BDS, the Modern Language Association and War

Before going on hiatus, I published an extended essay called Like Romans that looks at the fight against BDS (and pro-Israel activism generally) through the lens of warfare.

The starting point for that work was not academic analysis based on abstract principles.  Rather, I tried to connect dots between the results of work done by heroic on-the-ground activists who have been experimenting with different ways to defeat the propaganda campaign traveling under the banner of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.  And few experiments have been as successful (and thus as informative) as the recent defeat of academic boycott resolutions at the Modern Language Association (MLA).

As most readers probably know, academic associations have become a battleground for BDS activity, ever since the American Studies Association (ASA) became the largest academic group to pass a resolution calling for a boycott of their Israeli counterparts.  Some very tiny associations (including those representing Asian-American, Women’s and Native American studies) have passed similar resolutions before and since.  But their victory with ASA gave BDS activists the belief that it was just a matter of time before their program swept through large swaths of the academy.

Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us – as well as for academia in general) all efforts to drag fields like history, anthropology, and even Middle East studies into the BDS swamp have failed.  But the large (25,000-member) Modern Language Association, professional home to professors of language and literature, has been the boycotter’s coveted prize for years.

The strategy the BDSers pursue within academic associations is a variation on what they do everywhere else (a playbook outlined in Chapter 9 of Like Romans): take over the decision-making machinery of an association, propose anti-Israel resolutions before the wider membership knows what’s going on, restrict communication so that only supporters of a boycott get access to members, and do everything possible to rig a vote so that the barest majority of a minority can pass something that can then be passed off as the will of the organization (if not the entire discipline).

And if the boycotters fail, then it’s try try again as the same resolutions (possibly with superficial variations) are proposed year after year until members finally do what they’re told.

While there are a number of strategies and tactics one can choose when dealing with an enemy that outnumbers your own forces (as was the case at MLA), it is generally impossible to defeat a foe if you’ve got nothing on the ground.  Fortunately, years of battling BDS within MLA (and academic associations generally) led to the creation of a small but highly skilled force under the name of MLA Members for Scholar’s Rights which managed to not just defeat this year’s proto-boycott resolutions, but get an anti-boycott resolution passed in its place.

The number of things this group did right began with the nature of the group itself.  Members were internal to the organization (which gave them credibility and deep understanding of MLA’s culture), and having battled the BDS plague within academia for many years, they were skilled veterans able to leverage previous experience and contacts.

Their background knowledge included understanding their own strengths (the aforementioned credibility and experience) and weaknesses (like limited influence over the administrative machinery of MLA), as well as those of their enemies (such as fanaticism, predictability and a tendency towards overreach).   Most importantly, they understood the field of battle: an academic association where the majority of members don’t have strong opinions about the Middle East (even if the general zeitgeist of the academy might go against Israel), but who do care about scholarship and the reputation of the humanities in the wider culture.

With this understanding in place, their communication strategy focused on the appalling lack of scholarship represented by pro-BDS “research,” and the impact an academic boycott vote would have not on Israel, but on MLA, the fields of humanities, and the academy as a whole.  Thus they were able to avoid getting dragged into a debate on the Middle East (the BDSers preferred terrain), and make the vote a referendum on MLA’s own scholarly reputation.

Clever tactics also allowed the group to use their minority position to advantage, finding alternative mechanisms to communicate with MLA members that avoided going through leaders who had already proven themselves to be dishonest brokers.  They were then able to use their need to find these alternative communication channels to illustrate those leaders’ lack of integrity, while fitting themselves into a storyline of rebels speaking truth to power.

Finally, the choice to propose both an anti-boycott resolution and a second resolution condemning Palestinians for violating academic rights meant that voting against boycotts generally became the middle-of-the-road (usually preferred) position.  While there were some complaints when the proposal condemning the Palestinian Authority and Hamas was withdrawn after the anti-boycott measure won, in terms of tactics that second proposal was serving as a feint, withdrawal of which positioned anti-boycott activists as both moderate and magnanimous.

Not every anti-BDS effort has the fortune (and misfortune) of fighting a fight you know is coming years in advance against a foe whose tactics (and personnel) are well known and understood.  But any individual or group can learn lessons from the experience of other civic organizations fighting the same fight against the BDS propaganda war against Israel.  Like names, faces and personalities; strategies and tactics will be different from situation to situation.  But there are common elements to fighting a war, the first of which is to recognize you are in one.

American Historical Society and BDS – Strike Two!

By now, most of you have probably heard the good news that the American Historical Association (AHA) has voted down a motion “critical of Israel” (i.e., the best the BDSers could do in an environment where their squalid little boycotts are treated with understandable suspicion) by a 2:1 margin.

The group responsible for forcing this year’s vote (called “Historians Against the War” – which seems to have moved from fighting against the war in Iraq to supporting the war against Israel) learned enough from their experience last year to get their resolution submitted in time to be taken up during the organization’s business meeting when official policy is decided.

Momentum the BDSers received from recent pro-boycott votes in other, smaller academic groups no doubt had them licking their chops in hopes of official support from this larger, more prestigious one. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for AHA), their motion ran into a couple of problems.

First, there was organized opposition to AHA taking an official anti-Israel stance, one which concentrated on successfully debunking the many accusations in the original “criticism” motion that had no basis in fact.

Second, historians are a bit more inclined to take seriously claims that important historic details have been left out of documents (especially those being used as the basis for important decision-making).  And while ambiguity is something historians (like all rigorous academics) understand and appreciate, they are not willing to substitute unsubstantiated (even if passionately held) opinions for truth when facts are unclear.

Finally, the backlash against those few groups that have embraced BDS positions has given the people making up more responsible academic associations pause, especially if they have not suffered from having leadership positions seized by people who are BDSers first, academics second.

And this is where the AHA story is the most telling.  For, as tempting as it might be to condemn anthropology, women’s and American studies as disciplines inclined towards whatever slipshod thinking allows them to accept anti-Israel invective as unassailable truth, the professional associations representing these disciplines became obsessed with condemning the Jewish state because partisans decided to make their political agenda each organization’s top priority.

As with all professional groups, only a percentage of those in the profession take an interest in anything the group does or says.  And only a tiny percentage of those care enough to take leadership roles in the group, rather than focus on their primary work (which, in the case of academics, is teaching and research).

In most cases, the people who volunteer to lead such a group are dedicated to the field as a whole, at least to the point of volunteering (usually for a finite amount of time) to sacrifice for the good of a particular academic community.  In fact, the reason most civil society groups work is that the majority is ready to trust a small number of (usually unknown) willing volunteers to represent their interests, rather than take advantage of that trust to pursue their own interest at everyone else’s expense.

Now it may turn out that some fields (like Middle East Studies) have become so polluted that hatred of Israel overwhelms everything else the field and its members care about.  But given that the “landslide” victory leaders of the American Studies Association still brag about (the biggest BDS academic win to date) came from votes of less than 15% of the membership, it’s more than likely that the academic association boycott phenomenon simply measures which organizations are vulnerable to takeover by fanatics ready to take advantage of “majority-of-a-minority” voting to ram through their agenda, regardless of the cost to their colleagues, their field, or the academy as a whole.

Team BDS is always ready with a quick answer whenever they are challenged over why their devotion to “human rights” seems to begin and end with Israeli treatment of Palestinians (the rest of the world, including Palestinians killed by non-Israeli’s, be damned).

“Israel’s gets lots of aid from the US!” “Israel wants to be judged by Western standards!” “As a Jew, I resent your accusations of anti-Semitism” (including those you never made), yadda, yadda, yadda.  But the reason why boycotting Israel must be voted on by every academic association in the land is far simpler than this.

For Israel, alone among nations, has a propaganda war directed against it led by those who will say anything (no matter how untrue) and do anything (no matter how destructive) in order to get their propaganda message (that Israel is an “Apartheid State,” alone in the world at deserving exclusion from the community of nations) to come out of someone else’s mouth.

If other nations were targeted by an army of assholes who spend every waking hour trying to smear another people’s reputation, perhaps we’d see a few more countries brought to the dock within civic organizations, such as AHA – organizations with far better things to do than squander their reputation for someone else’s political benefit.

Nobels Oblige

Continuing to catch up on some of the issues that arose while I was finishing up the Divest This Guide (thanks to everyone who has downloaded and distributed hundreds of copies to date, and special thanks to those who have donated to get the darned thing printed).

Getting back to BDS news, one of the big stories in November was the signing of a statement by 38 Nobel Laureates condemning attempts to impose an academic boycott on Israel. To a certain extent, this is an extension of the “Boycott Us Too” vow signed by hundreds of American academics who declared that, for purposes of any boycott directed against Israel that they too should be considered Israeli academics and boycotted.

Because the notion of academic boycott has gained so little traction here in the US, these petitions and statements are really directed towards Europe, a continent known for originating bad ideas (especially vis-à-vis dealing with members of my particular tribe). The “Boycott Us Too” statement was directed at the UCU, the British educator’s union which at the time was going through one of its annual rituals whereby radical leaders try to pass some kind of boycott motion without tripping over the fact that union members hate these measures (and must thus be cut out of the decision-making process) and boycotts stand the chance of running afoul of European Union anti-racism law (which could expose union leaders themselves, not just their organization, to personal liability).

Because there are so many BDS champions chasing so few targets of opportunity, attempts are being made to energize interest in academic boycotts in Europe, leading to responses pointing out how such boycotts are an assault on academic freedom, followed by responses within BDS circles claiming that academic freedom is a red herring (a counter-argument that hasn’t resonated over the last decade, which may explain why it is falling on deaf ears today).

With the exception of product boycotts (which try to dictate to consumers what they can and cannot buy based on other people’s political preferences), few options in the BDS arsenal are more loathed than academic boycotts. Attempts to claim that such boycotts are directed at institutions and not individuals (as though the students being rejected for graduate programs or scholars having their papers rejected for journal inclusion or peer review are not the only ones who feel the impact when their institution is boycotted) were weak and flabby to begin with. And given that one of the biggest movers and shakers in the “movement” is a perpetual graduate student at an Israeli university, it’s hard to avoid the fact that this boycott would not be directed at all members of a particular institution, just the Jewish ones.

More good news: South Africa Rejects BDS

Since this story is getting a fair amount of play, readers may have already heard the news from the University of Johannesberg where professors rejected calls to take part in an academic boycott which would have severed ties between the South African campus and Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Here’s a link to the tale (and since it comes from Ha’aretz, the prolific commentor/troll haunting my comments section will have to agree that it must be taken as absolute truth – see comments at the end of here).

The South Africa/Apartheid experience is such an integral component of the whole BDS narrative that this vote calls for more detailed anaysis than can be composed before I have to pick up my kid for his piano lesson. But tune in tomorrow since today’s news from Johannesberg is not just another in a long line of victories against the forces of boycott.

BDS Follies

In penning earnest analysis of the comings and goings of an obscure and disappearing religious sect, I seem to have shirked my duties of late regarding other BDS news. And so to remedy that:

Story #1 – Elton John Plays in Israel

Elton (or, should I say, Sir Elton) decided to tell those demanding he boycott the Jewish state to take a long walk on a short flotilla vessel, playing to a crowd of 50,000 Tel Avivians last week. The response of those who failed to get this rocker to do their bidding was muted, with some mumbling about gay solidarity here (is Elton John gay?), some grumbling about John’s recital at Rush Limbaugh’s twelfth wedding there (I thought Limbaugh had gone deaf?)

There was no such below-the-breath muttering from the rock star himself who shouted to the crowd:”Shalom, we are so happy to be back here! Ain’t nothing gonna stop us from coming, baby,” and “We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.” before breaking into all the hits I used to enjoy on my eight-track tape player before settling down to an afternoon of watching Creature Double Feature on Channel 56.

While I make it a habit to not take political advice from celebrities whose reputation for wisdom (i.e. Martin Sheen) or toughness (i.e., Bruce Willis) comes from reading lines penned and polished for them by professional writers, I must say that Elton John’s one sentence about “cherry-picking” conscience said a hell of a lot more than the pages of mealy-mouthed HTML that accompanied the allegedly moral decisions by slightly less aging rockers like Elvis Costello and the Pixies.

As a final note regarding Elton John, it’s a little known fact that the signer had a huge impact on Israeli culture, notably with regard to customer service. Back in the day, the country prided itself on its informality and open hostility to manners, with Israel’s socialist origins making them especially proud of treating the rich and famous with contempt.

When they tried pulling this on Elton John during his first visit to play in Israel, making him wait in the regular airport passport line like every other Tom, Dick and Shlomo, the musician was so incensed he walked out of line and immediately flew back to England. It was only after the concert organizers pleaded with the singer, offering him (among other things) a talking parrot in his dressing room that Elton John returned to begin a history of playing to sold out Israeli audiences.

So the next time you’re in Israel and a waiter or security guard tells you to “have a nice day,” that’s one more thing for which you can thank Elton John.

Story #2 – Breaking the BDS Blockade

While the Turkish/IHH mercenaries who attacked Israeli soldiers during last month’s flotilla incident may have failed to break Israel’s of Gaza, they did succeed in breaking another boycott: the one being pushed by the BDS movement.

CitizenWald has the story of how the Gaza solidarity crew equipped themselves with night vision equipment from ITT and communications gear from Motorola, both sets of devices on the BDS proscription list. And so, we’re left with the delicious situation of BDS activists demanding that schools divest from ITT and Motorola in solidarity with a “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” that used ITT and Motorola equipment to support their “peace campaign” that involved beating and stabbing people while talking with each other over walkie-talkies in the dark.

Story #3 – BDS Protestors Defy China on Occupation of Tibet

Can you believe it? Early Sunday morning a group of protestors formally obsessed solely with Israeli villainy showed up at the sea port in Oakland California and prevented a Chinese ship from being unloaded in protest of China’s illegal, decades-long occupation and repression of the people of Tibet.

Okay, okay. As it turns out, the group gathered to do their protest thing on an Israeli ship, not realizing that the ship where they picketed was actually owned by that wondrous bastion of rights and freedom, the People’s Republic of China (not that nefarious rogue Jewish state of Israel).

In another example of the surreal nature of BDS politics, the Internet is aglow with BDSers patting one another on the back for this successful “operation,” even if the actual ship they targeted didn’t arrive in port until hours after they left (where, I believe, it was unloaded without incident).

In other words, this Potemkin protest was not about actually accomplishing anything beyond getting some credulous media to portray events as the divestors wanted, all so they could continue to dwell in their fantasy world where, unlike the real world, the BDSers are relevant to anyone but themselves.

Clip Show 5: Et tu J-Street

With Hampshire’s BDS conference fading into insignificance, I wanted to wrap up the clip-show consolidation of information on that event with my last two entries on the subject. This one appeared the day before the Hampshire meeting when J-Street came out condemning BDS in general, and the Hampshire event in particular. Now there’s a lot to be said about J Street (which a friend of mine is saying), but I still consider it interesting how loathesome BDS has become that condemning it is a way for even contraversial groups to prove their alleged support for the Jewish state.

Oh, and I was wrong about the J Street statement being ignored by the Hamshire BDS-ites. So bereft of real victories are they that they talked incesssently about the statement, claiming it was proof positive that their ultimate triumph is assured. Dream on…

Well the Hampshire BDS conference begins tonight (be still my heart). Yet even as the divestment “juggernaut” keeps careening between defeat and hoax, the only thing that seems to be gaining momentum is the backlash against what will be discussed during the boycotter’s upcoming Sabbath celebration.

Academic boycott seems to particularly strike a nerve here in the US with organizations like the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers not only rejecting the notion in the US, but condemning fellow unions in other countries for even considering such an assault on academic freedom.

Think about San Francisco State College for a minute. Here is a school in which administration indifference has allowed Israel-hatred to reach such a fevered pitch that mobs hurling death threats against pro-Israel demonstrators are treated as free-speech practitioners. Yet even here, the President of SF State has seen fit to condemn BDS as “deeply wrong – and deeply dangerous.” On the academic boycott in particular, she says: “An academic boycott is a wrongheaded tactic that diminishes any institution that would pursue it,” Corrigan wrote. “It is antithetical to this University’s values of inclusion and mutual respect … An academic boycott is anathema to such civil discourse.”

Disgust with BDS has even reached the corridors of J Street, a lobbying organization that has drawn considerable controversy for the distance between its self-proclaimed identity as “pro-Israel” and its political stances that many claim are at odds with the security needs of the Jewish state. J Street has protested Israel’s actions in Gaza. It has lobbied against sanctions being placed on Iran. It has condemned the US Congress for its rejection of the Goldstone Report. Yet even J Street condemned BDS generally, and the upcoming Hampshire conference specifically.

Given the difficulty of characterizing SF State and J Street as “right-wing Zealots,” these latest setbacks are likely to be ignored as the Hampshire SJPians begin their “March to Victory” weekend celebrations and poetry readings. But it is intriguing to think about why BDS is receiving such widespread rejection on the furthest edges of both ends of the political spectrum.

One possible explanation is that people are starting to realize that actual (vs. fantasy) divestment and boycott comes at a cost. Particularly in the case of academic boycott, a boycotting school would have to formally place itself outside of the consensus regarding the free exchange of ideas. Now it’s one thing to stand back while a bunch of Jewish students get attacked by a mob on your campus, but to have your face plastered in the newspapers as supporting an end to academic dialog for political reasons is too much even for the leadership of San Francisco State.

There also seems to be a trend whereby controversial organizations (like J Street) use their condemnation of BDS to prove their pro-Israel bone fides. To a certain extent, this is meant to insulate them from criticism for their other activities, but it does say something that BDS is understood as being so loathsome that condemnation of boycott would be considered a safe choice for a political fig leaf.

The last possibility is reflected in a boldfaced line in the J Street condemnation against BDS: “we’re all going to get burned unless we speak out now.” Ever aware of the latest political barometric pressure readings, J Street understands that BDS is a big, fat loser, and rather than go down with the ship supporting a strategy that is not only loathsome but so bereft of victories that it has to invent some, they’ve taken the safe route of placing divestment beyond the pale.

Those Crazy Brits

One of the themes I’ve written about (notably here) is the corrupting effects divestment has on any institution that decides to take up this issue. I dubbed this phenomenon “The Vampire’s Kiss” after the legend which says that a vampire can only enter your house if invited, but once invited in you are doomed. As organizations like the Presbyterian Church and Hampshire College have discovered, even giving the divestment crew the courtesy of a hearing can often result in untold damage to an organization’s reputation that can take years to repair (assuming the patient wants to get better).

There is probably no better illustration and parody of this process than the UCU, the major teacher’s union in Great Britain. I’ve written about them before (as have many others on the terrific site www.engageonline.org.uk). And sure enough the UCU Congress (which is meeting right now) has decided to take up the academic boycott issue for a fifth year running.
Keep in mind that every year this issue has been broached it has either been (1) shot down by voting members who loath the idea of their union being used as a cudgel against fellow academics; or (2) declared to be in violation of British anti-racism law. And each year, the fanatics who dominate the UCU Congress and hold the importance of this issue above every other matter (including real issues of concern to union members such as job security and salary), breathe life into the controversy again, usually by passing resolutions that ask the union to embrace a boycott of Israel academics and voting down any resolutions asking for this controversial matter to be put to a vote of members.

The anti-democratic nature of the UCU legislative body has been on display for over a decade, but this year they face a more difficult issue of how to try to pass some kind of boycott vote while passing the legal consequences off to someone else. The result has been to loudly pass a motion whose impotence is pre-determined since the union leadership has already declared it will not act on any motion already declared to be illegal.

And there you have boycott, divestment and sanction in a nutshell. A group of self-centered political hacks who have taken time to dominate a union, passing a motion they know will never get implemented, driving out members (including many Jewish members) in the process, corrupting both the membership and reputation of the union, all so they can play the role of wannabe revolutionary. And who suffers? Israel? Maybe. But not nearly as much as Jewish members of the teaching profession in Great Britain, and the union itself which is now a laughingstock whose reputation as champions of academic freedom lies in ruins at just the point when teachers need respected union representation the most.

Let this be a lesson to any institution that thinks divestment (or boycott, or sanction) is just a simple human rights question being brought to them by innocent Ghandi-esque voices fighting for justice. No, BDS should be looked at more like a parasite which, as one UCU member illustrates, tends to hollow out the host, leaving a ruined shell before moving on.

Short Takes

A short post this time (if only because I had the chance to do my usual longer rambling this week at my friend’s blog: a piece on that endless source of comedy: Muzzlewatch).

A couple of other quick notes:

Those wacky divestment-nistas at NYU got their hand caught in the cookie jar (again), this time by trying to pass off their latest Israel-bash fest as a global warming event. Details here. (Perhaps BDS should stand for Bullshit, Deception and Shmuckery).

I’ve been making it a point to comment on any newsite or blog that talks about the Hampshire divestment hoax (the latest one coming up at Brown University, ably countered by local Israel supporters). The number of new references to Hampshire seems to have dried up (even on the BDS blogs) which might indicate that the boycotters are starting to realize that they overplayed their hand at Hampshire, alerting colleges across the country that those asking colleges to review their portfolios for divestment opportunities cannot be trusted.

A local BDS meeting is taking place week after next featuring some of Boston’s oldest (and tiredest) Israel-is-wrong-about-everthing partisand. I’m hoping to attend and, if I do, you my loyal reader will get a full report.

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.