Having spent a decade and a half getting one food coop to stop selling Israeli ice cream cones (leading to every other coop in the land saying “No” to similar boycotts), getting a handful of student governments to vote for divestment that will never happen, and getting little known academic organizations to pass boycotts they’re too afraid to implement, the BDS “movement” has finally hit pay-dirt.
And not just some rinky-dink boycott or divestment measure, but the Holy Grail of the BDSers – Sanctions (i.e., elected governments taking action due to BDS activity).
The only trouble (for them, anyway) is that those governments have been passing resolutions condemning not Israel but the boycotters. And if the recent unanimous passage of anti-BDS legislation in Illinois (inspired by and inspiring similar moves in Tennessee, Indiana and New York) is any indication, the Israel-disliking community is about to discover what genuine political momentum looks like.
If you add to these recent state-level initiatives to moves by the US Congress to tie trade with Europe to that continent’s steering clear of BDS blandishments, it seems as though three successful sanctions programs (against Iran, Sudan and now BDS) have all caught fire during 15 years when the boycotters have been struggling to get a spark from their increasingly damp book of matches.
As my regular reader knows, I’ve never been a big fan of government action (from legislators or judges) substituting for local political action when it comes to how to best win BDS battles. But unlike previous attempts to directly intervene in specific boycott disputes (such as state sanctions directed against the American Studies Association that might have done more harm than good, or lawsuits that always go badly for those that bring them), these recent state and national votes just reflect the fact that elected bodies get to have a say on important political issues (which is actually what we elect them to do).
In fact, the last people who have a right to complain about sanctions legislation targeting BDS are the BDSers themselves who have been tirelessly lobbying local, state and federal government to support their cause for years. And if they’re going to announce to the world that a one-month flirtation with divestment on the part of a single city (brought about by their behind-the-scenes machinations) is fraught with political meaning, who are they to claim that legislation targeting them – passed in the light of day – is meaningless?
The other thing that puts the Illinois (and similar) votes on the right side of the fine line I tend to draw in these matters is the fact that this legislation is prophylactic vs. punishing.
What I mean by that is that these bills announce to the world that any company engaging in BDS targeting Israel now has to take into account that such a decision requires them to sacrifice something tangible to do so (i.e., doing business in Illinois and – soon – elsewhere). In other words, companies are still free to embrace the BDS agenda. But if they choose to go down that path they need to really care about it enough to pay for the privilege, rather than assume that they can take a stance (or, more frequently, strike a pose) cost free.
An unstated assertion in almost every BDS campaign is that it costs nothing for an organization (be it the Presbyterian Church, the city of Somerville or some retirement fund in Scandinavia) to embrace the boycott or divestment cause. Those of us who have seen divestment battles up close know the cost these organizations will ultimately pay in terms of poisoning civic life. But when the BDSers show up screaming that everyone has no choice but to do what they say, issues of civic comity rarely get surfaced in time to make a difference.
But now that governments are getting onto the anti-BDS bandwagon, the unstated premise that joining the BDS movement comes with no practical price becomes more and more difficult to support (or keep hidden).
The reason that this is important is that, in many instances, those deciding whether to participate in a boycott or divestment project are looking for a reason to say “No” that avoids having to take sides in (or even fully understand) the fire pit of Middle East politics.
You saw this recently at the Greenstar Food Coop in Ithaca, NY where leaders who may have not had enough knowledge to accept or reject BDS claims were clearly looking for a way to get out of the whole mess the boycotters had gotten them into without seeming to choose between rival partisans. So when the organization’s attorneys told them that passing a boycott (or even letting a vote go forward) might put Greenstar at odds with New York anti-discrimination law, those leaders were given grounds to tell the BDS cru “No Thanks” without having to adjudicate the Arab-Israeli conflict in the process.
US anti-boycott law (which few people were ever prosecuted under) provided a similar prophylactic for corporations looking to tell the Arab Boycott office in Damascus “I’d love to take your call, but…” followed by “No Thank You.” And now that sanctions targeting BDS are poised to start running wild across the land (and with Damascus kind of preoccupied these days), these are phrases we can hope the boycotters start hearing even more today than they have since their program began at the turn of the Millennium.