Reconsiderations I – Is BDS Still a Loser?

10 Apr

While Israel, it’s friends and allies can be stubborn – even bullheaded – about issues (even when we’re wrong), I still give us the edge over our fantasy-laden opponents who don’t just ignore things they don’t want to hear but have constructed their own version of reality in which to dwell.

This is not to say that fanatical verve doesn’t pack a political punch.  But so does stopping to look – and relook – at reality as it is.  To draw from my most frequently used rhetorical quiver, the IDF’s ability to defeat much larger armies over and over is due less to sophisticated weaponry than to their ability to learn from past errors (strategic and tactical) when faced with an enemy that continues to make the same mistakes again and again.

I bring this up because my recent participation in the StandWithUs anti-BDS conference got me thinking about a couple of issues I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about here at Divest This over the years, and questioning whether my stance on those issues is still accurate or relevant.

The first one I’d like to publically consider is my whole shtick regarding BDS being a “loser.”  Long time readers know that this has been a theme of many a piece on this site, and characterizing BDS in such a way is an important part of the strategy I have either used or recommended to those fighting boycott and divestment activities in their communities. But few other positions have generated as many arguments between me and my allies in the anti-BDS project.

Now I could be come up with glib answers to questions regarding how I can call a “loser” a movement that is generating so much controversy on college campuses, and has even managed to knock off organizations like PCUSA after hammering on them for a decade.  Sure, it’s fun to mock the boycotters when they break into a riot or bust into tears when they lose a battle, but given that their strategy involves relentlessly refighting the same battle over and over again until they win, is “loser” still an appropriate term for the BDS “movement?”

But rather than dismiss such questions as examples of panic or falling for the boycotter’s own propaganda, it is worth giving consideration to the overarching question of whether the situation has changed since the fight against BDS began.

Keep in mind that my choice to use and reuse the “loser” term was not just an attempt to attach a label to our opponents that is very difficult for them to take off (since declaring yourself not to be a loser is only something a loser would do).  Rather, it was based on a set of facts – many of which are still highly relevant.

For example, a successful boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (like the ones that targeted South Africa, Sudan and – until recently – Iran) should involve significant numbers of people actually boycotting, divesting or sanctioning the target of that campaign and should at least be able to demonstrate the ability to deliver an increment of financial pain.

But after close to a decade-and-a-half of effort, the “successes” the boycotters keep pointing to – added all together – would barely sum to a rounding error on one month of Israel’s balance-of-trade figures.  In fact, just as Israel’s alleged “genocide” has resulted in a Palestinian population explosion, a fifteen-year program to make the Israeli economy suffer has been accompanied by an explosion in economic growth, exports from and investment in the Jewish state.

Similarly, even if you just presume BDS is a convenient tactic to get respected institutions to lend their reputation to the defamation of Israel and its supporters, consider whose reputation has been more tarnished over the last year: the American Studies Association and PCUSA that embraced the BDS agenda or the nation they formally chose to condemn?

And winning movements with serious momentum don’t continue to pass off pretend victories as real ones, or dress up their true agenda in fake outfits in order to trick people into voting for them by claiming the vote is really about something else.  In other words, the very deception that makes up so much of the BDS playbook is another sign of the “movement’s” weakness rather than strength.

All that said, I would be remiss to ignore the power BDS campaigns have to insinuate themselves into a community and generate headlines at the expense of Israel and its friends (not to mention at the expense of the insinuated organization).  And successful tactics (such as taking over student governments you failed to convince) are both clever and troubling since they are easy to replicate and generate headlines (and thus perceptions of momentum).

Still, I’ve never been convinced that the most recent incarnation of BDS which began in 2009 has ever truly generated its own momentum vs. attaching itself parasitically to the momentum of other events.  For example, BDS efforts always seem to get redoubled after a Gaza war breaks out, which is no accident since they are the propaganda adjunct of those who insist on starting and restarting those wars.  And the Red-Green alliance that has the Greens conquer territory while the Reds explain why the rest of the world has no right to stop them has become the greatest threat facing humanity since the fall of the last century’s dictatorships, with BDS such a small player in that alliance to hardly merit notice.

And let’s not forgot that claims regarding Israel’s imminent threat of isolation and official sanction only seem less the stuff of fantasy due to the appalling behavior of the current US administration which has decided to make Israel their preferred villain as the entire Middle East (and beyond) bursts into flames.  After all, a less unpredictable (and genuine, simple) “critic of Israeli policies” would have made sure the boycotters of the world understood that the US remained a bulwark against their efforts, even as they dinged Israel and its leaders over this or that disagreement.

I guess this is a long way of saying that, even though we find ourselves fighting against BDS on more fronts that before, that this still does not change my mind over the program falling into the category of “loser.”  A winning boycott or divestment program, after all, would have generated genuine results by now.  It would be able to leverage the gifts they enjoy (such as support of some of the world’s wealthiest dictatorships) to even slightly move the needle on the public’s support for the Jewish state. And it would lead, rather than follow, the rest of the well-funded, well-organized and well-staffed anti-Israel delegitimization campaign.

But BDS has done none of that.  Which means that rather than confusing mayhem with momentum, we should still consider it the weakest link in the de-legitimization chain, one we can continue to pull on by handing the BDSers their next defeat, and ignoring or dismissing their latest claimed victory as decisively as they ignore all of their massive failures.

The StandWithUs BDS Conference

3 Apr

So a bear walks into a Dunkin Donuts and says: “I’d like a cup of coffee…” and 45 seconds later… “and a chocolate cruller.”

The guy behind the register looks at him for a moment and then asks: “Why the long paws?”

That opener (which, like most gags is better spoken than written) is meant to distract you from a two-week pause in writing, one that’s especially egregious since between my last posting and today, I was able to attend one of the most important events in the last several years dealing with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”

This was the StandWithUs anti-BDS conference that was held in Los Angles weekend before last.  And now that two harrowing un-political work weeks have come and gone, I’d like to post-mortem on one of the liveliest and most enjoyable pro-Israel events I’ve ever attended.

To start with, nearly all the people I’ve been reading, corresponding with, and working alongside in BDS battle after BDS battle were either on the stage or in the audience at the SWU confab.  Contributors to this terrific book on academic boycotts, including Sam Edelman, Tammi Rossman-Bejamin, Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, Dr. Roberta Seid, and Dr. Richard Cravatts were on a panel talking about academic boycotts.  Professor Gerald Steinberg from NGO Monitor and the unstoppable investigative journalist Edwin Black followed the BDS money trail.  My old pal Dexter Van Zile headed a panel on church divestment.  And I was honored to share the stage with my friends and allies Mike Harris and Rob Jacobs from SWU to talk about community organizing against BDS.

In addition to this (partial) list of people on the stage, the audience was filled with folks I’ve known, known of, or worked with for years, including the Hillel Director who played such an important role in the recent Northeastern BDS defeat, someone I had corresponded with during a recent academic union boycott brouhaha, and fellow bloggers and activists – including students who have been successfully fighting the good fight on campus after campus.

While I’ve not gone to that many big Jewish events, impressive and articulate students telling their stories always seem to be a staple at conferences and fundraisers hosted by major Jewish organizations.  But the kids who participated at the SWU event were not just there to impress us, but to teach us how on-the-ground organization mixed with verve has beaten BDS bullying time and time again.

The student who got divestment overturned in the Davis student judiciary?  He was there, telling us his tale over breakfast.  And that girl who was arrested by the BDSer/Student Senate President behind the now infamous “Blood Bucket Challenge?”  She was there too, and spoiling to continue to take the fight to the enemy once she graduates from college.

The celebrity headlining the three day program was – surprise, surprise – Alan Dershowitz.  But having watched the famous attorney give his standard Israel talk many times over the years, it was a total treat to see him in action over the course of several days spent conversing with others who already knew the basics, allowing Alan to talk more informally and expansively about a topic we had all gathered to not just discuss but do something about.

It was in the realm of action that SWU CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein and her team created a real breakthrough event.  For while much of the conference was given over to listening to experts talking from the stage, an even larger portion of time was set aside to allow people to gather in smaller groups and discuss areas of interest (BDS on campus, BDS and the Law, etc.).

In the community-organizing panel facilitated by Mike, Rob and myself, we hunkered down with folks who had been working at ground level for years who in aggregate had much more to teach us (and each other) than did the facilitators.  Which meant that successful strategies and tactics were unearthed, articulated, and spread across a community of activists ready to be put into action.

At programs that spill out over several days, some of the most important interactions take place in the off hours.  And my favorite surprise involved post-event beers with two folks from Calgary who I had never met before, but whom I will never forget.

One was a young woman whose family had gotten beaten up during an anti-Israel rally last summer when the streets of Calgary resembled those of Paris.  Apparently, a huge Muslim immigrant community meant that when the crap hit the fan in Gaza, pro-Israel Jews were outnumbered in the streets by a factor of more than a hundred to one.  But rather than let those odds cow her, my fellow conference attendee and her kin have only become more bold, more brazen and more determined to let the world know that Jews can fight (and win).

She had traveled to the event with another remarkable fellow, a native Calgarian Métis who has not only been fighting with the BDSholes for decades (having single-handedly dismantled an Apartheid Wall placed in his way while an undergraduate), but has also used the Jewish and Israel experience to bring comfort and confidence to fellow members of his (first) nation.

I’ll confess to knowing very little about the suffering of this particular tribe at the hands of Europeans who made it a point to strip them of their heritage during the process of “civilizing” the West.  But stories of abuse and a culture and language denied certainly jibe with what I know of how natives suffered over the centuries down here in the lower 48.

But for my new-found-friend, the Jewish tale of cultural survival in the face of all odds was an inspiration he was bringing to young Cree still suffering the wounds of the past.  And the Jewish people’s resurrection of their own nation (with the associated rebirth of an ancient tongue) also meant that even those who had endured unimaginable suffering did not need to see themselves as victims of history.

Of course, others are trying to teach these same kids to embrace their victimhood and make that the centerpiece of their lives.  And while everyone has a choice on what to make of their own suffering, the contrast between Israel and the victim cultures that surround it should give pause to anyone thinking that an embrace of victimhood brings either happiness or triumph.

More than anything else, this chance meeting with my new found Canadian friends taught me how much the Jewish story – especially its most recent chapter of near death and redemption from rebirth – has to offer.

And so the fight must continue against those who are trying to not just snuff out the Jewish state, but to silence a story which contains within it the power to redeem the world (if only enough people would listen).

Northeastern Beats Back BDS

18 Mar

Given that the topic I and two top-notch StandWithUs activists will be covering at next week’s anti-BDS conference in LA is called “Organizing the Community to Fight BDS” (or something along those lines); I wanted to highlight an example from my neighborhood that shows just what an effective ground game looks like.

Last night, the Student Government Association (SGA) at Northeastern University in Boston voted down a divestment resolution proposed by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, with the final tally including 9 for and 25 against (with fourteen abstentions).

This scale of this victory didn’t come from nothing, but was rather a case study of pro-Israel students doing everything right – especially with regard to following the rules that have led to virtually every success I’ve seen in the fight against BDS over the last 14 years.

To set the stage, SJP actually has a substantial presence at Northeastern which allows them to engage in numerous agitprop campaigns as well as muster the organizational oomph needed to put a divestment resolution in front of student government.  At the same time, their scale has given them the people power needed to make flesh some pretty nasty stuff, including their move last year to stuff eviction notices under fellow student’s doors in a particularly Jewish dorm (a stunt which got their organization temporarily suspended).

When that suspension was reversed (in no small part due to legal threats made by attorneys from the Lawyer’s Guild – a group that primary exists today to serve as consiglieres to the BDS movement), the organization may have deluded itself into thinking the student body was now on their side when they chose to bring a divestment referendum petition to last-night’s SGA meeting.  But while lawyers might be able to make conflict-adverse administrators stand down, they can’t eliminate the (accurate) impression on campus that SJP is a bunch of fanatical jerks.

Set against this mixed bag of SJP strengths and weaknesses were students making up Northeastern’s school’s pro-Israel community, including the campus’ Huskies for Israel organization which helped pull together a Students for a United Northeastern campaign to counter SJP’s divestment push.

Now on this particular campus, the Hillel director is top notch – both in her support for Israel, her political talents, and – most importantly – her trust in students doing the ground-level work of pro-Israel activism on campus.  And given the list of thank you’s in Hillel’s post-victory announcement linked above, those students clearly pulled in expertise as they needed it, while never losing sight of the fact that it was their responsibility to determine what would work and what wouldn’t in their unique campus environment.

I bring this up not just to congratulate everyone involved with this successful struggle (although they deserve all the congratulations you can send them), but to highlight the elements of what constitutes a successful ground game, with some thoughts about the choices we have when one or more of those elements is missing.

For example, I’m familiar with many instances where people wrestling with a BDS-related issue have turned to local Jewish community organizations or (in the case of college campuses) the school’s Hillel, only to find limited support for their efforts.

There are many reasons why this might be so. Most obviously, in many parts of the country Jewish human capital is pretty thin on the ground.  And even when there are community or campus groups, their resources or their skill and appetite for confrontational politics might be limited (as I discovered in Somerville a decade ago when the only synagogue in town decided to sit out the first issue in a hundred years that required Jewish solidarity).

In some instances, there exists bad blood between local activists and mainstream Jewish organizations  (fights over J Street seem to be a source for many of these conflicts – a fight I want to note, but not dwell on in a piece dedicated to “how-to”).  Especially since the point I’m trying to illustrate is what to do when you are not as fortunate as were the kids at Northeastern who had both strong student leadership and a wider Jewish community that had their back.

One choice (the least effective, in my opinion) would be for local activists to try to shame a mainstream Jewish organization into supporting their cause.  The reason this rarely works is that (1) an organization choosing to sit out a conflict probably doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to make that big a difference anyway; (2) any ally who would prefer not to be by your side is going to sap energy from your efforts; and (3) such shaming tends to create more bad blood, increasing vs. decreasing community tension (especially in the case of a loss, which often leads to finger-pointing).

The second best option when others you hoped would take the lead can’t or won’t do so is for local activists to step into the leadership role themselves.  Time and time again: on campuses, at food-coops, within churches and cities (including Somerville) it was local people, many of whom had never participated in pro-Israel activism in their lives, who rose to the occasion, organized the community, and handed the BDSers their latest humiliating defeat.

The third (and my favorite) alternative, however, is when local activists and mainstream organizations that might be bitterly divided over political issues (J Street, or even the Middle East conflict generally) put aside those differences to work together towards a common goal (the defeat of BDS) with an understanding that such solidarity did not require them to agree on all things, or even continue to work together in coalition after the battle was done.

This is the situation I wrote about at the end of the three-year Somerville divestment saga, a series of campaigns that involved people who usually spend all their waking hours bad-mouthing one another to put aside mutual hostility in order to staple signs onto pieces of wood, stand in front of polling places, hand out literature, and perform other concrete, vital tasks that left no time for political bickering.

Such a project-oriented approach lets people who ultimately care about Israel (even if they have different ways of expressing that care) to do some practical good (kick the BDSers’ butts) by fighting side-by-side.  And you’d be surprised how hard it is to trash someone on your blog a week after you’ve just fought (and won) the good fight alongside them.

Now we are involved with a long war and do not have the people or resources to enter every fight with the army we want, or even to win every battle.  But given that BDS is getting to the middle of its second decade with little more than a handful of meaningless student council resolutions under its belt, I’m guessing that the chemistry described above exists in enough places to be making the difference.

Ground Game

14 Mar

Years ago, I remember hearing a radio talk-show host chastise someone who had called to complain about a local political issue.

The advice the host gave him was that if the caller wanted to see things go his way, all he had to do was run for office and dedicate the time and patience needed to visit and shake hands with as many people in the constituency as possible.

For in an age when few people even bother running for office (as any of us who filled out a ballot consisting mostly of people running unopposed can testify), such retail politics is unstoppable.  In fact, even in national politics (at least at the Congressional level) those ready to wear out shoes and shake hands routinely beat opponents with more money, name recognition and support from the political establishment.

In the context of the fight against BDS, this phenomenon works itself out in the context of victory frequently going to those with the best “ground game,” (i.e., those who have the highest number of competent people working locally).

Since student-government votes on college campuses seem to be the BDS flavor of the year, we can look at this ground-game phenomenon in the context of what is going on at colleges and universities in the 2014-15 academic year.  For if you look at the schools where SJP has won a student-council vote or has been able to pursue its aggressive propaganda strategy with limited opposition, these are mostly at places where the opposition’s ground-game is better than our side’s.

Gauging the relative political strength of each side is often distorted by the fact that our victories tend to be quiet ones (student government votes that don’t take place or anti-Israel events that don’t happen because anti-Israel groups are weak, pro-Israel groups are strong, or both).  But even if our side doesn’t fire off press releases announcing some BDS plan or event that was thwarted or never happened, political power tends to accrue to those with the best soldiers deployed in the field.

This observation needs to be filtered through an understanding that both sides have strengths (and weaknesses) derived from their political stances and ideology.  The BDSers power, for example, derives from their ruthlessness, their readiness to say and do anything (including lie, infiltrate and co-opt other people’s organizations and agendas) to achieve their ends, and their indifference to the suffering they cause others.  But while that behavior can pack a political punch, the fanaticism needed to behave in such a way also contributes to the excesses and organizational fragility that has contributed to many a BDS defeat.

Similarly, our side benefits from the need to only tell the truth about Israel and the Middle East (which frees us from the psychological and cognitive burden of having to remember what we just told someone else), as well as from the fact that we tap into general American support for the Jewish state that has remains high, despite decades of anti-Israel propaganda.  At the same time, our inability to match the ruthlessness of our foes (which would involve spending decades smearing those with whom we ultimately want to live in peace while trashing our own communities in the process) limits our ability to “turn the tables” on our opponents.

But putting aside the obvious ethical divide between each side’s sources of strength, I think it’s safe to say that power-wise, ideology is a wash. Which means that success and failure derives from who is able to recruit skilled people and put them to work getting their program implemented in a particular setting (whether that’s a college campus, a church, a food coop or some other BDS target).  In fact, having covered (and been involved with) BDS activity since 2004, I can make the empirical observation that our victories (and defeats) have always been the result of the talent and passion of those on the ground.

Getting back to college campuses, what this means in practical terms is that we have been playing (and will continue to play) a numbers game.  For students come and go on any given campus, which means that the level of pro- or anti-Israel activity is often determined by whether one talented leader (on either side) just graduated, is on exchange for a year, or is overwhelmed with schoolwork when Israel Apartheid Week/Month rolls around.

So for all those parents calling a school or Jewish community organization to complain when they read in the paper about what’s been going on at UCLA (for example), here’s some advice: teach your kids while they’re in high school (or even before) what the Middle East is really like, and either train them yourself or tap into other people who can train them how to organize, write and speak politically so it won’t take them until Junior Year to understand what is going on and contribute (or even lead) the good fight.

And for activists (including machers) incensed about the latest BDS campus outrage and want to do something about it, here’s something you can do: support those organizations that are making an effort to train and support students at ground level.

This last suggestion is often a difficult one to implement.  For just as many political partisans prefer to organize protests rather than run for office (which would require dealing with the details and compromises of representational government), and many educational reformers would prefer to come up with tools to support and evaluate teachers and students (rather than deal with either group directly), many a pro-Israel adult prefers to tell students what they are doing wrong (or provide their own resources such as web sites, curricula and fliers) versus getting involved with the messiness of having to deal with real students in real-world and diverse campus environments.

That last criticism comes from someone who is probably guiltier than anyone else of preferring to write long-winded articles (like this one) that few will read vs. jumping into the nitty-gritty of understanding the specific needs of specific communities unless forced to (by being invited to help a group fighting a divestment or boycott vote, for example).  But while I can justify that choice based on a perceived need to come up with a vocabulary and intellectual framework to deal with the BDS threat, I would never mistake the effort put into writing blog entries with the much harder work of organizing and supporting real live people who are doing most of the work of keeping BDS at bay.

As a final thought, we also need to keep in mind that (1) we are involved with a war in which BDS is simply the propaganda arm of the much wider War Against the Jews that has gone on for nearly a century; and that (2) this is a long war in which there will be battlefield wins and losses.  And the worst thing you can do in such a situation is to treat any particular loss (such as this or that student council vote that doesn’t go our way) as the beginning of the end, rather than just one battle among thousands we all have to fight until such time that Israel’s enemies decide there’s something better to live and die for than the demise of the Jewish state.

 

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.

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.