Berkeley BDS: De-Klein and Fall

I was going to give the Berkeley divestment issue a rest for a little while, but the arrival of Naomi Klein into the Berkeley story warrants a quick response.

I’ve written on Klein’s contribution to the BDS debate in the past, so I won’t repeat my question about why Klein – allegedly the intellectual hyperpower of anti-globalization and now the boycott, divestment and sanctions “movements” – cannot provide a perspective beyond what you might find at any garden-variety anti-Israel blog.

That said, her letter is a reasonable articulation of most of the BDSers talking points which, while not deserving a point-by-point “Fisking,” does require a rejoinder to her call for Berkeley’s student leaders to fight against “intense pressure to reverse your historic and democratic decision to divest…”.

As I’ve pointed out, pressure to get Student Senators to vote one way or another on the veto override are clearly coming from both sides of this debate. Now one can try to determine the volume and nature of “pressure” coming from each side (as well as explain when a Berkeley student or third party expressing his or her opinion on the matter crosses from free speech to applying “intense pressure”). But given that she only seems to be discussing “pressure” when it comes from those who want to see Berkeley reject divestment, we seem to be in familiar Klein/BDS territory whereby those that agree with the divestment party line are simply exercising their democratic rights, while those who disagree are conspiring to “pressure” a decision (just as they are frequently accused of “muzzling” debate on the Middle East by contributing to it).

And speaking of democracy, from what I can tell the ASUC (a democratically elected body) passed the divestment resolution (which is their constitutional right), and that resolution was nixed by the Student President (another democratically elected office) who exercised his constitutional right to veto the bill. Now if a veto override does not go her way it will be interesting to see if Klein is ready to accept that particular democratic decision or whether, like most divestment advocates, she only considers votes that her sides win to be true examples of democracy.

Of course, Klein sidesteps the issue I’ve been discussing here regarding whom student leaders are representing when they take votes that are clearly outside the mandates upon which they were elected. I have yet to hear from anyone that divestment represents anything other than a minority opinion on campus (not a majority, not a consensus), so unless Klein feels that those in power owe nothing to those they represent (a strange position, given her other political stances), I would think the fact that these votes are being taken without any regard to whether or not they represent campus opinion would at least be worth mentioning.

But that assumes Klein, like other divestment advocates, actually care about Berkeley beyond the symbolic value they would love the university to provide their noisy but flailing BDS project. While her letter is steeped in flattery for those that originally voted to pass divestment, it fails to mention that BDS has been rejected by every campus in America for the ten year’s it’s been on the agenda (a start date of 2001, not the 2005 one that divestment advocates prefer since it helps mask the decade-long extent of their defeats at schools, cities, churches and other organizations).

Even for a political celebrity like Naomi Klein, it’s hard to throw up enough verbal fog to obscure a decade spent being rejected by every progressive institution in the country by overwhelming margins. And thus the hope of the divesetniks that by bringing in their “big guns” (i.e., Klein) they can make Berkeley’s student government swoon and do their bidding.

Time shall tell if they made a good bet.

Berkeley Divestment – Everyone Loves a Circus!

Word on the streets is that an override vote on the UC Berkeley divestment veto may not take place tonight. If that’s the case, I may move onto other topics between now and whenever that vote happens. But not before alerting the friends I’ve been making at Berkeley about the fun they can expect when “The Circus” comes town!

“The Circus” is what shows up whenever a civic institution (like a university, city, or church) wittingly or unwittingly flirts with a divest-from-Israel campaign. It consists of students, citizens, or church members who once smiled at each other on the streets waving bloody shirts and gruesome photographs at one another. It includes people with honest political differences branded as “enemies of human rights,” or murderers with “blood on their hands.” Seminars or “teach ins” designed to demonize one side of the conflict and bury all information that does not support a black-and-white storyline of villains and victims replace thoughtful learning under the circus tent. As does the incessant meddling in the affairs of an institution by partisans worldwide, trying to push the organization one way or another.

While I and other anti-divestment activists outside of the university could reasonably be criticized as being some of those “incessant meddlers,” I should note that we are not advocating for Berkeley to take an official stand that brands our political rivals as enemies of human rights and freedom. While some of us may act thoughtlessly during the course of this debate (and apologies right now for any hurt my writing to date has caused anyone), no one I know of who has organized against Berkeley’s divestment policy has ruthlessly pushed the school into officially condemning and threatening to punish the massive human rights abuses visited on Israeli and Arab alike by Israel’s Middle East neighbors.

When The Circus came to my former home of Somerville Massachusetts years ago, our normally sleepy Alderman’s chambers became a noisy, hysterical big top, with partisans flinging accusations of racism and anti-Semitism, photos of ravaged bodies pushed under people’s noses, and – when divestment was finally defeated – the site of a near riot. While heat was the goal of divestment advocates during the miserable months divestment wreaked havoc on the city, The Circus managed to shed enough light onto the city’s leaders, helping them understand that this was not an issue that belonged on their agenda.

Now a college campus is different than City Hall, at least with regard to the range of issues (local, national and international) that are routinely discussed and debated within the institution. Yet once talk turns into democratic action within the hall of an elected body (even allowing for some level of informality within student government), it’s reasonable to expect a certain level of decorum and gentility to accompany such a debate.

The Circus, however, does not allow good manners or sincere differences of opinion to interfere in its proceedings. For as one BDS activist put it years ago (while trying to ram an anti-Israel proposal through the leadership of Massachusetts Green Party behind the backs of party members): “The only reason one can have for not supporting the right of return for Palestinians is racism.”

Now there is the basis for a forthright airing of competing, but legitimate views!

A theme in everything I have written is how much divestment asks of institutions, and how little it gives in return. For divestment advocates, UC Berkeley like the Presbyterian Church, the city of Somerville, and other groups are not civic institutions made up of thousands of individuals, all facing their own unique challenges. No, for those pushing hardest to make BDS the official policy of Berkeley’s student government, UC Berkeley is simply a prop, an organization with a 150-year-old reputation that can be leveraged to help divestment activists punch enormously above their actual weight.

Student Senators need only look around to hear about issue after issue (tuition increases, service cuts, etc.) that can have enormous, long-term impact on themselves and their constituents. Divestment, on the other hands, is on the school agenda not by necessity, but by choice. As you watch The Circus put up its tents and park itself for the weeks and months it might take to wring divestment fully out of Berkeley’s system, it might be worth asking why someone else’s propaganda campaign must be put at the top of everyone’s agenda.

Berkeley Divestment: Comments

Rumor has it that student Senators at Berkeley are receiving e-mails from around the world regarding how they should vote on the divestment veto override at a rate of 50 an hour. Now only they are privy to the contents of these suggestions, but if this debate is playing out similarly to the one I participated in years ago in Somerville, MA, it must be getting harder and harder to hold the position that the divestment bill was a simple human rights measure that takes no sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In Somerville, it was letters from Bahrain congratulating the Somerville Aldermen for “standing up to the Jews” that gave these leaders the hint that they may have unleashed something nasty by voting for a divestment bill crafted for them by the Somerville Divestment Project (the equivalent of the Berkeley Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP, who drafted the Berkeley divestment bill) without fully understanding the implications of their activity. (Sound familiar?)

Now Berkeley is certainly different from Somerville, and it could be that – as SJP activists have been touting –the 20 elected student Senators represent the will of the students on campus, while the equally elected student-body President who vetoed the bill does not. But that presumes either one of two things:

* The student Senators specifically campaigned on divestment and were elected based on their stance on this issue; or

* By some other measure, divestment from Israel can clearly be seen as representing a consensus of campus opinion, if not an unquestionable majority

Presuming the first option is not the case (a safe assumption, given that no one has yet brought up a specific electoral mandate for divestment since this debate began), then the only way to claim the student Senators are representing their constituents on this matter is if they can demonstrate overall agreement to divest from Israel among the student body. This is not an impossible hurdle to overcome. After all, South African divestment debates in the 1980s (which divestment advocates claim they are heirs to) were built on such a consensus.

We do have a way of testing this level of consensus, by looking at how the matter of the vote for and veto against the divestment bill is playing out on campus. Berkeley’s Daily Californian newspaper (usually referred to as “The Daily Cal”) has published several news articles and editorials on the topic, each of which has attracted ten to a hundred times the usual number of comments on their online edition.

Unlike a professionally designed and run poll, Internet comments (especially on Web sites that do not limit input to only local students) hardly represents a scientific measure of campus opinion. But with numbers this high, we can take a stab at determining whether or not this issue has reached a level of agreement high enough to approximate a civil debate or at least demonstrate a desire to reach an understanding between supporters and critics of the divestment measure and veto.

So what do we find if we peel through the comments sections? Well there are lots of references to babies, often within phrases such as “baby killers.” And photos of bleeding corpses (victims of last year’s Gaza conflict or Palestinian terrorism) seem to dot the comments pages. Accusations of racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and bad faith abound, as do talking points that can be lifted right from the speeches that accompanied debate on this resolution last week.

If I were to pick a word or phrase that encapsulates this online debate it would not be “consensus-building” but “polarizing.” In other words, this debate has hardened everyone’s positions, taking an issue over which there is no campus consensus and turning disagreeing parties into armed camps.

So who wins on an issue that does nothing for Berkeley other than has to help exacerbate existing splits on campus (which, like the Middle East itself falls along political, religious and ethnic lines)? Well the Students for Justice in Palestine clearly won (albeit temporarily) once the Senate vote was taken. Within minutes, they and their international allies quickly capitalized on the vote, sending out press releases claiming that Berkeley (the university, not just 16 student Senators) was now squarely in the divestment camp and explaining that other campuses should follow suit and condemn Israel as an Apartheid state (is that what Senators voted on, by the way?).

But it’s not entirely clear to me why SJP’s needs must take precedent over the other 35,000+ student on campus, simply because their one skill is the ability to morally blackmail people who (like the student Senators and I would guess nearly all students on campus) actually possess the concern for human rights that SJP simply feigns for their own political gain.

Berkeley Divestment and “Loose Change”

Loose Change. That’s the term fringe political movements use to describe people who join their organizations or show up to their events, not because such people believe in what the group stands for, but because such people want to be doing something, anything, to demonstrate they care about an issue.

For example, in the last decade several far-right European political parties found success among voters who didn’t care for the right’s political and economic policies, but who wanted to “make a statement” on Europe’s challenging immigration issues. And in the US during that same period, many people who came out to protest the war in Iraq found themselves at rallies and marches where the messages from the podium or on banners and signs seemed to go far beyond the issue that brought them into the streets. To the uncomfortable European voter or the bewildered American marcher, he or she was trying to take a stand about issues they found important. But to the organizations that claimed those voices as their own, these well-intentioned people were just so much loose change.

To see the relevance of this “loose change” in the current Berkeley divestment debate, think about the outcomes (bad or good) that could come about if such a resolution ultimately wins the day.

Practically speaking, the vote will have little to no economic impact. The Berkeley administration, like the administration of hundreds of college campuses that have had divestment pressed on them over the last decade, has shown no interest in politicizing their investment strategies, especially based on the questionable characterization of the Middle East conflict so perfectly embodied in the Berkeley resolution.

But if the practical repercussions of the resolution are small, the symbolic impact is more significant. For, despite the fact that the issue was sold to Berkeley’s leaders as a uncomplicated, general human-rights issue that takes no specific stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict, last week’s vote is today being communicated around the world as the university as a whole standing four-square behind the divestment movement’s real message: that Israel is a racist, apartheid state alone in the world deserving of punishment. And one need only look at how the controversy is playing out on campus to see that, far from helping students better understand these complex issues, divestment is helping to rub political, religious and ethnic wounds raw.

Given the resolution’s limited practical potential and significant downsides, we are left searching for where a successful resolution would do anyone any good. And thus we are left with twenty student Senators, many sincerely concerned about problems in the Middle East, and desiring to do something, anything, to make a statement. Even if they have no electoral mandate to make statements, much less take action on international issues, a “Yes” vote would give them the feeling that they are doing something virtuous, even though the actual effects will be all bad for Berkeley and for the Middle East. It would turn leaders trusted to do what’s right for the students they represent into a handful of loose change in the pocket of the worldwide boycott Israel movement

There are times, most times, when we want our leaders to lead, to think about and act on issues on which the rest of us have entrusted them. There are also times when we want our leaders to follow, or at least listen to the people who have elected them more than the few month’s preceding an election cycle.

Acting like loose change, however, does not represent either leading or following. It consists of being manipulated into taking harmful action in order to make oneself feel good. Another term for this would be “sucker” and while it would make me sad to see leaders at Berkeley or anywhere else waste their own money or reputation taking a sucker’s bet, it’s far worse to think that they are considering taking that bet with the reputation of the entire university, an asset they are not empowered to sell.


Apologies for anyone who finds the next few days looking like a clip-show of previous writings, but the Berkeley story is playing out with such freakish familiarity that I thought I’d repurpose some things I’ve written during previous divestment conflicts for this site.

It’s hard not to notice that despite ongoing troubles in the Middle East, leaders and members of 99.99% of 4200+ colleges and universities in the United States do not seem to be at each other’s throats about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nor are their leaders, representatives and students being bombarded daily with letters, e-mails, tweets, links and heaven-knows-what-else, trying to help “educate” recipients so that they can fall officially on one side of that conflict or the other.

The difference between UC Berkeley and virtually every other educational institution in the country is that Berkeley has chosen to turn a conflict that has challenged and perplexed wise and committed men and women for generations into official student government business.

No doubt, students who have succeeded in getting into one of the world’s greatest universities possess remarkable intelligence and ability. But even with these gifts, how many Student Senators truly feel in their heart of hearts (and brain of brains) that they now possess the understanding and wisdom needed to speak with understanding on this issue, much less act on it in an official capacity?

Do Berkeley Student Senators know so much more than student government leaders at over four-thousand colleges and universities (from the Ivy League to the Community College) who have not touched this issue or who have rejected BDS when divestment was similarly asked of them? Are Berkeley’s student leaders wiser than the thousands of college presidents and representatives who have chosen to not make the Middle East the focal point of student government policy or campus debate? Or have leaders outside of Berkeley shown wisdom by avoiding matters they may be unprepared to handle, issues that are guaranteed to cause division and pain?

While those pushing hardest for Berkeley to join the divestment chorus take great pains to dress their anti-Israel petition in the acceptable clothes of human rights and social responsibility, one need only read their communication that have gone out over the last week to discover the courser language that will only accelerate if the ASUC decides to overturn last week’s veto. For make no mistake, the goal of divestment advocates (like the Students for Justice in Palestine, or SJP, organization that seem to think they already have the Student Senate “in the bag”) is to brand Israel a racist, apartheid state, alone in the world in deserving economic punishment. If divestiture passes, SJP and its allies will be gone, transmitting a message they have succeeded in stuffing into the mouth of every Berkeley student to the world, while everyone else is left behind to deal with the wreckage.

There are times when courage is defined as standing up against overwhelming pressure to do what’s right. But in this case, courage could more accurately be defined as not doing what you suspect is wrong, just because someone else is telling you that it is your only moral choice.

BDS: Is Berkeley “in the bag”?

Apologies if I gave the impression that the Berkeley divestment story was over. According to some West Coast friends, the student government constitution still provides a mechanism whereby a two-thirds vote of the Student Senate (or 14 votes) can override yesterday’s veto. And as one West Coast Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) supporter put it when commenting on the Daily Californian story on the veto: “It’s all a formality. We have the ASUC [the Berkeley Student Senate] in the bag.”

Now it remains to be seen whether the Senate is in truly “in the bag” of the local branch of SJP just because more than the 14 Senators needed to override the veto voted for the original resolution.

After all, student senators, like many Berkeley students, have strong feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict, human rights and many other domestic and international issues. But student government representatives also have a responsibility to represent their constituents and the student body as a whole.

And when the subjects on which they vote do not reflect top campus priorities or the issues on which they campaigned (which we can assume divestment from Israel did not), it’s fair to ask them: (1) in whose name they speak; (2) whether a divestment vote is relevant and a moral imperative for student government (just because SJP says it is); and (3) what will be the consequences of such a vote on the campus as a whole.

It’s clear what SJP gets out of the original ASUC vote and potential override. Their job is to take their political message (that Israel is an Apartheid state alone in the world at deserving economic punishment) and stuff it into the mouth of an organization more well known and respected that SJP itself. And the University of California at Berkeley, a 150-year-old institution ranked #1 in the world in almost every academic discipline, certainly falls into the “better known than SJP” category (as would almost every other organization in the world).

But now that student senators have gotten a whiff of what happens once they accede to SJP demands, now that divestment activists have sent out countless press releases and news stories stating that the ASUC vote last week means UC Berkeley as a whole now stands squarely on their side in the Arab-Israeli conflict, now that students have made it clear that the vote represents not consensus but bitter division on campus, it’s worth asking student leaders if dragging the Middle East conflict into the center of student politics is in the interest of those they represent.

The Daily Californian story mentioned above was closing in on 300 angry comments (complete with competing photos of bloody babies) at the time of this writing, and I suspect this is just a small percentage of the number of aggressive e-mails and other messages Berkeley student leaders have been getting in the last week urging them to vote this way or that. While each side will argue that they represent organic campus opinion (even if their messages come from a retirement home in Florida or a mosque in Oman), I think it’s safe to say that while divestment may represent the consensus of SJP and while many student leaders may agree with sentiments in the original resolution, the issue is NOT representative of anything other than an ugly disagreement among the student body as a whole.

I could certainly make a case against divestment based on history, fairness or my personal political opinions. But the best argument to direct at the student leaders at Berkeley is whether this vote represents leadership (either political or moral), or simple political posturing urged on by an organization (SJP) that only sees Berkeley as a means to their ends, people who will be long gone once the damage to the campus has been done, leaving their once-ASUC allies alone to deal with the wreckage caused by this divestment fight.

That wreckage will include more bitterness and division on campus, an opening of ethnic and religious conflict (at a time when Berkeley is already dealing with race-related controversy), and a student body and administration wondering whether student government can and should be taken seriously on any issue whatsoever (at a time of budget cuts when student voices are needed more than ever).

As I noted before, it’s clear what SJP gains if they can get the Berkeley student government chooses to hand the campus’ reputation over to them. The question remains, what does Berkeley get out of the deal that represents anything other than a loss?

BDS at Berkeley: Reversal of Fortune

Well Berkeley’s divestment “policy” barely lasted a week before it was undone via veto by student government President Will Smelko last night. No doubt a number of Berkeleyans are shaking their heads as these events unfold on their campus. But as someone who has followed divestment activities for years, I can attest that the Berkeley story is playing out along lines so familiar I can practically set my watch to them. To whit:

1. A divestment resolution is brought before a representative body of a large respected institution (such as the Berkeley Student Senate, the Aldermen of the City of Somerville, or the professional leadership of the Presbyterian Church) by a group of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists.

2. Because most members (and leaders) of the BDS group come from outside the community being asked to divest, local activists are given a high profile to make the divestment action seem as though it is welling up from the community itself.

3. Discussions of divestment are carried out behind closed doors or are rushed in hope that a divestment vote can be taken before the wider community becomes aware of what is being voted on in their name.

4. At some point, word gets out regarding what is happening and a controversy, often leading to a last-minute public hearing, ensues.

5. At the hearing, BDS activists do what they do best: zeroing in on a few, emotionally charged issues (the suffering of Palestinian Arabs, complete with bloody photographs), the flushing of alternative facts and history down the memory hole, and demands that support for BDS is the only democratic and moral choice for the institution considering divestment.

6. Hastily organized opponents of the measure do their best to publically respond, although their messages tend to be all over the map (refutation of the other side’s facts, history lessons, passionate condemnations of the divestment resolution as unfair, etc.)

7. The body considering divestment either votes it down immediately (in which case, skip to step 12) or passes it.

8. If passed, word immediately goes out on a hundred Web sites, 200 blogs and 500 Facebook pages that the institution is now in full agreement with the real message of divestment advocates: that Israel is an Apartheid state alone in the world deserving economic punishment.

9. People in the community wake up one morning to discover that a tiny minority has handed the reputation of the institution over to a single-issue, partisan group that is now leveraging their name for their own narrow political ends.

10. Outrage ensues, both from inside the community (which was never consulted before their representatives signed the institution up to join the BDS bandwagon) and externally.

11. Responding to the outrage, and appalled at how the decision is being portrayed publically (despite assurances by BDS advocates that a divestment vote was a simple, uncontroversial human rights matter), the institution finds a way to vote down or otherwide undo the hasty, controversial decision.

12. The BDSers howl at their reversal of fortune, throwing a public tantrum if divestment is voted down at a public hearing, and impotently threatening electoral revenge against those who decided the reputation of the organization should not be handed over to divestment crew, just because they demand it.

13. Because of divestment’s short-lived success, the institution is falsely listed as a divestment supporter for months or years to come in hope that other organizations will follow this now-pretend example.

14. Despite their threats, the BDSers move on, leaving the local leaders alone to deal with the bitterness and wreckage this entire incident has caused.

15. Wash, rinse, repeat at the next institution.

I’ll have a bit more to say about matters specific to the Berkeley story in the next day or so. But suffice to say, Berkeley has joined a long line of organizations which has flirted BDS only to discover it is not so much a political movement as an opportunistic virus, delivered by an organization that may still be hoping that Berkeley does not have antibodies strong enough to resist it.

The Bigger Picture

I’m attending my first AIPAC Policy Conference this week and, seeing the organization in action, I can understand why it’s the subject of so much demonology by Israel’s enemies. While I’ll have more to say about the experience in the coming days, suffice to say that this is one American Jewish organization that has its SH*T together. While many of us struggle to find our mission or our audience, AIPAC combines the professionalism, discipline and long-term thinking that one rarely sees in any institution public or private.

Switching back to the subject of demonology, I was pretty disappointed at the number of protestors who turned out to this event. Even the AIPAC New England dinner (which I’ve attended twice) seems to bring out bigger numbers of people who at least have a semblance of a coherent message. But with 7500 AIPAC supporters gathering in DC, the best the Israel haters could manage was a contingent of black hats from the Norman Klitorus sect, a gaggle of people waving anti-Israel and anti-Obama signs with the delightful message of “God Hates Fags,” and a small group who, for some reason, decided to dress up as pieces of Swiss cheese.

Word has it that a few Code Pinkers paid the $500 registration fee to get into the final dinner so that they could heckle Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu before realizing that using this same tactic for a second year in a row meant the dreaded Zionists were ready for them (drowning out their shouts in a burst of applause before ejecting them from the room). In fact, those of us in the cheap seats only found out the “edgy” “transgressive” Pinkians did their thing when we were walking out of the dinner to fetch dessert. Thus is the fate of people whose entire political movement consists of posting pictures of themselves acting naughty on their own Facebook pages.

I was curious as to whether the subject of BDS would be featured at the event and, in typical AIPAC fashion, this subject was fit into a broader, well thought-out context that falls under the heading of “Delegitimizing of Israel.” While BDS was an example of this type of de-legitimization, speakers correctly pointed out that the de-legit program originates with the Arab states working through their domination of organizations like the UN to create ugly bits of nastiness like the Goldstone Report which they can then use to whitewash their propaganda program.

Within this framework, BDS is just a hanger on, a barnacle clinging to a bigger De-legitimization ship created and manned by some of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest states. No doubt this is not the reality the BDSers (who see themselves as brave, righteous lonely souls battling against powerful enemies) want themselves or others to comprehend, but it is a useful way to understand what we’re really dealing with when confronted by those advocating for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Now it would be fair to point out that if BDS is simply a parasite gaining sustenance from the actions of the wealthy and powerful, then this site is simply attaching itself for a ride on that parasite, having fun at the expense of a “movement” that is really just a third-removed threat from the real action. To which I would say “guilty as charged!” But in a world where groups like AIPAC (with support from the 7500 people in that room last night) are dealing with big stuff (like securing the US-Israel relationship and trying to stop Iran from going nuclear), it’s nice that BDS provides people like me with a hobby.

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.

Giving BDS the Fingers

A recent commenter left a note which struggled with a central question many of us deal with in our activist lives, namely: how do we contend with a movement like BDS which is perfectly comfortable bending the truth and shredding the rules of propriety to get its way?

Should we become like them and try to exploit the civic and religious organizations to which we belong, dragging them into the Middle East conflict for our benefit, regardless of the pain that might cause other people? Should we infiltrate and trash other people’s cultural events, assuming that our political projects trump every other imaginable human need? Should we throw pies at anti-Israel speakers or assault them verbally (or even violently) and then hide behind rhetoric that says destroying other people’s ability to be heard is a matter of our free speech rights?

The thing is, every Israel supporter I’ve ever dealt with just does not have it in him or her to behave in the same selfish, irresponsible and dishonest way that Israel’s attackers often do. And I don’t think this is a bad thing. Yes, it means that we frequently have to respond to the other side’s nonsense rather than take the initiative ourselves. But if you look at the state of Israel (free, successful, united on the big things) vs. it’s opponents (unfree, failing in all possible measures, murderously divided), you begin to see that refusing to play by the rules of civic society comes at a very high cost.

Which is not to say that we can’t take the initiative ourselves and have fun doing it, especially when confronted by the same old dreary assaults that Israel’s demonizers trot out year after year after year, such as the shrill but discredited BDS movement and the long-in-the-tooth Israel Apartheid Week (yawn).

Take the latter for example (please!). For, as it turns out, those Apartheid Week clowns have scheduled their campaign right smack-dab at the beginning of Buycott Israel Month!

Buycott Month is actually a little project cooked up by some local activists working together with the hugely successful Buycott Israel program in Canada. As you can see from the Success Stories section of the Buycott Month site, there’s not been a single instance of boycott directed at Israeli products that didn’t end up turning into a massive sellout of Israeli goods and an equally massive humiliation for the forces of BDS.

With Buycott Month, we decided to ratchet the fun level up another notch, asking people to send us their own stories of buying and enjoying Israeli products, breaking a boycott, making an investment or taking part in a counter-protest of Apartheid or BDS activity during the month of March. And tying these tales together will be the “Finger-B,” (shown above) a gesture you can make to let the world know that you’re not just enjoying what Israel has to offer, but giving BDS “The Fingers” in the process.

The site provides an easy way to send in your pictures and stories, and it would be great if we can fill it up with 20-30 or more tales during the month of March.

So stop by, act up, spread the word, tell us your story and – most of all – remember, always remember that we’re not only right compared to the endless wrongs of BDS, but that we also know how to do our activists activities with panache.

Film Boycott Update

For this blog’s 100th post, I wanted to provide updates on the James Cameron-Israeli film boycott flap. The latest news come from The King of the World himself who basically tells the boycotters in no uncertain terms to fuck off (I’m paraphrasing).

Check out the latest here and here.

Oh and I just noticed that his colleagues at York University are none-too pleased with the originator of this hoax and have overwhelmingly voted to take part in the Israeli film program their colleague was calling on the film world to boycott.

As with all attempts at cultural boycott directed at Israel, every action by BDS activists creates an overwhelming and opposite reaction.