The Silent S

Two recent BDS stories, which have gotten categorized in the Twitosphere around the ever-popular hashtag #BDSFail, highlight a theme discussed a while back on the challenges facing those advocating for the “S” of BDS: Sanctions.

Boycotts can be done by individuals, although in the case of BDS the goal is to get sellers to boycott Israeli products so that individuals are freed from getting to make their own decisions.  The target of divestment campaigns are also institutions, although in this case institutions with large investment portfolios such as well-known universities and churches.

But sanctions would have to be implemented by governments, and even with international bodies like the United Nations fully co-opted to turn out assembly-line condemnations of the Israel, state sanctions acting upon those condemnations have failed to materialize, other than the ongoing Arab boycott which has been in place since the 1920s, and thus cannot be considered a response to the BDS “movement” (especially one that keeps moving its start date out later from its actual 2001 birthday).

BDS protestors certainly made their voice heard when Israel was being considered for membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD).  But even with the megaphone provided to them by the Middle East oil states, the shrieking of the BDSers could not overcome economic reality which stated that Israel more than deserved its place alongside the world’s most developed economies.

In the US, government-sponsored BDS activities (whether in the form of divestment campaigns or outright sanctions) have been fairly muted. Calls to end US aid to Israel are even more longstanding than boycott and divestment campaigns, but tend to go nowhere given the strong alliance between the US and the Jewish state, an alliance that transcends political parties and remains stable, regardless of who sits in the White House.

The first BDS campaign I was involved in, an attempt to get a local government in the city of Somerville to divest, has the distinction of being the only divestment campaign I know of that was rejected by the legislative branch of government (the city’s Aldermen which voted down divestment unanimously), the executive (the Mayor who condemned BDS), the judiciary (the district court which threw out a BDS lawsuit demanding that binding divestment motion be put onto the local ballot) and the voters (who rejected a non-binding motion a year later).

A lawsuit is the cornerstone of one of the most recent BDS sanction failures.  In this case, a group of Minnesota based Israel haters have been working for two years to get the Minnesota State Board of Investment to remove Israeli bonds from their portfolios.  As in Somerville, once local elected leaders explained that they wanted no part in a propaganda ploy masquerading as a human rights campaign, the BDS cru took the state to court.  And, as in Somerville, the court dismissed the suit from the bench highlighting the fact that failure to win a political argument does not provide grounds for legal action.

(As an aside, this story represents the fourth instance I know of where lawsuits – one brought by BDS opponents and three brought by BDS advocates – were summarily dismissed.  Food for thought to those weighing the advantages of legal vs. political action.)

The other failed sanctions story took place at the local level, in this case the Davis-Woodland Clean Water Agency (WDCWA) in central California, which was asked to remove the French transportation and environmental company Veolia from consideration for a large local contract due to the company’s involvement in the state of the “Guess Whos?”.

After the usual frantic politicking and grandstanding, WDCWA did what democratic institutions generally do when faced with demands that they join the anti-Israel bandwagon: they voted down exclusion of Veolia unanimously.

As those BDS Fails were taking place, an interesting piece was published by Eran Shayshon of the Reut Institute on the increasing challenges anti-Israel advocates are having building alliances with traditional liberal groups whose support is necessary if BDS is ever to become a cause for anyone other than a marginal fringe.

The author highlights the fact that as more people become aware of the “true colors” of Israel’s adversaries, it becomes increasingly difficult for liberal organizations that actually embody hopes for peace and concerns for human rights to ally themselves with those who simply mouth these virtues as slogans in order to get what they want.

But I would add to Shayshon’s analysis a more mundane but extremely powerful factor: that it is much easier to reject the blandishments of a political loser than a person or movement that seems to have political momentum.

And with BDS being rejected in places like Berkeley and Park Slope (two of the most progressive institutions in the US), as well as being shown the door in states like Minnesota and California (which can hardly be accused of being reactionary “red states”), it becomes that much easier for individuals and organizations to join a bandwagon against a “movement” that has been exposed as not just narrow-minded and hypocritical, but guilty of the greatest political sin of all: failure.


One brief note to start this piece: My invitation to debate BDS published here and on Jewish Voice for Peace/Young Jewish and Proud’s new Go and Learn site was recently released from moderation. I eagerly await their first response, which will give them the chance to participate in that discussions the rest of the Go and Learn site indicates JVP desires above all else. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, my mind recently began wandering to the subject of veterans.

In our modern age, we tend to think of the outcome of warfare being decided primarily by technology and logistics, with armies able to deploy and utilize complex weapons systems in the land, sea and air being superior to those who cannot. And even when you look at asymmetrical warfare, which tends to utilize roadside bombs, terror tactics and propaganda instead of aircraft carriers and robot drones, success in this field requires mastery of technical and political skill, rather than fighting experience.

But if you look back throughout the thousands of years of history when war was conducted primarily with the same hardware (swords, spears, bows, shields, armor and the like), the factor marking the difference between a successful and unsuccessful army was the experience of the soldiery.

Troops loyal to Julius Caesar, for example, were not referred to as “Caesar’s Soldiers” or “Caeser’s Legions,” but “Caesar’s Veterans,” highlighting the fact that soldiers who spend decades fighting side by side provided the edge in battle even against far larger armies.

Even the strategic genius of a commander is frequently the result of a general himself being the veteran of numerous campaigns, providing him the chance to try different things at different times and experience both victory and defeat.

I bring this up since another strength BDS warriors bring to battle (along with Web 2.0 communication skill and complete indifference to the needs of others) is their experience waging their propaganda campaigns over many years and even decades. For most of us, the thought of engaging in a divestment debate in our student union or town hall is appalling not just because of the nature of the subject matter, but because few of us have experience engaging with (in this case) aggressive political warfare that is likely to create tension and conflict (the very things many of us spend our lives trying to avoid).

But years of experience battling against the boycotters eventually provides us the veteran’s perspective, helping turn what might have originally felt like distasteful conflict into a battle we eagerly anticipate for the thrill it provides (especially in victory – the familiar result for pro-Israel activists engaged in a BDS fight).

I can attest to this personally as someone addicted to the rush of watching a BDS vote (even on Twitter– which I still barely know how to use) go down to defeat. And my eagerness to mix it up with folks like Young, Jewish and Proud derives from longing to engage in arguments I’ve been writing about for years with no interlocutors ready to engage in some serious intellectual jousting.

But the veteran’s experience can also be seen in the wider Jewish community, best exemplified by this report from the Reut Institute on how 2011 was the year Israel’s supporters fought back (successfully and unapologetically) against the still-more-experienced defamers of the Jewish state. As time goes on, more experience should drive more success and success will drive our desire to obtain more experience, creating new generations of vets capable of continuing to stare down the BDS threat, regardless of the ruthlessness of our adversaries.

As a final note, I’d like to pay a brief tribute to a veteran of many wars who finally lost out to the one enemy none of us can avoid forever. Christopher Hitchens may have never been a great friend to the Jewish state. But he was a great friend to others who earned his sympathy (such as the people of Iraq) and Hitchens fought for their cause, regardless of what previous friends and allies had to say on the matter. While I am sad that this iconoclast of great wit and letters passed away without embracing the justice of Israel’s cause (or the Jewish world of which he was a part), I shall miss him and his words, even (or especially) the ones with which I disagreed.