Jay Michaelson’s Journey

I am usually of mixed mind with regard to sympathizing with those who were once part of (or even continue to support) this or that BDS activity who feel they must speak their mind about what they perceive to be the “movement’s” shortcomings.

On the one hand, you’ve got kooks like Norman Finkelstein who is too unpredictable to ever be seen as an ally, even if he has provided prime quotes regarding the cult-like nature of his former BDS buddies.  But then you’ve got those naïve individuals who were lured by the BDS sirens telling them they could partake in a political struggle of unquestionable evil (the Israeli brute) vs. undistilled virtue (the Palestinian victim).

We’ve been visited in the comments section by a few people who fall into this latter category, but the most vivid example of this type of BDS “turncoat” I remember was a young woman who joined the Somerville Divestment Project when it was doing its thing to my home city in 2004.  By 2005, however, she had abandoned the group, disgusted by the brutal and ruthless politics she saw taking place amongst the leadership (including the organization’s founder importing radicals from across the state into the group to ensure he would win all the votes), and shocked that she could be part of an organization that couldn’t decide if terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians should be considered immoral or not.

Between these two stands Jay Michaelson whose recent Forward article, entitled When the Right is Right About the Left, caused a stir this week.  More sophisticated than the “loose change” making up the rank-and-file of most college Students for Justice in Palestine campaigns, but less of a nut than Finkelstein, Michaelson first made a splash a couple of years back when he published a piece lamenting that Israel’s behavior was making him question the decades of devotion he had supposedly shown the Jewish state his whole life.

Truth be told, these types of “scales were lifted from my eyes/I haven’t left Zionism, Zionism left me” arguments have tended to leave me cold.

No doubt some people are sincerely and accurately describing their personal political journey.  But, more often than not, the people who embrace this storyline simply grew up in a run-of-the-mill Jewish household where support for and pride in Israel was taken for granted (similar to the way Irishmen and Italians identify with the old country without a second thought).

But by turning this unremarkable environment into an “Israel-Right-Or-Wrong” enclave that they escaped from only through their own courage and open mindedness, they get to make their arguments against the Jewish state not just “AsaJew” but “AsaFormerZionist.”

But even if we take Michaelson at his word regarding whatever conflict is going on between his past and current selves, he seems to be missing the actual conflict going on between his progressive and Zionist souls.

Because the boycotters tend to present their arguments entirely in the language of progressive values (to the point of insisting that the defining virtue for progressives is a full embrace of their political project), the notion that liberalism and Zionism are in conflict is often taken as a given.

But far from Israel’s behavior posing difficult choices for someone with progressive values, it is actually certain people’s weak grasp of what those values require that make them vulnerable to the pressures generated not by the Israelis/Jews, but by the war waged against them.

In any normal world, Israel would be held up as an example of how these progressive values can be built into a nation’s makeup.  Whether you’re talking about women’s rights, gay rights, religious freedom, freedom of the press and speech, national healthcare or any of the subjects progressives claim as their moral lodestones, Israel has demonstrated that these freedoms and benefits can be embraced and implemented at a national level, even by a country that has been under siege since birth.

This obviously does not mean that Israel is perfect in each and every one of these regards.  But one does not measure these values by complaining about how far short a country has fallen in trying to create heaven on earth.  Rather, these are relative values which can only have meaning when compared to other real-world societies.

And in this case, the real-world societies that Israel’s detractors insist be given more of a fair shake than they current receive are built around values in direct opposition to everything progressives are supposed to believe.  Look over Palestinian society (in either the West Bank or Gaza) and take your pick: repression of women and gays, religious intolerance and state-sponsored fanaticism, jailed dissidents and journalists, politics based around strong men and clan loyalty, and an economy primarily designed to support corrupt oligarchies.

In his latest piece, Michaelson talks a great deal about BDS as it relates to the gay community he strongly supports.

Gay rights is one of those touchstone points since no other issue better demonstrates the yawning chasm between Israel and its rivals with regard to one of the top-priority items on the agenda of every progressive organization (including religious institutions like the Presbyterian Church).

This is why BDS defenders created the fake phenomena of “pinkwashing,” in order to make the conversation about something else (Israel allegedly exploiting its sexual freedom to cover up its wicked crimes) rather than the contrast between Israel and its neighbors on an issue so vital to progressives.

To his credit, Michelson lashes out against those who throw out the pinkwashing accusation, and makes other damning statements that will no doubt be considered blasphemous by soon-to-be former friends from “the movement.”

But the question arises as to why someone as thoughtful as Michaelson has taken so long to realize what anyone with eyes can see with regard to the true nature of BDS, and even then can’t bring himself to embrace Israel as a flawed country that still represents his values far more than the nation the BDSers would like to take its place.

Next time, I’ll try to answer that question.

Lack of Concrete Victory is Incidental

Some stories that have appeared over the last couple of weeks highlight the fact that a lot more people seem to be chasing fewer and fewer BDS challenges this year.

For example, just last week The Forward published a survey that found only 17 instances of any significant BDS activity since 2005 on college campuses, along with an article raising questions of both BDS proponents and opponents as to why a project with so little impact is being treated so seriously.

Interestingly, both advocates and critics of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts criticized the method the paper used to decide who got onto their list. And the metric the Forward chose: “a boycott or divestment effort that was significant and well-organized enough to draw an active official response from a student government or campus administrative body” does open up some questions.

BDSers, unsurprisingly, would like to receive a “win” credit every time they pass out a flier or leave a BDS-related comment on the web site of a school newspaper. In fact, my favorite line in the piece sums up this phenomenon of BDS champions demanding they be allowed to define the metrics for their own success and failure: “Advocates of BDS…meanwhile, say that the lack of concrete victories is incidental to the movement’s success.”

How nice for them. But anti-divestment activists bring up another criticism that BDS efforts defeated by their pro-active campaigning create non-incidents that, by definition, never reach the Forward’s threshold of significance. For example, just recently students succeeded in preventing a divestment vote from being re-introduced for the umpteenth time at the University of California in San Diego. But does that mean BDSers weren’t trying to win and opponents weren’t trying (successfully) to make them lose?

Part of the reason for this confusion stems from the fact that the Forward takes as the start date for the BDS “movement” BDSer’s preferred date of 2005 which leaves behind the most significant period of BDS success and failure, 2001 (when BDS was selected as the tactic of choice by anti-Israel activists meeting at the Durban I conference) to 2006 (when the Presbyterian Church voted to reverse their previous divestment position – the flagship victory for BDS since it was passed in 2004 – by a margin of 95%-5%).

Once you take into account the entire sweep of BDS “history” over the last decade, it becomes clear that boycott, divestment and sanctions is merely a tactic being deployed by a decades-old anti-Israel community that has tried different tactics at different times. While their efforts seemed to make some headway very early on in this period (at least with regard to garnering headlines), their ultimate failure led the whole divestment project to largely go into remission in 2005-2006 (the years BDSers currently claim as the birthday of their project), only being resurrected in 2009 after the Israel-Hamas conflict erupted in Gaza.

It is in this resurrected “rump” BDS campaign that the Forward is analyzing, one which boycott proponents are trying everything they can (from selecting increasingly marginal targets to fraudulently reporting pretend successes to demanding they be allowed to define their own criteria for victory) to recapture that feeling of momentum they once enjoyed.

But unlike the first half of the BDS decade, more people are onto them now. This includes not just pro-Israel activists ready to pounce or pre-empt a boycott or divestment vote at their school, church or food co-op. It also includes members of those civic institutions unallied with either pro-Israel or anti-Israel forces who simply don’t want to see the Middle East conflict imported into their organization.

So all in all, while the amount of BDS and anti-BDS activity is certainly larger than what the Forward article would indicate, its actual impact is even less than their survey describes.

In fact, beyond giving pro- and anti-Israel activists something specific to rally around, the only significant winner I can think of during this era is Omar Barghouti, the nominal leader of the resurrected BDS “movement,” who gets to leave the Israeli university he’s enrolled in to travel the globe on someone else’s dime explaining why the world should boycott their Israeli colleagues (not him, of course, just the Jewish ones).

Why every college, church, union, food store, and aging rock and roller (not to mention Israelis and Palestinians generally) must pay the price for his fame is beyond me, but then again he has a book contract and I simply have this blog. So what do I know?

Quick Takes

I got something in the Forward today, a response to a particularly wrong-headed “Divestment’s got the wind at it’s back” piece a few weeks back by one of only a handful of writers (thankfully) who fell for the whole TIAA-CREF hoax.

Meanwhile, an interesting development among our friends in the Great White North who have just started a Buycott campaign to counter some of the more egregiuos boycotting activities that have been taking place in Canada over the last couple of years.

Gimmers of sunshine always help on a dark day.

Stopping the BDS Rot

The Forward published a piece recently highlighting the divestment “movement’s” hypocrisy in demanding the world boycott Israeli universities while simultaneously demanding that boycotters who teach or attend these schools continue to enjoy the privileges of a subsidized education or tenure.

Ha’aretz had an equally entertaining piece on the BDS crowd’s willingness to latch onto and wreck the work of others (such as the organizers of the Toronto Film Festival) just to score political points (which they never notice they lose when people flock to Israeli movies or buy out Israeli goods).

I know a familiar tactic to counter BDS is to point out the host of Israeli- or Jewish-created goods and services surrounding the divestnik’s life (Intel processors, cell phones, instant messaging, Wassermann tests) and show what they’d have to give up in order to truly live by their creed. But as I’ve stated before, objective reality has nothing to do with the motivation behind BDS.

If I could definitively prove that their actions would lead directly and inexorably to the death of millions of innocents (even better, millions of Palestinians – whose lives they claim as their moral loadstone), they would not budget one millimeter in their trajectory. For Palestinians, like Israelis, like Americans, like virtually everyone in the world are simply props to their storyline, a story that casts them as the avenging revolutionary: aging, paunchy perhaps, but still on the vanguard of some great and noble battle.

I’ve commented on this type of fantasy politics before, and while I prefer papers like the Forward having fun at the divestor’s expense (vs. falling for and disseminating their hoaxes), they miss a couple of more troubling points.

First off, fantasy politics is not something to be shrugged off because of the inconsistencies it invariable generates. Rather, people being able to commit deeds ranging from inconsiderate to pure evil while convincing themselves of their unquestionable virtue is the bane of our civilization, and the driver behind history’s darkest moments. The worst acts of brutality ever committed were not performed by people who saw themselves as wicked or sinful. Rather, they were committed by people who knew in their heart of hearts that all goodness resided in them (which made stamping out what they considered “evil” to be a moral imperative, no matter what the cost). Consider that the next time you watch a BDSer turn their head with indifference to the suffering of anyone in the world that does not serve their political purposes.

On a more practical matter, there is an increasing tendency to let the marginalization of BDS justify any attack on Israel that does not include a boycott or divestment component. In the month of Goldstone, we’ve already seen sentiments along the line of “of course Israel is guilty of x, y and z…” (x, y and z being a series of increasingly unverified and unfounded accusations of criminality and brutality), “…but we should not boycott them (at least for now).”

While I’m happy to see that many Israeli bashers recognize that something exists (in this case boycott) that are still beyond the pale, I would prefer that they (as well as the general public) recognize that divestment is not the bastard cousin of the “Israel is guilty! What was the charge?” crowd, but simply the purest expression of a sentiment they have let loose in the world.

The language of human rights and international law, the alleged defenders of those principles like the UN and Amnesty International, well-meaning civic institutions such as the Mainline Protestant Churches or British trade union movement have all been corrupted, their principles sacrificed in order to create a world where Israel will be perpetually in the dock. Even if none of this ends up in real (vs. fraudulent) boycott, divestment or sanctions (at least today), BDS should provide a warning smell of the rot spreading through the very institutions meant to protect those who need protection the most.