A Panic-Driven Response to Omar Barghouti

As the leader of a “movement” that has accomplished next to nothing in close to fifteen years, Omar Barghouti seems to have developed special vision powers (perhaps learned while studying at an Israeli school he insists everyone in the world but he should boycott).  These powers allow him to see panic-stricken Israeli supporters on all sides that quiver in perpetual fear of BDS’s explosive growth that always seems to arrive in the form of a damp squib.

Barghouti’s latest New York Times piece (paired with a “rebuttal” by Hirsh Goodman which declares Israel to be guilty, but urges something other than boycotting as a punishment – great diversity of opinion Grey Lady!) demonstrates all the rhetoric ticks that give BDS staying power despite lack of concrete victory (incidental or otherwise).

Thus 16% of the American Studies Association’s membership voting for an academic boycott is a “landslide vote” while the stunning backlash against the boycott from across the academy goes unmentioned.  Or perhaps that is just part of the panicked response of Israeli supporters?  (Keep in mind that in the heads-I-win-tails-you-lose world of BDS, both the BDSers own activity and the overwhelmingly negative response it generates counts as a victories for them.)

Then you’ve got odd-hand quotes from people like Secretary of State John Kerry treated like official policy, without mentioning actual US policy which has been to reject and condemn boycott and divestment (as well as enforce anti-boycott legislation implemented by that Zionist stooge Jimmy Carter in the 1970s).

Mix in two parts Apartheid accusations, a sprinkling of “non-violence” and “we can’t be anti-Semitic because we’re anti-racists” and voila: the rhetorical magic that seems to have kept Mr. Barghouti on top of a movement willing to fly him around the planet, despite his inability to get anything bigger than a student council to do his bidding (and even then, only barely).

Oh, and speaking of BDS talking points, my favorite one that gets trotted out whenever someone mentions the Dear Leader’s hypocrisy of continuing to study and work at an Israeli college he insists be boycotted by everyone else is that even  Nelson Mandela once worked in a South Africa law office.  Perhaps those who use this pre-digested excuse can provide us information of how the administrators of a genuine Apartheid system allowed Mr. Mandela to travel the planet propagandizing against them (as opposed to putting him into jail for decades – a punishment Mr. Barghouti knows he will never face, unless he has to go into Israeli protective custody for those Mohammed cartoons he drew – Just kidding!).

Sorry, where was I?  Oh yes, I was giving my own panic-stricken response to BDS’s impending triumph (it must be panic stricken, since any criticism of the “movement” has been defined as falling into that category).

Look, as I’ve mentioned countless times in the past, Israel faces an set of existentialist crises: nations on all sides falling to pieces while declaring their eternal enmity to the Jewish state, new fanatical movements demonstrating their “authenticity” by escalating genocidal anti-Semitic rhetoric into the stratosphere, an Iran both nuclearizing and pouring arms into places like Gaza and Lebanon, and a global propaganda campaign dedicated to ensuring that when any of these players gets around to pulling the trigger, every step will be taken to limit Israel’s ability to shoot back.

BDS is just a small piece of a multi-faceted campaign that has already corrupted virtually every institution designed to deal with genuine human problems like war, bigotry, refugee crises and global poverty.  And while individuals have no control over what the tyrannical rulers of Israel’s opponents do next, and cannot cure the rot that has seeped into institutions like the United Nations, we do have some influence over the institutions of civil society we have created and helped to maintain.

And it is at this very grassroots level that BDS finds it impossible to achieve a lasting success without the kind of backroom deals designed specifically to get around the fact that the grassroots loathes their message and are disgusted by their behavior.

In fact, it has been the failure of BDS to achieve its goals at the level of civil society that has helped de-legitimize the entire de-legitimization movement, which is why the boycotters have to resort to badgering a film star about which soft drink she endorses in order to get anyone’s attention (ignoring the fact that the planet has already decided to flip them the bird by stocking up on Zionist bubbles and flavor).

Speaking of which I guess I need to get back to my “favorite” subject, BDS and celebrity, with a look into the whole Soda Stream, Oxfam, Scarlett Johansson brouhaha (*sigh*). Apologies if I take a day or two to get to it.

Barghouti and Babb – Exploiting the Rubes

Now that the Barghouti-Butler whatever-it-was has left Brooklyn and New Yorkers ask themselves what all the fuss was about, my mind turns to Kroger Babb, king of the exploitation film makers.

Who is Babb and why do I mention him with regard to last week’s BDS brouhaha?  Well stick with me for a few moments while I dredge up something I wrote years ago when I compared Babb to a different contemporary equivalent (in that case, Michel Moore):

While contemporary readers think of “exploitation” as a generic term, historically the “exploitation film” was a product created by a largely unknown industry to fill a specific niche. During the era when many downtown cinemas (and eventually drive-in theatres) were independent and locally controlled, a film production and distribution world that existed separately from Hollywood served to fill the need for a more puerile product than Tinseltown provided.

While the number of exploitation titles produced from the 30s through the early 60s was huge and varied, they all had certain elements in common, notably:

Exploitation films targeted subjects that were considered off limits by mainstream film producers, such as sex (She Shoulda Said No), drugs (Reefer Madness), and gore-drenched violence (Blood Feast). In many cases, these pictures were couched as morality plays, promising to teach audiences important lessons regarding the evils of pre-marital sex, teen marriage or drug-and-alcohol sodden lifestyles, by exposing movie goers to these horrid sins in graphic detail.

The most successful exploitation film succeeded by “building a ballyhoo” around the product. When a “sex shocker” like Child Bride arrived in a town, it was often accompanied by a lavish poster and leafleting campaign that promised an experience that would “dare to explain sex as never before,” sometimes segregating audiences by gender (men only for the 6 and 10 shows, women only for 8). When successful, such marketing would bring out the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency to picket the theatre, ensuring swollen crowds for weeks.

Despite the hype, exploitation titles normally failed to deliver the goods. For example, audiences expecting to see some skin in the premarital-sex-induced-pregnancy tale Mom and Dad, had to be satisfied with the “naughty bits” provided in a so-called “square up” reel that featured medical footage of a baby being born (thus earning the genre the title “birth-of-a-baby” pictures). Much like the Royal Nonesuch chapters of Huck Finn, six-o-clock audiences would leave the theatre singing the praises of a film, not wanting to let on to the eight-o-clock attendees that everyone was being had.

The exploitation film industry eventually succumbed to the film genres it spawned, notably pornography and the mainstream slasher movie. The tell-tale moment arrived when Kroger Babb’s company went bankrupt trying to play a New York market with access to erotic mainstream European films that had little use for the low-skin quotient of flim-flam like Mom and Dad.

Fast forward several decades and we finally arrive at the point vis-à-vis BDS, Barthouti , and the cult of self-promoters that travel under the name of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”

For just as Babb and his fellow exploiteers worked feverishly to gin up controversy (the John Goodman movie Matinee – a homage to Babb and people like him – had a scene in which the exploitation film producer hired actors to picket the theater, just in case no genuine protesters were outraged enough), so too the boycotters will do anything in their power to goad others into a reaction that they can then exploit.

Why try to reel in the politics department at Brooklyn College (rather than have the usual suspects sponsor the talk ) if not to find some way to rile alumni and other New Yorkers into complaining or (better still) calling for the program to be shut down.  And once a controversy was manufactured, out came the nails and crown of thorns which were used to turn huckster and Israeli college student Omar Barghouti into a free-speech martyr and make the BDSpointation program the talk of the town.

But just as audiences for Mom and Dad and other trash films soon realized that they weren’t going to get what they paid for, so too did audiences for the Barghouti-Butler fest likely understand only after the twin speakers droned on for hours that they had spent time in line waiting to hear a monotonous dullard and a pretentious hack spew clichés that were tired when most of the audience’s grandparents attended college.

But admitting this would require an honest appraisal of who is leading this flailing “movement” (and where he is leading it), which is something the Israel haters can never do.

Which brings up the greatest irony of the whole parallel between Babb and Barghouti.  For in the 1950s, it was the sophisticates of New York with access to even more sophisticated erotic movies from an enlightened Europe that brought an end to the traditional sexploitation era. But today, these same New York sophisticates are the ones playing the rube to the exploitation boycott-peddler’s con.

Barghouti Flogs Books in Brooklyn

I’ll admit to being of mixed mind with regard to how to respond when Omar Barghouti (or any of his clones) comes to town.

On the one hand, if we just shut up about it, then he’s likely to draw a crowd no larger than the two dozen or so people who went to see him at UC Irvine earlier in the week.

And this “crowd” (made up primarily of the like-minded and the few brave souls who hope they can pin him down during Q&A) would quickly discover that he’s not just a bore, but a PowerPoint bore who, if stripped of clichés that have become part of the BDS catechism (“Apartheid, “Worse than Apartheid,” “colonialist imperialism,” “imperial colonialism,” “Gandhi!,” “King!” “99%”) would be rendered speechless.

On the other hand, when the BDSers do something that attempts to make their program, their agenda and their doofus of a speaker look like they represents the opinion of the wider community (vs. just their narrow cult), it seems perfectly reasonable for members of their wider community to say what they think about the subject.

True to form, the BDSers stand ready to nail themselves to the cross the second anyone begins to “suppress” them (even if such suppression consists solely of describing them accurately).

I’ll admit that in the current Brooklyn College controversy, a number of political leaders have gone overboard in calling for the school to face punishment for the irresponsible behavior of one department.  But as we saw during the UPenn BDS event last year, the boycotters are ready to strike a pose of martyrdom, even if “attacks” upon them consist of nothing more than an angry letter written by a single middle-aged prof.

The role of free speech champion and martyr is particularly rich coming from groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) that policies its own events and shuts down any discussion (especially questions of its speakers) that get too close to the truth, or from Jewish Voice for Peace who have hermetically sealed off every platform they control from contamination by alternative voices (while simultaneously demanding immediate access to everyone else’s venue).

But here we are, with a sell-out crowd planning to listen to Barghouti bellow his tripe for an hour, followed by Judith Butler spewing post-modern gibberish to cover up the fact that neither really has anything to say, certainly not about the real human rights abuses in the region.  (Did you know the number of Syrians killed in the last few years is now greater than the number of Palestinians killed in clashes with Israel since 1948?  Don’t’ expect that topic to make it to the stage in Brooklyn tonight.)

And once the fawning has finished, the challenging questions from the audience shouted down and the book signing completed, Barthouti will cash his check and move onto the next locale in his tour.  Nice work if you can get it (especially if you’ve got a nice safe, warm, comfortable perch at an Israeli university to return to when you’re done shaking down the crowd).

Who’s Afraid of the Big Barghouti?

omar-barghouti-big-bang-theory

I seem to be struggling to work up a good head of stem about this week’s BDS brouhaha in Brooklyn, partly because it’s just the latest January gathering of the Israel-hating like-minded (does anyone remember anything about last year’s PennBDS weekender?  – I thought not), but mostly because of its headliner: Omar Barghouti.

Why is it so hard to take seriously this uber leader of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions crusade?  It can’t just be because he looks as though he’d fit in comfortably with the cast of Big Bang Theory, or that he continues to buy his clothes from the same Good Will costume rack I take my kids to every Halloween.

Perhaps it is his stunning level of hypocrisy, one which makes him an asset to both sides of the BDS wars, that makes it difficult to feel threatened by him or the “movement” he claims to lead.  For as much as he and his followers insist we should not talk about the fact that Barghouti leads the cause to have Israeli academics (among others) globally shunned while he himself enjoys his perch in Israeli academia, there is no getting around the fact that he exemplifies the “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality that is the Alpha and Omega of BDS.

I’ve often wondered how Barghouti gets away with continuing his dual role as perpetual Tel Aviv University graduate student and leader of the movement to have people like himself boycotted.

When people on our side point this out, the obvious response from Barghouti and his supporters is to simply ignore what we say (just as they ignore any criticisms or questions they cannot answer – which pretty much includes all topics of substance related to the Middle East).  But given that the Dear Leader of the BDS Internationale swims in the shark-infested waters of anti-Israel politics, it’s been pretty amazing that none of his rivals have managed to land a glove on him over this issue.

If I were to guess as to what might provide him this coating of Teflon (at least among the BDS ranks – like those who will swarm to Brooklyn to swoon over his stock speech on Thursday), I’d probably zero in on the one skill he has ably demonstrated  over the years: the ability to break into outrage at a moment’s notice.

He’s outraged that you would bring up his private life in a political conversation (despite the fact that he’s trying to meddle in the private life of his fellow Israeli student by having them boycotted).  He’s outraged that Israelis would lobby to have him kicked out of TAU for his global campaign against Israeli academia (thus proving how Apartheidy Israel really is).  But he’s even more outraged that the school refused to punish him (thus demonstrating the ends those foul Israelis will go to hide how Apartheidy they really are).

If these and all the other inconsistencies that barnacle Mr. Barghouti bewilder you, keep in mind that his ability to burst into flame at the merest mention of anything he doesn’t want to hear (or have others hear) represents the BDS leader’s one asset and the key to his success.

I’ve talked before about Argumentation from Outrage as a tactic that is the cornerstone not just of BDS but of anti-Israeli rhetoric generally.  For whenever the BDSer is confronted by a fact or argument they cannot ignore, the next (and only other) arrow in their quiver is to work themselves into an hysterical rage in hope of raising the emotional temperature so high that a reasoned argument (which they were sure to lose) cannot continue.

The trouble with outrage politics is that it also becomes the vehicle through which Israel-haters engage in their own internal dialogs.  Which explains why practitioners of this particular tactic seem to rise to the top of most anti-Israel organizations, and why there is so little reflection among anti-Israel activists about why some tactics work and others do not.

BDS is the perfect case in point, given that it’s gobbled up over a decade worth of anti-Israel activist energy, only to deliver embarrassment and failure at every turn.

A normal leader and movement might reflect on these facts and change course (or at least look for alternative strategies that might prove more successful).  But to Omar Barthouti and his worshipers, mention of such things (even from fellow Israel-haters) is an outrage.

PennBDS – Cowardice

I had planned to give the whole PennBDS thing a rest over the weekend in order to let that group have their say.  But after this story broke yesterday, it seemed negligent to let the group’s decision to ban a member of the press from their event go without commentary.

As the linked piece above describes, the organizers of the PennBDS conference decided that they didn’t like an article written about their event by a journalist from Jewish Exponent, Philadelphia’s one Jewish paper (one which was generous enough to let me pen an editorial for them last week).  And so they denied her press credentials to cover their conference.  Now they did claim willingness to let a different Exponent reporter in, but by a strange coincidence they selected a reporter who was out of town and thus unavailable.

Whether this de facto expulsion of the Exponent was intentional or just an accidental by-product of the PennBDS organizer’s decision that they be allowed to pick and choose which members of the press could cover them, this incident really encapsulates everything that BDS is about.

First off, you’ve got a group (PennBDS) which has used the phrases of “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom” as blast shields, accusing anyone who criticizes them or criticizes the University for allowing their event to take place as enemies of both.  And yet within the civic space they control (their own conference), they demand full authority to decide who is and who is not allowed to hear what they say.  And apparently that decision was based entirely on the fact that they didn’t like a member of the free press using her freedom of speech to say something they didn’t like.

Now this is par for the course for BDS across the board which routinely demands that everyone else’s civic spaces be opened to them unconditionally, while greedily protecting their own spaces just as unconditionally.  The refusal of BDS organizations to make their Web sites two-way streets in terms of communication is a symptom of this phenomenon that I’ve commented on before, but you can generally count on them only being willing to engage in “dialog” when they’ve got the upper hand (for instance, after every hour-long talk at their conference, they are willing to allow 5-10 minutes of Q&A – but only so long as they get to pick the questioners and continue to control the microphone).

Most people have talked about the banning of the Exponent in terms of hypocrisy, which is more than relevant.  But I would like to look at it through a different lens: that of courage vs. cowardice.

This too is relevant, especially with folks like BDS generalissimo OmarBarghouti (who demands an unconditional boycott of Israeli academia from his comfortable perch as a University of Tel Aviv grad student) declaring that the across-the-board negative public reaction to PennBDS is evidence that BDS critics are panicking and running scared.

Now to me, the many events set up to counter the PennBDS program seem like nothing more than groups of people lining up to give Barghouti’s cause the swift kick it deserves, but in terms of panicking and running scared, just who do these descriptions fit better, the BDSers or their critics?

The Exponent banishment scandal helps to answer that question, but so does the PennBDS group’s choices regarding how to engage with critics.  As I’ve noted before, this group is fully aware that at least one person (me) has taken them at their word that they are starved for meaningful dialog with those who oppose their “movement,” that I have provided a detailed response to each and every item on their conference agenda, and even offered them space to post transcripts from their event (or any other response they like) in a place that is open for two-way dialog.

Yet their reaction to someone who they understand has their number is to dodge discussion and debate through the simple expedient of avoiding engagement with these arguments: never acknowledging them, never linking to them (despite the numerous links I’ve made to their sites), in fact doing everything in their power to pretend they do not exist.

Now contrast this with their reaction to one letter to the editor that criticized them with less than measured language.  Once that was published, suddenly they found their voice issuing endless denunciations and demands that others condemn this letter, coupled with complaints that they feared for their lives all because a 60+ year old professor dared to use language half as intemperate as the BDSers will using all weekend long to describe the Jewish state.

There is a word for this behavior which is cowardice.  And the bullying we’ve seen since this event started making news (condemning those who criticize them as enemies of free speech, banning the press, etc.) is just a demonstration of something we learned from Saturday morning cartoons: that bullies are cowards (and vice versa).

One of the most important things I’ve learned in participating in debate over the years is something called the Principle of Charity.  This principle says that those participating in debate are obligated to take on their opponent’s strongest arguments, rather than just pouncing on their weakest (and pretending that those weak arguments are all that there are).

Despite the fact that my writing is probably too long-winded to attract a wide audience, and my viewpoint somewhat eccentric, I will at least be able to go into next week knowing that by choosing to take on my opponent’s chosen arguments (all of them) I was willing to live by the Principle of Charity and to not chicken out or take shortcuts to demonstrate the hollowness of the whole BDS enterprise.

Human beings being what they are, the organizers of PennBDS know in their heart of hearts that they cannot say the same thing.  When given the chance to argue and defend their positions they dodged, they weaved and they hid.  They found (or invented) arguments they would rather take on (such as claims that anyone criticizing them were just hurling empty accusations of anti-Semitism) in order to avoid more substantial ones.

No doubt they will try to ameliorate feelings of spinal inadequacy by congratulating themselves on their courage for standing up to dark, all-powerful Zionist forces that opposed them.  But in the years to come, when most of them have left radical politics behind in order to focus on applications to dental school, a little voice will continue to speak to them reminding them that when they had the chance to truly fight for a cause they claimed to believe in, they chose to do anything but.

BDS – Beginning of the End?

As I was planning to say before last week’s interruption, it may be getting to the point where we want to think about what a “final” defeat for BDS might look like.

After all, a “movement” that manages to turn the entire Australian political system and Noam Chomsky against them, a political project capable of creating 6000 Israel supporters in a single night (in Britain no less) must at some point come under the scrutiny of even the most fantasy-laden anti-Israel activists as something less than productive to their cause.

To understand whether BDS is on its way out, it is important to first remember what it is. Despite claims to be some sort of a “peace movement,” BDS is neither peaceful (being little more than a propaganda adjunct to more violent warriors who get to do the trigger pulling) nor, technically, a “movement.” Rather, BDS is simply a tactic that’s been used on and off for the last decade by the same anti-Israel crowd that has traveled under different names using different tactics.

Now this tactic has been successful in generating headlines and giving Israel dislikers a simple message to organize around and recruit new members. But outside such inside baseball, the tactic has proven to be a bust in its key mission of getting well known civic institutions to tie their name and reputation to the “Israel = Apartheid” message. In fact, given how successful anti-Israel forces have been in dragging international organizations (such as human rights NGOs and the United Nations) into their propaganda web, it’s a testament to the schools, churches, cities and other organizations that have resisted the BDS lure for close to a decade that they have kept themselves un-befouled by similar corruption.

Keep in mind that we have been exactly at this same point twice before. In 2004, advocates for divestment faced a serious credibility crisis after two years of zero success trying to get colleges and universities to divest from Israel. Had the Presbyterian Church not thrown them a lifeline in ‘04, they might not have lasted past that year and even church support simply put off the ultimate defeat of divestment in 2006 when the Presbyterians gave “the movement” the boot.

Today’s BDS project is simply a third generation photocopy of this earlier effort, one which is barely bothering any longer to recruit major institutions into the fold, sufficing instead with marginal organizations such as food co-ops and community radio stations for supposed momentum-building victories. And even with such limited ambitions, they still lose almost every single time.

So a first sign that BDS is on the wane would be a transition to a new tactic or set of tactics, with BDS allowed to quietly fade into the background. To a certain extent, we’re already seeing this with campaigns such as this bizarre set of bus ads which are a throwback to pre-BDS campaigns built around getting US aid to Israel curtailed or eliminated. If the wild, counterproductive excesses of the current BDS advocates continue to turn off more and more people (including anti-Israel partisans interested in winning the public over to their side rather than disgusting them), expect to see this transition to new tactics accelerate over the coming academic year.

Another important sign will be the marginalization of leaders and possible disintegration of organizations who continue to push the BDS agenda regardless of the cost.

Remember that the bulk of pre-2006 BDS activity was led by a now-defunct organization called the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (or PSM), a group that fell to pieces at the peak of its “success.” Without getting to deep into anthropology, anti-Israel political life tends to be built around small, unstable organizations that tend to come together, fall apart, and reform under different names and leaders on an approximate 5-7 year cycle. Paraphrasing a well-known cliché: “Anti-Israel politics ain’t beanbag” and no matter how powerful or prominent a particular leader or organization may be at any given time, there is always someone more fervent and ruthless in the wings ready to infiltrate and/or split a given organization to achieve his or her own ends.

Today, it is Omar Barghouti’s PACBI that seems to be on the ascendant. But there may come a time soon that this group’s inability to achieve anything other than keeping Palestinian civic organizations paying lip service to this cause (with the help of threatening powers like Hamas to keep them in line) may be outweighed by the sheer weight the unpopularity of BDS and its ability to give Israel supporters something easy to rally around and defeat.

So an end to BDS (or, at least, a repeat of the remission it went into between 2006-2009) will likely be accompanies by the diminishment, marginalization or even elimination of PACBI as a major force in Palestinian and general anti-Israel politics.

Back during my early years as an Internet debater, I remember an ally once describing an Israel hater who had lost his umpteenth argument as resembling a crab that bears its claws while walking backwards, digging himself into the sand before disappearing completely. Given that a cornerstone of anti-Israel politics is to never admit error (much less defeat), keep this image in mind as we watch what happens to the BDS movement over the coming months to determine if we have, in fact, beaten back this propaganda project one more time.

Pictures

Time to forgo my usual thousand words for some pictures, starting with my favorite “Israel-Apartheid Week” poster of the year:


The IAW concept was already looking tattered before the indifference of IAW protestors to the corpses of thousands of Arab political protestors littering the streets of Libya and beyond exposed their hypocrisy to all.

And speaking of hypocrisy, what better poster child for the BDS movement than Omar Barghouti, the paramount pampered member of the Palestinian bourgeoisie who spends his time jet-setting around the planet calling for boycotts of (among others) Israeli academics, while enjoying a subsidized life at an Israeli university (how’s that dissertation coming along Omar?), protected from harm by the very Israeli police and army he spends his life condemning.

Next we visit a wonderful animation by the folks at NGO Monitor of the BDS Sewer System (visit the original to see it in motion):


Other than the provocative imagery, what I like about NGO Monitor’s graphic is the linkages it maps out between the manufacturing of charges by corrupt or infiltrated institutions (the politicized NGOs and their funders at the top of the chart) which are then used to justify the attacks and protests that make up the arms and legs of the BDS “movement.” In many ways, BDS is not so much a political activity as it is a means to manufacture controversy within any civic institution anti-Israel activists choose to target. And given the resources at its disposal (mapped out clearly in the NGO Watch sewer diagram), it still astounds me how little they have managed to accomplish after a decade of activity.

Finally, an image to illustrate the good news I’ve alluded to over the last couple of weeks: The Divest This Guide is back from the printers! Thanks to generous donations by many individuals and groups, over 25,000 copies of the Guide are now winging their way across the country and around the world to inform those that may be encountering the BDS virus of just what they are dealing with. And what are they dealing with? I’ll let this final picture (actually, the book’s back cover) do the talking:

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.

Barghouti

If you’ve been on either side of the BDS debates over the last couple of years, you can’t help stumbling over Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI).

I’ve discussed PACBI before, and despite a name which implies that the organization’s focus is on academic and cultural boycotts (the least successful variant of BDS), the PACBI name – and Barghouti’s – tend to get invoked by participants in any BDS project (university and union divestment battles, product boycotts at US food co-ops, etc.) regardless of whether they fall into PACBI’s alleged mandate.

When the Irish trade union movement met to discuss their controversial boycott resolutions against Israel, Barghouti was on the agenda. When the San Francisco Jewish Federation was debating how to prevent BDS activists from subsidizing their project with community money, local Jewish leaders were denounced for not debating Barghouti on the subject.

Even within the Israel-de-legitimization movement, where the efficacy of BDS vs. other tactics are debated (usually behind the scenes), Berghouti’s name is used as a show-stopper, an attempt to end disputes over the subject by claiming PACBI’s 2005 academic boycott call means the BDS movement wells up purely from Palestinian civil society and is thus beyond discussion. (The fact that PACBI and Barghouti himself are late-comers to the BDS campaign, which began in 2001, seems to have fled the consciousness of anti-Israel campaigners.)

So who is Mr. Barghouti?

If the name rings a bell, Omar Barghouti is related to a pair of older Barghouti’s, Mustafa Barghouti (the man who ran against current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and the more notorious Marwan Barghouti who is currently serving five consecutive life sentences for his involvement in terror attacks against Israeli civilians. Like the Husseini’s, a clan which includes PA negotiator Faisal Husseini, the late Yassir Arafat (whose real name is Abd al-Rahman abd al-Bauf Arafat al-Qud al-Husseini), and the infamous Haj Amin al-Husseini (the George Washington of Palestinian nationalism who spent World War working for the Nazis in the Middle East), the Berghouti’s are major players in regional Arab politics.

Like a number of “professional Palestinians,” Omar Barghouti’s role as stand-in for the suffering local masses is a bit of a stretch. He was born in Qatar, but grew up in Egypt, the land that produced two of the most famous names in “pro-Pal” politics: Yassir Arafat and Edward Said (Arafat’s Egyptian accent was always a bit of an embarrassment for his allies, and Said had to admit to his Egyptian origins towards the end of a life of Palestinian identity politics).

Deeply ensconced in the higher end of the local upper Middle Class, Barghouti lived abroad and attended Columbia University before moving to Ramallah after college and, most recently, enrolling in a graduate program in philosophy at Israel’s Tel Aviv University. It is from this perch within Israeli academia that Barghouti runs his global campaign to have all academics everywhere shun their Israeli colleagues until all Arab demands against Israel are met in full.

The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do nature of a leader supporting (and supported by) an Israeli university calling for academics (and everyone else) to boycott Israeli universities is a touchy subject within the BDS movement. When asked directly about the contradiction, Barghouti dismisses questions as a personal matter over which he does not wish to comment. When one critic refused to ignore the issue, Barghouti stated that “oppressed people don’t have a choice of where they go to school” (an interesting statement for someone who got into New York’s Columbia University, an honor denied to 90% of the “non-oppressed” people who apply).

When thousands of people signed a petition calling for Barghouti to be kicked out of Tel Aviv university for his tireless attempts to shut down Israeli schools, the humble Barghouti claimed kinship with Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King (all of which attended university within countries they criticized and fought against). And when the head of that university refused to punish him for his political activism, Barghouti became even more enraged, fearing that this act of Isreali academic liberalism would be used to besmirch his campaign to have Israeli acadamia globally condemned and boycotted for its alleged illiberalism.

If all of this makes your head spin, the key to understanding Barghouti is to see him as an academic vs. a political phenomenon. Like many (if not most) of the people who fuel the BDS “movement,” Omar Barghouti does so from within the ultimate safe environment: the womb of the university. There, his middle-class lifestyle is subsidized, his graduate school workload as light or as heavy as he chooses to make it, his position at the university protected by those he condemns, just as his body is protected by the Israeli security forces he claims are homicidal maniacs.

Like the many student activists around the world who look to him for leadership, Barghouti gets to pose as a risk taker knowing full well that his political activity will never be punished. The opposite, in fact, since his role within PACBI has provided him global celebrity status complete with endless speaking opportunities and trips around the world which don’t seem to be getting in the way of his preparation for final exams.

Like students at Berkeley and elsewhere, Barghouti gets to endlessly complain about his movement being silenced, even as jets around the planet delivering his message and penning articles that routinely get published in major newspapers. Like the BDSers who endlessly claim to be showing great courage by standing up to “Jewish power,” he rails against fantasy threats knowing full well that a late night knock on the door by his alleged oppressors will never materialize.

If the global leadership of the BDS movement resides anywhere, it resides at Tel Aviv University where a graduate student who does not seem to engage in any academic activities gets to dwell in highly-subsidized perpetual adolescence, jetting around the planet in luxury condemning the very institutions that support a comfortable lifestyle. In this role he takes no risks while claiming great courage, the ultimate middle class warrior acting as a stand-in for the repressed of the world.

Given all this, is it any wonder that Omar Barghouti is the poseur-child for BDS, leading ranks of the privileged all playing the role of repressed victim at someone else’s expense?

BDS Flames Out in Davis

On Monday evening, the forces of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) were handed a major defeat when the Davis Food Co-op, located in Davis California, turned down demands by BDS activists to put a boycott of Israeli goods to a Co-op wide vote.

While this story may not be big enough to hit the national press, the details surrounding the decision make this as significant an event in the continuing annals of BDS failure as the Presbyterian Church’s 2006 decision to abandon divestment altogether (a decision which changed the threat level of BDS from “potential issue” to “serious loser”).

As backdrop, the Davis Food Co-op is a highly successful, member-owned cooperative with a nearly forty year history and over 9000 member-owners. Given the nature of the organization, the institution takes understandable pride in its progressive values and responsiveness to members needs, connections to the community that have contributed to its decades of success.

Sadly, it was these very qualities that made the organization a target for the local branch of the BDS movement, a movement whose two major tactics involve: (1) dressing up their mission of de-legitimization and demonization in a progressive/human-rights vocabulary; and (2) abusing the openness of organizations like the Co-op for their own narrow, political ends.

The Co-op recently reduced the number of members needed to put an issue to a Co-op-wide ballot from 15% to 5%, which gave local BDS organizers the impression that less than 500 signatures were needed to put their proposed ban on Israeli food products to a vote. And so their project kicked off with ongoing “tabling” at the Co-op featuring petitioning backed up by the usual context-free, anti-Israel propaganda (where Israelis were assigned the role of bullying tyrants, the Palestinians that of pristine victims, and the rest of the Middle East and all of history dumped down the memory hole).

Fortunately, large numbers of Co-op members chose to not take this challenge lying down, organizing their own tabling to educate members about the issues, and working with the leadership of the Co-op (with help from the local Jewish community) to inform the Co-op about the true nature of BDS.

What happened next was an exact replay of what’s gone on whenever the boycott project tries to insinuate itself into an open-minded organization. This included all of the bitterness and divisiveness of the Arab-Israeli conflict spilling out into the community, forcing neighbors to take sides in one of the world’s oldest and most complex disputes lest they be accused of betraying their progressive values.

The key to understanding the decision that was taken on Monday is that the Co-op by-laws require that member initiatives must be based on requests that were of a “lawful and proper purpose,” a clause that they agreed would be more “stringently interpreted and enforced” once the threshold for a membership vote was reduced from 15%-5%.

Early in the debate over the proposal, the Co-op’s board focused primarily on the “lawful” part of that phrase, seeming to reject the ballot request due to potential that it might place the organization in legal jeopardy. Now I’ve written before on the issue of whether or not BDS could be considered illegal based on current US anti-boycott legislation, concluding that the matter is murky (or, at least, open to interpretation).

Had the Co-op chosen to nix the boycott on the ground of potential legal risk alone, this would have been within their rights, and certainly would constitute a win over the boycotters. But the Co-op decided to do more than that. Much more.

If you look at the response they released on Monday, (click on the March 15, 2010 Resolution link of this Wiki), their entire reasoning for rejecting the boycott proposal was based on whether the proposal fulfilled the requirement regarding “proper purpose.” And in over a dozen “Whereas-es” (some multi-part), the organization’s leaders made it clear in no uncertain terms that a boycott does not come close to meeting that threshold.

Needless to say, the boycotters complained that, unlike matters of legality, what constitutes “proper purpose” is undefined, and thus open to the interpretation of the organization’s leaders. But that is exactly why the decision made by the organization is so significant.

In this case, “proper purpose” meant the organization deciding which matters were in the community’s interest and which were not. It meant grappling with the core values of the organization, and determining which issues need to be debated in the context of a cooperatively owned supermarket and which didn’t. It meant looking at the obligations the organization owed not just to its membership at large, but also to the wider world. And in each and every case, the institution explained in clarifying detail why BDS did not belong at the Co-op, and why individual choices (like whether or not to buy Israeli oranges) are best left to individuals, not be subject to a majority vote.

All of this is, needless to say, incomprehensible to those behind the boycott attempt since a lack of propriety (i.e., a willing blindness to what constitutes “proper purpose” for themselves and others) is one of the key weapons of anti-Israel activists, giving them license to insert their political project (under various guises) into all manner of civic organization, regardless of what pain or damage this might cause to the institution they are trying to infiltrate.

But on Monday night, the leadership of the Davis Co-op laid down the law in terms that cannot be interpreted as anything other than a sweeping rejection of BDS.

Does this mean that Davis has suddenly become a hotbed of Zionism? Of course not. Political opinions on the Middle East vary within the Davis community on this and other issues as much as they’ve always done. But in making their decision, the Co-op was not making a statement on the Middle East conflict, but was instead taking a stand (based on their own rights and principles) to not be dragged into that conflict just because a group of single-issue partisans tried to exploit the organization’s openness for their own ends.

No doubt, the BDSers who put so much time and effort into this project saw the Davis Co-op as one of the few institutions in America that might be vulnerable to their boycott calls, and hoped to be able to leverage success there to bring the message generated by this debate to other food co-ops and potentially other food retailers across the country.

And in this one case they were absolutely correct that the message from Davis must travel far and wide, warning similar organizations across the land of what happens to an organization when BDS comes knocking.