haters convincing anybody of anything.

But such votes do give groups like SJP the platform to rant and rave about Israeli “crimes against humanity” for hour after hour before a captive audience.  And the very impotence of their activity with regard to generating genuine consequential action may explain why they have to scream about their few “successes” ever louder in order to convince people that their message is embraced by more than a marginal fringe.

That screaming has also been coupled with ever-more aggressive “direct action” on campuses, and I suspect that this is one of the reasons passions about schools in flames run so high.

Part of this aggressiveness has to do with the nature of radical politics, a dynamic in which those who propose the most outrageous plans tend to rise to leadership positions due to their “passion” and “intensity.”  And let’s not forget that the BDSers are aligned to a broader, global anti-Israel project that has always been a mix of propaganda, threat and violence (with the latter two taking precedent as the Middle East goes up in flames).

But we should also not forget that a sociopathic political movement like BDS is all about pushing limits of civilized norms.  While every other political and human rights issue on the planet plays out in a reasonable fashion whenever they come up on college campuses, only the Arab-Israeli conflict has devolved into shout-downs of speakers, pat-downs of students in front of mock “Apartheid Walls,” hostile pranks like last year’s eviction notice outrages, and demands that every student on campus take a side (SJP’s) or be condemned as faux-progressives or enemies of human rights.

And when such limit-pushing is not met by significant resistance by those charged to keep campus live civil (i.e., administrators who know a Lawyer’s Guild shill for SJP is in the wings if they ever clamp down on the group’s outrageous behavior), that simply incentivizes the thugs to push even harder next time and communicate via the globe-spanning, free new media what others are now likely to be able to get away with on their campuses.

So what we seem to be dealing with are not college campuses slipping into the anti-Israel orbit, but a newly energized group of anti-Israel propagandists (ginned up – as they always are – after a war) that is out of control.  And how best to deal with this particular dynamic is something I’ll turn to next time.

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.

Battle Stations!

2 Sep

While life required taking a break from new writing in August, it’s time now to get ready for what is likely to be an ugly year with regard to BDS battles brewing on campuses and elsewhere.

One of the reasons BDS hasn’t gone into remission (as it did between 2006 and 2009) is that it remains the tactic of choice for Israel haters eager to mobilize supporters into action.  For, despite all its flops and failures, frauds and faux-pas, the “movement” derives certain advantages from its choice of the BDS tactic, namely:

  • BDS campaigns are easy to explain and implement.  Set up a survey monkey account and BANG!, you’ve got a petition-driven divestment campaign up and running at a college or university.  Sign up a few volunteers to march in front of a local hardware store and POP! a SodaStream boycott effort is underway.
  • Because virtually every institution in the world retains some tie to the Jewish state (investments in Israeli companies or US companies doing business with Israel, academic exchange programs, sale of Israeli consumer products and technology), that gives the BDSers license to inflict themselves on any civic organization they please.
  • And because the boycotters could not care less about the damage they might cause to those civic organizations, there are not bound by the limits normal people confine themselves to (such as the need to tell the truth and not use others as mere means to an end).

As always, geopolitics beyond any of our control is what has allowed BDS to chug along since it was resurrected in 2009 (or – to be more accurate – when it was reborn in fraud with the Hampshire College hoax that took place that year).  For whenever Hamas decided to restart hostilities (as it did in 2009, 2012 and this summer), carefully orchestrated outrage brought people into the streets.  And those orchestrators have been ready to give anyone who shows up to their rallies desperate to “Do something” something to do: start a BDS project in their neighborhood.

Traditionally, anti-Israel activity on campus is more of a second-semester phenomenon since it often takes a few months for a chapter of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to get their act together, recruit new members, get funding, and plan and execute programming.  This is why events like Israel Apartheid Week (no matter how tired and loathsome) tend to be scheduled for the Spring.

But with this summer’s carnage still fresh in people’s minds, we have already seen the anti-Israel bandwagon rolling on college campuses and beyond.  And given that physical assault seems to now be on the SJP menu, I think we can expect the out-of-control behavior we saw in places like Northeastern and Vassar last year to spread and escalate.

As depressing as it might be to have to start dealing with the attack on Israel’s legitimacy (including its legitimate right to defend itself against endless rocket attacks) immediately and everywhere, keep in mind that our side brings its own assets to the fight.

First off, years of escalating anti-Israel activity on campus and beyond has created a counter-force in the form of enthused, energetic and informed pro-Israel groups fighting effectively against defamation of the Jewish homeland across the planet.    And both Israel and the diaspora have woken up to the fact that we need to take the battle against the propaganda weapon wielded by faux “peace-activist” war groups just as seriously as the IDF takes the threat of missile and tunnel weapons.

Finally, the sheer volume of lies people are being asked to believe in order to embrace the SJP/BDS/Hamas storyline of pure Israeli villainy and Palestinian pristine innocence is pretty much ready to not just snap the camel’s back but flatten him into a millimeter-thick camel pancake.  And with ISIS running amok in Iraq, Boko Haram kidnapping and raping their way across Nigeria and Syria racking up more Arab casualties per month than Israel has in decades, the notion that we must ignore the rest of the world and talk only about Gaza casualties (based on figures provided by Hamas, of course) becomes an ever-harder sell.

But how should we be framing our message during a period when SJP and the like minded will be doing all they can to manipulate the uniformed and shout down (or beat down) those with opposing views?

Some thoughts on that tomorrow.

DePaul BDS et al

24 May

It’s temping at the end of a school year to play the numbers game: toting up wins and losses on each side to see who’s on top and who’s gaining momentum.  And in a year where student votes have gone against the BDSers 15:3 – or maybe 16:4 after Davis rejected divestment (again) but SJP narrowly won a referendum at DePaul – you’ve seen Israel supporters highlighting an unusually high concentration of BDSFails while the boycotters try to define everything (including defeat) as victory in disguise.

I’ve written before about the hazards of relying too much on head-counting (or, in this case, vote counting) which can lead to poor tactical decision-making based on the sometimes irrational faith people place in numerical information.  But dwelling on wins and losses within student government bodies also obscures a more fundamental truth that gets lost in the drama of nail-biting ballot races.  For as the BDS propaganda campaign closes in on its fifteenth birthday, student government votes are not what the BDSers have accomplished but what they have been reduced to.

I’ve been doing this gig long enough to remember when the first campus divestment petitions cropped up at places like Harvard and Yale.  And during those early days, it was not at all clear whether or not some school might actually respond to calls to divest (or at least treat the BDS agenda seriously, giving the “movement” the credibility it so craved).

In retrospect, such concerns were unwarranted.  For as we’ve seen over the last decade and a half, college administrators well understand that divestment and boycott calls represent the views of an aggressive, fringe minority willing to put things like campus comity and academic freedom at risk for the sake of their own selfish agenda.  Which (as demonstrated by the ASA backlash) has led college Presidents (and other assorted adults) to not just reject BDS demands but to vocally and eloquently condemn it.

Which means everything we’ve seen on college campuses over the last several years: the all-night Student Senate meetings, the blanketing of campuses with anti-Israel propaganda, the shouting and the bullying are ultimately forms of Kabuki drama (albeit delivered via megaphone) where the BDSers ignore both their immediate losses and the fact that their “wins” have never amount to anything.

You need evidence?  OK, so let’s go back to the first divestment vote taken by a US-based student government (Wayne State in 2002).  Remember that one?  I thought not.  For a record of this decision only carries on in those “victory” lists the boycotters routinely trot out to demonstrate their unstoppable momentum, documentation that never takes into account that (1) the initial vote led to nothing other than rejection and condemnation by the administration, and (2) subsequent student government votes on the matter didn’t materialize for another decade.  And the choice of student government as a target only got made when a freshly minted SJP organization realized it could never convince a school’s administration to divest, nor convince the media to pick up on any more post-Hampshire divestment hoaxes.

How about student referenda like the one that passed at DePaul last week?  Well how about the last BDS referendum that passed at Evergreen College in 2011, another forgotten story that led to absolutely nothing since even the staggeringly indulgent administration of Evergreen drew a line at taking student statements on Middle East affairs the least bit seriously.

Again, I don’t want to minimize the role these campaigns play in pumping anti-Israel toxin into a campus environment, lies which a certain percentage of uninformed people will end up accepting as truth.  But we should also not minimize the fact that every action triggers a reaction.  And, in the case of BDS, this has involved a newly energized pro-Israel community ready to brave the fight (no small feat, given the lengths their opponents will go to shout and shut them down) in order to deliver the truth the Israel-haters are trying so desperately to suppress.

Because no one believes any of these votes and referenda reflect the consensus of the student body, media coverage of this year’s campaigns has been nearly non-existent.  And given that the goal of the BDS “movement” is to create an illusion of momentum which they hope can be used to build a self-perpetuating bandwagon, it’s just as well that no one outside of the fever swamps of Mondoweiss is paying much attention of which student councils are voting divestment up or down (mostly down).

At the same time, there is a news story to be found in all the controversy being artificially inseminated into student life, the story of the outrageous lengths anti-Israel groups are willing to visit on campus after campus regardless of the cost to others.

I’ve written before about Israel haters running amok, but the lengths SJP has been willing to go this season surpasses anything I can recall.  Their failed attempt to haul political opponents before a student judiciary at UCLA might just seem like the latest chapter of BDS proponents finding new institutions to exploit and corrupt for their own gain.  But the fact that SJP chose to not include one of their allies on their suspect list – despite the fact that he had taken the exact same trip SJP was condemning others for going on – demonstrates a level of cynicism I’ve not seen in over a decade of BDS fighting.

Getting back to that DePaul story, about 10% of the student body cast a ballot in last week’s referendum with the pro-divestment side getting 1575 votes and the anti side 1333.  If those numbers ring a bell, it’s because you read that piece I mentioned earlier that describes most college campuses where 10% of the student body feels strongly about the Middle East (half on one side and half on the other) while the other 90% either don’t care or wish partisans of all stripes would just shut up and leave them alone.

But for the BDSers, that margin of 242 votes (or around 0. 9% of the student body) means just one thing: DePaul is theirs to do with as they please.  And given the behavior we’ve seen on campuses this Spring (including at DePaul), one can only imagine the mayhem they are likely to unleash now that they can pretend to speak for the entire student body.

University of Washington BDS Fiasco

21 May

As most of us in the BDS/anti-BDS subculture (and almost no one else) knows, the you-know-who haters suffered one of the biggest of the umpteen defeats they received this year when the University of Washington BDS vote went against divestment 59-8.

The only two newsworthy things about this most recent BDS setback are (1) the ballot went against the motion so decisively; and (2) this latest chapter of the campus student-council divestment saga barely made news before, during and after the vote.

While congratulations need to go to the pro-Israel students at UW who took the microphones and successfully made their case, the lopsidedness of the vote would point to an additional source for last night’s outcome: the fact that student governments are getting wise to the fact that SJP-types don’t give a fig about anything beyond their own fanatical agenda and are ready to badger representatives all night long if need be in order to get their way.

I’m speculating, of course, but from what I know of college campuses today it would probably be a stretch to say that a Zionist heart beats in the chest of 88% of students on campus (that’s 59/(59+8) BTW).  But I suspect that the 88% of UW student senators, and the students they represent, don’t appreciate being played for chumps just to give the boycotters a captive audience to wail at for hour after hour after hour.

With regard to the lack of media interest in the vote – even in the Jewish press – we need to compare this year’s campus divestment stories in aggregate to the media frenzy that took place at Berkeley in 2010.  That was the year the student government did vote “Yes” on divestment only to see the measure vetoed by the council President, a veto the boycotters couldn’t scrounge the votes to override.

While the elements of that story (consisting of twists and turns, each hinging on a nail-biting ballot) infused that tale with drama, the fact that this was the first major campus where student government was voting in divestment also made the story fresh and new (drama, freshness and Jews being three things the media can’t get enough of).  But in the years since that Berkeley defeat, the BDSers have been bringing the same measures up on campus after campus, only to see them voted down in almost every instance.

Given how little concern the boycotters have for student government opinion when they are told “No” (repeatedly), is it any wonder that neither students, administrators or journalists take these divestment ballots (or the student governments that vote them in) seriously on those rare occasions when the boycotters manage to eke out a “Yes” (usually by packing student government with their own supporters or sneaking measures in during the dead of night and/or during Jewish holidays)?

Unlike the boycotters, our side doesn’t tend to break into war dances and demand everyone (including our foes) acknowledge our “stunning momentum” when we win, which means the UW story will likely fade away (at least until the BDSers show up again to demand a redo, or bring the 59 people who voted against them up on charges).

But there’s one important message coming out of last night’s vote that should not go away.  For, as the UW Senate made loud and clear, no one is obliged to vote on this or that international issue just because 100 SJPers are breathing down their neck demanding that their pet peeve be made the law of the land.

If the student body of every college in the country has gotten along just fine without condemning Syria for genocide, Saudi Arabia for gender and sexual Apartheid, or the Palestinians for terror and corruption, then they are perfectly justified not embracing an BDS agenda pushed by allies of those repressive and bigoted societies.