I actually took two brief breaks from my hiatus last year to deal with some BDS stories making news.
The most recent had to do with the American Studies Associations’ academic boycott, a subject I plan to get to with a series of postings next week. But the other event that caused me to break silence (and pen this piece for my friends at CIFWatch) had to do with divestment votes at several University of California campuses last Spring.
Before building on the case made in the story linked above, we should first acknowledge that pro-divestment votes taken by some University of California student governments do represent a setback of sorts. While (as noted below) this does not mean we must accept the BDSers assertion that such votes are a first step towards their inevitable triumph, it behooves us to not make the same mistake the boycotters do and treat everything that happens (including defeat) as just victory in disguise.
For one of the reasons BDS loses so often is that an attitude which essentially boils down to “by losing we actually won” so detaches you from reality that learning from mistakes becomes impossible (since a “movement” that never loses never makes mistakes). This is why the BDSers keep getting caught by surprise when things don’t go their way. For when you live in a bubble where only the opinions of the like-minded are listened to, the existence of a majority that reject those opinions cannot be comprehended, much less worked into your political calculus.
But even if there is pragmatic value in treating a political situation as it really is (while also avoiding the trap of assuming not winning every battle means the war is lost), such pragmatism does not require you to imbue any setback (such as these UC student government votes) with a significance it does not deserve.
For as I noted on that CIFwatch piece, a student council vote in favor of divestment can only be seen to be significant (or even relevant) if (1) it stands a chance of having a practical impact (such as setting in motion an actual divestment decision by a college or university); or (2) it can be credibly asserted to represents the opinion of a majority of students on campus.
Actually, let me raise the bar even lower for the BDSers and say that such a vote does not even necessarily have to meet one of these two criteria but merely has to generate enough ambiguity so that one of those two criteria can be considered plausible.
By way of illustration, when divestment first made waves in the early 2000s (before the claimed 2005 birthdate of the BDS “movement” – a story for another time), it took the form of petitions calling on college administrations to divest from the Jewish state. Now these petitions drew just a few hundred signatures. But because it was unclear how college Presidents would react to such petition-driven campaigns, the media attention they drew far outstripped what these numbers would normally warrant.
Even at the time, no one anticipated Harvard or MIT would immediately initiate a divestment process just because a few hundred people signed an online petition on the subject. But there was certainly a possibility that leaders at these schools would avoid taking a stance on the issue and thus give anti-Israel divestment credibility as a legitimate position (if a controversial one).
But such ambiguity was removed when college leaders not only rejected calls for divestment, but denounced them for the bigotry they clearly represented (then Harvard President Lawrence Summers going furthest claiming divestment calls to be “anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent”). And once ambiguity was taken out of the equation, the fact that anti-divestment petitions were outstripping pro-divestment ones by a margin of ten to one demonstrated divestment to be what it has always been: the preference of an unrepresentative, marginal fringe.
Getting back to the UCs, when student government votes on BDS first surfaced at Berkeley in 2010, again it was ambiguity (this time over whether such a vote represented the view of the student body) that made this story newsworthy. But after that vote was rejected and subsequent votes also went against the boycotters, after multiple all-nighters where students with vastly different positions on the a matter argued with and condemned one another, after pages of letters appeared in school papers demonstrated heated differences over divestment, we now know that whatever BDS might be it DOES NOT represent consensus campus opinion.
Now no one’s opinion was changed between previous no votes and last year’s yes ones. Rather, the more recent votes simply represented that the boycotters had finally figured out how to pack student government with people who would vote in a BDS resolution despite the fact that everyone knew BDS DID NOT represent the views of the people student government claimed to represent. And given the boycotter’s readiness to ignore the countless times they were told no, is it any wonder no one paid the slightest attention when a vote finally went their way?
Actually, a group of people who probably did pay attention was college administrators who were handed yet another reason to not take student government seriously (given that such government had just flushed its only source of legitimacy – the claim to represent the student body – down the toilet).
And this brings us to the real story behind these UC votes, namely, what it says about the difference between BDS and any normal political movement. Every UC campus, after all, is home to students of many nations with historic animosity (Indians and Pakistanis, Mainland Chinese and Tawianese, etc.). But Indians are not lobbying college presidents to divest from and denounce their Pakistani rivals, nor are Taiwanese packing student governments to get them to stuff anti-PRC messages into the mouth of the student body.
Only the Arab-Israel seems to have generated a political movement of such monumental selfishness and insensitivity to others, one which insists that its needs must take precedent over not just every other human rights issue on the planet, but every issue of actual importance to the students at the University of California (or any other civic space into which boycotters decide to drag the Middle East conflict).