The Silent S

Two recent BDS stories, which have gotten categorized in the Twitosphere around the ever-popular hashtag #BDSFail, highlight a theme discussed a while back on the challenges facing those advocating for the “S” of BDS: Sanctions.

Boycotts can be done by individuals, although in the case of BDS the goal is to get sellers to boycott Israeli products so that individuals are freed from getting to make their own decisions.  The target of divestment campaigns are also institutions, although in this case institutions with large investment portfolios such as well-known universities and churches.

But sanctions would have to be implemented by governments, and even with international bodies like the United Nations fully co-opted to turn out assembly-line condemnations of the Israel, state sanctions acting upon those condemnations have failed to materialize, other than the ongoing Arab boycott which has been in place since the 1920s, and thus cannot be considered a response to the BDS “movement” (especially one that keeps moving its start date out later from its actual 2001 birthday).

BDS protestors certainly made their voice heard when Israel was being considered for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD).  But even with the megaphone provided to them by the Middle East oil states, the shrieking of the BDSers could not overcome economic reality which stated that Israel more than deserved its place alongside the world’s most developed economies.

In the US, government-sponsored BDS activities (whether in the form of divestment campaigns or outright sanctions) have been fairly muted. Calls to end US aid to Israel are even more longstanding than boycott and divestment campaigns, but tend to go nowhere given the strong alliance between the US and the Jewish state, an alliance that transcends political parties and remains stable, regardless of who sits in the White House.

The first BDS campaign I was involved in, an attempt to get a local government in the city of Somerville to divest, has the distinction of being the only divestment campaign I know of that was rejected by the legislative branch of government (the city’s Aldermen which voted down divestment unanimously), the executive (the Mayor who condemned BDS), the judiciary (the district court which threw out a BDS lawsuit demanding that binding divestment motion be put onto the local ballot) and the voters (who rejected a non-binding motion a year later).

A lawsuit is the cornerstone of one of the most recent BDS sanction failures.  In this case, a group of Minnesota based Israel haters have been working for two years to get the Minnesota State Board of Investment to remove Israeli bonds from their portfolios.  As in Somerville, once local elected leaders explained that they wanted no part in a propaganda ploy masquerading as a human rights campaign, the BDS cru took the state to court.  And, as in Somerville, the court dismissed the suit from the bench highlighting the fact that failure to win a political argument does not provide grounds for legal action.

(As an aside, this story represents the fourth instance I know of where lawsuits – one brought by BDS opponents and three brought by BDS advocates – were summarily dismissed.  Food for thought to those weighing the advantages of legal vs. political action.)

The other failed sanctions story took place at the local level, in this case the Davis-Woodland Clean Water Agency (WDCWA) in central California, which was asked to remove the French transportation and environmental company Veolia from consideration for a large local contract due to the company’s involvement in the state of the “Guess Whos?”.

After the usual frantic politicking and grandstanding, WDCWA did what democratic institutions generally do when faced with demands that they join the anti-Israel bandwagon: they voted down exclusion of Veolia unanimously.

As those BDS Fails were taking place, an interesting piece was published by Eran Shayshon of the Reut Institute on the increasing challenges anti-Israel advocates are having building alliances with traditional liberal groups whose support is necessary if BDS is ever to become a cause for anyone other than a marginal fringe.

The author highlights the fact that as more people become aware of the “true colors” of Israel’s adversaries, it becomes increasingly difficult for liberal organizations that actually embody hopes for peace and concerns for human rights to ally themselves with those who simply mouth these virtues as slogans in order to get what they want.

But I would add to Shayshon’s analysis a more mundane but extremely powerful factor: that it is much easier to reject the blandishments of a political loser than a person or movement that seems to have political momentum.

And with BDS being rejected in places like Berkeley and Park Slope (two of the most progressive institutions in the US), as well as being shown the door in states like Minnesota and California (which can hardly be accused of being reactionary “red states”), it becomes that much easier for individuals and organizations to join a bandwagon against a “movement” that has been exposed as not just narrow-minded and hypocritical, but guilty of the greatest political sin of all: failure.