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?