BDS – Beginning of the End?

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.

Who Pays?

So how ‘bout that flotilla?

At a time when the staggeringly incompetent leadership of Code Pink et al has left yet another group of political tourists stranded in a foreign land, it’s easy to poke fun at one more BDSer fiasco (which thankfully didn’t get anyone killed this time).

But as I’ve noted before, for those who find themselves in the boycotter’s cross-hairs, BDS is no joke. In the case of groups like the Methodists, attempted manipulation by Israel-hating “activists” has routinely led to needless divisiveness and rancor. But there is one place where boycott and divestment activity has an even nastier impact: in the Middle East itself.

This makes sense when you consider that outside that region, BDSers have to make do with manipulation and moral blackmail to get their way (tools which, at best, have only ever led to a rare temporary or marginal success). But in Israel and the Palestinian territories, those pushing boycott can fall back on threats, intimidation and even violence to get their way.

This message was summed up pretty openly in this recent statement by our old friends at PACBI (fathers of the most recent incarnation of the 10-year-old BDS “movement”). In it, they make it clear what they think of Palestinians trying to work with Israelis on projects based on common understanding and mutual benefit; accusing such people of acting as “fig leafs,” i.e., collaborators and traitors who cynically sell out the Palestinian “collective” for their own personal benefit.

Given what tends to happen to “collaborators,” once singled out in Palestinian society, the price to pay for trying to make a go at peaceful co-existence has become high indeed for those who still harbor hope of living a peaceful life (something clearly not on the agenda of the “de-normalizers” of PACBI).

As the PACBI statement boasts, organizations committed to peaceful co-existence have already shut down thanks to pressure put on Palestinian partners in such endeavors. And given that PACBI has organizations like Hamas and the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine among its ranks to enforce what it has decided is the “general will,” it’s hard to imagine what a Palestinian looking to live cooperatively with his or her Israeli neighbors has to fall back on (other than their own courage).

In a sense, the type of McCarthy-ite search for traitors we are now seeing in the West Bank and elsewhere is the result of BDS having so little to show for it after a decade of effort outside the region. For if you cannot hurt your enemies, your own people are always there to threaten, ostracize, and generally screw.

Now it’s one thing if Israel-dislikers abroad decide to flush their own hard-earned cash down the toilet so that the Code Pinkians can blog and tweet about their failure to sail across the Mediterranean. While I can imagine far better uses for the millions of dollars these “Friends of the Palestinian People” spent on such a junket, I can also think of far worse things that money could go towards.

But given that the latest (and only successful target) of BDS seems to now be Jews and Arabs seeking to live alongside one another in hope of achieving something approaching a normal life, can we at long last stop pretending that BDS is the tactic of anything resembling a “peace movement?”

Palestinians say NO to BDS!

While the British union movement contorts itself over the issue of BDS, an interesting item just came by my desk written by the organization TULIP (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine) which indicates that Palestinian workers and unions do not support the boycott campaign.

Now admittedly, this revelation came from a brief fact-finding mission by an organization dedicated to cooperation vs. confrontation. At the same time, as I’ve stated before the Palestinian union movement has never indicated support for economic sanctions against Israeli companies or industry.

The dynamics surrounding the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel suffer from a number of issues (notably the likelihood of coercion), but as the name of the coalition itself implies, the organization has never announced support of the kind of economic boycotts and divestment projects that are most popular within some European unions.

Given that whenever boycotters are asked why they are demanding economic punishment of Israel vs. other far worse human rights abusers, they point to the alleged support for their policies by Palestinian unions (or civil society as a whole) they are actually talking about PACBI, it’s interesting to note that this institution has NOT thrown its support against a boycott of Israeli products (for example), especially since they well understand that their members are the ones who would suffer from such a policy.

Given this context, the TULIP report certainly passes the intuition test. Like unions anywhere, Palestinian unions must balance their desire to take political stands against the need to focus on policies that help their members. And unlike the Fireman’s Union in the UK (the force behind the recent TUC boycott vote), members of Palestinian unions will face actual hardships related to boycotts that represent little more than political poses to the radical cells committed to turning European unions (or other civic organizations) into their mouthpieces, regardless of the cost to their own unions, and regardless of the cost to Palestinian workers.

Unpacking the PACBI Excuse

In my last entry, I pointed out the various excuses the boycott-Israel crowd uses when forced to confront their clear double-standard on human rights stances (i.e., Israel deserves to be boycotted for building a separate fence to keep suicide bombers from its cities, but Syria and China should not be boycotted since they merely killed 50,000 or 70,000,000 of their own people).

As noted, most of these excuses have the distinction of being both transparently self serving and unbelievably lame. But one “reason,” the one claiming that the call to boycott Israel wells up from Palestinian civil society and is thus unique, begs for a more careful review.

The claim that BDS is a response to boycott calls originating from people in the region is based on the 2004 Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (or PACBI). Whenever Naomi Klein or the UCU boycotters talk about a boycott call endorsed by over 200 Palestinian civic organizations, these are the organizations to which they refer.

Before getting to more meatier issues, allow me a couple of lawyer’s points regarding the claim that PACBI represents the will of the Palestinian people to comprehensively boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

First off, if you look this list over, between 10-15% of the signatories whose origins are identified are from outside Israel, the West Bank or Gaza, including over 20 organizations from surrounding countries (13 from Syria, 6 from Lebanon and 2 from Jordan) and another 9 from Europe or North America. Now it may be that some of these (as well as some of the organizations not identified by location) are refugee or Diaspora groups, but given the large Syrian contingent in PACBI’s roster, the notion that we’re talking entirely about un-coerced volunteers becomes shaky.

Second, as the name implies PACBI stands for an academic and cultural boycott (the least popular form of BDS, by the way), not for the wholesale economic isolation of the Jewish state. So those claiming that PACBI is the origin for all of their BDS activities may be putting words into the mouths of Palestinian agricultural, medical and industrial unions/organizations, many of whom may not be that excited about economic boycotts that punish them as well as Israel.

On more meatier matters, the first group that tops the list of “Unions, Associations, Campaigns” supporting the PACBI boycott call is the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, a coalition that includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and some of the more violent sub-sets of Fatah. Call me crazy, but I suspect that it’s much easier for this Council to get the Palestinian Dentist’s Association to agree to its requests that vice versa.

The potential that the PACBI boycott call arises from coercion within Palestinian society (vs. being a consensus welling up from the grass roots) also points out an interesting paradox. The claim that Israel uniquely deserves the BDS treatment is, to a certain extent, based on Israel supposedly being exceptional with regard to its level of human rights abuses (vs. Iran, China, North Korea, etc.). And yet the members making up PACBI can only be seen as legitimately representing Palestinian civic society if Israel’s “repression” does not extend to eliminating such civic space in both Israel and the West Bank.

Like the claim that Israel is inflicting a “Holocaust” on a Palestinian population that is simultaneously experiencing a population explosion, the very existence of PACBI demonstrates that the level of repression found in countries ignored by BDS activists (Sudan, Saudi Arabia, etc.) does not exist in Israel. And thus we are led back to the conclusion that the best way to avoid being a target of alleged “human rights” activists pushing boycott, divestment and sanction is to actually be a repressive dictatorship that crushes civic society rather than letting it exist to sign boycott petitions.

Finally, a note on dates. PACBI, as stated on their own Web site, made its “plea” for academic BDS in 2004, years after divestment programs originating at the 2001 Durban conference were well underway in North American and European universities, unions, churches and municipalities. In other words, the PACBI call was the result of the success BDS was seeing between 2001-2004, and being the result it could not have simultaneously been the cause.

Time travel underlies much of the BDS project, as is underlies much of what passes for analysis of the Middle East. My favorite example of this is the projection of today’s US support for Israel (which didn’t really kick into high gear until the 1970s) back to 1948 and beyond in hopes of finding a US-Zionist conspiracy going back to before the founding of the Jewish state.

If ignorance is bliss, then the folks behind the PACBI excuse for BDS are either the happiest people on earth, or at least the most manipulative.