PennBDS: The Cultural Boycott

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

When BDS first came on the scene at the beginning of the last decade, it primarily focused on divestment (notably, on five years of failed efforts to get prominent colleges and universities, churches and municipalities to divest form the Jewish state).

Later, it added boycotts to the mix and rebranded itself to “BDS.”  This not only gave anti-Israel advocates a catchy TLA to pop into their mouths.  It also provided them a much wider range of targets they were ready to ask to participate in academic, consumer and cultural boycotts.

I’ll be dealing with academic and consumer boycotts in upcoming postings focusing on PennBDS agenda items covering those topics.  But before leaving them to the side, it’s worth noting that consumer boycotts have generally been focused on trying to get actual retailers to remove Israeli products from their store shelves vs. asking individual consumers to engage in personal boycotts. The reason for this is obvious once you realize that a boycott consisting solely of individuals choosing to not buy Israeli food or wine simply represents unremarkable (and, more importantly, un-newsworthy) personal choices.

But there is one group of people whose consumer choices do make news: celebrities.  After all, we buy the shoes they wear (and tout), follow their home and luxury purchases on cable TV, and analyze the gowns they show off at the Oscars and Emmy’s.  So why wouldn’t their choices vis-à-vis whether or not to come to Israel make news?

Efforts to get celebrities to shun performing in the Jewish state got a boost in 2010 when Elvis Costello chose to cancel the Israel leg of a tour after being subjected to protests by anti-Israel activists at his concerts (as well as online).  This followed similarly successful harangues of the older (and recently deceased) Gil Scot-Heron who had previously bagged out on his Israeli fans at the behest of BDS advocates.

As I’ve discussed before, what these two (and other pop stars fingered by the boycotters, including the 92-year-old Pete Seeger) have in common is that they are all well into or well past the end of their careers.  And given a choice between watching their last tours turn into public protests against their alleged immorality vs. a peaceful retirement, a few of them took the easy way out and caved into BDSers demands, turning into poster-children for the anti-Israel crusaders in the process.

The key word in the above paragraph is “few,” for while the actions of Scot-Heron and Costello in particular briefly made news headlines (and continue to be touted in BDS press releases), efforts to capitalize on these “successes,” were all for naught.  Loud demands that heavy hitters like Elton John and Paul Simon (also in the aging rock star class) similarly cancel their Israel gigs were met with simple rejection or, in Elton John’s case, ridicule from the stage while playing before packed Israeli concert halls.

In fact, defying boycott calls has become a sort of badge of cool since Costello let down his fans (and tried to explain himself by posting hundreds of mealy-mouthed words on his Web site).  It’s one thing when Johnny Lydon (former Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols) gives you the finger for your cowardice in refusing to play Israel.  But when participating in BDS gets you dissed by Deep Purple you know the jig is up.

I’ve heard that a group of Hollywood impresarios has decided to counter the cultural boycott threat by creating an organization designed to bring celebrities to Israel and help dispel myths being peddled by BDS propagandistas.  And, as much as I applaud their efforts (or any efforts to expose more people to the truth), the main impetus driving defeat of the cultural boycott is that Israel is a pretty appealing place to visit and perform, which is why thousands of artists, musicians, theater and film stars visit the country annually, a number that’s been growing and growing year upon year.

Absent the ability to get all but the most obscure “stars” to follow their lead, the BDSers had one more resource to draw upon in their efforts to impact cultural events: their own limitless ability to act like assholes.  For it you can’t get American or European celebrities to bend to your will, why not show up at Israeli cultural events held in the US or Europe (such as performances by ballet dancers and concert musicians) and start shouting or blowing air horns?

Such “cultural boycott” protests did achieve one major goal of the BDS movement: the production of digital video of their naughty (I mean edgy) behavior to post on BDS YouTube channels.   But in terms of turning public opinion away from support for Israel, as Britain’s Cultural Minister tweeted during the disruption of a concert of the Israeli Philharmonic in London, “Demonstrators seem to have turned [the] entire audience pro-Israel.”

As we’ll see when we start discussing academic and consumer boycotts, it is very difficult to get people to abandon their principles (by rejecting academic freedom in the case of academic boycotts) or their ability to make personal choices (in the case of consumer boycotts) simply because partisan activists insist that this is their only moral choice.  And even celebrities, many of whom spend their lives insulated from the result of the choices they make, know to avoid the BDS like the rotting dead-fish that it is.

BDS to World: “We’re Not Losers” – Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series BDSFail

Continuing from where we left off; having run down items on the BDSer’s own list of “victories” that were either fake, outdated or simply descriptions of their own inconsequential activities, let’s move onto items that could be considered genuine wins for them.

Major items in their win column include the Olympia Food Co-op, the British Methodist Church and the Irish Trades Unions, all of which in some way or another have passed resolutions in support of BDS and (at least in the case of the Olympia Co-op) have actually implemented a boycott.

The issue with this category is that they are presented in a vacuum, implying that this is just the first step in a potential set of similar victories with other food co-ops, churches and unions.

But as we have seen over the last several years, each and every one of these categories has been visited again and again by BDS campaigners and in each and every case examples like Olympia and the British Methodists are exceptions that prove the rule.

To take the most obvious example, boycotts have been attempted not just at Olympia but at many, many other food coops over the last year, with most of those campaigns brandishing Olympia as an example that other co-ops should follow. But at every co-op where members had the chance to have a say on the matter (whether in Sacramento, Seattle or just up the street from Olympia in Port Townsend), these co-ops have soundly rejected boycott calls, often citing the Olympia as an example of what NOT to do.

The same can be said for the British Methodists who passed a resolution despite the fact that the Methodist Church as a whole rejected BDS unanimously at their most recent international conclave. In fact, divestment has been on the agenda of several regional, national and international church meetings over the last 5-6 years where it has been voted down again and again (most recently by the Episcopal Diocese of California). BDSers have actually targeted Mainline Protestant churches for years, ever since the US Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) passed a divestment resolution in 2004 (a year before the BDS tell us their “movement” was actually born) which anchored the BDS project for two years until PCUSA members soundly rejected divestment by a margin of 95%-5% in 2006.

Unions are a more complex issue, given that the trade union movement is the most Zionist community in the US outside of Jews and Evangelicals, while trade unions in Europe have been flirting with boycotts. But even here, the few BDS “successes” either come at the end (or at the expense) of a long string of defeats the boycotters are not willing to admit to, even as they insist that momentum is on their side.

The other category of BDS “victories” has to do with their attempts at cultural boycott, which includes a list of celebrities who have chosen to not visit or to cancel appearance in the Jewish state. This includes the late Gil Scott-Heron, Elvis Costello, the Pixies, The Yes Men, Snoop Doggy Dog, Meg Ryan and Dustin Hoffmann (whoops! actually that last one is another BDS fraud).

But the rest are genuine examples of celebs bagging out of playing Israel for political reasons. So what to make of this category?

The most obvious thing that can be pointed out is that it represents, at best, anecdotal evidence of success. And using such individual decisions as the basis for alleging political momentum begs the obvious question of why don’t the decisions of hundreds, even thousands, of other entertainers who are more and more choosing to add Israel to their tours constitute an enormous outpouring of political support for the Jewish state? After all, if the decision of a Greek Oud player to skip the 12th annual Oud festival held in Israel proves that the BDS movement is “alive, and well and GROWING!” don’t the dozens of musicians ignoring boycott calls and performing in the same festival similarly communicate that BDS is FLOPPING?

The whole pop-culture boycott (or non-boycott) presents a final challenge to the entire premise behind the BDS “movement,” a premise which says that cultural boycotts and other BDS activities will eventually create such pressure on Israel that the country will be forced to concede on a variety of political issues (such as the creation of a Palestinian state and the so-called “right of return”) in order to make such divestment and boycott activity stop.

But given the history of the last 60+ years, BDS proponents should be asking themselves if a country that survived (and even thrived) despite seven wars, constant terror, regional isolation and economic blockade, and world-wide propaganda and vilification campaigns is about to be brought to its knees because Meg Ryan decides not to vacation there.

Next – The list they don’t want you to see!

Autumn Updates

Time to catch up on a couple of stories from earlier this year.

Starting with the forever-coming, but never-arriving “cultural boycott,” I’ve already pointed out that the spillover effect of Elvis Costello’s decision to ditch his Israeli fans didn’t seem to extend to his own bedroom (Costello’s wife Diana Krall played Israel over the summer). An astute Divest This reader provided the best summation of the whole effort to get rockers to boycott the Jewish state coming from Johnny Lydon (aka the Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten) who, while defying boycott calls and playing Israel, let it be known that: “Belief is a very personal thing, but when someone inflicts their view on other people, they’re a pig.”

Compare that short and peppy bit of truth-telling (or even Elton John’s one-sentence “We don’t cherry-pick our conscience.”) to Costello’s multi-page, mealy-mouthed explanation as to why screwing his Jewish fans amounts to an act of conscience. Let’s all hope that this leads to a Sex Pistol’s reunion (minus Sid, of course) at the next Superbowl.

Onto more serious matters, Dexter Van Zile (unsurprisingly) has provided the best follow-up to this summer’s Presbyterian divestment/Middle East debates. It’s on the long side (and well worth reading in its entirety), but in brief Dexter makes the case that this year’s excesses by anti-Israel activists within the church has finally awoken a new force – religious and lay leaders of several of the PCUSA’s largest urban Presbyteries – to the fact that the anti-Israel antics that have been allowed to run amok within the church are starting to take their toll on the reputation of not Israel but the Presbyterian Church itself.

It remains to be seen whether the dynamic of the last decade (whereby opponents of divestment within PCUSA only start to organize before a General Assembly whereas divestment supporters – and their enablers within the church bureaucracy – remain active continually between GAs) will change after this year’s conclave. Dexter sees cause for hope, but I’m withholding judgment until I see if the institutions created to build a fair case for church involvement in the Middle East conflict are allowed to do their job or (as in previous attempts to balance church policies) are hijacked once again by anti-Israel zealots for their own purposes.

Finally, after Spring’s antics at Berkeley, it’s a safe assumption that BDS will focus its efforts on student governments this year. Some of the folks who successfully organized against the Berkeley divestment vote are posting their story at Bluetruth. Again, it’s a longer (three-part) piece with part 1 and part 2 already posted. Well worth reading in its entirety. [UPDATE: Part 3 is up now – read it all.]

With school just getting started, supporters of Israel should assume that attempts to subvert student government for the narrow purposes of BDS are already underway and should plan, organize and act accordingly.

BDS and Celebrity

I seem to have gotten through the last US election without paying attention to how Bruce Willis or Whoopi Goldberg wanted me to vote. In fact, the whole notion of celebrity political endorsement has always struck me as somewhat silly.

After all, actors and actresses (even the most well-paid among them) are craftsmen, just like fine carpenters or chefs. And if they have a reputation as being wiser than members of these other professions, perhaps it is because: (1) their craft is the ability to convincingly deliver clever and articulate dialog; and (2) that dialog is provided to them by teams of writers who hone and polish words to ensure that they are clever and articulate before being placed into an actor’s mouth.

I swiped that observation from someone’s online essay I’ve since lost that also brought up the interesting point that the actors who have actually gone into politics (Schwarzenegger, Reagan, the guy who played Gopher on Love Boat) have in common low to mediocre acting skills. Not that some of them (notably Schwarzenegger) have not had successful acting careers, but they have largely succeeded by avoiding roles that would stretch so-so talent past its limitations.

In contrast, much better actors who occasionally threaten to run for high office (such as Warren Beatty), never seem to work up the nerve to actually expose themselves to the will of voters. And who can blame them? If you’re Martin Sheen, why bother to run for President in an uncontrolled environment called reality when you can play the President on TV, ensuring that you win all the major fights and get all the best lines, even if you encounter occasional setbacks (sometimes triggered by fate, sometimes by your character’s tragic, but sympathetic, character flaws).

This is a long way of asking whether we should care about which celebrities are or are not choosing to visit Israel this year. After all, if Harvard or the Presbyterian Church chose to boycott or divest from Israel (neither has), that would imply that the moral weight of these centuries-old institutions was now bearing down in judgment on the Jewish state. But can the same moral weight be assigned to Meg Ryan?

Why bring up Meg Ryan, you ask? Well, apparently, her decision to skip the Jerusalem Film Festival is being hailed as the latest and greatest victory in the BDS culture wars. Oh, I’m sorry… you were asking “Who is Meg Ryan?” Well she’s appeared in a couple of Simpson’s episodes. And she was pretty funny in When Harry Met Sally in the 1980s. And she’s married to Dennis Quaid. In short, her decisions regarding what festivals to jet off to carries the same political and moral power as decisions made by Jethro Tull regarding where he will play his electric flute.

In the press releases hailing Ryan’s decision to skip Jerusalem, the BDSers also fingered Dustin Hoffman as allegedly joining their boycott, an allegation that turned out to be (surprise! surprise!) another hoax. But even if an acting heavyweight like Hoffman had joined a light comic actress in skipping a particular film festival, what does this represent beyond putting attending or not attending Israeli cultural events on the menu of moral indulgences available to the rich and famous?

Even if we accept the highly questionable notion that being dissed by a well-known (much less a not-so-well-known) actor or singer makes it easier for the next entertainer to follow the same course, what are we to make of the justifications these celebrities are using to explain their decisions? Elvis Costello nearly ran out of server space providing his long-winded, mealy-mouthed justification for screwing his Israeli fans, providing a convoluted argument that completely skirted the fact that his name was now being leveraged by BDS activists around the planet as the celebrity poster-child for their program.

But in the cake-taking department, nothing can beat this quote by singer Devendra Banhart regarding why he chose to cancel his Israel tour:

“We were coming to share a human and not a political message but it seems that we are being used to support views that are not our own. We will be overjoyed to return to Israel on the day that our presence is perceived and reported on as a cultural event and not a political one.”

Note the inversion in this telling quote. After all, it is the boycotters that are pressuring celebrities to cancel their Israel appearances, and then turning around to claim (globally) that these decisions “prove” that Costello and Ryan and Banhart et al are all aboard the Israel=Apartheid program. Yet for Banhart, it is Israel that is allegedly claiming his concert tour is a political endorsement (for what he does not say).

Of all the various BDS activities, the celebrity cultural boycott lays bare the distance between rhetoric and behavior. The BDSers have made it clear that they have every intention of making a celebrity’s life hell if they keep their commitments to perform in Israel and have already demonstrated that they will exploit the name of any celebrity who caves into their demands. But the Banhart’s and Ryan’s and other first, second and third-string celebrities of the world who go down this route can always turn their acts of cowardice and hypocrisy into ones of virtue and courage by simply projecting the BDSers manipulative motives onto the Jewish state.

One of the great benefits of fame is the ability to live in a closed bubble, separate from reality and largely shielded from the consequences of your decisions. And while it’s always sad to discover a famous person has used the extraordinary bounty that often accompanies celebrity to spiral into a life of booze, drugs, and sex, at least those indulgences have the benefit of being self-destructive, rather than designed to cause harm to others whom the famous may fly over, but never meet.

Soft Targets

Like many of you, I’ve received a fair share of alerts that Elvis Costello has joined the ranks of entertainers planning to boycott Israel until the boycott “movement” gives them the all clear. A number of these alarms have been accompanied by condemnations of Costello as a hack, a has-been and a hypocrite, coupled with calls to counter-boycott the singer and (if it can be done with MP3s) burn his recordings for good measure.

In truth, I have a slightly softer spot for Elvis Costello than I do for Carlos Santana, another rocker who has decided to dabble in moral consciousness at the expense of the Jewish state, if only because I saw E.C. in concert once (at Brandies as a matter of fact) and a friend one succeeded in impersonating the British singer to get into a sold-out comedy club. The fact that celebrity endorsements (even ones in favor of causes I support) have always seemed pretty vacuous and imbecilic also keeps the danger signal of Costello’s choice flashing yellow instead of red.

That said, if the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that BDS is pretty good at capitalizing on even small successes, at least in terms of keeping its militant project energized. So the recruitment of pop-stars as the latest anti-Israel bludgeon needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, placing this month’s BDS “triumph” in the context of how the whole boycott and divestment thing has been going over the last year or two might provide some guidance as to how to meet this latest challenge.

As this site has been documenting, BDS has had a pretty tough go of it since it got off the ground in 2001. College administrators (the only ones who could make actual campus divestment decisions) have their number. Leaders of the Mainline Protestant churches that once championed divestment have seen their activities condemned by overwhelming majorities of church members. Product boycotts tend to trigger counter-boycotts that drive up the sale of Israeli goods by thousands of percentage points. And if you pull back and look at the bigger picture, the decade that BDS has been in existence has seen a doubling of the Israeli economy and exports, coupled with a 20% rise in popularity of the Jewish state among Americans.

Behind these stories in the dynamic that defeat, like victory, creates its own momentum. Especially in today’s interconnected age, when one university administration or city government kicks BDS down the stairs, word gets out to other similar institutions, closing off that avenue for further exploitation by divestment advocates. Which is why new targets of opportunity must always be sought in hope that some decision that can be characterized as a BDS victory can be obtained somewhere.

In 2009, the divestniks tried to get around this dynamic by simply inventing victories out of whole cloth with a series of hoaxes regarding Hampshire College and various investment firms. But when such fraudulence refused to bear fruit, the BDSers got back to basics in 2010, finding new targets of opportunity in food co-ops (which gave them the chance to put boycotts onto member ballots) and student governments (which, unlike college administrators, were in a position to take purely symbolic votes on matters over which they had no actual responsibility).

Well we all know how those two campaigns turned out recently with rejection by Co-ops and failure with student governments, much of which played out in California this Spring. And with each boycott and divestment defeat, new precedents were created that will make it that much harder for the BDS-niks to find new unwitting institutions to exploit over the coming months and years.

Which leaves them once again with the need to find a new category of people or institutions into whose mouth they can stuff their “Israel=Apartheid” message. And thus aging rockers should be looked at not so much as a new front in the BDS wars, but as a soft target for potential exploitation by divestment activists.

It’s no accident that the three performers won over as participants in the cultural boycott were big in the 60s (Gil Scott-Heron), 70s (Carlos Santana) and 80s (Elvis Costello). This is not meant as some cheap crack at their expense, but to point out that two, three and four decades ago, people really cared what these folks did and said (well, maybe not Santana), rewarding them with not just booze and broads, but money and a media megaphone to trumpet any thought that came into their heads.

Flash forward to a new millennium when Hannah Montana outsells all three artists combined and you can understand why Mssrs. Heron, Santana and Costello would want to retire into some kind of Emeritus status where their cultural contributions could be celebrated with a certain level of reverential peace.

And into these artist’s lives come the BDSers bearing huge banners and megaphones, condemning these musicians for daring to bring their talents to the hated Jewish state. The threat, both implicit and explicit, is that a rocker who dares to not follow the boycotters dictates can expect their last years to be spent not with dignified nostalgia tours, but with protests everywhere they perform and a legacy that BDSers promise will be tarnished with accusations of hypocrisy.

And so, this new target caves. And why not since the cost doesn’t seem to involve anything more than screwing a few friends in Israel where you promised to perform? Isn’t that worth it if the alternative is to be denounced at every other venue you play anywhere else on Earth? And if you can convince yourself that your action is limited and based on principle, so much the better.

Unfortunately, these three rockers (and anyone else who falls into the same trap) are soon to discover the true cost of joining the BDS bandwagon (even unwittingly). Already the mediasphere is alight, claiming the cultural boycott a victory, with Elvis Costello the poster child for the Israel=Apartheid analogy that is the boycotter’s real narrative (not the simple human-rights story they managed to sell their victims).

So once again, a new community is at each other’s throats over the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once again, insults and accusations are hurled against people who never realized they could become a participant, much less a battlefield, in that conflict. And once again, another corner of our lives (this time, our old vinyl record collection) becomes needlessly politicized, just so that BDSers don’t have to admit to themselves that their political campaign is as bankrupt as their morals.

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