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BDS Breakthrough!

27 May

Having spent a decade and a half getting one food coop to stop selling Israeli ice cream cones (leading to every other coop in the land saying “No” to similar boycotts), getting a handful of student governments to vote for divestment that will never happen, and getting little known academic organizations to pass boycotts they’re too afraid to implement, the BDS “movement” has finally hit pay-dirt.

And not just some rinky-dink boycott or divestment measure, but the Holy Grail of the BDSers – Sanctions (i.e., elected governments taking action due to BDS activity).

The only trouble (for them, anyway) is that those governments have been passing resolutions condemning not Israel but the boycotters.  And if the recent unanimous passage of anti-BDS legislation in Illinois (inspired by and inspiring similar moves in Tennessee, Indiana and New York) is any indication, the Israel-disliking community is about to discover what genuine political momentum looks like.

If you add to these recent state-level initiatives to moves by the US Congress to tie trade with Europe to that continent’s steering clear of BDS blandishments, it seems as though three successful sanctions programs (against Iran, Sudan and now BDS) have all caught fire during 15 years when the boycotters have been struggling to get a spark from their increasingly damp book of matches.

As my regular reader knows, I’ve never been a big fan of government action (from legislators or judges) substituting for local political action when it comes to how to best win BDS battles.  But unlike previous attempts to directly intervene in specific boycott disputes (such as state sanctions directed against the American Studies Association that might have done more harm than good, or lawsuits that always go badly for those that bring them), these recent state and national votes just reflect the fact that elected bodies get to have a say on important political issues (which is actually what we elect them to do).

In fact, the last people who have a right to complain about sanctions legislation targeting BDS are the BDSers themselves who have been tirelessly lobbying local, state and federal government to support their cause for years.  And if they’re going to announce to the world that a one-month flirtation with divestment on the part of a single city (brought about by their behind-the-scenes machinations) is fraught with political meaning, who are they to claim that legislation targeting them – passed in the light of day – is meaningless?

The other thing that puts the Illinois (and similar) votes on the right side of the fine line I tend to draw in these matters is the fact that this legislation is prophylactic vs. punishing.

What I mean by that is that these bills announce to the world that any company engaging in BDS targeting Israel now has to take into account that such a decision requires them to sacrifice something tangible to do so (i.e., doing business in Illinois and – soon – elsewhere).  In other words, companies are still free to embrace the BDS agenda.  But if they choose to go down that path they need to really care about it enough to pay for the privilege, rather than assume that they can take a stance (or, more frequently, strike a pose) cost free.

An unstated assertion in almost every BDS campaign is that it costs nothing for an organization (be it the Presbyterian Church, the city of Somerville or some retirement fund in Scandinavia) to embrace the boycott or divestment cause.  Those of us who have seen divestment battles up close know the cost these organizations will ultimately pay in terms of poisoning civic life.  But when the BDSers show up screaming that everyone has no choice but to do what they say, issues of civic comity rarely get surfaced in time to make a difference.

But now that governments are getting onto the anti-BDS bandwagon, the unstated premise that joining the BDS movement comes with no practical price becomes more and more difficult to support (or keep hidden).

The reason that this is important is that, in many instances, those deciding whether to participate in a boycott or divestment project are looking for a reason to say “No” that avoids having to take sides in (or even fully understand) the fire pit of Middle East politics.

You saw this recently at the Greenstar Food Coop in Ithaca, NY where leaders who may have not had enough knowledge to accept or reject BDS claims were clearly looking for a way to get out of the whole mess the boycotters had gotten them into without seeming to choose between rival partisans.  So when the organization’s attorneys told them that passing a boycott (or even letting a vote go forward) might put Greenstar at odds with New York anti-discrimination law, those leaders were given grounds to tell the BDS cru “No Thanks” without having to adjudicate the Arab-Israeli conflict in the process.

US anti-boycott law (which few people were ever prosecuted under) provided a similar prophylactic for corporations looking to tell the Arab Boycott office in Damascus “I’d love to take your call, but…” followed by “No Thank You.”  And now that sanctions targeting BDS are poised to start running wild across the land (and with Damascus kind of preoccupied these days), these are phrases we can hope the boycotters start hearing even more today than they have since their program began at the turn of the Millennium.

BDS, the Trade Protection Act, and Israel

6 Mar

Given the amount of ink that’s been spilled over toothless student council votes taken place in less than 1% of US college campuses, it’s surprising that the biggest BDS story of the year (if not the last several years) has gotten virtually no coverage.

I’m talking about the Trade Protection Act, a bi-partisan piece of legislation currently working its way through the US House of Representatives, that would make a free trade agreement between the US and Europe contingent on the latter taking no part in anti-free trade activities (i.e., BDS) directed against Israel.

This is the first major expansion of America’s anti-boycott legal regime since legislation punishing US companies participating in the Arab boycott of the Jewish state was signed into law by that Zionist stooge Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

As noted by William Jacobson at Legal Insurrection (one of the few pro-Israel media outlets to cover the story in detail), there may be fewer teeth in this particular proposal than in earlier anti-boycott laws, given that a trade agreement between nations is harder to enforce than a legal regime within a nation.  And since any alleged violation of the new rules would have to travel through complex bureaucracies in the US, Europe and whichever international group would adjudicate between them, I don’t expect this bill – if passed – would lead to many violators facing consequences for participating in BDS activities in a timely fashion.

But, like anti-boycott legislation passed in the 1970s, the Trade Protection Act would be most significant with regard to symbolic and indirect consequences.

Starting with symbolism, remember that for your average BDSer “Sanctions” (states inflicting economic punishment on Israel) is the Holy Grail.  It’s one thing for student governments to pretend that their stacked votes represent campus opinion, or that boycotting hummus made in New Jersey demonstrates the impending triumph of their movement.  But if a national government decides to cross the line from criticism to punishment of the Jewish state, suddenly we’re talking about an event with genuine political significance.

Yet after decades of propaganda designed to convince the US public (and through them, their representatives in government) that Israel is the new Apartheid South Africa, we finally have US sanctions legislation speeding through Congress – legislation which sanctions not Israel but those participating in BDS.

In a country where 3:1 support for Israel over her enemies has been a constant for decades, I don’t expect the boycotters will be able to rally a citizenry hostile to their cause against the new trade rules.  And even during a period when relations between the Executive branch and Israeli leaders are so strained, I can’t imagine a scenario where the President would pull out his rarely used veto pen for this particular issue.  In fact – as we have seen in many previous situations (J Street’s official anti-BDS position comes to mind) – BDS is so loathed across so much of the political spectrum that taking a stand against it is a cheap and easy way to establish one’s pro-Israel bona fides.

On the non-symbolic front, the real power of this legislation is that it gives European governments and companies behind hounded by BDS activists telling them to “do something” (i.e., do what they say) an excuse to say no.

Keep in mind that in the few instances when Europeans took steps in the BDS direction, those steps were chosen to cause minimal local damage (by boycotting goods that meant little to the local economy, for instance, or divesting assets that could be easily replaced by ones not on the BDS blacklist).  In all cases, people making genuine economic decisions (vs. the BDSers who just demand other people do so and deal with the consequences), are looking for risk- and cost-free ways to proceed.  So the power of the new Trade Protection legislation is that it actually adds a cost to boycott and divestment decisions, meaning those who take them will now have to make genuine sacrifices for the privilege of becoming a bullet point Omar Barghouti’s next slide presentation.

Keep in mind that the most important impact of the original Carter-era anti-boycott legislation was also indirect.  Sure, some companies got hit with fines for signing onto the Arab boycott of Israel (a boycott that required companies to literally sign on – creating a paper trail for US prosecutors).  But these fines cost them a lot less than the difference between their income from Arab League customers and the Israel market they were foregoing.

What really hurt these companies was the PR hit they took when it became public that they were caving into demands to not do business with one Jewish state in order to line their pockets with revenue from many Arab ones.  And once the cost of participating in the boycott included making financial and reputational sacrifices in the huge US (vs. small Israeli) market, US corporations suddenly had an excuse to say “No” to the boycott office in Damascus.

The fact that this legislation would extend the dynamic we have had in place in the US since the ‘70s into Europe has caused some consternation in BDS circles. BDS loudmouth sites like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss, for instance, have complained that the new rules could become a “devastating weapon” to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project.  And while they might not be thinking in the same terms outlined above of how these new rules would impact them (by giving weak-willed Europeans an excuse to turn them away), limited discussion of the Trade Protection Act within BDS circles seems to recognize the threat of such a move to their ever-flailing program.

Again, one has to contrast today’s BDS effort with the fight against South African Apartheid in the 1980s when governments, colleges and universities, churches and other civic institutions understood and agreed about the nature of the Apartheid system, proudly (and publicly) made economic choices (including sacrifices) that punished that racist nation, and were celebrated for doing so.

In contrast, today’s BDS “movement,” after more than a decade and a half of untold efforts, has only managed to unite the powers they have endlessly lobbied (the US government, the nation’s largest academic associations, college Presidents, etc.) against them, while their dream of replicating in the US the situation we saw in France last summer becomes more distant than ever.

The Peoples Poet

5 Nov

They can try to hoodwink the public with press releases declaring their latest fake victory. They can interrupt ballet performances by shouting and blowing bullhorns (and turn the entire audience into Zionists in the process). They can even show up in the comments section of this blog demanding answers to irrelevant questions and never respond when we answer their challenges by smashing their points to bits. But when they start messing with the brand, in the words of my favorite never-say die hero: this means war.

I’m talking, of course, of that maybe-one-day-to-be-slightly-famous poet Remi Kanazi whose latest masterpiece – are you ready for this – is called “Normalize This!” (Gee, I wonder where he got that name from?!)

During the three-minutes and twenty-six seconds needed to complete recitation of this work of (yet more) impenetrable outrage, poet Kanazi somehow manages to pack every cliché that’s ever been written on any anti-Israel web tract, pamphlet, hand-scrawled poster, website, Facebook posting, and Tweet, into a presentation that has more in common with rap video than Emily Dickenson.

During the course of his presentation, artist Kanazi manages to switch t-shirts a half a dozen times, no mean feat for a man allegedly living on the Prison Planet of Palestine. Oh, but wait. It turns out this champion for the underdwellers of the new Warsaw Ghetto of Gaza hails from New York City, which probably makes it easier for him to catch a plane to his various tour dates where he can put on his angry young Palestinian minstrel show before stunned audiences of the like minded.

As I’ve mentioned before, I begrudge no one who has been able to carve out a decent living from the whole anti-Israeli propaganda cornucopia (Lord knows I’ve never been able to pull such a feat off from the other side of the political divide). And while it doesn’t look like Kanazi is doing quite as well as Omar Barghouti (who plays his politics and sells his wares while under the protective umbrella of the Zionists he condemns), Kanazi seems to be making a pretty good run of things.

The only trouble is that – outside of those whose every waking moment is taken up despising the Jewish state – Kanazi’s act is nothing more than a resurrection of the old “People’s Poet” routines we saw 40-50 years ago featuring uncompromising and furious members of some ethnic group who would parade before mostly white audiences declaring their uncompromising fury. The fact that this latest version of the brand looks ready to throw anyone who disagrees with him into a neck-breaking headlock probably only increases the erotic thrill of spending $35 to hear him sneer at and condemn audience members for living in a house half as nice as the one he grew up in.

Unfortunately, this act is so old that parodies of it are at least the same age as the artist himself. And so I leave you with the final word on the subject, the Young One’s 1982 take on “The People’s Poet”:

Sorry about that… Sacramento

16 Aug

Figures that, just as I chose to get off the grid to commune with nature (and the family) for a few days, some Divest This postings start generating the kind of comments you’d expect from a “real” blog.

It looks like most of the exchanges to the last two pieces have to do with the subject of where pro- vs. anti-Israel politics falls within the whole Left-Right continuum (both in the US and generally).

As I’ve discussed before, there are good reasons to avoid thinking of the Middle East as little more than another talking point in the general Left-Right politics that permeates so much of our political discourse.  But given the passions this subject has generated, I am going to spend the next couple of days catching up on everything that’s been said this week in order to post something that I hope will be relevant over the weekend.  All I ask is that readers avoid adding unnecessarily to my comment-reading task, and wait until this weekend’s posting to give me your further thoughts (or tell me I’m all wet).

In the meantime, time to play catch-up on the Sacramento Sister City controversy that played out last week.

As readers have already told us (and linked to), the city of Sacramento ended up the site of another “sort-of” BDS battle.

I saw “sort of” because this debate was over Sacramento creating a sister-city relationship with the Israeli city of Ashkelon (which I guess fall into the category of “Sanctions,” but just barely).

West Coast BDSers objected to this decision, even though they and representatives of the Jewish community had apparently agreed earlier to not raise a stink over Sacramento’s plans to create sister city relationships with both a city within the Palestinian Authority (Bethlehem) and Israel (Ashkelon).

Par for the course, the local Israel haters gladly pocketed their gain (Bethlehem was made a sister city in 2009), then immediately broke their word to declare a similar relationship with Ashkelon traif, declaring, ironically, that the city – which has been the target of unceasing missile bombardment from Gaza for years – was guilty of being the launching pad for attacks into Gaza.

This story confirms a number of things those of us who have been dealing with BDS for some time have known for years, that:

* Any attempt to reach a compromise with the forces of BDS is doomed to failure since they serve a “higher good” (at least in their own minds) that allows them to (among other things) break their word when necessary

* Any attempt by Israel to defend itself (by, for example, firing back at endless missiles targeting Israeli civilians) is by definition illegitimate to the BDSers

* Any attempt to create or improve ties between people (like Sacramento’s attempt to “repair the world” by extending a hand to the people of both Bethlehem and Ashkelon) is cool for every nation in the world – except the Jewish one.

In my mind, the most important part of this story was the vote itself where the Sacramento city council decided unanimously to confirm their decision to include Ashkelon on their list of sister cities.

Both BDS and Israel supporters showed up in strong numbers, and no doubt the statements made (and countless e-mails sent) by/from each side was heard by the councilors.

But this really did not disrupt them from deciding to move ahead with business as usual, not letting the noise of a manufactured controversy sway them from doing the appropriate thing quickly and efficiently.

Given that the boycotters were similarly brushed off a few weeks ago when they tried to import their pet peeves into another part of the California government, I suspect we might be seeing the beginning of the Hersovite effect I mentioned last posting: a sense those pushing BDS are so extreme, so fanatical and so rude that they can be easily dismissed, no matter how much they jump up and down demanding that they unconditionally be awarded the moral high ground and that everyone must immediately do what they say.

While the recent zero-for-two record with the California government does not an unquestionable trend make, here’s fingers crossed that we may have reached that point where those outside the readership of this blog understand exactly what they’re dealing with when they are forced to deal with the forces of BDS.

BDS Comings and Goings

24 Apr

Catching up on a couple of BDS-related stories that have broken since I returned from vacation last weekend:

The latest BDS “victory” or another post-hoc fallacy?

The latest boast regarding BDS effectiveness comes from Europe (of course) and has to do with the private security company G4S failing to win a renewal of a security contract for European Parliamentary buildings a few weeks ago.

Apparently, a month before this announcement was made, a group of Parliamentarians sympathetic to the BDS cause wrote a letter to the European President condemning G4S for the business it does providing security services within Israel (no mention why the boycotters have not been effective getting similar decisions made by other countries the company does business with, such as those human rights paradises on earth Saudi Arabia and Yemen).

By now, we all know the formula that says if BDSers did anything before such a contracting decision was made, then their efforts must be the cause of such decisions (see post hoc ergo propter hoc).  After all, large, governmental purchasing bureaucracies are well known for turning on a dime the minute they receive complaints from politicians or constituents.  And there couldn’t be another explanation as to why G4S didn’t get their contract renewed in a competitive bid with other providers, could there?

Now I’m not saying that the boycotters protest didn’t cause the effect they claim.  I’m simply pointing out that after years of fraudulent announcements of BDS victories (many of them based on post hoc fallacies), it is incumbent on the boycotters to prove that their activity was the cause of this decision which should be a simple task for them if they speak true.  For example, they need only use their claimed influence to get the EU purchasing agency to explain the rationale behind their decision publically.  Absent that, we have yet another example of the cock taking credit for the sunrise.

Go and Leave

Well Jewish Voice for Peace/Young Jewish and Proud have scrubbed my hometown of Boston from their epic Go and Learn campaign, a program we’ve met before which will allegedly be teaching students across the country about the wonderfulness of BDS.

Interestingly enough, their listing for Boston (which retained a TBD date and time in their announcement of a meeting that was supposed to take place this Thursday) disappeared from the Go and Learn site less than twelve hours after I dropped them a note asking where and when the event would be taking place.

Now I’m not making the causal connection between one of the critics with whom JVP claims to crave debate showing interest in coming to an event they claim was open to those “actively opposed to [BDS].” That, after all, would be a post hoc fallacy.  But it is interesting to note that the whole JVP/YJP gang can’t seem to manage getting their events off the ground in one of America’s most progressive cities.

Then again, (as Ian Faith once put it) Boston’s not really a college town.

Methodist Redux

I’ve been remiss in covering what will likely be the two big BDS stories of the year: divestment votes taking place at the Methodist and Presbyterians General Assemblies between now and June.

As many readers know, divestment ballots (both pro- and anti-) have become mainstays at Mainline Protestant Church gatherings since 2004.  And while these have been voted down again and again, the fact that BDS was once considered by these churches means the Middle East conflict is now permanently on their agenda.

This time around, the boycotters have pulled out all the stops, cold calling delegates to these events at their homes, and even having their propaganda materials translated into multiple languages (including Swahili).

Why Swahili?  Well, a large contingent of people attending this week’s Methodist confab come from African churches which were a major constituent for anti-divestment votes that last time this issue came before the Methodists in 2008.  But this mass translation and distribution is just one example of the intense level of activity and investment the BDSers are making in these two key sets of votes.

Now the pro-Israel side is not being somnambulant about the issue (as attested by this letter signed by over 1200 rabbis, including mine).  And it’s not entirely clear that the Methodists are ready to turn from their unanimous rejection of divestment four years ago just because lots of partisans are writing them letters or calling them at home.

We’ll be tracking progress of the various BDS votes taking place among Methodist delegates gathering in Tampa this week.  And I promise to provide more detailed coverage of the General Assembly of the much smaller, but must further infected Presbyterian Church whose own rendez vous with divestment comes up in a few months.

Stay tuned…

The Silent S

22 Apr

Two recent BDS stories, which have gotten categorized in the Twitosphere around the ever-popular hashtag #BDSFail, highlight a theme discussed a while back on the challenges facing those advocating for the “S” of BDS: Sanctions.

Boycotts can be done by individuals, although in the case of BDS the goal is to get sellers to boycott Israeli products so that individuals are freed from getting to make their own decisions.  The target of divestment campaigns are also institutions, although in this case institutions with large investment portfolios such as well-known universities and churches.

But sanctions would have to be implemented by governments, and even with international bodies like the United Nations fully co-opted to turn out assembly-line condemnations of the Israel, state sanctions acting upon those condemnations have failed to materialize, other than the ongoing Arab boycott which has been in place since the 1920s, and thus cannot be considered a response to the BDS “movement” (especially one that keeps moving its start date out later from its actual 2001 birthday).

BDS protestors certainly made their voice heard when Israel was being considered for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD).  But even with the megaphone provided to them by the Middle East oil states, the shrieking of the BDSers could not overcome economic reality which stated that Israel more than deserved its place alongside the world’s most developed economies.

In the US, government-sponsored BDS activities (whether in the form of divestment campaigns or outright sanctions) have been fairly muted. Calls to end US aid to Israel are even more longstanding than boycott and divestment campaigns, but tend to go nowhere given the strong alliance between the US and the Jewish state, an alliance that transcends political parties and remains stable, regardless of who sits in the White House.

The first BDS campaign I was involved in, an attempt to get a local government in the city of Somerville to divest, has the distinction of being the only divestment campaign I know of that was rejected by the legislative branch of government (the city’s Aldermen which voted down divestment unanimously), the executive (the Mayor who condemned BDS), the judiciary (the district court which threw out a BDS lawsuit demanding that binding divestment motion be put onto the local ballot) and the voters (who rejected a non-binding motion a year later).

A lawsuit is the cornerstone of one of the most recent BDS sanction failures.  In this case, a group of Minnesota based Israel haters have been working for two years to get the Minnesota State Board of Investment to remove Israeli bonds from their portfolios.  As in Somerville, once local elected leaders explained that they wanted no part in a propaganda ploy masquerading as a human rights campaign, the BDS cru took the state to court.  And, as in Somerville, the court dismissed the suit from the bench highlighting the fact that failure to win a political argument does not provide grounds for legal action.

(As an aside, this story represents the fourth instance I know of where lawsuits – one brought by BDS opponents and three brought by BDS advocates – were summarily dismissed.  Food for thought to those weighing the advantages of legal vs. political action.)

The other failed sanctions story took place at the local level, in this case the Davis-Woodland Clean Water Agency (WDCWA) in central California, which was asked to remove the French transportation and environmental company Veolia from consideration for a large local contract due to the company’s involvement in the state of the “Guess Whos?”.

After the usual frantic politicking and grandstanding, WDCWA did what democratic institutions generally do when faced with demands that they join the anti-Israel bandwagon: they voted down exclusion of Veolia unanimously.

As those BDS Fails were taking place, an interesting piece was published by Eran Shayshon of the Reut Institute on the increasing challenges anti-Israel advocates are having building alliances with traditional liberal groups whose support is necessary if BDS is ever to become a cause for anyone other than a marginal fringe.

The author highlights the fact that as more people become aware of the “true colors” of Israel’s adversaries, it becomes increasingly difficult for liberal organizations that actually embody hopes for peace and concerns for human rights to ally themselves with those who simply mouth these virtues as slogans in order to get what they want.

But I would add to Shayshon’s analysis a more mundane but extremely powerful factor: that it is much easier to reject the blandishments of a political loser than a person or movement that seems to have political momentum.

And with BDS being rejected in places like Berkeley and Park Slope (two of the most progressive institutions in the US), as well as being shown the door in states like Minnesota and California (which can hardly be accused of being reactionary “red states”), it becomes that much easier for individuals and organizations to join a bandwagon against a “movement” that has been exposed as not just narrow-minded and hypocritical, but guilty of the greatest political sin of all: failure.