Olympia Snowed – Washington Co-op Boycott

BDS projects tend to come in waves or fads. In the early 90s, campus petitions were all the rage, then Mainline Protestant churches were targeted followed by student governments and – most recently – aging rockers and food co-ops.

Part of the reason behind this ever-changing list is the fact that BDS is a relatively nimble “movement,” forever ready to dance away from defeats and capitalize on even the most trivial wins. And since there are so many more of the former than the latter, divestment advocates must forever find new targets of opportunity once too many loses begin to give them a reputation as losers within a certain community.

Which is why yesterday’s announcement that a food co-op (in this case, the Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia Washington) has chosen to impose a boycott on Israeli goods was only somewhat surprising.

The location for one of the few examples of a boycott taking place in the US makes sense (Olympia is home to Evergreen College, home of ISM victim Rachel Corrie and one of the only colleges in America that’s gotten a student divestment vote through after a decade of BDS efforts on campuses). But the details of how the boycott was decided were surprising, given what happened in Davis California just a few months ago.

In March of this year, the Davis Food Co-op, like Olympia Co-op, was faced with a group of members who wanted the store to refuse to sell Israeli goods. Unlike Olympia, the decision being asked of the board was whether to put such a boycott to a member vote which led to public debates and hearings on the subject before the Co-op board made its final decision.

We’ll get to that decision in a minute, but before we do it’s interesting to note that Olympia avoided the public controversy during the decision-making process by simply making their decision without much (if any) public awareness that the matter was being discussed. And so, once again, we have another institution whose members woke up one day to discover that an organization they have been a member of for years is now being touted by anti-Israel activists across the globe as fully onboard the BDS, Israel=Apartheid, propaganda bandwagon (talk about surprises).

As described before, the reasons Davis decided to turn down requests to put boycott on the ballot were extremely interesting and are worth reading in full here. While disappointed boycott supporters claimed the Davis board’s decision was driven by Jewish community pressure and fears of legal reprisals, in fact their decision was based on principles relating to the co-op community itself, notably:

* That the boycotters were demanding that they (an unelected group of people with no fiduciary or other responsibility to the co-op as a whole) be allowed to make decisions for the entire co-op (including the board, managers and members) based on their own political agenda

* That supporting a boycott vote implied agreement with the boycotter’s characterization of the Middle East and acceptance of BDS tactics as representing the entire Co-op, not simply the opinions of a subset of members advocating for a boycott

* That the boycott would fly in the face of principles of the co-operative movement, including the Rochdale principles regarding political and religious neutrality and the Cooperative Principle regarding cooperation between co-ops (including Israeli co-ops)

Davis’ stance also highlighted that co-operatives that have failed to live by these principles and apply sound and careful judgment to where and when it will engage in political activity have created poisoned atmospheres leading to divisiveness, alienation of members, resignations and other harmful results.

Now it’s possible that the leaders of the Co-op in Olympia know all this, but are willing to ignore principles articulated not just by Davis but by the global cooperative movement in order to make a political stance that they (and they alone) know is in the best interest of their community. But it’s equally likely that this is just one more example of a group of single-issue partisans bullying an organization that lacks failsafe mechanisms (such as ways of determining if members agree with a political policy) to make a decision BDS activists tell them is their only choice.

Now that the BDSers have gotten their way, they will (as always) be on their merry way, firing off press releases and posting on newsites and blogs across the planet that Olympia Food Co-op (not simply its leaders, but every man, woman and child who shops there) is all aboard the BDS propaganda express. As usual, it will be left to those members to deal with the wreckage, and the co-operative’s leaders to explain that they have taken a principled stance when they, in fact, have just been played for suckers.

Strategy and Tactics: Let’s Talk About Us

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Strategy

Over the last week, I’ve tried to lay out some observations about the size, scope and nature of the two sides of the BDS debate. A previous discussion of tactics focused on the other side’s traditional framework for advancing its cause. In this final installment, I’d like to switch to a discussion of our choices. Since specifics will vary depending on where the next battle will take place, ideas are presented as general guidelines that can be applied to a BDS fight, or some other de-legitimization campaign.

1. Understand the Nature of the Enemy and the Situation

Pro-Israel forces tend to waste a lot of cycles wrestling with the ideology of our opponents, or speculating into the origins, funding sources and alliances of those waging a BDS fight (or other anti-Israel campaign) at a particular institution. But this search for a bigger picture can often lead to missing practical matters that can be of more immediate use.

At Berkeley (to site one example), the Students for Justice in Palestine organization was co-opting members of one of the major student political parties (CALSERV) and trying to gain enough support among the other political parties to win a student government divestment vote. Thus the battle line was drawn specifically at swinging a few key non-CALSERV Senators to not override the Senate President’s veto of the bill. Other activity (lobbying the administration, attending public hearings, leafleting the student body, etc.) had its place, but all choices needed to be made in light of the one overriding goal that would lead to a win.

When two armies meet on the battlefield, the ideologies of each force are less relevant than their size, organization, morale, leadership, relevant alliances (i.e., people who will really come to their aid, rather than just pat them on the back after a win or loss), logistics (such as access to supplies/resources) and the terrain of the battlefield. For the sake of winning a BDS battle (or any similar engagement), we need to make sure our own political passions do not get in the way of understanding all of these concrete matters as we make our own battle plans.

2. We’re in it for the long haul, so let’s enjoy ourselves

It’s been said that there is nothing Israel can do to end the Middle East conflict. While it may be psychologically comforting to think that peace is something that can be brought about by Israel or its supporters, fundamentally peace will only arrive when those who have declared war on Israel for decades decide that the war is over.

The corollary for we supporters of Israel is that we have no control over when the battle over de-legitimize of the Jewish state will end. It’s the BDSers who can say when BDS is over, not us, so we have to plan to be in this fight for the foreseeable future (possibly for the rest of our lives).

This can be a depressing prospect, unless we change our own mindset to welcome battle (especially battles that we are likely to win). I’ve gotten involved with the fight against BDS for a lot of reasons, and as distasteful as I find any individual fight, I must admit that I’ve gotten a bit hooked on seeing BDS get its ass kicked again and again across the country (and even around the world).

As I’ve been documenting on this site for over a year, fundamentally BDS is a loser so if you going to find yourself a reluctant soldier in the fight against it, best to become a “happy warrior” who relishes battle, especially against a foe who can’t seem to recognize the weakness of their own tactical choices (just as they can’t recognize the moral bankruptcy of their political positions).

3. Focus only on tactics that work

There are a number of political activities that make us feel good, but may not actually have any impact. While I rail against the fantasy politics of the other side (i.e., their substitution of self-inflating grandstanding for actual practical politics), it needs to be pointed out that our side also makes choices that are more about getting something off our chest than winning a particular fight. Given how emotionally charged BDS battles can be, this is an understandable reaction, but one which should be fought since fantasy politics is fantasy politics, whichever side is engaged in it and should not be seen as a substitute for genuine action.

4. Focus only on people who work

There’s an ongoing debate over whether we’re better off trying to convince 100 people that they should take up our cause, vs. finding just ten people who are already engaged and cultivating them. My preference is the latter. As much as I’d love it if an argument or presentation I make could inspire an unengaged person to become engaged, it’s been my experience that people come to activism on their own, usually after encountering the ugly face of Israel’s haters through exposure to a BDS campaign or something similar. Better to find these newly self-energized activists and build them into your team, rather than try to convince people who haven’t caught “the bug” that it’s in their interest to become happy warriors.

5. Stop keeping our victories to ourselves

When the Davis Food Co-op unanimously rejected a boycott based on sound principles that would resonate with any similar institution in the country, news of that decision made it to a dozen Web sites and less than 100 blogs (half of which simply reposted the same story on another news site or blog). In contrast, when the Berkeley Student Senate took its meaningless, symbolic vote on divestment, the story was in a thousand different places within 24 hours.

Communicating our story (especially online) is one area where we are far, far behind our adversaries which is why Berkeley became an international story, while news of Davis (and the hundred other victories we’ve achieved in the BDS wars) rarely make it past this web site.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people comment on how a true boycott of Israel would require the boycotters to throw out their computers and cell phones. Fair enough, but it would be far preferable if our side started using those devices to spread our stories half as effectively as the other side spreads theirs.

6. It’s not just about us

The overwhelming defeats of BDS have not come about just because rank and file Presbyterians (or whoever rejects divestment next) are closet Zionists. Rather, they are people of good sense who understand that while solving the Middle East crisis may be important, it’s not required that they trash their own organization or community in order to take a stand on this issue.

What this means is that when we cast our arguments against BDS (or some other form of de-legitimization) to a third party (such as a university or church), we need to think beyond Jews, Arabs, and the Middle East conflict itself. The aforementioned Davis Co-op decision was based on the organization understanding that a boycott was bad for the Co-op, not the Jewish community. Never lose site of the fact that these battles often involve other people and organizations with their own needs and agendas. As you formulate your battle plans, taking these needs into account can determine whether these groups become your allies or your adversaries.

As the academic year winds to a close with BDS continuing its uninterrupted record of zero victories and Avogadro’s Number losses, my attention will be swinging towards the next big battle (the Presbyterian Church) over the next few weeks.

But the summer will be a time when both sides will plan for next fall’s campus wars, and as painful as it might be to have to fight the same battles all over again, never lose site of the fact that peace will come about only when those who have made war against the Jewish state the prime focus of their lives realize that no matter what they do, we will be there, sword in hand with joy in our hearts, making sure they lose once again.

Strategy and Tactics: Tactic(s)

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Strategy

With the sides in the BDS conflict outlined in terms of numbers and organization, I’d like to turn the conversation over to the tactics used by those seeking Boycott, Divestment and Sanction against Israel.

Even through “tactics” appears in the plural, in fact the entire BDS project seems to be built around a single tactic with multiple manifestations. This tactic includes the following steps:

(1) Find an organization or individual that is self-identified with progressive or human-rights causes, preferably one with a history of taking stands on international matters. Ideally, these targets should have a track record of taking such stances after they hit “critical mass” in the media, rather than as the result of deep knowledge about the subject within the organization.

(2) Present the targeted group with the BDS case in stark black-and-white terms in which any information not directly related to Israeli villainy and Palestinian pristine innocence is removed from consideration.

(3) Push for the organization to take some kind of boycott or divestment stance, however small. Insist that the institution’s professed progressive and human-rights credentials leave them no choice but to do as the BDSers say.

(4) If an individual or institution says “Yes” to a boycott or divestment call (even in the tiniest way), broadcast across the planet that the group is now squarely in the BDS camp and is in full agreement that Israel is an Apartheid State alone in the world at deserving economic punishment

(5) Use the success obtained in steps (1)-(4) above to try to get similar organizations to take a similar stance in hopes that this will give the BDS project “momentum.”

The details change from case to case. Sometimes (as in the case of municipalities and churches), the BDS appeal has been made directly to leaders behind the backs of citizens and church members. In the case of institutions with low thresholds for public petitioning (like food co-ops) attempts are made to get around the leadership to put boycott questions onto a public ballot. But whether the target is a university, church, city, union, co-op or over-the-hill rocker, the steps outlined above are pretty much always the same.

The divestniks know their demographic, which is why you’ll never see them take their roadshow to conservative or even moderate audiences, or even progressive audiences with a track record of careful consideration before taking stances on controversial issues. And steps 4-5 are crucial since, knowing how unpopular anti-Israel stances are among the general public, BDSers must create the appearance of institutional hostility towards the Jewish state from a well-known person or organization in order to try to create a reality that does not exist.

Now most political movements are about changing attitudes and dynamics, which is all about changing the “reality” of a particular approach to controversial topics. But this betrays the thin line between political action and political fantasy (a subject I’ve discussed in the past). For if you look at where BDS has been temporarily successful (such as the Presbyterian Church), the divestors have been so fast to move onto the next target that they immediately abandon the very people they’ve recently won over, leaving these groups to discover the consequences of the decision they were bullied into taking which often leads them to reverse course.

The widespread use of BDS hoaxes in 2009 is symptomatic of the fact that the five-step tactic noted above, while effective, hits a roadblock when it encounters an institution that knows what it’s dealing with when divestment comes knocking at the door. And after a decade of failed divestment and boycott efforts, the number of college administrations, student governments, church groups, etc. that are completely unfamiliar with BDS tactics and history becomes shorter. Which is why many anti-Israel groups decided last year to skip steps 1-3 entirely and simply publicize “victories” that never happened.

That observation aside, tactics involving presenting the complex Middle East as an oversimplified, emotionally driven morality play present a challenge to those of us who fight against BDS who are not inclined to counter their simplified, inaccurate storyline with a simple, untrue storyline of our own. Which is why we often find ourselves on the defensive, providing background and context to counter gut-wrenching images and ardent accusations.

I’ll have more to say about offense vs. defense tomorrow, but for now I should note that the BDSers themselves provide an example of how their own tactics can be countered. For if you’ve ever been in a debate with them, watch how quickly they’ll dismiss any accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, corruption and totalitarian violence against themselves, the Palestinians or Israel’s Arab neighbors by either ignoring it, dismissing it with a scoffing laugh or insincerely accepting such challenges then immediately spinning them into another condemnation of the Jewish state which they insist must continue to be the only topic of discussion.

If they feel that they’re allowed to draw the boundaries around what can and cannot be discussed in a conversation about Israel, the Middle East or BDS, then why can’t we?

Onto Part V – Offense vs. Defense

Berkeley BDS and Democracy

Most of the “by losing, we really won” arguments from the BDSers defeated in last week’s Berkeley divestment battle are like this piece by Jewish Voice for Peace/Muzzlewatch Queen Cecilie Surasky, who substitutes the excitement of getting hundreds of people in a room to bash Israel for ten hours for actual political success. If such arguments rang a hollow ten years ago when groups like JVP begun providing a Jewish face to every BDS initiative on the planet, claiming unstoppable momentum seem positively bizarre after a decade of watching divestment fall flat on its face time and time again.

Now there is one argument the boycotters are making that’s worth dissecting: their claim that they actually won a majority of votes in the Senate (16/20 in the original vote, and 12/20 in the veto override) and should thus be considered the winner of the democratic process (implying that their win was undone by undemocratic political maneuvering by their foes). Not that this argument holds any more water than the other ones they trot out, but it does open up some interesting discussions vis-à-vis BDS and democracy.

For Berkeley’s student government (like the US government) is not an Athenian democracy (where all citizens/students vote on every issue), but is rather, like the US, is a constitutional representative system. Because the word “democracy” is used to describe these very two different kinds of systems, it can get confusing why simple majorities do not always get their way.

Berkeley’s student leaders face the same conundrum as leaders from any representative government: is their responsibility to represent the people who voted for them, or to take positions without knowing what those constituents actually want? Fortunately, most decisions that fall into this latter category are ones where knowing public opinion is not vital. We elect leaders to manage a host of routine issues that requires that these representatives do the work we’d rather not (draft budgets, craft rules and policies, etc.). While not strictly “democratic” in an Athenian sense, trusting leaders to develop the expertise to manage these tasks is certainly more effective than having 35,000 Berkeley students show up the quad to ratify every budget line item by voice vote.

But what happens when the issue under consideration is whether or not Berkeley’s name is going to be used to shore up a political statement about which student leaders cannot claim any unique insight or expertise? For example, can a majority of 20 Senators decide that Israel is guilty of war crimes via a mechanism that will be communicated around the world as the voice of the entire student body? In such cases, Student Senators face a higher threshold regarding knowing the will of the campus before deciding they can represent the conscience of that student body.

So… Do those Student Senators possess (or did they acquire) unique insight into the Middle East conflict or international law before making pronouncements regarding which participant in the former was guilty of violations of the latter? No doubt anyone who gets into Berkeley is extremely clever, but such a description applies to all 35,000 students on that campus, many of whom are enrolled in the #1 or #2 History, Middle East Studies, Political Science, and Law programs in the world. Given this, it’s not clear that the Berkeley Student Senate has more information at its fingertips than 20 students randomly chosen off the quad.

In fact, given the wealth of expertise the Student Senate could have tapped into to inform their decisions, it’s shocking to hear claims that participating in two all nighters consisting mostly of emotive testimony from partisans on both sides of the issue provided the education needed to make decisions on international politics and law in the name of every student on campus.

For a vote of this nature in which the Student Senators were presuming to speak in the name of those they represent, knowing the will of those voters/citizens/students is critical to determining whether such a vote represented 12 or 16 out of 20 (a majority), or 12 or 16 out of 35,000 people with opinions on this matter (a tiny minority).

That being the case, how can the will of the public be determined? Well one could put the whole divestment matter to a campus-wide vote, but this was already dismissed as too expensive. (It also opens up another challenge of whether or not the means to determine which question would be put on a ballot should also be put to a majority vote of the Senate.) Some type of professional survey could help us understand campus opinion better, but that too is expensive and would at best only provide a snapshot.

If ASUC leaders had a mandate for their divestment vote (i.e., had campaigned on this particular issue and won) we would have certainly heard about it during the hours of arguments on the matter (we didn’t). But we do have some electoral data in the form of last week’s ASUC Presidential election which the leader and party most against divestment won handily.

Add to this some substantial anecdotal data (including hundreds of people yelling at each other at marathon ASUC meetings, hundreds of comments appearing in Daily Cal articles and thousands of e-mails directly to student leaders) and I think it’s a fair conclusion that campus opinion on this matter is, at best, bitterly divided. And thus, those 16 or 12 leaders who voted “Yes” to divestment can make no claims to represent anything other than themselves.

And this is where we get to the “constitutional” part of constitutional representative government. For such forms of government provide ways for the public to be heard if and when one part of that government seems to do something that does not represent public will. The veto wielded by an elected President is one such mechanism, as is the high threshold required to overturn a veto. In other words, the outcome last week is an example of student government working to make sure a bitterly divided campus was not represented as having one mind on the Middle East, simply because a dozen Student Senators said it did.

Of course, the whole democracy argument rings a bit hollow from BDS advocates who cried foul when the elected board of directors at the Davis Food Co-op (an organization comparable to the Berkeley Student Senate in every way) rejected their boycott proposals unanimously. In fact, the few temporary successes BDS ever enjoyed (such as with the Presbyterians) only happened because divestment activists successfully appealed directly to leaders behind the backs of the people those leaders represented. I have yet to hear an argument about “democracy denied” by Jewish Voice for Peace, Students for Justice in Palestine or anyone else when those members rejected divestment by majorities of 90-100%.

As ever, a discussion of divestment and democracy is far more interesting once you can get past the BDS formula which self-servingly states that democracy only manifests itself when they get their way.

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.

Are BDSers being played for fools?

BDS is on the verge of scoring yet another spectacular failure, this time at the Davis Food Co-op where Co-op members and the Jewish community have worked together to help the Co-op’s leadership understand the true agenda behind a group of boycott partisans trying to put the decision of who can buy what at the store to a vote. I won’t jinx this cause before final decisions are made next week, but suffice to say things are looking no better for boycott advocates today than they did last year when Trader Joe’s gave BDS the brush off.

I’ve commented before on how the lack of actual success after a decade of BDS activity has left divestment advocates with a challenge on how to create and sustain a feeling of momentum. While BDS has proven an effective means of social bonding among anti-Israel activists, years of failures and reversals leave the BDS boosters/boasters with a serious credibility gap that needs to be filled by something.

Their most recent answer when challenged to demonstrate the success of their “movement” (which, on the surface seems to careen between ineffective and catastrophic) is to highlight the response of Israel’s supporters to their project.

I’ve recently highlighted how BDS is now on the national agenda of Jewish Community Relations Councils nationwide, and the issue of boycotts and divestment has even managed to unite vast swarths of the Jewish political world, with everyone from J-Street on the Left to ZOA on the Right condemning BDS as a militant propaganda campaign antithetical to peace.

Add to this a recent effort by high-level Israel advocates and activists to make the fight against BDS a global priority and the BDSers storyline becomes compelling: “Forget about our failures to date. For if so many of Israel’s supporters are taking us seriously, then they must recognize us as a serious threat.”

Now this assertion has some surface credibility, although it can also be seen as a tactical attempt to get the opponents of BDS to unilaterally disarm with an argument that says “standing up to divestment only makes the movement stronger” (at best, an unproven assertion that leaves Israel advocates with only one alternative: don’t fight back and risk “blowback,” leaving the field entirely to Israel’s critics).

But there are other explanations as to why anti-BDS fervor seems to be gaining so much momentum that should be considered possible alternatives to the somewhat self-serving “you’re fighting against us proves we’re winning” divestnik storyline. For example:

* If you recall, the first wave of divestment activities in 2001-2004 (which included divestment petitions at many universities and actual divestment votes at Mainline Protestant churches) caught Israel supporters largely off guard. Given this, the recent level of response to current BDS efforts is an understandable example of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

* In a mirror image of the BDSers own claims of cause and effect, the fact that anti-Israel activists have made boycott and divestment such a high priority understandably invited an adequate response from critics.

* Given the historic precedent, Jews are understandably appalled at the notion of boycotts directed against their fellow Jews and thus see the battle against BDS as a moral issue, regardless of whether divestment represents an actual threat.

* Boycotts (particularly academic and product boycotts) and divestment have proven to be enormously unpopular with general public, even among those indifferent or hostile to the Jewish state. Which makes the fight against BDS a winning cause, one which even the most risk-averse are willing to join.

As a final (and purely speculative) theory regarding the origins of anti-BDS momentum in recent months; what if the organized Jewish community – seeing how lame BDS has been and how easily it is defeated – secretly want Israel’s opponents to continue to embrace this tactic for another decade or three? In which case, the recent mainstreaming of the fight against boycott, divestment and sanctions is really a ruse, designed to make BDS activists think they’re successful so that they will continue to waste more and more time doubling down on a strategy that has proven to be so disastrous to them and so successful to us.

Given that this blog is being read by at least one BDS activist (who enlightened the comments section recently with the eloquent retort “GO BDS!!!” written in all caps), the divestniks can take away from this posting a simple but important question: are the Jews playing you for suckers?

BDS Party Crashers

As with previous pieces I’ve written on what BDS does to civil society, it’ll take a couple of paragraphs to get to a recognizable point. So bear with me if you can stand it…

For the fourth year in a row, I attended the variety show at my kid’s elementary school. Neither boy performed (although my older son did share the MC role with another fifth grader). While most numbers are what you would expect (a lot of piano, some Hanna Montana-inspired song and dance numbers, the Star Wars theme on cello), there were a few nice surprises (including a killer kindergartener Hula Hooper and two groups dancing to the closing theme of Slumdog Millionaire).

Best of all, the show was a mere 36 acts (as opposed to 52 last year, with a legendary 90-act show in the distant past that ended only when a group of parents gouged out their own eyes with a vaudeville hook).

Now while I sat at rapt attention for the entire 90-minute performance, I’m forced to confess that my mind started to wander at around the half-hour mark, mostly towards the subject of what I could do to mess with next year’s show. (Getting my seven year old to read Ginsberg’s Howl in its entirety was what I eventually settled on.)

Needless to say, this was a fantasy, a goofy way to focus a wandering mind, not a real plan for the future. After all, dozens of kids and even more parents put a lot of time and effort into this show (and all sorts of other school events) all year long, which exist for the entire community, not for my subversive amusement.

But what if I could somehow convince myself that subverting this event was not simply an act of self-centered manipulation, but was – in fact – an unquestionable act of valor and virtue? What if, instead of having my kid read Howl, I had them read a treatise about how we’re destroying the world with Global Warming? Or re-enact the controversial pro-life commercial that appeared at this year’s Superbowl? Or sang Hatikvah while passing out donation cups for the Children of Sderot? Or performed a Palestinian dance number that symbolized the anguish of Israeli occupation?

I thought about this over the weekend as members of a food co-op in Davis, California were busy fighting against one of the first boycotts of Israeli goods in the US. I’ll have more on this subject as news arrives from the West Coast, but for now I can relate that the one thing the boycotters have been successful in doing (the one thing they’re always successful doing) is creating conflict and misery in a civic institution that never asked to become a battlefield in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

I remember the phenomena all too well from 5-6 years ago when divestment came to my then hometown of Somerville, MA (an event which led directly to – among other things – this Divest This blog).

Just as is happening now at Davis, in Somerville a group of local anti-Israel activists wanted to stuff their message (that Israel is an Apartheid state alone in the world at deserving economic punishment) into the mouth of a respected institution (in this case, a major municipality) in order to leverage that city’s reputation to allow the BDSers to punch above their own meager political weight. And – as with all BDS subversion attempts, whether in cities, churches, unions, schools or food co-ops – any tactics is permissible to the boycotters, regardless of what the long-term negative impact might be to the organization they are trying to exploit.

With that as backdrop, the notions posited earlier regarding turning a kid’s talent show on its head suddenly seem less ridiculous and more ominously (or at least potentially) real. After all, haven’t anti-Israel activists already tried to force their message into public schools (including elementary schools), just as they’ve tried to force themselves onto Somerville or Davis with nary a thought to what damage this could cause a community?

Most of us have internal controls that keep our fantasy life from escaping to the wider world. And even if we don’t, we are surrounded by others who – not sharing our fantasy – can talk us down from what might be inappropriate courses of action.

But what if such internal and external controls are non-existent? What happens if you get a self-contained group so assured of their own righteousness, so oblivious to the world outside of their own narrow cause that anything is permissible? Well then you get the BDS movement, soon to be defeated (again) at Davis, but by no means undeterred from exploiting a civic institution near you.