As I was planning to say before last week’s interruption, it may be getting to the point where we want to think about what a “final” defeat for BDS might look like.
After all, a “movement” that manages to turn the entire Australian political system and Noam Chomsky against them, a political project capable of creating 6000 Israel supporters in a single night (in Britain no less) must at some point come under the scrutiny of even the most fantasy-laden anti-Israel activists as something less than productive to their cause.
To understand whether BDS is on its way out, it is important to first remember what it is. Despite claims to be some sort of a “peace movement,” BDS is neither peaceful (being little more than a propaganda adjunct to more violent warriors who get to do the trigger pulling) nor, technically, a “movement.” Rather, BDS is simply a tactic that’s been used on and off for the last decade by the same anti-Israel crowd that has traveled under different names using different tactics.
Now this tactic has been successful in generating headlines and giving Israel dislikers a simple message to organize around and recruit new members. But outside such inside baseball, the tactic has proven to be a bust in its key mission of getting well known civic institutions to tie their name and reputation to the “Israel = Apartheid” message. In fact, given how successful anti-Israel forces have been in dragging international organizations (such as human rights NGOs and the United Nations) into their propaganda web, it’s a testament to the schools, churches, cities and other organizations that have resisted the BDS lure for close to a decade that they have kept themselves un-befouled by similar corruption.
Keep in mind that we have been exactly at this same point twice before. In 2004, advocates for divestment faced a serious credibility crisis after two years of zero success trying to get colleges and universities to divest from Israel. Had the Presbyterian Church not thrown them a lifeline in ‘04, they might not have lasted past that year and even church support simply put off the ultimate defeat of divestment in 2006 when the Presbyterians gave “the movement” the boot.
Today’s BDS project is simply a third generation photocopy of this earlier effort, one which is barely bothering any longer to recruit major institutions into the fold, sufficing instead with marginal organizations such as food co-ops and community radio stations for supposed momentum-building victories. And even with such limited ambitions, they still lose almost every single time.
So a first sign that BDS is on the wane would be a transition to a new tactic or set of tactics, with BDS allowed to quietly fade into the background. To a certain extent, we’re already seeing this with campaigns such as this bizarre set of bus ads which are a throwback to pre-BDS campaigns built around getting US aid to Israel curtailed or eliminated. If the wild, counterproductive excesses of the current BDS advocates continue to turn off more and more people (including anti-Israel partisans interested in winning the public over to their side rather than disgusting them), expect to see this transition to new tactics accelerate over the coming academic year.
Another important sign will be the marginalization of leaders and possible disintegration of organizations who continue to push the BDS agenda regardless of the cost.
Remember that the bulk of pre-2006 BDS activity was led by a now-defunct organization called the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (or PSM), a group that fell to pieces at the peak of its “success.” Without getting to deep into anthropology, anti-Israel political life tends to be built around small, unstable organizations that tend to come together, fall apart, and reform under different names and leaders on an approximate 5-7 year cycle. Paraphrasing a well-known cliché: “Anti-Israel politics ain’t beanbag” and no matter how powerful or prominent a particular leader or organization may be at any given time, there is always someone more fervent and ruthless in the wings ready to infiltrate and/or split a given organization to achieve his or her own ends.
Today, it is Omar Barghouti’s PACBI that seems to be on the ascendant. But there may come a time soon that this group’s inability to achieve anything other than keeping Palestinian civic organizations paying lip service to this cause (with the help of threatening powers like Hamas to keep them in line) may be outweighed by the sheer weight the unpopularity of BDS and its ability to give Israel supporters something easy to rally around and defeat.
So an end to BDS (or, at least, a repeat of the remission it went into between 2006-2009) will likely be accompanies by the diminishment, marginalization or even elimination of PACBI as a major force in Palestinian and general anti-Israel politics.
Back during my early years as an Internet debater, I remember an ally once describing an Israel hater who had lost his umpteenth argument as resembling a crab that bears its claws while walking backwards, digging himself into the sand before disappearing completely. Given that a cornerstone of anti-Israel politics is to never admit error (much less defeat), keep this image in mind as we watch what happens to the BDS movement over the coming months to determine if we have, in fact, beaten back this propaganda project one more time.