Post War Catch Up

Nothing like a summer-long, 19-part series to chase away an audience.

Kidding aside, thanks to everyone who hung in there as I worked through some ideas on strategy and tactics both here and at Algemeiner, and special thanks to my editor and ally Andrew Pessin for getting me off my butt to write more regularly for an audience beyond this site.

That series is ultimately targeted towards a focused audience: those activists who make decisions and set the pro-Israel strategy for much of the community.  After years of watching this thoughtful and dedicated community work day in and day out on issues of concern to Israel’s friends (Jewish and non-Jewish alike), I wanted to contribute something that I hope can make all our work more efficient, harmonious and effective.

Since this is also one of the busiest groups of people I know, I suspect that clicking through nineteen essay-length blog postings is not the most efficient way of absorbing this kind of information.  So once the holidays are over, I’m planning to make this same material available in more easily digestible formats.  More news on that once the Book of Life is closed.

Meanwhile, it’s time to start catching up around here.

First off, it’s good to know that some of the themes you’ve read about in that war series represent not original thinking but what might represent an emerging consensus.  For example, author and former Ambassador Michael Oren was recently appointed head of public diplomacy for the Israeli government.  And in an early interview in Algemeiner, he talked about how we need to “strengthen the emotional aspect” of our communication – not just rely on facts to win over audiences (especially young audiences).

In this case, when Oren talks about emotion he is referring to the pathos component of persuasive communication which (as this War series post outlines) is crucial when trying to convince.  But emotion is also a powerful and frequently underestimated component of everyone’s decision-making process, including ours and our enemy’s.  As this piece that focuses just on emotion points out, both sides of the BDS wars frequently make errors that help their foes when we let emotion get the better of us.  So as Oren and others try to navigate difficult strategic choices, better to be in control of our emotion so we can think about tactics that will make our opponents fall victim to theirs.

I also wanted to give a shout out to a brilliant formulation created by William Jacobson over at Legal Insurrection.  LI has become the go-to site for what’s going on day-to-day in the world of BDS, especially on college campuses and among faculty and academic associations.  But Jacobson also frequently takes time to delve into deeper issues, especially around legal and political matters related to the BDS “movement.”

For years, I’ve been using obscure metaphors to describe the phenomenon of anti-Israel groups infiltrating other political organizations and bending them towards their will.  You saw this during the period Occupy was squatting in various cities, including Boston where the only political “consensus” the loose-knit movement was able to reach was to march on the Israeli consulate.

Of course, this was no “consensus” but yet another example of the BDSers ruthlessly demanding that others do what they say, lest they be cast out of the Left end of the political spectrum.  You’ve seen the same phenomenon on steroids over the last twelve months as “intersectionality” has grown to mean everyone embracing the anti-Israel consensus while never questioning its dogmas.  This is why you’re far more likely to see women and gay-rights groups on campuses come out in support of divestment resolutions, while never making demands on groups with ties to the Middle East (like BDS) to take a position on the horrific situation faced by women and sexual minorities of the region.

Jacobson gets right to the point on what this behavior represents: BDS as a “settler, colonial ideology,” a kind of cultural and intellectual imperialism that demands everyone submit before being considered a genuine radical or human-rights activist.

I don’t know how much this formulation will catch on as a catch phrase.  But like most important changes in perception, an idea needs to be put into words.  And I can’t think of a better phrase than “settler, colonial ideology” to describe this important dynamic.

Anyway, time to prepare for some non-eating and reflecting for the next few days.  But stay tuned for more on BDS and War and other matters of interest here at Divest This.

The ASA Media Ban

In case any more evidence was necessary to demonstrate how thoroughly BDS softens the brain, one need look no further than the latest misstep from our old friends in the American Studies Association (ASA) who just turned out a brand-spanking, freshly-minted, new policy that explains what sort of press is allowed to cover their upcoming annual conference.

When we last left the feckless leaders of that organization, they were spinning at 7000 rpm insisting that the boycott policy they so proudly proclaimed at the start of this year doesn’t actually involve boycotting anyone.  (At least that’s the explanation they’re giving to the press to avoid having the Westin hotel bar their event under California’s highly stringent anti-discrimination laws.)

And speaking of the press, no sooner had they announced that their conference was free and open to all than they issued a set of stringent and convoluted policies explaining what type of journalist would be allowed to cover their event.

Now I ain’t no high-fallutin’ American Studies PeeAycheDee, but as pappy always told me: if you catch whiff of a stench, yer probably standin’ near a skunk.

Let’s begin with the fact that this seems to be the first time the American Studies Association has put any rules in place whatsoever regarding which media is allowed to cover their annual meeting.  Perhaps this was the result of a rowdy press pack who attended last year’s ASA Confab, one that got plastered and started picking fights with visiting scholars over Shaker material culture.  Or, more likely, there are certain journalists they would like to ban from the vicinity, and so they contrived a “policy” that would achieve this goal without having to name names through a more specific blacklist.

For, if they were being more forthright, the people they clearly don’t want anywhere near their event include William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell (whose writings on the web site Legal Insurrection galvanized the massive backlash against the ASA boycott), and Eugene Kontorovich whose Volokh Conspiracy blog in the Washington Post broke the story of ASA’s recent run-in with California’s anti-discrimination rules.

Now writing a policy which bans these two by name (or one that refuses entry to anyone from the Jewish press) would probably not be the wisest move during a period when the organization is also trying to convince the world that they in no way discriminate by religion or national origin.  So instead we get a six-hundred word-policy statement that includes Criteria, Procedures, Required Supporting Documentation and Restrictions (each multi-part) that finishes with the statement the authors probably wanted to start and finish with, namely: “The ASA reserves the right to deny press credentials to anyone at any time.”

What makes this clumsy move all the more astonishing is that the only reason any media at all are interested in covering the activities of a small, specialized academic group is that the ASA leadership stuffed an academic boycott motion down the organization’s throat and then boasted of the significance and newsworthiness of that decision to media around the planet.

And now that some in the media have decided to follow up on the story (demonstrating – as Jacobson did – that the ASA’s largest chapters rejected the boycott policy, or revealing – as Kontorovich did – that ASA is modifying its boycott on the fly to avoid the consequences of its actions) ASA wants to seize control of the news flow, ensuring that they (and only they) get to decide what stories come in or out of the Westin hotel (presuming they’re allowed to use that facility).

This actually represents not the first, second, or even third but the fourth time ASA leaders have demonstrated fear over and contempt for the free flow of information.

Even before the boycott was enacted, these leaders were censoring important information (such as the condemnation the boycott vote received from much larger academic organizations) and limiting communication with members to a steady stream of bilge from “scholarly” web sites like Mondoweiss and Electronic Intifada.

Then, when Jacobson started contacting ASA members and regional branch heads to get their reaction to the boycott, these same national leaders urged those members to stay mum whenever the Legal Insurrection contributor rang.

And who can forget ASA President Lisa Duggan’s following up the drooling praise over a BDS event she was attending with a call that said “PLEASE DO NOT post or circulate the flyer. We are trying to avoid press, protestors and public attention.”

All of this should provide the context needed to see the organization’s convoluted, post-modern press policy for what it is: a ban on anyone ASA leadership doesn’t like.

It’s tempting to ding the organization for hypocrisy, given statements they have made again and again that their boycott was designed to foster discussion and grapple with difficult issues.  But even before today’s press-ban chapter in the ongoing ASA saga, we moved way past hypocrisy into thoroughly uncharted territory of egregious behavior.

In many ways, the twirling and attempted shut down of communication we’ve seen over the last few days reminds me of the behavior of a compulsive fabulist who finally lost track of which lies he told to whom, someone who just wants the whole nightmare he has created for himself to go away.

Unfortunately for ASA, the nightmare they created for themselves is going nowhere.  And the only sympathy I have is for the actual American Studies scholars (vs. the BDS activists who happen to teach American Studies that run the organization) who have to suffer just so Lisa Duggan can leverage them to get Omar Barghouti to answer her phone calls.

ASA Boycott – Not Defending the Undefendable

I’ve said my piece (really more than my piece) regarding the academic boycott voted in by the American Studies Association last year.  But now that we’re closing in on the six month mark since a boycott against the Jewish state was made policy by an (admittedly marginal) academic group, it’s worth taking a step back to see what the consequences have been for Israel vs. the ASA.

As far as Israeli academics are concerned, I’m not aware of a single American Studies professor from a single university taking a single step to target an Israeli academic or institution in compliance with the boycott policy.  Perhaps someone can provide us an instance of the boycott actually being enacted, but as far as I can tell the leadership of the ASA has proven itself willing to put its organization, its members and the entire discipline of American Studies at risk for the sake of a policy they do not have the guts to actually implement.

Supporters of the ASA boycott point out that the action was primarily symbolic – a means to demonstrate that the organization (claiming to represent the ideals of academic inquiry and discourse) had become so sickened by Israeli policy that they were willing to use the blunt instrument of a boycott to express their disapproval.  But for this symbolism to hold, it must be demonstrated that the boycott actually represents some kind of consensus within the field, especially for a vote passed by a “majority” of just 16% of the organization’s members.

The best way to demonstrate that a “landslide” of 16% represents membership consensus would be to provide examples  of how the American Studies Association boycott call has been taken up by the academics and academic departments in whose name the ASA claims to speak.

Again, perhaps someone can tell me otherwise but as far as I can tell the boycott has yet to receive backing from a single American Studies department in the country.  Yes, I know that some individual academics support the ASA decision and some departments have defended the organization against attacks (especially legal and legislative ones) made in response to the boycott.  But as far as I can tell, the only responses by American Studies Departments to the boycott itself have involved schools and departments ending their relationship with ASA, or insisting that they no longer be listed (inaccurately) as institutional members (which caused the group to drop mention of institutional membership entirely from the latest edition of their journal).

Not only that, but two of the biggest regional ASA organizations (in California and the Northeast – those two hotbeds of reactionary academia) have specifically disassociated themselves from the boycott policy, essentially telling the national leadership that they want no part of a partisan vendetta that brings nothing to the field except shame.

And speaking of shame, if you consider the academy as a whole (not just the sliver of it that represents the field of American Studies), it looks as though the ASA boycott has cemented a consensus that says boycotts are a threat to the entire academic project.  And given that the moral utility of the boycott rests on the assumption that being condemned by an academic organization makes the target condemnable, the fact that much larger and more broad-based academic groups like AAUP and ACE have roundly lashed out against an academic boycott of Israel means – by the boycotters own standards – it is the ASA that has lost all moral standing.

One final argument that ASA leaders make to justify their decision (which, if history is any guide, they will go to any length to prevent being reversed) is that the boycott was meant to open up dialog on the Middle East (a dialog they claim is lacking and for which they desperately thirst).

Which makes it all the more strange that after a few embarrassing appearances in the media, this same leadership has largely “gone to ground,” avoiding discussing the matter in any forum where they cannot count on being surrounded entirely by partisan supporters.

Professor William Jacobson of Cornell Law School, who runs the web site Legal Insurrection (LI), reported that these same ASA leaders have urged members to not talk to him, which has not prevented LI from breaking most of the major news stories regarding the subject (including decisions by California and New England to defy the national organization’s boycott policy).

But probably the most telling example of how desperately the boycotters don’t want to engage in the conversation they claim to crave was this week’s appearance by Jacobson at Vassar College, a school where 39 professors attacked the college’s President’s when she joined over two-hundred other college and university presidents to condemn the ASA’s action (correctly) as an attack on academic freedom.

Jacobson originally presented his talk as a challenge to any or all of those 39 professors to debate him on the topic of the boycott (or BDS in general).  In other words, this single Cornell professor offered to be the lone voice willing to stand up to as many as 39 other scholars, all of whom back a policy they allegedly (1) believe in deeply; and (2) is meant to foster a conversation on the Middle East.

But given the chance to take to the field and defend their positions (with odds offered of nearly 40:1), every one of these professors declined, leaving Jacobson happily providing a lecture (which was fortunately not interrupted by the usual SJP heckling) to a packed audience.

I suggest you watch the whole thing since Jacobson’s Vassar talk lays bare the breathtaking cowardice and hypocrisy behind every claim made by the BDSers.  Yes, they are more than willing to hijack a membership organization in order to speak in the name of those who have shown no interest in enacting a policy that supposedly represents a moral imperative.  But not only are they unwilling to take any steps that would turn that policy into concrete action, they are also unwilling to step into the ring to defend their indefensible positions, even when given 39 seats to their opponent’s one.