Reaction

Of all the accusations made against the BDS project on this site (that they represent a militant propaganda campaign masquerading as a “peace movement,” that they manipulate and exploit civic organizations for their own gain with no regard to whom they hurt, etc.), the one that stands out as the most easily measurable is simply that BDS is a loser.

After all, we are now entering the 11th year of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project and, despite tireless campaigns on campuses across the country, the number of schools that have divested from Israel stands where it did a decade ago: at zero. Once supportive churches flee from their program, municipalities kick them down the stairs, and even tiny victories (like the one coerced from a single food co-op) simply immunize similar organizations from being manipulated into the boycott fold.

Keep in mind that all of this has happened in a decade where not only has Israel’s economy (the target of boycott and divestment campaigns) doubled in size, but other divestment campaigns (such as ones targeting Iran and Sudan) have both gotten off the ground and won impressive victories (real ones, not the pretend ones fraudulently lauded by the campaign to similarly divest from Israel). So by any objective standard, the equation of “BDS = Loser” is hard to refute.

Which is why BDSers regularly retreat to their own definitions of “victory,” in which everything they do (including losing) is re-defined as a win. “We may have lost the vote, but we started the conversation,” is a frequent formulation heard at the end of the umpteenth BDS rout, even if this “conversation” tends to include the boycotters simply carrying on their usual talk with each other (regarding Israeli crimes and unvarnished sin) while the rest of us carry on a different conversation about what cynical jerks the BDSers are, coupled with joy at seeing them get the boot again and again.

There is one argument they make, however, that carries a bit more weight regarding the “movement’s” effectiveness: that the reaction of the Jewish community to their efforts proves that BDS is having an impact.

It cannot be denied, after all, that many Jewish institutions (such as JCPA, AJC and even the Israeli government) have pushed the campaign against the “de-legitimization” of Israel (of which BDS is a part) to the top of the community agenda. Major reports are published on the subject. National events take place to discuss it. Resolutions are passed condemning it. There is even a multi-million dollar effort to create an organization to fight it. So how can I claim that a project that gets so much attention is a loser?

This is actually quite a strong argument, and given that this BDS backlash involves numerous individuals and organizations making political decisions, one that cannot be answered definitively. However, as someone who has put a fair amount of effort into participating in (and hopefully cultivating) this backlash over the years, I can offer a few alternative theories as to why so much effort is being made to defeat a campaign that is already losing.

First. historical: When BDS first came on the scene in the early 2000s, it took most of us (individuals and institutions alike) by complete surprise. So a certain amount of over-reaction since divestment’s attempted resurrection in 2009 might simply be the case of people not wanting to get caught flatfooted again.

Second, emotional: Campaigns which target Jews for economic punishment have a resonance that go back a long time and have never led to anything other than disaster. And despite efforts to claim BDS is only targeting Israel (not Jews) or “the Occupation” (not Israel), at the end of the day if an academic boycott ever got passed anywhere (to cite one example), it would not be all Israel students and professors that would be impacted, just the Jewish ones.

Third, institutional: Larger organizations (particularly well-established ones) tend to value internal cohesion and perceptions of strength. And thus they try to avoid issues that could divide their constituencies or battles they stand a chance of losing. Which is why embracing the fight against BDS is a winner for these groups, given that the “movement” is so universally loathed that the chance of splitting the community over it is small. And the fact that BDS has proven such a loser means that participating in the fight against it will likely place you on the winning side (a preferable home for both individuals and institutions).

Finally, strategic: As noted above, the resources the Jewish world is marshalling are targeted at the broader issue of “de-legitimization,” of which BDS is simply one aspect. And the bulk of this de-legitimization effort doesn’t come from people trying to bully Israeli cosmetics off of store shelves, but from wealthy and powerful governments manipulating international institutions (such as the UN) to declare any Israeli action (if not the country itself) as criminal. It comes in the form of efforts to exclude Israelis (and only Israelis) from global political, economic, and academic bodies, or to leverage ambiguity in national or international law to harass Israelis at home or abroad (otherwise known as “lawfare”).

Within this broader de-legitimization campaign, BDS is actually the weakest link (as demonstrated by its almost universal failure). So by wrapping the hugely unpopular Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions project around the neck of the entire effort to brand Israel an illegitimate state, the fight against BDS offers a way to de-legitimize the entire de-legitimization effort.

Red Lines

I’m studying with some of the world’s foremost experts on the subject of subliminal messaging to convince the world to download the Divest This Guide and pass it on to those who need it (and maybe kick in a few bucks to get it printed for good measure).

But time does not stand still as I hock my wares, so let’s spend this week catching up on a few BDS stories that have come up as the number of New England daylight hours dwindles to single digits.

First off is this interesting piece written by the head of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) in Boston. For purposes of context, New England’s CJP and the associated Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) are the centerpieces of Jewish communal life in the region. Yes, Boston also contains some of the country’s most successful entrepreneurial Jewish groups (such as CAMERA and David Project), and yes other Jewish “alphabet soup” institutions (ADL, AJC, AIPAC – and that’s just some of the A’s) are also well represented here. But if there is an “official” line regarding what’s in and what’s out in terms of political organizations and stands, this line tends to get drawn by CJP.

Now this role is not without controversy. For these major coalition-based organizations have grown in size and influence by creating the largest tent possible, welcoming Jewish organizations and issues with which many already under the tent disagree. In general, peace is kept between Left and Right, between individuals and organizations with differing opinions on domestic and international issues, by avoiding the drawing of red lines, steering clear of absolutes that say who is “in” and who is “out” regarding the consensus of the community.

In fact, the only time I can recall such a red line being drawn is now with regard to the subject of BDS. I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of the mainstreaming of fight against BDS previously in a discussion of a resolution passed by the JCPA (the umbrella organization of Jewish Community Relations Councils around the country). Given that the state-of-the-nation vis-à-vis BDS is no different this year than last in terms of actual boycott or divestment success stories (i.e., unlike 2004-2006, BDS still has no institutional wins to speak of), it’s worth speculating why the fight against BDS seems to be going mainstream right now.

Now the BDSers themselves would no doubt tell you that it is because their “movement” has gained such unstoppable momentum that the Jews (I mean the Zionists) are massing against them in a panic. Now far be it for me to dis anyone else’s “narrative,” but such bloviating triumphalism would be easier to take seriously if I didn’t hear it after every BDS story hits the airwaves (even to announce their umpteenth defeat).

Which leaves us with a few other potential explanations, including:

* The notion of boycotts resonates historically with such force within the Jewish community that it has created a visceral reaction to fight back, regardless of how immediate the danger

* Having been caught by surprise when the BDS project swept through between 2001-2006, Jewish activists and activist organizations are committed to not being caught unprepared again

* BDS is part of a broader effort to challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state, both its right to defend itself and its right to the same respect enjoyed by every other nation in the world. This “de-legitimization” effort is global (spearheaded by powerful states with the numbers and willingness to deny Israel any place of respect among world bodies, for example). As such, the resources being put to the fight against BDS are really being marshaled against this broader de-legitimization phenomenon.

This last point brings up an interesting connection with a theme discussed at length in the Divest This Guide (hint hint): that BDS is a bit of a loser. Given its inability to win any battles and the raft of Israel supporters it creates in its wake, perhaps an attack on BDS is hitting the whole de-legitimization project at its weakest point, creating a dynamic whereby the inherent weakness (and loathsomeness) of BDS gets reflected on the de-legitimization “movement” as a whole.

Something worth considering. Coming up next: Presbyterians playing badly

Now They’ve Done It: JCPA/JCRC vs. BDS

Some interesting news out of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) last week. By a unanimous vote, the organization decided to confront the issue of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and urged the constituency of the organization (which includes Jewish Community Relations Councils across the country) to make thoughtful but forceful confrontation with the issue a top priority.

As I had a small role in the drafting of this resolution, I thought it might be valuable to let you, my reader, know something about its significance. JCRCs form the backbone of Jewish community life in many parts of the country, especially with regard to interaction between Jewish groups and the wider world. Outreach to local government officials, minority groups and religious organizations frequently flows through a local JCRC.

In general, JCPA/JCRCs tend to compartmentalize between domestic and foreign-policy positions, focusing on what they refer to as “social justice” issues (such as healthcare and civil rights) domestically while dividing their international activity between Israel-related matters (most recently how to deal with a nuclearizing Iran) and the needs of Jewish communities in the Diaspora (JCRC’s have played a particularly important role in revitalizing Jewish towns in the former Soviet bloc, for example).

These positions are not without their controversy (debate over gay marriage, for example, has divided more than one JCRC). But putting those debates aside, an important aspect of last week’s vote is that it marks an important fusion of often-disconnected domestic and foreign-affairs agendas. Simply put, the JCPA vote recognizes in no uncertain terms that BDS – the propaganda campaign to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the American public as well as internationally – is a domestic threat to American Jews and a threat to the State of Israel that must be confronted and defeated.

As people who have been following this blog know, BDS has always been more about noise than actual success. In fact, during the last decade when BDS has been the strategy of choice among Israel’s opponents, support for the Jewish state as well as economic success of that Jewish state have both skyrocketed, attesting to the enduring failure of boycott and divestment as an actual economic threat.

But the wider Jewish community now recognizes that as a propaganda threat, BDS must be challenged head on. While it’s easy to mock and ridicule a “movement” that has accomplished so little after so much effort, we should also not stop confronting it (a confrontation that will include continued ridicule of its pretenses and fiascos) until the boycott/divestment does what Israel haters always do once a decade: realize their latest campaign has been a flop, slink away to lick their wounds before coming up with another nasty strategy to inflict on the public for another decade.

What does this mean for American Jews? Well, at the very least it means that the fight against BDS is now on the radar and part of the mainstream Jewish agenda (always a good thing, especially after divestment took people largely by surprise 7-8 years ago). Among other things, this means that activists working on local campaigns can point to the unanimous JCPA resolution when trying to get the support of local synagogues, Hillels or other community organizations.

And how about the BDSers? Well no doubt they will declare the fact that JCPA has noticed them enough to pass a resolution condemning their activity as yet another triumph (it’s hard to find anything that happens anywhere that the boycotters don’t consider a victory). Yes, the noise level of BDS has finally reached the point where mainstream Jewish organizations are no longer ignoring it. But as I’ve said before, considering that a success is similar to a loud drunk measuring his sexual prowess by how many women tell him to piss off in a single night.

Having spent years screaming at the top of their lungs and waving their metaphorical privates around in order to catch someone’s notice, the divestment crew can hardly complain once last week’s vote turns into actions that continue to ensure BDSers ongoing reputation as a L-O-S-E-R.