The Union Label

When divestment began to get its hooks into UK labor unions 5-6 years ago, local BDSers crowed that it would only be a matter of time before American labor took up their anti-Israel calls. “Good luck with that,” I recall thinking at the time, remembering my visit to AFL-CIO headquarters back in college where I was greeted in the lobby by a gigantic bronze statue of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.

Because of their self-image as warriors attacking Israel from the left-end of the political spectrum, the boycott brigade spends much time gnashing its teeth about the support the Jewish state receives from Evangelical Christians. Lost in this posing and positioning is the fact that there is one group even more dedicated to Israel’s success and survival than religious Christians: the US labor movement. The AFL-CIO continues to be the nation’s large holder of Israeli bonds, labor leaders are routinely on the speaker’s list at national and local pro-Israel events, and the missing variable explaining why both the Democratic and Republican parties remain equally supportive of the Jewish state is that both parties have key constituencies (unionized workers for the Democrats, Evangelicals for Republicans) solidly friendly to Israel.

The friendship between US labor and Israel is longstanding, dating back to the years when Israel’s founders (primarily Labor Zionists) created a nation devoted just as much to labor as to Zionist principles. The fact that the US union movement (unlike their equivalents in Europe) never succumbed to the lure of radical politics also immunized them from far-left influence once the Soviet Union decided to become the key sponsor of Israel’s foes in the propaganda wars that heated up in the 1960s and 70s. When US unions have briefly entered the divestment camp, they’ve tended to come from “alternative” professional unions (like the Lawyer’s Guild, a left-wing alternative to the more mainstream American Bar Association).

This brings up an interesting issue, given that divestment activity tends to also be strongest abroad among professional unions (notably academics, such as the British University and College Union or UCU) vs. traditional workers groups. While I’m no class warrior (given that I represent the middlest of the middle class myself), it’s hard not to notice that divestment (and anti-Israel agitation in general) tends to primarily be a bourgeois affair.

In a way this makes sense since radical politics in the 21st century tends to be strongest in middle class institutions (notably expensive universities or East and West Coast “high” Protestant churches). Noam Chomsky (a neighbor of mine in the Massachusetts suburbs), the late Edward Said (whose pro-Palestinian politics always took a back seat to his comfortable New York life), and the rest of the Israel-bashing professorate represent the ultimate example of the “bourgeois jihidi:” highly-paid, highly-comfortable loudmouths whose every utterance is protected behind the blast shield of tenure (a life employment deal that even the most powerful unionized American auto worker would envy).

Having more than a passing familiarity with the stability that the growth of a middle class brings to a society, I am in no way dissing the class into which I was brought up and where I firmly remain. And yet, having lived all my life in a middle class milieu, I also recognize that some of the worst ideas I’ve ever encountered (ranging from simply wrong-, to full-fledged dick-headed) tend to emanate from my fellow suburbanites. Perhaps the comfort we (or, more accurately, our predecessors) achieved gives many of us the free time or lack of perspective to demand others (such as Israelis) take risks that we would never think of putting ourselves (or our families) in. Or perhaps we have forgotten the lessons taught by those who came before us (like our grandparents who started the US labor movement), assuming instead that our current blessed state is something we achieved by our own righteousness, an amnesia that allows a small subset of us to dedicate its considerable free time to politics based on attacking those who would defend themselves, simply to work themselves into the ignorant self-righteous fury that is the alpha and omega of their political self image.

Clearly the labor movement in America, Israel, Europe or anywhere else in the world is startlingly different at the beginning of the 21st century than it was throughout most of the 20th. And yet even when faced with challenges and decline, even when tempted by those who still dangle revolutionary baubles in their faces, American labor continues to be part of the vast majority of Americans whose support for the Jewish state is deeply embedded in both their heads and hearts.

One of my favorite moments during a five-year battle against divestment took place at a meeting in City Hall at Somerville, MA where the aldermen were debating a municipal divestment motion. Along with various other pro- and anti- divestment speakers, the group that stood out consisted of a half-dozen burly pipe-fitters, carpenters and machinists from a local labor federation who expressed in the clearest possible words the monstrosity of the divestment resolution the city was debating. While I didn’t know it at the time, the jig was clearly up the moment the only people in the room who worked with their hands for a living told divestment advocates to stuff their resolution where the sun never shines (except perhaps on those nude beaches where divestment’s academic backers occasionally vacation during six- or twelve-month sabbatical breaks from work).

Church Divestment

Wow – Well last week got away from me! Time to catch up on another divestment-related issue that I’ve not talked about yet: the churches.

A number of people have seen talk of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) breaking out on many campuses, Web sites and other forums (including the upcoming Durban II, which promises to be as big of a fiasco as Durban I), and express legitimate concern that the BDS campaign is a major threat facing Israel and its supporters.

But keep in mind that what seems like on BDS campaign is really two:

  • The BDS noise machine consisting of people calling for boycott, divestment and sanction against the Jewish state, or using BDS as a hook to hang their propaganda regarding “Apartheid Israel”
  • The BDS program of trying to get respected, well-known institutions to sign onto the boycott/divestment message, thus providing anti-Israel protestors the chance to say “Hey, it’s not just us who say Israel is an Apartheid state! Look [fill-in-the-name-of-a-famous-university-church-union-city-or-other-institution-here] agrees with us.”

A free society provides limitless opportunity for people to make noise, regardless of the quality of their arguments, or their level of personal hygiene. Given this, we shouldn’t confuse the volume of BDS “conversation” on the Web or elsewhere with actual political success. Given anti-Israel advocate’s unspoken alliance with wealth and power, they will always have a bigger megaphone than those fighting for human rights of people like Tibetans or Kurds. Whether this noise machine is talking about BDS, Apartheid, War Crimes or some other imagined Israel crime or hoped-for punishment, we shouldn’t assume that increased volume or increased focus on one accusation or proposed retribution vs. another constitutes progress for BDS forces.

In fact, a dispassionate look at where BDS stands today (vs. five years ago) vis-à-vis progress in getting respected institutions to sign onto their project shows a movement in retreat. Given the level of invective involved with the noise-machine noted above, dispassion on this subject is not the easiest thing to maintain. But if you look at where divestment was in 2004 vs. where it is now, you see a movement that has actually lost substantial ground, which is why it has to substitute pretend victories (Hampshire, Motorola) for real ones.

This is where the churches, notably the Mainline Protestant churches come in. In 2004, these churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) were the anchor for the entire US divestment project. Yes, divestment petitions were drawn up on many campuses around the country, but actual divestment was immediately rejected by school leaders, which provided students (the vast majority of which also rejected divestment) to routinely out-petition divestment advocates ten to one. During this period, it was the official Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA), whose 2004 decision to explore “phased, selective divestment” of church retirement funds from companies doing business in Israel (a decision replicated by leaders of other Protestant groups) that gave divestment advocates a hook upon which to hang a story of success. Thus these churches provided divestment advocates the oxygen they needed to push their program into not just other churches, but also universities, cities and unions.

The reasons the Presbyterians became aligned with anti-Israel forces calling for divestment are complex and interesting (too complex to sum up in one blog posting, although two great resources on the issue are Will Spotts’ Pride and Prejudice and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko’s review of contemporary Christian attitudes towards the Jewish state “Looking at Them Looking at Us” which is unfortunately not available online).

For purposes of this discussion, the important point is that these churches walked away from their divestment stance in 2006 once church members (who hated divestment) were given the opportunity to address a pro-divestment position that had been supported primarily by official church leadership. Even after the Lebanon war, these churches showed no interest in returning to the issue, voting again in 2008 to reject divestment by overwhelming majorities. While a few pro-divestment holdouts still refer to the Presbyterians and Methodists as allies, this represents either wishful thinking that these churches will return to their 2004 position, or intentional deception which characterizes anti-Israel activism of a small number of individual churches with the church as a whole which rejected divestment (twice) by margins of 90-100% over the last two years.

This history provides important lessons now that BDS has once-again become the strategy of choice for anti-Israel agitators. First, the ability of divestment activists to capitalize on even a fragile victory (as the churches turn out to have been), demonstrate the need for eternal vigilance by members of civic organizations whose institutions have been targeted for manipulation. Secondly, that the greatest threat facing BDS programs is not the all-powerful-Israeli-lobby (booga, booga, booga), but the movement’s own excesses and reputation of divestment as a political loser.

Which Came First, the Rooster or the Sunrise?

Makers of low-budget movies have a simple trick to create a crowd scene without having to pay for extras. First, you find a parade taking place in a town near where you’re shooting. Second, you run to the front of the parade with your own signs and roll cameras. Thus did legendary schlock filmmeister Ray Dennis Steckler manage to end his classic Batman parody Ratphink and Boo Boo in a massive “Ratphink and Boo Boo Appreciation Day” celebration (complete with marching bands and floats).

I thought of this technique after reading recently about another divestment “victory” regarding Motorola selling off a unit which manufactured bomb fuses to an Israeli company. “We win again!!!” seem to be the distillation of headlines on countless divestment blogs and Web sites around the world, hailing this as one more victory (alongside Hampshire College) on BDS’s unstoppable march towards euphoric success over the hated Zionist oppressors!

Well with divestment’s Hampshire “triumph” (which didn’t involve Hampshire actually divesting from Israel, but did involve students pretending that they did) as backdrop, I decided to see what actually took place vis-à-vis Motorola by looking at less partisan sources, notably the business press. And according to the bland reports that usually accompany the sales of small businesses (the deal was essentially the sale of a tiny $20MM unit from Motorola to an Israeli defense corporation), “Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) abandoned the electronic fuses business a long time ago, and only Motorola Israel still kept the business, whose primary customer is Israel Military Industries Ltd. (IMI).”

In short, a multi-national corporation that had gotten out of a certain business segment years ago finally got around to selling the one remaining unit that still wanted to continue to sell to an established customer base (i.e., the Israeli military). So rather than shut it down, they sold it off to get some quick cash (albeit a rounding error for a company the size of Motorola). Eyelids getting heavy… Mind drifting… Must stay awake to finish this blog entry…

Oops, where was I? Oh yes! Now things are starting to fall into place. If you recall, a few weeks ago I wondered about a protest held at a Motorola retail shop in Harvard Square. Why had the divestment crew suddenly switched their obsession from Caterpillar Tractor (their favorite corporate whipping boy) to Motorola after all these years?

Now the answer is clear: as anyone with a modicum of business experience (and the interest in following the comings and goings in the defense and technology industries) could tell you, the sale of this division by Motorola was inevitable. So like the rooster who claims his crow makes the sun rise each morning, the BDS crowd has decided to run in front of this parade with their pitchforks and torches (even though it’s a sunny afternoon) and declare Motorola’s routine business transaction to have been the result of their three weeks of picketing cell phone stores (while bragging to each other on their own Motorola phones).

Does anyone have the heart to tell them that even a small transaction like this one still takes months to complete (meaning the wheels were set in motion while the BDSers were still obsessing on Caterpillar)? Or perhaps someone should ask the question of why Motorola providing Israel full ownership of the military technology the boycotters claim to be so Eeeeviiilllllll is somehow a victory for their cause?

Yet again we see a divestment movement that, unlike five years ago, has to continually create phantom victories to make up for the fact that they are so lacking in real ones. Remember that no university (including Hampshire College) has divested in Israel, or shows any interest in doing so. The churches gave divestment the heave ho years ago and show absolutely no interest of reviving an odious program that has caused them nothing but embarrassment. Academic boycotts are failing in the UK or reviled in the US. And companies (including Motorola) continue to do all kinds of business with Israel (including the business targeted by the divestment crew), even during a down economy.

Perhaps we should get into this game too and declare recent revenue losses by Israel’s neighbors are the result of a global boycott against the Arab oil producers for their apartheid policies towards women and religious minorities! Or that Jews should hide Matzah this Thursday to show their solidarity with Israel. Why should we have to deal with reality when Israel’s foes have so little use for the stuff? Maybe we can even declare that Hampshire’s divestment decision was taken in protest of the Muslim slaughter in Darfur (wait a minute, that’s actually true).

The only thing this latest bizarre chapter demonstrates is the Israel-haters’ ability to distribute untrue nonsense online relatively quickly in hope that they can convince people of a lie while the truth is still struggling to tie its shoes. Well guess what: the shoes are tied, and the foot is heading towards the feathered rear of a certain set of pretentious roosters full force.

“Academic Terrorism”

In appreciate for the response I’ve been getting to this subject, both online and off, I’m making it a habit to answer any question posed to me in the comments section. And the most recent entry (Thuggery) threw the question I asked at the end (“What are we going to about it?”) right back at me, to which I have an answer (sort of): First off (and with apologies to Bill Clinton), it depends what we mean by “it”.

If by “it” we mean how are we going to stop the alleged Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) “movement” from hurting the State of Israel economically, there is actually not much to worry about in that regard. True, it’s no fun being treated like the Jewish state deserves economic sanction, but point of fact the Jewish State (like the American one) faces much more economic peril from its own statist folly, private-sector excess and corrupt bureaucracy (both public and private) than it does from a bunch of college students playing radical by trying (unsuccessfully) to get places like Hampshire College to switch from one mutual fund to another.

If the “it” we fear is that BDS becomes a springboard through which general acceptance of Israel as the next South Africa will become accepted wisdom (on college campuses and elsewhere), this is a more realistic threat. That said, it must take into account the fact that the “Apartheid Israel” slur has been used on-and-off since the mid-1970s (it was the hook upon which the UN’s notorious Zionism = Racism calumny was hung), yet during this same period support for Israel among the general public has skyrocketed (in direct proportion to general support for Israel’s foes plummeting).

One can make the case that the accelerated use of this slur coupled with more and more aggressive tactics on the part of Israel’s foes make the problem more acute (and brings up the specter of a generation of college kids being trained to believe this lie). But we should also be cognizant of research that shows aggressive language or theatrics (mock “walls” and checkpoints come to mind) tends to turn off the vast bulk of students who do not have a stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute. In truth, our own aggressive attacks and counter-attacks also have the effect of turning the attitude of the uncommitted to one that says “a pox on both your houses” (indifference which, while frustrating, is better than seeing them swayed in the wrong direction).

There is a threat (my original “it”) closer to the surface that needs to be dealt with immediately, and that is the possibility that campuses across the country (including in the New England area) will get infected with the virus afflicting isolated schools in Europe, Canada and certain places in the US (notably on the West Coast). This illness is one in which discourse on campus has become so poisoned that Israel haters feel they have carte blanch to use any tactics (“by any means necessary”) to maximize the volume of their message while drowning out all other voices in a sea of shouts and other forms of harassment.

We’ve only seen this in a big way recently at U Mass where those who spent week after week running Israel=Apartheid programming (with minimal protest from the organized or disorganized Jewish community) went into a frenzy once our side had its say in the form of a series of talks (one by Israeli Daniel Taub, one by Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz). The mere thought of the other side being able to get a word in edgewise made it appropriate (in their minds) to ask members of the permanent Israel-hating workforce to leave their parents basements, show up at U Mass and make sure any statement by “the other side” be greeted with wild jeers and shouts of “Free Palestine.” It is this threat to freedom of speech and civil discourse that must be nipped in the bud now.

Fortunately, we have one arrow in our quiver we have not yet made full use of and that is the excesses of the BDSers themselves. While people shouting at each other tends to convince the uncommitted that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is far away, it is clear that most students understand who is responsible when the rules of civil discourse are being shredded.

The student organizer who moderated the Dershowitz event said it best when he celebrates controversial issues being discussed on campus, while loathing the shouting down of opponents as a form of “academic terrorism.” This behavior must not be ignored or swept under the carpet. Rather, it should be hung around the necks of those who pretend to be addressing Middle East issues from the moral high ground, but who demonstrate time and time again they couldn’t care less about human rights, free speech or academic freedom, unless those lofty goals can be perverted and misused for their own narrow political gain.

The mask fell off the Israel=Apartheid crowd at last month’s U Mass gig, and it’s our responsibility to make sure anyone else dealing with this issue on any campus gets to see their true (and ugly) face.

Thuggery

In the short time this blog has been up, I’ve tried to document the struggles those calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) directed against Israel face in trying in reaching their goal. And that goal is to get large, respected institutions to publically support their program (allowing them to position BDS as the official position of Harvard, the Presbyterian Church or the City of Seattle, rather than the cause of a minority of obsessed cranks within those places).

Simply put, these institutions have told the BDSers “No” time and time again which is why the divestment crowd has had to turn to deception (as in the case of Hampshire College) or anti-democratic political maneuvering (as in the case of the British teacher’s union) to show any semblance of progress for their unwanted advances.

To the extent that such desperate tactics are the choices of losers, this could be considered good news. The more institutions (even tolerant-to-a-fault Hampshire College) are exposed to the extremism and dishonest behavior of divestment advocates, the more inoculated they become to the BDS-crowd’s pitch that they are simply “human rights advocates” seeing “peace and justice” in the Middle East.

That said, these initiatives, even if they fail to win official support, allow the sanctions crew to continue to crow their core message: that Israel is an apartheid state, alone in the world in deserving economic and other punishment, in hope that it will become the default position on college campuses and elsewhere. The fact that such activity poisons the atmosphere of a community, making reasonable dialog all but impossible, is irrelevant to divestment advocates. For at the end of the day, the campus, church or city is just a prop for the divestors, a useful tool which can go to hell (as far as the BDSers are concerned) as soon as it has served its purpose.

And now we must add a new element into the nasty mix: violence, or the threat of violence. US anti-Israel activists have already imported British political hooliganism into the US (such as the building takeover at NYU). And as ugly political events like Israel Apartheid Week unfurled at colleges across the country, intimidation of anyone objecting to these activities has become a staple of campus life.

Stories abound about students being surrounded and howled at when they protest against anti-Israel rallies on their campuses, and their own counter-programming can end up in attempts to crush free speech by shouting a pro-Israel speaker off the stage. The most recent example of this was U Mass in Boston where, after weeks of uninterrupted campus activity denouncing the Jewish state, Alan Dershowitz paid a visit to provide (God forbid) a different opinion. Now I know Dershowitz is a lightning rod, and no stranger to being hounded both on and off a podium. But the fact that a university would allow politically extremist students and faculty to have their say for day after day, week after week, but would then allow this same group to import Boston’s community of Israel-hating shrieking heads to ensure the other side can’t be heard is a sign of real danger ahead.

BDS, like much of the anti-Israel agenda, rests on assumptions that supporters of Israel will not match the boycotters tactics. For years, I’ve heard people say we should turn the tables on the divestors and try to get our schools, religious institutions and cities to publically denounce Israel’s foes. But are we really ready to treat the civic organizations we care about as tools for our own political ends? Are we ready to shred propriety and turn the classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship or homes into battlefields just to embarrass people we disagree with?

It is to our credit that we have not stooped to the vile tactics used by those whose only life purpose seems to be to denounce the Jewish state and its supporters, regardless of the consequences for peace, for Jews, for Palestinians or for civic harmony. Yet now that there is a determined effort to shut down dissenting voices on campuses through tactics that include threats and intimidation (while all the time claiming that the anti-Israel views they are currently shouting at the top of their lungs are somehow being “stifled” by an all-powerful Jewish cabal), we have to ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?

Academic Boycott Reaches These Shores (sort of…)

I have to admit a grudging fondness for Great Britain, having lived there for quite some time after college, even if London is one of the two cities (Portland Oregon being the other) where I had the displeasure to hear two anti-Semitic cracks in a single day.

Continuing on that dark note, for a variety of reasons the UK seems to have become of the least hospitable places for Jews who dare to speak up for themselves and the Jewish state in all of Europe these days. And many of the most disgraceful tactics of Israel’s attackers seem to be emanating from Britain and, sadly, crossing “the pond” to arrive here in the US.

Violent or threatening behavior, such as campus building takeovers – the goal of which is to bring attention to divestment demands – began in Britain, inspiring imitators at NYU earlier this year. Both efforts ended with universities ejecting students from the buildings they occupied without acceding to divestment or other demands. And it may be that this effort was nothing more than another attempt at “Fantasy Politics.” Still, it set a tone that is troublesome, especially given the violent reception that has accompanied pro-Israel speakers on college campuses in Canada and elsewhere.

But if you have to find the single worst idea in all of Boycott-Divestment-Sanction-land, it would have to be the academic boycott. For five years, a cadre of single-minded partisans who had secured leadership positions in Britain’s largest teacher’s union (the UCU) tried to force the union to take a stand on boycotting Israeli academics. At some times, this took the form of boycott calls for specific Israeli universities. On other occasions, the call was to force Israeli professors to swear a “loyalty oath,” denouncing the actions of their country before they would be given the same opportunities offered to every other academic in the world (invitations to conferences, acceptance of research papers in academic journals, etc.) automatically.

As noted previously, these efforts have all ended in one spectacular failure after another. But in the course of pushing an agenda so at odds with academic freedom (the core purpose and principle of academia), these top-down, anti-democratic efforts have ended up leaving UCU a far more unpleasant place. Jewish members, fed up with their concerns being marginalized, their people and motives being maligned, have left in droves, and the union itself is viewed with suspicion (rightly so, given its willingness to flirt with abandoning the very principles of academic freedom upon which it is founded) by a public whose support any union desperately needs.

Given the track record of academic boycott as a harbinger of ugliness and failure, it was with some surprise that I discovered a subset of the American professorate was launching a similar campaign in the US. Admittedly the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel consists of little more than a WordPress blog and a petition signed by a couple of hundred (out of tens of thousands) American professors.

One major difference between the UK and the US academic boycott efforts is the role played by union leadership in each country (represented by the UCU leadership in Britain and their American counterparts the American Federation of Teachers or AFT, in the US). While UCU leaders were either complicit in boycott efforts (in conflict with a membership who overwhelmingly loathed boycott calls), in the US the AFT has taken a clear and unequivocal stand against moves to single out for punishment academics from Israel or any other nation.

American academic leaders actually took a bold stand against UCU boycott calls, informing potential European boycotters that they should consider American academics Israelis (and boycott them as well) if they proceeded with their mendacious and misguided agenda. And once word got out that academic BDS was opening up an American branch, the AFT made this statement clearly stating that such politicization of academia was nothing less than an unwelcome assault on academic freedom everywhere.

Despite that little dust-up we had in 1776, America has learned a great deal from Great Britain over the centuries. Perhaps it is now time to return the favor.

Fantasyland

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the notion of “fantasy” that I began to discuss in the last posting.

As some friends know, I’m a big fan of the writer Lee Harris whose masterpiece, Al Queda’s Fantasy Ideology, is considered to be one of the most insightful things ever written about 9/11. In it, he talks about fantasy as political motivator, beginning with observations from his youth when he broke with fellow protestors over the Vietnam War over their insistence that their tactics include highly disruptive street protests.

Why choose this tactic, Harris protested, when it is sure to alienate the very people anti-war activists wanted to reach (the broad undecided middle), standing the chance that they would turn not against the war but against the war protestors? The simple explanation was that the street protests were not designed to win over anyone. Rather, they were a combination of street theatre and therapy designed to benefit the protestors themselves. So what seemed to be a political act was really a Kabuki drama in which the protestors got to fantasize about being part of an elite vanguard “on the right side of history.” Under such a construct, the citizens whose lives would be disrupted by the protestors, indeed the American and Vietnamese people as a whole, were simply props for the protestors own political fantasy performance.

Harris points out that fantasy tied to political ideology is not always completely innocent or simply annoying. Rather, it is responsible for many of the tragedies that have befallen mankind over the last centuries. While Mussolini fantasizing that he was bringing back the Roman Empire, or Hitler “recreating” a fictitious Reich, or Osama bin Laden trying to restore an imagined millennium-old Caliphate, political fantasists have shown a remarkable ability to both sweep others along in their fantasies and to exterminate those who choose not to take part.

Needless to say, the fabulists who make up the divestment campaign of deception at Hampshire College or the single-minded hosers who show their street cred by incoherently protesting against Motorola retail shops in Harvard Square do not represent this level of threat. But they do share with other political fantasists an absolute inability to see the world as it really is, much less see that there may be two sides to the Israel-Palestinian conflict (or any other issue) to which they commit so much energy, and so little thought.

It’s fascinating to watch the response when confronting a picketer in Harvard Square bemoaning “Israel Apartheid” when you ask simple questions about the treatment of women, homosexuals and religious minorities in the land controlled by the Palestinians whose cause they champion (all of which would meet the protestor’s own standards for “Apartheid” be it gender Apartheid, sexual Apartheid or religious Apartheid).

Their response is not to argue, not to even acknowledge the existence of these points, but to simply push them away with a turn of the head or a scoffing laugh. This represents more than a simple debate tactic of ignoring your opponent’s points in favor of your own. Rather, it demonstrates an imperviousness to reason as it applies to situations where Israel’s loudest critics have chosen to absent themselves from the real world.

Simply put, the divestment/Israel=Apartheid/Free Gaza crew have crafted a world for themselves where they are members of an enlightened elite, the only people on the planet who see the world as it really is. If that “reality” includes paranoid fantasies about “Jewish Power” repressing very the arguments that they make loudly and daily, or a willingness to justify the most horrific brutalities (be they suicide bombings, missile attacks against civilians, or inter-Arab murder sprees among the very Palestinians whose lives they claim to hold so dear), that makes no difference to the fantasist. For he or she lives in a world where they and they alone know “the truth.”

Working from such a world view, it makes no difference that their excesses and dishonest tactics (as in Hampshire College) might make it less likely that their programs (like divestment) will succeed elsewhere. For the primary goal of these projects is not to help the people of the Middle East. Nor is it to have an impact on the civil political debate that takes place all around us.

Rather, the goal is to do something “good for their own soul,” i.e., something that contributes to their political fantasy identity as the righteous few battling against the ignorant or nefarious many, regardless of whether or not this is effective, and certainly regardless of whether or not anything they are saying is true.

Street Theater

A buddy took some video of the Boston chapter of “Israel is Wrong About Everything Always Forever” brigade as they “took to the streets” to picket a Motorola retail store in Harvard Square (an action somehow related to the fact that Motorola is one of the companies that commonly comes up as targets for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS).

The most common company on this target list is Caterpillar Tractor, and my friend inquired why the protestors had seemed to move from this familiar target to a cell phone manufacturer. He suspected that it was because Palestinians had recently made use of tractors as murder weapons, which limited the BDSers interest in minimizing the number of pieces of Caterpillar equipment in Israel (and thus deprive Palestinians of the vehicles they have recently been driving into bus stops). But I would like to suggest a few alternatives.

First off, as has been stated here frequently, the job of BDS is to get an institution that is more well known and respected that the organizations pushing divestment (which pretty much includes everyone) to attach their name (willingly or unwillingly) to the protestor’s real agenda (i.e., to stuff their message that Israel is an Apartheid state into the mouth of a university, church or cub scout troop). With this in mind, both Caterpillar and Motorola are useful since these stocks are so widely held in nearly everyone’s portfolio that protesting these companies gives BDSers the right (at least in their own minds) to target any civic organization with any type of endowment (from universities to cities to unions to churches) for their nasty and dishonest little program.

The other reason can be gleaned from looking at the people who take part in these protests close up. Simply put, they haven’t looked well for years and every year I see them out on the streets, their decline (physical, intellectual and spiritual) seems to have accelerated. Unlike the “happy warriors” who tend to be on our side of the ramparts, the BDS crew seems to consist of oldsters whose eternally burning rage and hatred has taken its toll, and new recruits who are either struck dumb when their lies are confronted, or raging political or religious fanatics who are destined to appear as wretched as their older “comrades” as they approach their twenties.

For folks in such decline, who have seen Israel’s popularity among the American public soar (in direct proportion to the plummeting popularity of Israel’s Arab foes), it is critical to nurture a robust fantasy life to provide meaning to otherwise meaningless lives. After all, neither Caterpillar (which has voted down shareholder nuisance complaints over the Israel by margins of 98-2 for years) or Motorola are ever going to pull out of Israel because of complainers like the ones who appeared in Harvard Square. In addition to knowing where investment dollars are best spent in the region, these companies also have legal staffs that are fully aware of US anti-boycott regulations, which makes it even less likely they will ever take action against the Jewish state for political reasons, even if they wanted to (which, they have stated over and over again they don’t).

So why protest against a company that will never do what you want (worse, protest against a retail store where customers and employees won’t have the foggiest idea what you’re talking about)? Well if you live in the real world, you would realize that your political efforts (no matter how misguided) would best be put elsewhere. But if you live in a fantasy world where you are part of a righteous vanguard informing the ignorant masses of the wickedness of your political enemies (no matter how much those masses consider you a strange bunch of cranks), then these protests make all the sense in the world!

An aging gaggle of middle-class radicals consumed with hatred of the only state in the Middle East that honors the progressive values (tolerance of women, gays and religious minorities, for example) the BDS-niks claim to represent is a peculiar thing to watch. One can’t really accuse them of hypocrisy since that implies that they live in the same universe as those of us who actually embody the virtues (tolerance, dedication to truth, honesty) they merely pose at.

By Way of Deception

Some readers may recognize the title of this piece from the 1990 book of the same name by Victor Ostrovsky (someone with whom I had one of my first online debates on UseNet lo those many years ago – a story for another time).

Ostrovsky’s book purported to be about the nefarious activities of the Israeli Mossad, but the title could equally apply to the 2009 strategic plan for the boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaign currently being waged against Israel.

Hampshire’s faux divestment “triumph” is Exhibit A for this deception stratagem, and from the “other side of the pond” comes Exhibit B. The story will be pretty convoluted and meaningless for anyone who has not followed academic boycott politics in the UK, so let me provide a quick recap.

From 2004 until the present day, the main teacher’s union in the UK has been wracked by debate over whether or not British teachers should boycott their Israeli counterparts: refusing to invite them to conferences, denying them access to their publications, or otherwise disallowing them into the community of scholars. At some times, calls came for specific boycotts of teachers at certain universities in Israel. In other cases, it was a blanket boycott against all Israeli academics that refused to swear a “loyalty oath,” by publically renouncing the actions of their country before being allowed back into the academic family.

A series of controversial votes on the matter were always taken within various governing bodies of the union, a union with far more members than voters whose leadership included a small but dominating clique whose top priority has been to get the union to sign onto their political anti-Israel BDS agenda. As those involved with unions or other civic organizations know, the single minded individual or group often has the ability to push through measure that may be noxious, or at least outside the scope of an organization’s mission. In this case, anti-Israel activists (partnered with members of the Socialist Workers Party or SWP) managed to hijack the union’s leadership bodies on several occasions, getting the organizations name attached to a series of boycott proposals.

Remember that the mission of divestment and boycott programs is to get a respected institution (like a school or union) to attach its name and reputation to the boycotters anti-Israel agenda. And in order to achieve this goal, any tactic is considered legitimate, even if it damages the institution in the process.

The problem for BDS leaders in Britain is that the rank and file of the union hated these motions, forcing the boycotters to struggle just as hard to keep the issue from coming to a vote among members (which they knew they would lose) as they did to get boycott motions passed in the first place. After a string of embarrassing defeats, the boycott campaign had to satisfy itself with a generic promise from the union to study the matter.

But, as union leader John Pike describes, this compromise was not good enough for Israel’s detractors who chose – like the SJP at Hampshire College – to mischaracterize the union’s decision (which made no judgment about Israel or the Middle East in general) as another example of the union’s alleged support for their political positions. It was this mischaracterization that John Pike dismantled, partly to ensure honesty, partly to ensure that the union he loved was no longer being manipulated by those who only saw the institution as a way to punch above their own negligible political weight.

After all, the Socialist Worker’s Party calling for a boycott of Israel is what we used to call in the news business a “dog sniffs another dog’s anus story” (i.e., unremarkable and unnewsworthy, if somewhat gross). But the University and College Union (UCU) adding their weight to the subject: well that’s a story BDS activists felt worth pushing, never mind the damage it would cause the organization, and never mind the fact that it’s not true.

In a way, it’s good to know that divestment has gotten so unpopular that those pushing for BDS have to rely on pretend divestment or boycott “successes” to get any traction at all. At the same time, it’s good to know there are people like John Pike (and even old Alan Dershowitz) out there to keep these institutions honest.

Parody

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series More Silliness

Last month’s divestment fiaso at Hampshire College inspired this parody. (It appeared on a few sites in the area. Needless to say, certain members of the “Israel is wrong about everything always” crowd were not amused.):

In a further complication to the divestment controversy that continues to roil Hampshire College, today a new student group: Students of Hampshire United to Save Humanity (SHUSH) has issued its own press release arguing that the college’s recent decision to sell shares in a State Street investment fund was meant to free up cash in order to invest a majority of the college’s endowment in Israel Bonds.

“According to our interpretation of recent events,” says Mehmet Bernardo, spokesman for SHUSH, “the original board vote to sell $4 million in school investments was taken to ‘get those SJP jerks off our back for a few weeks so we can get some work done.’ Once the dust clears, the school plans to take that money and invest it entirely in Caterpillar Tractor and Israel Bonds in order to show the SJP protestors just ‘who’s the man.’”

The school administration neither confirms nor denies the truth or falsehood of this or any other claim related to the current controversy or any matter before the college.

“Case closed, then,” says Bernardo, as he finished posting the SHUSH press release on another 800 blogs. “What further proof do you need that the administration is in 100% agreement with us?”

Representatives from Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were apoplectic at the recent turn in events. “Those SHUSHers are clearly taking advantage of the ambiguity of administration statements to stuff their own words into the mouth of the college for their own narrow political gain,” claimed SJP spokesperson Morty Frampton. “Don’t they know that’s our job! Besides, we have a petition signed by 21 sociology professors who agree with our interpretation of events. So there! (By the way, did I mention I’m Jewish?)”

SHUSH’s Bernardo was amused by the SJP outcry. “They’re just pissed because our press release got more Diggs than they did. And as for their 21 sociology professors, we have a petition signed by 30 members of the math department! Like the SJP sociologists, the people who signed our petition haven’t the slightest idea how the schools’ investment/divestment decisions get made. But we’ve got 30 of them! And they teach math!”

Muzzlewatch Gets Into the Act

About four years ago, controversial reporting over the creation of a mosque in Boston caused the leadership of the mosque to sue various newspapers and individuals responsible for bringing controversy related to mosque to the public’s attention. Details of that story can be found here.

Jewish groups, and individuals and organizations committed to freedom of speech and freedom of the press deplored this attempt to silence mosque critics through “lawfare” (the use of frivolous legal action to bankrupt and stifle critics). One exception was an obscure group called Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) which signed onto the mosque lawsuit, providing an amicus brief in support of the mosque’s suit against its critics.

At the same time JVP was joining in an attempt to silence those who dared bring up troublesome questions in Boston, the same group started a new Web site called MuzzleWatch, committed to the dubious assumption that critics of Israel are routinely stifled by a Jewish political establishment dedicated to silencing anything negative said about the Jewish state.

Visitors to the site’s lively comment section immediately began asking obvious questions, such as how criticism of Israel, shouted from every street corner in the United States, and enshrined as a holy truth on most college campuses (which maintain competing organizations dedicated to exclaiming Palestinian rights and Israel wrongs in all matters, in contrast to Kurds, Tibetans and other suffering people who get virtually no airtime at universities) is somehow being “repressed.”

Muzzlewatch made it a point to never respond to these questions, simply throwing new accusations after their previous ones was effectively countered time and time again.
In most cases, Muzzlewatch defined as “muzzling” any criticism of people who held identical political views as Jewish Voices for Peace. In other words, criticism of Israel (no matter how outlandish or inaccurate) was protected free speech, but other people using their free speech rights to challenge JVP dogma was somehow a form of censorship.

Eventually, the site owners were forced to respond to questions regarding why an organization supposedly dedicated to freedom of expression was joining in a muzzling lawsuit against mosque critics in Boston. After months of stonewalling, the group eventually produced a convoluted argument that tried to make the case that their suit was actually an attempt to open up debate (huh?). Once the ridiculousness of that explanation was exposed, the sites sole defenders ended up being some of Boston’s most notorious anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. The arguments that inevitably broke out gave Muzzlewatch the chance it needed to shut down its comment section, permanently removing any hint of criticism (or dialog) from its little sheltered corner of cyberspace.

While postings to Muzzlewatch (and, I presume, it’s readership) slowed once it transitioned from dialog to diatribe, they still continue to post now and then. And unsurprisingly, they are none too happy with Alan Dershowitz for speaking out with regard to the Hampshire divestment controversy described in a recent entry here on Divest This!.

For some reason, MW is obsessed with Dershowitz, endlessly accusing him of hypocrisy for making outspoken statements against Israel’s critics while maintaining his reputation as a historic civil libertarian. It does not seem to occur to them that Dershowitz’s (or anyone else’s) free speech rights should be afforded the same protection as the even louder loudmouths of JVP.

The free speech argument has always been a dodge for the Divest-nista crowd on campuses and elsewhere. While redefining “free speech” to mean freedom from criticism, the Muzzlewatchers and their supporters never seem to want to draw attention to the threats of violence used to prevent pro-Israeli speakers from appearing on campuses, or their own muzzling lawsuit – i.e., these real examples of censorship – which they either ignore or full throatily champion.

Is Divestment Legal?

My first commenter (thanks Brandon!) brought up an important point about whether or not divestment activities directed at Israel might be prosecutable under federal anti-boycott law.
Just as background, the Arab League (which boycotted Jewish businesses in what is now Israel starting in the 1920s) created a formal boycott office (created and still located in Damascus) in 1946. This office originally coordinated a primary boycott (the Arab states refusing to do business with Israel). But soon this grew into a secondary boycott (refusing to do business with companies in other countries who do business with Israel) and a tertiary boycott (requiring companies who want business in the Middle East to certify that they do not have clients, suppliers or partners either located in or doing business in the Jewish state).

These secondary and tertiary boycotts (which effectively gave foreign governments veto power over what American businesses could and could not do) eventually made this an issue for the US government which passed anti-boycott legislation in the 1970s. During the Carter administration (believe it or not) the Justice Department hit businesses which formally complied with the Arab boycott office with heavy fines. Threat of further prosecution, associated bad publicity, and the courageous stand of some companies who publically defied and denounced the boycott dramatically diluted it’s effectiveness (as did the Oslo Accords – at least temporarily). While some companies (especially in Europe) still avoid the small Israeli market to assuage the larger Arab one, anti-Israel boycotts has been off the agenda of US companies for many decades.

The question is whether or not divestment constitutes taking part in the illegal Arab League boycott of Israel. Fred Taub at the Web site DivestmentWatch makes a case that it does, but point of fact we don’t know because no one has actually divested, an action required to trigger a lawsuit or US Justice Department investigation. While it’s obviously a good thing that divestment has failed time and time again, if some institution is ever dumb enough to pull the divestment trigger, it would be intriguing to see where a suit or investigation would go. Fred’s research seems to indicate that such a prosecution would require proof that linked divestment proponents to national Middle East boycotters, a relationship divestment groups vehemently deny, but one that has never been thoroughly investigated or researched.

At the very least, this demonstrates one other unsavory aspect of those who are trying to convince, force or trick universities, cities, churches and unions into joining the divestment bandwagon. Because, at the end of the day, it will be those institutions (not divestment activists) that would face prosecution in the event that divestment is judged to fall under American anti-boycott law. At the very least, these groups should alert school and other officials of this risk they might be taking by following the divestment crowd’s advice. But that assumes the divest-niks actually care about the institutions they are trying to manipulate, rather than just using them (and potentially placing them in jeopardy) for their own narrow political ends.