PCUSA Divestment – Follow Up

I was planning to do a final follow up on the goings on at the PCUSA General Assembly last week, which would tie in a couple of more recent events (including the Episcopalians’ recent decision to join the Presbyterians and Methodists in rejecting divestment).

But as luck would have it, a request came in to do a PCUSA follow up piece for Peter Beinart’s Open Zion blog.  This was followed by a response of the “By Losing We Actually Won” variety, written by someone I strongly suspect to be a frequent anonymous commenter who’s been spending time with us lately.  And in response to his response, I just published the piece I would have written here which pretty much surveys the BDS state of the union after their zero-for-three showing with the Mainline Protestant Churches this year.

So those of you who still need their fix of post-GA commentary, I suggest you check out these articles (as well as any comments they generate).

As one last thought, some of you may wonder why I decided to publish something on Peter Beinart’s site, give that I have been quite critical of him in the past.  The short answer is that I’m happy to get the “BDS Loses Again” word out wherever I can.

But in the back of my mind I am hoping that the man behind Open Zion might come to understand that BDS – whether the full-blown variety he’s letting me criticize on his site, or the narrower “just-boycott-the-settlements” type he advocated for on the pages of the New York Times – always requires a community/institution/organization to do the boycotting, divesting or sanctioning.

And whether those boycotts are defined narrowly or broadly, the message the “I-Hate-Israel” crowd will always be crowing is that “The well-respected [fill-in-the-blank] organization agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state, alone in the world at deserving economic punishment!” (with that blank filled in by the Presbyterians, Methodists, Hampshire College, City of Somerville and other parties who never asked to become a battlefield in the Middle East conflict).

In a world where some people are more than ready to exploit the best nature of others for political gain, we all need to be extremely careful before providing an opening to people ready to turn places like the Presbyterian Church into a club with which to beat their political adversaries.  And it is this lesson that I hope reaches the right ears as much as my general message about the true nature of BDS.

The Beinart Effect

While this year has mostly been dark clouds for the forces of BDS, both small (failure at the Park Slope Food Coop), medium (another year of getting nowhere on college campuses) and large (the Methodist Church rejecting divestment yet again), there is a silver lining for them that we in the boycott-fighting business should take note of.

You saw it play out with the Methodists who rejected divestment and just as sensibly rejected various partisan resolutions that could be presented as the church taking sides in the Middle East conflict.  But they did pass a resolution supporting boycott of one segment of Israeli society, namely businesses located in the disputed territories (better known as the settlements, or – to use BDS parlance – “The Settlements”).

We saw a similar decision last month in the UK where the largest food cooperative organization in the country also passed a settlement boycott measure, and it’s very possible you’ll see something similar play out when the Presbyterians meet in June (although I still anticipate that they will reject divestment, as did the Methodists, for a fourth time).

The settlement boycott issue is a tricky one, for while general rejection of BDS has pretty much reached consensus across the entire Jewish political spectrum, attitudes towards what should ultimately happen with the disputed territories remains an issue of deep contention within Israel, among Israel’s supporters, and within the wider world.

And when these two issues (BDS and the politics of the territories) become conflated, it’s much easier to present a boycott of certain Israelis as the “moderate” option located halfway between “doing nothing” (which is deemed unacceptable) and broad-based BDS (which is deemed equally unacceptable).  This is the argument that was used (successfully) in the UK where decision makers thought they were actually being supportive of Israel by seeking this “moderate” option as an alternative to the blanket boycott that was being requested of them by anti-Israel partisans (who are quite strong in Europe).

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’m planning to start a series on the use of rhetoric in the Middle East/BDS conflict.  But just to give you a taste, what is described above is something called the fallacy of moderation which is often employed by partisans who want to convince you to do what they really want by presenting their preferred option as a compromise between “extremes” contrived for the sole purpose of locating their real goal in the mid-point between them.

To take a simple (fictional) example, a candidate who wants to raise the tax rate to 45% by insisting that this represents the moderate option between extremists in his own party who want to raise the rate to 90% and the opposing party that wants to eliminate taxes altogether, is intentionally using the fallacy of moderation to present what is really a major tax increase as the moderate choice located exactly between two extremes.  The fallacy comes in when you realize that the two extremes he is describing are not genuine, real-world options, but exist solely to locate his desired tax rate between them.

In the case of “partial BDS,” this too is an example of a moderation fallacy since there are any number of alternatives to “doing nothing” (defined as not having any boycott or divestment policy) and implementing a total boycott of all things Israeli.  You could, for example, pass a policy urging positive investment (as did the Methodists), which may not have pleased the BDSers but is certainly one of many alternatives to the false choices that frame an argument which says “well since you must do something, a boycott of settlements is better than nothing.”

When settlement boycotts are debated within the Jewish community, they are generally framed as an alternative to what is sometimes called “Full BDS” (meaning a boycott of companies within Israel proper).  But this analysis (like all analysis of which Israeli companies to boycott) misses the bigger picture.

For as I’ve noted ad nauseum on this site, the goal of BDS is NOT to hurt Israel economically, but to stuff the political positions of the BDSers into the mouth of a well-known, respected institution.  And once a boycott or divestment resolution of any size based on any target gets passed by one of these institutions, the message sent to the world is not “The such-and-such organization has passed a highly limited boycott of just a certain subset of Israelis…”  Rather, the message is “Such-and-such organization agrees with we the BDSers that Israeli is an Apartheid State.  And so should you!”

I titled this piece “The Beinart Effect” in honor of writer Peter Beinart who first proposed a Jewish version of BDS, not targeted Israel’s foes but targeted fellow Jews on the “wrong” side of the Green Line.  This was Beinart’s too-clever-by-half attempt to both subvert a BDS movement (which he claims to loath) by using their own tactics to allow some Jews (who think like him) to demonstrate their dislike of other Jews (who don’t think link him), thus proving their righteousness while showing what a virtuous version of BDS might look like in the hands of people as moral and forward thinking as Beinart himself.

But as anyone who knows anything about BDS could have told him, his complex and somewhat convoluted strategy was doomed to be boiled by the BDSers into a much simpler message: “Progressive Jews (like Beinart and those he claims to represent) want you to engage in a boycott of Israel, and we’re the ones to tell you how to do it.”

With a couple of settlement boycott wins under their belt, it’s just a matter of time before the BDSers re-align their strategy to push for more of these kinds of votes (as opposed to the general divestment measures that have been such a bust for them) and begin to claim any wins they receive regarding such measures (and not their many losses elsewhere) as the only metric with which the rest of us should judge their success.

Having seen BDS tactics morph time and time again, I’ve never been much for whining when they eventually stumble onto something that works.  Rather, those of us who fight against boycotts and divestment activities need to be just as flexible in finding tactics that can counter this new offensive, and let the world know that the success of both Israel and its supporters is not something to be measured by the embrace of a new gimmick by a bunch of narrow-minded, self-righteous partisans who (like their new-found accidental ally Peter Beinart) cannot think beyond themselves.

Beinart’s Tiny World

I’m still planning to get something out on the subject of the bullying behavior that has become the signature feature of the BDS “movement” over the last year or so.  But before getting to that, there are two BDS-related articles that have been published lately, one I want to point out and the other I want to tackle.

First off, I made the press!  And while this is mostly spillover publicity from the media circus that has descended on the Park Slope Food Coop in light of their upcoming boycott referendum vote next week (more on that later), this Jewish Week piece brought up a far more prominent story that was published earlier in the week in the New York Times: Peter Beinart’s call to create a Jewish version of BDS directed not at those who want to boycott Israel but at fellow Jews who choose to live on the other side of the Green Line (i.e., the dreaded “settlers”).

Needless to say, Beinart’s call has been harshly criticized (and just as needless to say, Beinart has claimed that the very existence of such criticism simply proves he is correct).  But even this criticism misses a key point which becomes clear if you look at Beinart’s call for Jews to boycott fellow Jews after reading his previous provocative article on what he claims to be the failure of the Jewish establishmentpublished a couple of years ago in the New York Jewish Review of Books.

Beinart, a CUNY Professor and Fellow at the New America Foundation, is best known for his role as Managing Editor of The New Republic, which tends to mean he is taken seriously as a progressive thinker, especially in New York media circles.

But in his article on the Jewish establishment (which I recently re-read as part of a class I’m taking at my synagogue), the author makes a move that helps explain much of his political thinking, including his recent call for his own brand of BDS.

For Beinart does not simply believe that current Israeli policy (including the choice to continue to let Jews live on the other side of the so-called “Green Line”) is simply wrong.  Rather, he takes his opinion on the matter and defines it as not just an unquestionable truth but as the point around which all progressive opinion must pivot.

With his own opinions of what constitutes “genuine” progressive thought placed squarely at the center of his world, all other facts are selected and arranged neatly around this obsession masquerading as gospel truth, much like the epicycles that kept the earth-centered theory of the universe afloat for centuries.

In some cases, facts and quotes (from various Israeli politicians or Benjamin Netanyahu’s biography) are carefully selected to “prove” the illiberal nature of anyone who disagrees with the Beinart thesis.  Other cases (including his self-serving analysis of why students seem alienated from Israel, or the role of mainstream Jewish organizations in shaping public opinion) also serve to prove a foregone conclusion: that Beinart is right and thus anyone who disagrees with him (and acts accordingly) are betraying their principles, alienating the young (by preventing them from following their “true” calling and embracing Beinart’s political point of view) and thus putting Israel at risk (making the author and anyone who agrees with him the only “true” friends of Israel).

I could dwell on the level of dishonest discourse that can be found from the beginning to the end of Beinart’s Jewish establishment piece (the cherry picking of quotes, selective choice of evidence, self-serving analysis of statistics, etc.), but for now I want to highlight how the opinions presented in this previous piece made his recent attempt to create his own brand of BDS inevitable.

For the Beinart world is not only Beinart centered.  It is also exceedingly small, containing only himself, his supporters and the Jewish “settlers” and their alleged supporters in the Jewish establishment that stand in his way and thus stand in the way of others learning “the truth.”  Under such circumstances, it makes perfect sense for the author to propose his “too-clever-by-half” idea of creating a form of BDS that he feels has the added benefit of undercutting the original BDS project (by embracing their vocabulary, but using it as a call for the good Jews to attack the bad ones).

Such a strategy implies near perfect obliviousness to the true nature of the mainstream BDS project which simply looks at Beinart’s behavior and draws up the appropriate short-hand headline: “prominent Jewish progressive supports BDS.”

It also misses the point that the world contains more than the good Jews who agree with Beinart and the bad Jews who do not.  It contains Palestinians and their allies in the Arab world and beyond who are not simply props in an inter-Jewish drama, but actors and contributors to their own situation and fate.  And it also contains the often-overlooked civic organizations whose victimization is at the heart of any BDS debate.

As I’ve noted over and over on this blog, the whole point of BDS is to get the propaganda message of “Israel = Apartheid” to come out of the mouth of a prominent, respected (and usually progressive) organization, be it a college, church, city or food coop.  And to get that to happen, all options are open, such as passing a boycott behind the backs of coop members on one side of the country (Olympia Washington) while demanding a “democratic” vote on the same subject on the other side of the country (Park Slope).

These organizations have already been offered the choice of so-called “Targeted BDS” which allegedly zeroes in on just the bad Jews vs. all Jews.  But only as a bait-and-switch option used to lure an institution into the clutches of the boycotters who will use any “Yes” vote they manage to achieve on any form of BDS (no matter how limited) to propagate the propaganda message that “this school, this city, this co-op agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid state and is ready to boycott it– and so should you!”

Like other prominent thinkers who have rearranged the world to fit their opinions (Mearsheimer and Walt come to mind), Beinart has created an immoral universe and defined his own morality around it while simultaneously providing considerable ammunition to a BDS movement he claims to loath.

Others take issue with the author’s posing as the only true friend of Israel (one of many such “friends” who attack the Jewish state only to save it).  But my bigger problem is that Beinart’s complete political self-centeredness inevitably means he will be hurting people he doesn’t even know exist.