PennBDS – Palestine and the Media

There are a number of approaches one could take when dealing with media-related issues regarding Israel and the Middle East.

The most obvious is an analysis of the way Israel and the Middle East conflict are treated in newspapers, television, radio and other media sources, both in the US and abroad.  Such analyses can be extremely eye-opening, but they are also conducted every day by people far more experienced at it than I (notably CAMERA in the US and CIFWatch in the UK).

Alternatively, this piece could focus on how BDS activists try to use the media as a force multiplier for their campaigns, especially since pushing BDS events into the headlines is really the raison d’etre for a “movement” dedicated to convincing the world that the desire to punish Israel economically for alleged “crimes” represents the opinion of more than just a tiny, marginal fringe.

A recent discussion of how boycott and divestment forces skillfully utilize Web 2.0 communication to bypass or augment traditional news sources discusses this phenomenon in detail.  And the only thing I could add specifically regarding the PennBDS conference is that organizers of that event never really seemed to get the hang of whole Web 2.0 thing, waiting until just this week to start tweeting frantically, with most of their comments the result of scouring the Internet for weak arguments to pounce on while all the time avoiding strong arguments at all cost.

Given that these two obvious angles are pretty well covered in the linked sources above, I’d like to use the media as an example of one of the key themes of this blog: the corrupting influence of BDS and allied propaganda efforts on important elements of our civil society.

Few readers will remember this, but one of the first unions to officially pass a BDS resolution was Britain’s National Union of Journalists(or NUJ).  The resolution came about as most boycott and divestment “victories” do (especially within UK unions) when a radicalized union leadership with its own agenda passed a boycott vote before members had the slightest understanding that a discussion on the matter was even taking place.

The 2007 resolution committed the union to a boycott of Israeli goods “similar to those boycotts in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.” And given the negative disposition of many British journalists towards the Jewish state, it was unclear whether such a resolution would be accepted and remain union policy.  But instead, a revolt broke out among the membership that had not been consulted about the decision and who resented being put in the position of participants in a political conflict they were supposed to be able to cover impartially.

The spirit of objections was summed up by one journalist who asked how he could be expected to be treated as a neutral observer when he carried his press card in one pocket declaring him to be a professional journalist, and an NUJ card in the other declaring him to be a participating in the conflict he was writing about.

As with similar instances, this whole mishagas represented over-reach by BDS forces with rank-and-file objections overcoming leadership power-plays and the NUJ boycott was quickly withdrawn.  And while I couldn’t imagine a similar situation playing out within the mainstream media in the US, the BDSers have found tiny media niches where they have tried to ply their wares (so far unsuccessfully, at least in the US).

But step back for a moment and consider that the original NUJ was explicitly asking members of the journalistic profession to place their most sacred asset (journalistic integrity) on the sacrificial alter in order to be considered “right-thinking” by those pushing a BDS agenda within the union.

We’ve seen this level of sacrifice requested before by divestment partisans lucky enough to receive an audience (preferably private), in front of academic and religious groups.  In the case of an academic boycott (the subject of two talks at the PennBDS conference), educators are not being asked to move money from one retirement fund investment to another as a political statement but to throw their greatest treasure, academic freedom, out the window in order to participate in “the movement” and show themselves to be on the side of the angels.

And speaking of angels, when BDS gets injected into church discourse (as it’s been for almost a decade within Mainline Protestant churches in particular), they are not being asked to divest their considerable retirement portfolios of Israel-related assets to take a political position on a secular matter.  Rather, they are told that such action would represent the purest act of “Christian Witness,” implying that who is right and who is wrong in the Middle East conflict is so blindingly obvious that even God can see it (or, at least, that the church can confidently speak in God’s name when making statements to that effect).

A couple of months back, I read Robin Sheperd’s excellent book A State Beyond the Pale which discusses the reasons behind Europe’s deteriorating behavior vis-à-vis Israel.  The whole book is worth reading, but I wanted to end with a quote I found so resonant I decided to save it for just this purpose:

“Whatever it touches, the anti-Israel agenda always brings out the worst.  It brings out the worst in journalists who cast aside their principles of balance and objectivity.  It brings out the worst in seasoned commentators who substitute hysteria and foot stomping for calm analysis and enlightened discussion. 

It brings out the worst in trade unions which put a hateful agenda above the interest of their members.  It brings out the worst in diplomats who debase themselves by pandering to tyrannies against a democracy.  It brings out the worst in artists and writers who submerge their commitment to beauty and truth in ugliness and lies.  It brings out the worst of the great traditions of Left and Right which default back to their shabbiest instincts and their darkest prejudices.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Radio Daze

I’m frequently asked what will be the next “target of opportunity” for the BDS “movement.”

After years of alienating decision-makers and members of colleges and universities, Mainline Protestant churches, municipalities and unions, they have been left, after all, with only “soft targets” to pursue -such as aging rock stars and food co-ops. Regarding the former, while a couple of once-hipsters like Elvis Costello heeded the boycott-Israel call, this simply left them exposed as uncool enough to be dissed by Deep Purple (ouch). As for the co-ops, a string of boycott failures indicates that this category is also nearly immunized from the BDS virus.

Since it is the BDSers who have the initiative to continually prowl for new civic organizations to exploit, it’s tough guessing where they might strike next. Although it’s a pretty sure guess that their target will be an institution with a progressive political bent, a vulnerability to pathos-based presentations and arguments, with either a weak governing structure regarding subjects like boycotts (a la food co-ops) or leaders somewhat at a distance from those they are supposed to represent (a la European unions).

Well now it’s safe to say that they have found their opening with (wait for it…): radio stations!

Not major commercial radio stations or public stations such as NPR mind you. These organizations, after all, understand that formally embracing a political propaganda program is not compatible with their core mission (otherwise known as journalism). In fact, a few years back the leadership of one of those aforementioned European unions (Britain’s National Union of Journalists or NUJ) voted in an Israel boycott only to see members revolt stating that they couldn’t enter the Middle East carrying a BBC ID claiming they were professional journalists as well as an NUJ card claiming they were allied to a party to the conflict.

No, in this case, it is community radio stations, those small local stations such as… Well, I can’t think of any right now. But the important thing is that the World Association of Community Broadcasters (whose acronym is AMARC – which makes sense in Spanish) voted to embrace the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement at their annual conference in Argentina.

Now if BDS follows its usual pattern (which can be counted on with the same confidence as expecting night to follow day), it will just be a matter of time before small stations around the world are recruited by their local “Israel-is-always-wrong-and-now-shouldn’t-even-be-heard” community to shun their Israeli colleagues in the name of solidarity (based on a decision by an organization almost no one ever heard of, participated in by almost no one being asked to implement it).

In the case of radio, however, BDS has those pesky little problems of journalistic integrity and editorial freedom to contend with. To begin with, community radio (having not previously been infected by the BDS virus) many not understand that the moment they sign their name on the BDSer’s simple “human-rights-solidarity” document, it will just be a matter of minutes before boycott supporters fan out across the globe to announce that “Radio Station XYZ is all aboard the Israel = Apartheid bandwagon, so you should boycott too.”

To cite another problem, (and the resolution rejecting a boycott by the Davis Food Co-op puts it best), signing up to the BDS program means that the signing organization “ accept the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions for Palestine (BDS) Campaign’s characterization and judgment of Israeli actions as fact.” But the point of a media organization is to question such facts and assumptions, rather than accept someone else’s opinion as “The Truth.” Yet to follow the advice of the aforementioned AMARC group, a station is being asked to officially agree with one view regarding what is true and what is not in a highly contested political situation. And if the station signs up to such a program and later decides to air the voices of people who don’t share these views, the boycotters would have a legitimate complaint regarding why the station was allowing voices on the air to talk about things that the station itself has formally agreed to proclaim untrue.

And what of editorial freedom? To pick a few scenarios, if a publicly funded radio station in Israel produces a program regarding a subject of scientific or environmental importance, who gets to decide whether or not it is aired, the radio station or the boycotters? And who gets to decide if Israel has changed its behavior sufficiently for the boycott to end? Apparently, to take part in this boycott all stations must supplement their existing editorial policies with a new test, (the BDS test) before allowing certain voices over the airwaves.

As I have discussed before, it is no accident BDS asks participants to sacrifice their most sacred assets in order to participate in a boycott. When BDS came knocking at the door of the UCU (the British teacher’s union), they didn’t call on this group to divest their pension funds from Israeli companies. Rather, they asked the teachers and professors making up the union to officially boycott their Israeli colleagues, putting the sacred principle of academic freedom into the fire in the process. And when the Presbyterian Church was asked to divest from Israel, this was presented not as a political decision but as something demanded of them by “Christian Witness,” i.e., a decision that was being made in the name of God himself.

If radio stations get offered the same deal rejected by the British National Union of Journalists (NUJ) of whether to link arms with the partisan campaigners selling Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, they are in effect being asked to throw editorial independence and journalistic integrity out the window in the name of some alleged, but ill-defined higher virtue.

No doubt Israel would survive the addition of one more weak-willed organization to the ranks of institutions that have immolated themselves on the sacrificial fires of BDS. One cannot necessarily make the same claim for any radio station foolish enough to fall into the trap that’s been set for them.

Love, Labor, Loss?

As I begin to segue into some international issues over the coming weeks, where better to start than with the international labor movement?

I’ve already pointed out the challenges BDS advocates have with regard to getting American unions to support their cause, given that (after Jews and Evangelical Christians), American labor is the most pro-Zionist community in the country. While BDSers may luck out with a fringe union here, or a local stunt there, the notion that the AFL-CIO is going to remove the bronze statue of Golda Meir in the lobby of their US headquarters (which reflects US labor’s appreciation of the role of American and Israeli Jews in the global union movement) is pretty fanciful.

Overseas (particularly in the UK) the story is quite different. There, boycott advocates have been steadily increasing their penetration of British labor, beginning with some small skirmishes in places like the education (UCU) and journalist’s (NUJ) unions, which eventually percolated up to the national umbrella group, the Trade Unions Council (TUC). While actual UCU and NUJ boycotts never got off the ground (thanks largely to their unpopularity with rank-and-file union members vs. more radicalized leaders who push anti-Israel boycotts within their organizations), it’s safe to say that the big question regarding labor and BDS boils down to whether American unions will begin to look more like their European counterparts in the coming years, or vice versa.

Which gets me to an extraordinary speech given by Paul Howes, National Secretary of the Australian Worker’s Union, in which he outlines the reasons behind labor support for the Jewish state and the contribution his union, and unions in general, are making to bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs in the region by appealing to worker solidarity that transcends borders.

In normal times, such an appeal to the brotherhood of the working class in the name of peace and reconciliation would seem very ordinary, even commendable. But remember that it is this very type of cooperation that BDS seeks to undermine.

In this historic moment when labor’s role in international affairs (not to mention the very identity of labor vis-à-vis many issues domestic and international) is up for grabs, Howes’ speech (which should be read in its entirety) seems like a beacon of sanity shining through the thick fog separating the US labor movement and its counterparts abroad.

Belly of the Bust

Well I attended last week’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) support group last Thursday. While the notion of sitting in a room full of people on “the other side” disagrees with me more than it does activists with more of a taste for conflict, I must admit to looking forward to being with a group of people who share with me an involvement with the divestment “subculture” (albeit from a very different perspective).

Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the first 45 minutes of the event due to a scheduling conflict (a date with my wife, as a matter of fact), and thus had to leave when one of the leaders of the pro-divestment event was just getting warmed up. Still, even this half-attended meeting provided some important perspective.

To begin with, the room was “packed” with sixteen people, and other than a moderately youthful bobble-head sitting next to me whose noggin started gyrating whenever Israel’s “crimes” were mentioned, I seemed to be the youngest person in attendance. The event also included well-thumbed signs falling off the walls and a shortage of handouts (which indicates that the organizers expected even fewer people to show).

The talk I had to leave during showed off the one strength of the “divest-nista” crowd: an ability to stay on message. And that message was, plain and simple: Israel = South Africa. Thus, most of her talk was about how Israel was similar and different to Apartheid South Africa, with a heavy emphasis on the former and mere lip service to the latter. “Evidence” of this connection was pretty standard fare (including the ubiquitous recitation of Israeli trade ties with SA during the Apartheid years, with nary a mention of the clandestine Arab oil-for-gold trade that kept Apartheid afloat for decades).

The organizers kept coming back to South Africa again and again, highlighting the importance of anti-Apartheid leaders like Desmond Tutu and John Dugard in their divestment “movement” with an argument that basically boils down to the suffering of South African blacks during the Apartheid movement rendering their comments on Israel (or any other matter) unassailable. That made me wonder when Israel’s critics would automatically award Jewish victims of similar or greater levels of suffering (like, oh say, the Holocaust) the same level of unquestioned moral authority, until I remembered that – according to them – the Holocaust did little more than turn Israelis (and their Jewish supporters) into pathological, unsympathetic monsters.

Although there were not enough handouts for everyone (including me), I did manage to read through their most important information flyer, a four-page, single-spaced listing of divestment “victories” over the last 5-6 years. Had my schedule allowed me to stay until the end of the event, I would have brought up the obvious question as to why their list of divestment “supporters” consisted almost entirely of organizations that had showed divestment the door years ago. Yes – as their flier states – the New England Methodists have revisited divestment again and again. But wasn’t it worth a brief mention that the Methodist Church as a whole voted down divestment UNANIMOUSLY less than a year ago? And why do they continue to describe the UCU (the British Teacher’s Union) and NUJ (the British National Union of Journalists) as advocates for divestment when members overturned divestment votes almost immediately after hyper-partisan leaders rammed them through packed committees? The Hampshire hoax was even highlighted, making me wonder about the location of the dividing line between the need to inflate small victories (a standard and respectable tool in political organization) and the organizers need to dwell in a fantasy world where their failing BDS “movement” was racking up one imaginary victory after another.

But the real question the event made me think about was what people who had dedicated most of their adult lives to the propaganda war against the Jewish state felt about the results of their contribution to the conflict. After all, I’ve seen the people at the podium (and many members of the audience) at every anti-Israel event I’ve attended in the last twenty years (and they were already old-timers in the “movement” then!). And what do the Palestinians in whose name they claim to speak have to show for themselves since the boycotters started? After decades of, in effect, telling the Palestinians that “help was on the way,” that if they just waited a bit longer, just rejected the next peace offer, that Israel would soon be rendered helpless as an international pariah, the BDS-niks can now survey a Middle East landscape where half the Palestinians are under the rule of a corrupt Fatah dictatorship (that the divestment crowd once demanded were the “sole, legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people”)and a Hamas death-cult that only takes breaks from repressing women and murdering homosexuals in order to fire rockets at Jews Israeli nursery schools from Palestinian ones.

The Queen in Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland prided herself on believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Yet this feat pales in comparison before the attitudes of the people in the room last Thursday. For how can they respond to the FACT that their efforts have contributed more to the suffering of Palestinians than I or any of my fellow activists ever could? Beyond a scoffing laugh at the mere mention that their program represents anything other than Gandhi-esque virtue, what answer could they possibly provide?

And so, once again, I was confronted with a tiny “hoard” of people whose only defenses and motivations was self-righteousness, fantasy and fury. If the Alpha and Omega of your existence is your own unquestionable virtue, what other response can there be to the observation that divestment – like so many preceding anti-Israel propaganda efforts – has only helped to dramatically increase the amount of misery in the world, mostly among the very Palestinians who they claim as their lives’ moral loadstone.

In a word: foreshame.