BDS Undone Down Under

Back in April, the big international BDS news story was the reversal of an anti-Israel boycott (voted in by the city government months earlier) in Marrickville, Australia. This was the first major municipal BDS fight since Somerville, MA in 2004 and since the BDSers seem to be showing some interest in focusing on more cities and towns over the coming year, the story of Marrickville seems worthy of a detailed (i.e., longish) case study, similar to one that appear on schools, churches and other institutions in the Divest This Guide.

Fortunately, participants in this particular BDS fight (who travel under the moniker “The Inner West Jewish Community and Friends Peace Alliance, Inc., – iwJAFA?“) extensively documented their story, so much of what follows is drawn directly from their account.

First off, in a pattern that has become wearily familiar when looking at BDS “victories,” the vote to boycott Israel was taken by city leaders with little to no awareness (much less input) from the public. As described by local activists:

“The motion was carried late at night, by a Greens/Labor majority just before the Christmas break. Not long before, a similarly worded motion had been voted in as NSW State Greens Party policy unlike the National Greens policy which did not support BDS.”

For those of you unfamiliar with Australia domestic politics, Australia has an active Green Party which pulls left of the moderate-left Labor Party. And these two parties sometimes compete and sometimes form coalitions in their battles against Australia’s more conservative Liberals. In the case of Marrickville, the Greens and Labor hold 9 seats between them on the 12-member Council. Despite the fact that BDS was not supported nationally by the Green Party, nor at national or state level by Labor, all nine representatives of the two parties, plus one independent, enacted the Marrickville boycott before anyone knew the issue was on the municipal agenda.

As usual in BDS politics, citizens awaking to discover that their town had joined the “Israel=Apartheid” propaganda bandwagon (many reading about it first in the international press) reacted by organizing themselves. As they describe:

“Local Jewish residents (less than 1% of the municipality) and other concerned people formed an association to work together to overturn the decision. The group was diverse in ethnic background, age, political views and religious connections but their particular common perspective was that BDS was an attack on equal participation in the multicultural community. The Council was in effect taking sides in a foreign conflict and as a result eroding community harmony. The local group had numerous respectful and serious meetings with the Mayor and individual councilors, seeking common ground and a way forward. The group also took every opportunity at formal council meetings to express their position for an alternative approach – that rather than the boycott, Council could make a positive contribution to assist the growth of a future Palestinian state by supporting joint Israeli/Palestinian people to people cross border projects.”

“The group developed a strong network of supporters and was able to draw on various skills and qualities of its members to help in a myriad of ways. For example, they set up a website, Facebook site, organized community meetings, wrote emails, newspaper articles, blogs, had market stalls, met with politicians and so on.”

The group organized some important (and creative) activities focused on demonstrating that the boycott was not supported by the Marrickville community at large:

“In the midst of the election coverage, the local group and broader Sydney Jewish community were able to gain good media coverage for their objections to BDS. A couple of important local actions included a locals-only petition to raise awareness and gather support and a professional survey which showed that a strong majority of Marrickville residents opposed the boycott, and disapproved of their council taking sides in a foreign conflict.”

Just as importantly, coalition members made an effort to keep their campaign targeted on BDS and its impact on the community, rather than let themselves be dragged into a debate on the Middle East (stressing that it was the dragging of this conflict into the community by BDS activists that created a needless local controversy in the first place).

External political and economic factors played a major role in changing the political dynamic vis-à-vis BDS, alongside local community activism.

On the political front, the Mayor of Marrickville (who had spearheaded the BDS vote) was expected to win an upcoming election and be voted in as the first Green Party member of the lower house of the New South Wales Parliament (the equivalent of a state-house representative). Sensing local discontent, the Mayor’s Labor and Liberal rivals made the Mayor’s support of BDS a major issue of the campaign, an effort supported by the national parties and the media that loudly condemned the boycott and all of the local mayhem it was causing. When the Mayor lost the election, this demonstrated to other leaders (including Green Party leaders) the electoral toxicity of an embrace of BDS.

The final straw came when a report was generated demonstrating that actually implementing the boycott (rather than just striking a pose), would cost the city millions. With the public, as well as political and economic reality, demanding the issue be re-opened, the Marrickville Council held a meeting to reconsider the vote. As usually happens in these tales reach their conclusion, the public forum gave BDS advocates and proponents a chance to vent:

“An overflowing council chamber, packed with media and supporters of both sides, was the site of a 3-hour meeting which considered the report and revisited the boycott decision. This strongly polarised gathering finally saw the end of the Marrickville boycott of Israel after four months of unprecedented attention.”

And so, as with so many other stories involving leaders trying to sneak in a BDS measure behind the backs of the public, the inevitable headline ending this story was (I never tire of typing this): “BDS Loses Again.”

The activists who won this victory learned a great deal during the course of the conflict, which is why I wanted to print their “lessons learned” points in their entirety (Australian spelling and all):

* Watch out for BDS policy in a political party. Expect to see attempts to implement it by party members in government.

* Many levels of involvement will be needed to bring about the reversal of a boycott motion once it is adopted. Put together a local grassroots organisation to coordinate efforts if one does not already exist.

* Agree on common goals from the beginning, and revisit them as necessary.

* Keep up the open communication among activists and supporters–in person, at community meetings, in a private facebook group, phone hook-ups, via email and in every way possible. Build and enjoy positive relationships among yourselves.

* Locals, especially those with similar political sympathies to the councilors, are the best people to work one-to-one. They will often know their local councillors personally. Work through local networks. Talk to members of the council and other community people influential to the result.

* Rather than engaging in the endless blame game of Middle East politics, focus your argument against BDS on the local impact on yourself and your family, and the responsibility that your local council has to you and its other citizens. What are the relevant policies on multiculturalism, anti-discrimination etc.?

* Council members who vote for BDS are likely to do so because of a genuine concern for human rights. Respect and honour this motivation. Research and advocate for alternative, positive, ways that the Council can help to bring about peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.

* Make intelligent use of all the media, political and other resources at hand, eg petitions, surveys, open letters in the press, press releases, talk-back radio, opinion articles, letters to the editor, blogs, lobbying of politicians at various levels, etc.

* Keep in mind the points of view of the various audiences, especially the decision-makers. Resist the polarised positions that BDS creates; instead, emphasise common goals.

* Commit to a policy of avoiding negative point scoring. Stay serious, dignified and respectful of all people involved, including your harsh critics and opponents. Don’t be shrill or rude at public meetings or in private communications.

* The issue doesn’t go away when the decision is overturned. The BDS solidarity groups will paint the experience as a victory for themselves. In the aftermath, you will need to continue careful attention to how you deal with the various groups, individuals and issues. Perhaps this will mean becoming a community that is more actively involved than before in working toward a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Remember, hard as it seems, you and the BDS proponents probably have some common ground – for example wanting an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict!

The only item I would add to their list is that the best victory is one you don’t have to fight to win. So now that municipal divestment is allegedly back on the BDS agenda, it’s much easier to try to prevent a vote like the one which took place in Marrickville from happening in the first place (by keeping track of what’s going on in local politics), rather than having to put more far energy into getting such a vote reversed once the cow has left the barn.

The dedicated, creative and energetic activists in Marrickville took one for us down under. Now it’s our mission to take what they learned to ensure that no community has to suffer through the same torture inflicted on Marrickville for no reason other than to give the BDSers something to boast about.

Do It Yourself

A decade of unrequited political activism (i.e., perpetual failure to get major institutions to buy into their program) has helped to create an occasionally-amusing, but often-disturbing “do-it-yourself” attitude among practitioners of BDS.

Can’t get a single college or university to divest a single share of blacklisted stock that allegedly benefits the Jews? (Whoops! I mean “The Zionists.” Whoops I mean “The Occupation.”). No problem, just storm a student council meeting and demand they pass an impotent divestment resolution (and then send out press releases declaring victory, even when you fail to win any votes).

Can’t get a single food co-op to follow the lead of Olympia and pass a boycott resolution (opinions and harmony of the membership be damned)? No problem, just get a few people to join a local co-op and demand a debate on the subject (and then send out press releases declaring you’ve won, even if a discussion – much less a vote – on the issue has barely occurred).

Can’t get a major investment house to do your bidding? No problem, just send out press releases declaring that they have, and when those claims are exposed as fraudulent, never mention that you’ve gotten caught with your hand in the cookie jar and instead break into bizarre dance sequences to give the world (or at least each other) the sense that you and your fellow BDSers are “doing something” and “having an effect” (even if only to create bewilderment on the faces of unaffiliated pedestrians).

But as the failures of BDS become harder to ignore (especially among anti-Israel activists starting to question if a strategy proven to be such a loser over the last decade should be continued for the next one), “do-it-yourself” tactics (i.e., attempts to create controversy where none exists solely to generate headlines that create the illusion of political momentum) can take a dark turn.

Case in point: Max Brenner, an international chocolatier with locations in the US, Asia and (notable for this story) Australia. And why is a seller of desserts and cocoa the latest target for BDS “activism?” Well, you see, Brenner is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Strauss Group, one of Israel’s largest food products manufacturer. And what’s wrong with the Strauss Group? Well, part of their corporate “social responsibility” mission is to provide support (in the form of gift packages and sponsorship of recreational facilities) for Israeli soldiers. And since Israeli soldiers are so Eeeeevillllll!, Willie Wonka (I mean Max Brenner) is on the target list.

If you are dazed by this bizarre set of linkages, it might be easier to realize that local Australian Israel haters have had a rough time of late, having recently seen their one municipal victory (in Marrickville, Australia) go down in flames and then be condemned across the political spectrum. So in order to re-seize the initiative (i.e., change the subject), they’ve seized on a local Jewish (I mean Zionist-y) business and do their thing.

And their thing in this case is a series of violent protests in front of several Max Brenner outlets in various Australian cities, complete with injured police, arrests and injunctions, followed by (you guessed it) BDS press releases declaring victory coupled with heroic resistance to repression.

As with their failed attempt to get the municipality of Marrickville to maintain the ill-conceived boycott measure passed and then reversed by local authorities, the latest Australian BDS adventure has been met with widespread condemnation from one end of the political spectrum to another. Not only that, but it has managed to cause major damage the Australian Green Party (fractured over whether or not to support the bully-boy tactics being used against Brenner chocolate shops), providing every other political party (Left, Right and Center) the ability to show their support for Israel, Australian Jews and common sense (at the expense of the Greens) by simply showing up to Max Brenner’s and enjoying a cup of nice, hot cocoa.

Now many readers unfriendly to Green politics may enjoy watching the party writhe under the spotlight of this needless, manufactured controversy. But for those who may have sympathies with left-leaning policies of the Greens or other similar parties, keep in mind that BDS cares as little for your party or those policies as it does for anything else other than their own agenda and desire for publicity and pseudo-martyrdom.

Before leaving the continent of Australia for the month, the aforementioned story of Merrickville deserves a case-study treatment, similar to the ones found in the Divest This Guide (which I hope all of you have downloaded and keep in the smallest room of your house, primarily for reading material). So next time, the story of municipal divestment’s greatest international defeat (sung to the tune of Waltzing Matilda).

Has BDS Jumped the Shark? – 1

For the few of you who may have never heard of it before, the phrase “Jump the Shark” emerged from the early days of Internet-delivered culture commentary to describe the moment when you realize your favorite TV show had not just dipped in quality but has run out of gas and will never get better.

The term refers to an episode of Happy Days in which Richie, Ralph Malph, Pottsie and the gang visited Hawaii where The Fonz (the leather-jacketed individual mentioned at the end of the last posting) partook in a surfing contest (I believe while wearing his leather) and averted a shark attack by literally “jumping the shark.”

This episode featured one of the tell-tale signs that a show has passed the point of no return: relocation to an exotic locale (Hawaii, site of a post-shark-jump Brady Bunch episode as well). Other tells include the tragic death of a cast member, promises of “a very special episode you won’t want to miss” (usually made every week) and (the symptom I failed to recognize while in denial over the stretched-out death of X-Files): endless replacements and/or rotations among the cast.

“Jump the Shark” long-ago itself jumped from TV to politics where today any political figure or movement will eventually find him/her/itself accused of having J’d the S. So can this phenomenon be applied to our old friends Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions?

The BDS “movement” after all has been “on the air” for close to a decade, yet still continues (even if its cast keeps changing and it seems to be stuck in pointless reruns). So what might be the tell-tale signs of a BDS shark-jump?

Let’s start with their choice of targets. One of the advantages the BDS “movement” enjoys is the fact that they have the initiative when it comes to choosing which civic organization to infiltrate. After all, their militant mission is to drag new organizations under the umbrella of their propaganda campaign (by any means possible), while our mission is simply to stop them. By definition, then, we must wait for them to act before we can respond, meaning the BDSers have the advantage of choosing the battlefield.

In the past, their choice of targets was characterized by creativity and surprise. For example, even with the amount of time I spend dealing with this issue, I had no idea the boycotters were going to target food co-ops until they did. This gave them an (albeit temporary) advantage of working this organizational category on their own until the rest of us caught up with them.

But since the start of the year, their targeting choices seem to be driven more by which campaign created the most publicity the previous month. For example, I recently heard that municipalities are back on their hit parade, despite the fact that their only US success to date (Somerville, MA) was temporary and ultimately defeated (unanimously). And the cities and towns that have generated the most press over the last few months include Marrickville, Australia (where BDS was again overwhelmingly defeated) and West Dunbartonshire in Scotland (which became an embarrassment when it was revealed that their boycott extended to book banning).

Rather than learning from events that ended in defeat and/or ridicule, the boycotters simply see headlines and, like a junkie, want to mainline more (regardless of the cost to their targets and themselves).

To be continued…

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.

BDS Follies – Take Number Infinity

Just to catch everyone up, that great BDS “victory” in Marrickville, Australia went down in flames. And thus ends the attempt to shove a set of political opinions down the throat of the citizenry by leaders taking dictation from those claiming “divestment is the only moral choice…or else!”

Having cut my teeth on the whole divestment issue when local Boston-based Israel-haters decided to import the Arab-Israeli conflict into my then hometown of Somerville, MA, I continue to be spooked at how eerily similar these divestment fights tend to unfold.

First, a civic organization is targeted by BDS activists (sometimes locals trying to influence the institution’s leaders, sometimes the civic leaders themselves), and decisions get made with minimal awareness by members of the organization (be it a school, church, food-co-op or municipality). Then, once word gets out about what this “vanguard” is trying to stuff into the mouth of every man, woman and child in the organization, revolt breaks out leading to attempts to repeal the boycott or divestment motion.

Mayhem immediately ensues as people from around the world (always including Naomi Klein for some reason) are recruited to lend their weight to the cause (my favorite was someone from Kuwait who contacted our Somerville aldermen congratulating him for “standing up to the Jews”). Then, once the inevitable happens and support for the whole squalid mess collapses, the original leaders simultaneously riot and insist that by losing, they really won (BDS being a post-modern political phenomenon after all).

The fact that their only real accomplishment is the creation of anti-BDS antibodies (like this blog) never penetrates the BDSers perpetual fantasyland of endless triumph. But perhaps even the tantrums they always throw when handed their latest defeat serves a useful purpose. For there’s nothing like looking into the snarling faces of divestment champions denied the right to speak in the name of others to see the ugliness that lies behind the syrupy smiles and promises made by the boycotters trying to lure an organization into their clutches.

Moving from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous, what would the Spring be without the latest attempt at fraud by the people who brought us the original 2009 divestment hoax: Hampshire College!

This time, our local “Whatever-it-is-Israel-is-to-Blame” community wanted to make sure the upcoming visit by international BDS jetsetter Omar Barghouti would be truly special. And so they announced that this event was co-sponsored by not one, not two, but three academic departments from the nearby University of Massachusetts.

Citizen Wald (who teaches at Hampshire) was even more surprised than a civilian would be at this announcement, given that he knows many people at all three U Mass departments and couldn’t imagine them lending their names to the BDS project. And, sure enough, the local SJP seems to have been up to their old tricks of claiming support by people who hadn’t the slightest idea their name was being associated with the event:

Phone rings

Person answering the phone: Hello, U Mass Department of Economics

SJP: Yes, this is Freddy from Students for Justice in Palestine. We wondered if you’d co-sponsor a visit by the one, the only, supreme leader of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti?

Person answering the phone: I’m sorry, but you’re calling at 3 AM. This is just the answering service.

SJP: So can we list the economics department as a sponsor on our poster?

Answering service: Sir, as I said, this is just the answering service. We don’t have any say in what you put on your posters.

SJP: So you’re not telling us that we can’t put the department’s name on our posters?

Answering service: Huh? What? No, look I only answer the phone from here in Kentucky, and…

SJP: Great – thanks [hangs up] Roll the presses guys!

Honestly (if such word is allowed in the same sentence as “BDS”), wouldn’t you think that a “movement” that’s had its hand caught in the cookie jar so many times over the last two years would be a bit more careful about committing another needless fraud? But, then again, without such antics there would be little to nothing to talk about over here at Divest This.

Cost

I promised to post some news on the BDS comings and goings abroad, and the two stories that have made the international press of late include boycott and divestment attempts at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and at the municipality of Marrickville in Australia.

Regarding the former, I wrote last year on the importance of South African support (whether genuine or simply alleged) in the Apartheid Strategy of which Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is merely a tactic. After all, how better to brand Israel an “Apartheid State” than have those who lived through the real thing supposedly echoing your claims.

As that series pointed out, support for the Apartheid slur among actual Apartheid survivors is mixed (Tutu yes, Mandala not really). And in the US, African Americans are starting to get resentful of having a cause they fought for hijacked for the needs of narrow anti-Israel partisans. And despite the fact that the University of Johannesburg (UJ) as recently as last year refused to back a proposal to break ties with Ben Gurion University (BGU) in Israel, the relentless BDS brigades finally found a mechanism (a vote by the university’s Senate) to end the school’s relationship with their Israeli counterparts.

Now the leadership of UJ was quick to deny that the school is now participating in an academic boycott of Israelis (even as those that pushed the break with BGU claim just the opposite). But to get a true sense of what the cost of BDS can be for a community, one need only look at the specifics regarding the vote that gave the boycotters their desired “win.”

For in this case, the vote simply ended a contractual arrangement whereby BGU provided their South African colleagues access to Israeli expertise in the area of water purification technology, something direly needed by South African’s poor struggling with limited, and often polluted, water supplies. So in this case the BDS “victory” came at the expense not of those who decided the matter (who no doubt have access to all the bottled water they want or need), but of less-well-off (and mostly black) South Africans who may care more about quenching their thirst with unpolluted H2O than in allowing a group of academics to strike a pose and brag to their international colleagues that UJ is now on the cutting edge of the BDS “juggernaut.”

The second story covers less serious ground (“preposterous” is the word that comes to mind). In a Back to the Future moment, the first municipality since Somerville, MA decided to create its own foreign policy, in this case the local government of Marrickville in Australia voting to begin a boycott and divestment campaign targetting products on the BDS blacklist.

The vote was initiated by the Green Party who (as with most successful BDS votes) got their measure passed before the community knew what was happening. And like all similar divestment stories, holy hell broke loose the moment word went out on the “Israel-is-always-wrong-about-everything” wires that another great boycott “victory” was achieved.

In this case, holy hell involved someone pointing out that for the locality to actually live by these newly voted “principles,” it would have to cancel contracts and end use of (among other things) IT equipment that would, in the end, cost the town more than $3.5MM (Australian).

Once an actual price tag became involved, the appeal of BDS grew decidedly less bright. And once this financial cost got bundled with a political price (politicians supporting the boycott proposal went down in flames at a recent election) it wasn’t long before those noble divestment advocates started scrambling for the exits trying to put a brave pose on their rapidly crumbling cause.

Fortunately for Australians, this boycott blow up only led to the pinch-faced, Green Party generalissimo responsible for this mayhem having to struggle to find some way to save punim (by crafting a proposal that will allow them to claim the alleged moral high ground of boycott without actually having to boycott anything).

But unlike Johannesburg, at least at Marrickville this preening hypocrisy is not likely to cost anyone their life.