BDS State of the Union

An interesting comprehensive write up of what the BDSers themselves think about the state of their movement was published recently by Australians for Palestine. I’ll likely have more to say about their self analysis in the weeks that follow, although allow a few initial observations:

* Interestingly, outside of the US the BDSers seem to have no problem linking their project with the anti-Israel boycotts that began before the creation of the Jewish state (although they only go back as far as 1936, when Arab boycotts of Jewish businesses can be traced back to the 1920s). Since complying with the Arab boycott is illegal in the US, American boycott/divestment activists have never tried to make this connection, and while (for reasons outlined here) no one in the US has perused a legal strategy against BDS, it’s interesting to see that significant parts of the “movement” consider themselves the heirs of the dubious Arab-boycott legacy.

* Like most lists of BDS successes, this one is packed with fiascos masquerading as triumphs. For example, the Presbyterian Church’s rejection of BDS by a margin of 95%-5% is described egregiously (and hilariously) dishonesty as: “in 2006, the US Presbyterian Church urged various companies, including Caterpillar, ITT, Motorola, and others to invest in West Bank and Gaza companies;”

* On a less amusing note, the number of individuals and organizations that the article lists who are involved with pushing BDS around the world is no laughing matter. While it’s important to point out that ten years of effort by such a hoard has led only to a few paltry, quickly reversed “victories” (highlighting the objective fact that BDS is a bit of a loser), the number of people committed to this effort means that eternal vigilance remains the order of the day.

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.

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.