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PennBDS : Info on the BDS Conference at UPenn

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Yes, this year's big US conference on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel is scheduled for February 4th and 5th at U Penn where an international lineup of boycott and divestment champions will meet, greet and try to breath life in a "movement" that has yet to achieve a single major victory after more than a decade of effort.
Read more here: http://www.pennbds-oy.com/

With Palestinian workers defying boycott calls from their leaders, with those leaders investing twice as much in the Jewish state as they do their own proto-state, and with even Hamas sneaking Israeli goods through the same tunnels it uses to smuggle missiles to fire at the makers of those goods (or at least their kids), mobilizing the Palestinian homefront around BDS is an increasingly difficult task.

Putting aside the use of a military term like “mobilization” by an alleged “peace group” like PennBDS, one of the greatest challenges of making BDS a goal of the locals in the disputed territories (or anywhere else) is that it is not strictly a political goal.

It’s fair to say that Palestinian society is already mobilized around something that can be defined as a goal.  One can debate whether that goal is the destruction of the Jewish state, the creation of their own state, or the accomplishment of the second goal as a way to achieve the first.  But it’s hard to dispute that the political institutions (be they PA or Hamas-led) know what they want and are ready to use the machinery of the state to achieve it.

Even if within these societies there are individuals interested in other goals (such as peace and reconciliation with their Israeli neighbors and normal lives for their children), those with power (and guns) are more than ready to push those goals beyond the pale, either by branding those that advocate for them as collaborators and traitors or using the media and education system to teach the next generation that their “sacrifice” (i.e., dedication of more decades to needless war) will accomplish a goal that’s not been achieved by their parents or grandparents.

Within this consensus there are debates over strategy, with groups like Hamas preferring armed violence whenever possible and other groups (such as the PA and international supporters like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement”) preferring political propaganda.  But just as BDS is not a political goal, it’s not even a strategy.

Rather, the strategy of the BDSers (the so-called “Apartheid Strategy” began at the 2001 Durban I conference, years before the BDS “movement” was allegedly even born), is to brand Israel an “Apartheid State,” implying that anything done to such a state (including its dismantling) is morally virtuous since Israel is alleged to be the global embodiment of the sin of racism as the successor to Apartheid South Africa.

Within this strategic context, BDS is a tactic, i.e., a mechanism or technique chosen to further the aim of the Apartheid Strategy towards the achievement of some political end.  And, as such, it’s a lot harder to mobilize or Unify or Synergize around than the achievement of a concrete goal. 

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to get Palestinian workers or investors or even militants to comply with BDS demands (even with coercion added to the mix) is that these individuals are not ready to put themselves and their families through impoverishment (or even inconvenience) in support of a “movement,” the head of which leads a subsidized existence as a perpetual grad student at an Israeli university.

Outside the region, it is not so much the hypocrisy of its practitioners that limits widespread acceptance of the BDS agenda as it is questions about its effectiveness.  While die-hard BDS adherents have been trying to gin up excitement over the endless “triumphs” of their project (going so far as to use the very existence of this humble blog as an example of their success), truth is the BDS tactic has not gone very well this last decade.

In fact, if Israel’s supporters had to pick a tactic for their foes, they might very well choose to have them spend ten (going on eleven) years trying to gin up boycotts (that inevitably lead to wild sell-offs of Israeli goods) and divestment campaigns at places like US colleges and universities (which have yet to sell a single share of any stock based on the urging of divestment advocates).

Next time we’ll look at what PennBDS has titled “BDS Success, Challenges and Options for 2012.”  And if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the second of those three nouns.



No doubt the BDSers gathering at U Penn have their own run down of BDS basics, placing themselves at the center of a heroic struggle against titanic, sinister forces that are trying to suppress them. But here on planet earth, BDS has a specific origin, goals and track record, all of which are at odds with how this “movement” likes to portray itself.

The following is actually an extract from a set of responses to frequently-asked questions (FAQ) regarding BDS. As ever, comments are open to anyone who disagrees with this assessment:

What is the origin of BDS campaigns?

While economic warfare (such as the Arab boycott of Israel which began in 1921) has been part of the Arab-Israeli conflict since before Israel became a state, the current Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) program pushed by anti-Israel groups to try to delegitimize the Jewish state began in 2001.

The goal of BDS is to “brand” Israel as the new Apartheid South Africa (South Africa also having been the target of economic boycotts and sanction). While this strategy was used sporadically after the fall of Apartheid in the 1990s, it was only after the 2001 Durban I “anti-racism” conference (which degenerated into an orgy of Israel bashing) that various anti-Israel organizations focused on BDS as their tactic of choice. This, by the way, is the origin of the BDS "movement" (not the 2005 call from "Palestinian Civil Society" the BDSers will tell you inspired their political project).

What are the goals of BDS campaigns?

Because the desire to punish Israel economically represents such a small minority of public opinion, the goal of BDS activists is to attach their message (that Israel is an “Apartheid state” worthy of economic punishment) to a well known institution such as a university, church or city. This allows them to “punch above their weight” by declaring their anti-Israel message is not simply emanating from a small, non-representative minority, but rather represents the policy of a respected organization.

Another goal is to infuse a campus or other institution with their Israel=Apartheid messaging, attempting to make this slander stick, even if boycott or divestment motions themselves get defeated (as they have been, time and time again).

OK, I get that boycotts and sanctions always indicate political disapproval of someone, but what’s the story with divestment? Don’t people “invest” and “divest” (i.e., buy and sell) stock every day?

This is an extremely important and relevant question since BDS activists are responsible for many false claims related to divestment.

As you note, divestment is simply the selling of an investment, such as a stock, bond or mutual fund. Every time you see someone shouting “Sell!” on the floor of the stock exchange, for example, divestment is taking place.

Divest-from-Israel campaigns fall into the category of political divestment. Rather than selling investments for economic reasons (such as fear that share price will go down in the future), political divestment involves selling an investment due to a political disagreement with the company or country the investment benefits.

This is an important distinction since, without a public explanation or announcement that investments are being sold for political, rather than economic reasons, political divestment cannot be said to have taken place.

I’ve heard that divestment campaigns are very big on college campuses. Have any schools divested from Israel?

To date, no college or university has divested a single share of stock identified by BDS activists as targets for divestment. In addition, at schools where divestment has been driven by online petitions (such as Harvard and MIT), counter-petitions denouncing divestment have received more than ten times the number of signatures as pro-divestment petitions.

In 2002, the leadership at Harvard University took a public stance against divestment, with the then President of Harvard criticizing divestment activity as potentially being “anti-Semitic in effect, if not intent.” While college divestment programs gained considerable media attention between 2001-2006, institutions of higher learning generally followed Harvard’s lead in rejecting divestment out of hand.

Campus divestment campaigns made a comeback in 2009 and 2010. Background information is available elsewhere on this site with regard to Hampshire College and UC Berkeley.

If BDS has failed at colleges and universities, has it been successful anywhere else?

In 2004, a number of Mainline Protestant churches (notably the Presbyterians and Methodists) passed resolutions calling for divestment of their retirement portfolios from stocks identified by BDS activists as supporting the Jewish state.

As with universities, however, support for divestment in the churches turned out to be extremely shallow. While some church leaders and regional churches supported divestment, the rank and file categorically rejected divestment calls, voting down divestment by margins of 95%-5% (the Presbyterians) or unanimously (the Methodists).

During this period, divestment was also attempted in some US cities (notably Somerville, Massachusetts and Seattle, Washington), but lost badly in both places. When BDS made a comeback in 2009 after a three-year lull, new “soft targets” were chosen such as food co-ops and aging rock stars, demonstrating that (at least for now) BDS is all but dead at major institutions.

If BDS has been so unsuccessful, is it really a threat?

Despite its losing streak, calls for BDS have gained considerable momentum based on a single victory, such as the temporary support divestment had with the Presbyterian Church which was used to inspire hundreds of divestment projects between 2004 and 2006.

BDS controversies also tend to distort debate on college campuses, creating a discussion over whether or not Israel should be punished for its “crimes,” rather than pointing out the inaccuracy and unfairness of these very accusations or the responsibility of Israel’s accusers for the situation in the Middle East.

Finally, calls for boycott or divestment do tremendous damage to the institutions which embrace them, poisoning the atmosphere and creating hostile environments on campuses and elsewhere. For all these reasons, BDS needs to be fought whenever it rears its head within any civic institution.

What kind of damage do BDS projects cause others?

At its heart, BDS is an attempt to import the bitterness of the Arab-Israeli conflict into a civic institution such as a college, church, city or union in order to leverage that organization’s reputation for the narrow partisan gain of divestment advocates.

Historically, attempts to win a well known organization into the divestment fold are accomplished by maneuvering behind the backs of members (and sometimes committing outright fraud). On several occasions, students, church members or citizens simply wake up one morning to discover their school, church or city is calling for a boycott of Israel in their name, causing bitter divisiveness (frequently along religious or racial lines), accusation and counteraccusation, leading to breaches and long-term damage to a civic institution.

Divestment activists, with their single-minded objective to gain the support of a well-known organization – by any means necessary – time and time again fail to reflect on the hurt they cause in an attempt to achieve their aims.

PennBDS: Delegitimization

“Deligitimization” is an ungainly word, one which even Israel’s defenders don’t much enjoy using.

Descriptively, the term does the job in summing up a set of activities designed to deny to the Jewish state the rights to perform the same legitimate activities that are automatically granted to any other nation (including the right to its very existence). But to get a better understanding of what this word means, it’s best to look at the role of each player in the delegitmization hierarchy.

At the top of that hierarchy are the 20+ states of the Arab League, nearly all of which have refused to politically recognize Israel since its birth, nations that have also enacted economic blockades and boycotts of the Jewish state they surround for even longer. In fact, with a few exceptions, the only political relationship they maintain with their Israeli neighbor is a formal state of war which many of these nations have acted upon more than once in the last 60+ years.

These Arab League states are further aligned with over 50 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), giving Islamic states with an anti-Israel agenda a 50:1 advantage over the one Jewish nation they have targeted politically, diplomatically, economically and (in some cases) militarily.

This ratio is important because of the role played by international organizations such as the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations (NGO) in furthering this delegitimization agenda. For while there exist a large number of trans-national organizations (the most prominent being the UN), the independent nation state is still the primary actor on the world stage. And if you don’t believe me, just stop and think about how much easier it is for Saudi Arabia to get the United Nations to do what it wants rather than vice versa.

And what these 50 nation states (which between them control most of the world’s oil wealth) and their allies (notably members of the former “non-aligned” bloc) want is for these international organizations to rain condemnation on their political enemy, all in the name of noble principles such as “international law,” and “human rights.”

The fact that the nations who use organizations like the UN to target the Jewish state are themselves the worst human rights abusers on the planet is actually an important component of the equation. For in focusing the attention of these global agencies (agencies originally developed to keep the peace and protect the weak) on their political enemy, the Arab League states and their friends both benefit from a propaganda victory while also taking the human rights spotlight off their own abhorrent behavior.

Specific anti-Israel groups like those who will be represented at the PennBDS conference are the beneficiaries activity that originates above them, using the condemnations that come out of institutions like the ghastly UN Human Rights Council to launder their own choices and activities through what NGO Monitor cleverly (if depressingly) illustrated as the BDS Sewer System.

This laundering allows anti-Israel groups (whether they prioritize the BDS tactic or not) to claim that they are fighting for noble causes like human rights, or targeting Israel (and only Israel) because it is in violation of “international law,” which avoids having to admit that they are simply partisan advocates in one side of a political and military conflict.

And it is when the conflict turns military that these “Friends of the Palestinian People” show their true colors. For during the months or years when groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are making war all but inevitable (by kidnapping Israelis or firing hundreds or thousands of rockets into Israeli territory, an act of war by any possible definition of the term), these groups are completely somnambulant.

Yes, if you back them into a corner, they will make a grudging condemnation of Hamas rocket fire and the like (usually with a “big but” as in “Yes, rocket fire is inexcusable, BUT it wouldn’t occur if not for “The Occupation”). But once Israel does the inevitable and returns fire, these once silent organizations roar to life and take to the streets demanding an immediate ceasefire coupled with more political condemnation of a Jewish state that has dared do what any other nation in the world would do if hit with endless volleys of munitions for weeks and months on end.

As I’ve discussed before, the inevitability of massive street protests (coupled with demands for international intervention) when (and only when) shooting goes in two directions in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere becomes a component of the conflict itself. In addition to providing a platform for the creation and propagation of propaganda (the primary role of third parties such as PennBDS in the Middle East Conflict), it’s also a factor that any military leader (in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere) must take into consideration when they decide how far they can push before triggering Israeli reprisals, or how long they have to hold on before international pressure forces Israel to cease military operations.

So in many ways, the term “delegitimization” really describes what the BDSers and their friends and allies do to themselves. For while they would like to portray themselves as pure-hearted, human-rights champions fighting for what’s right against overwhelming odds, the truth is that they are simply partisan players allied with one side in a political (and sometimes military) campaign, a cog in militant machinery whose role is to provide crucial propaganda support for allies who represent many of the most wealthy, powerful and nasty political regimes on the face of planet earth.

The Apartheid Analogy

PennBDS – Lessons from South Africa

South Africa is so central to the BDS narrative that it’s warranted considerable coverage on this blog.  While I’ll be consolidating themes written about elsewhere in this PennBDS-related entry, anyone interested in learning more can start out here.

First off, remember that BDS is simply a tactic in the service of a wider strategy: to “brand” Israel as the new South Africa, the focal point of racism in the modern age which ultimately deserves the same fate as the Apartheid regime which ended in the early 1990s.

BDS practitioners tend to fall into two categories: people old enough to have participated in anti-Apartheid campus activities in the 1980s (a history I share, at least with regard to age), and those who were too young to remember anything that happened back then.

The former wear any political activity they may have participated in during that period (even if it consisted of nothing more than being on a campus when others were engaged in anti-Apartheid protests) as a badge of honor, entitling them to judge who is the inheritor of the Apartheid tradition they claim to have helped vanquish. 

Putting aside the questionable link between campus protests and ultimate political change in South Africa, and putting aside the question as to whether being right about the nature of one national regime entitles one to judge all others (well, one anyway), it has never been clear why past anti-Apartheid activists who attack Israel deserve any more consideration than former anti-Apartheid activists who support it.

At the other end of the age spectrum, you have people attending college today who may not have even been born when Apartheid fell.  For them, “Apartheid” is a catch-all term for racism as national policy, rather than an historical event (which is why you routinely see the term misspelled on signs at “Israel Aparthied” or “Israel Aparthide” themed rallies). 

The fact that the South Africa story is complex, with blacks and whites acting in the camps of both oppressors and liberators is lost on both of these groups, as is the true role of different states in supporting or protesting the Apartheid regime. This is why every aspect of the complex relationship between Israel and South Africa (no matter how marginal) is cast in the starkest terms as though these two states alone acted as brothers in bigotry.  Meanwhile the fact that it was Israel’s political rivals (notably the Gulf States) who supplied Apartheid South Africa with all of the oil needed to fund its machinery of repression has been dumped down the memory hole.

The support of actual South Africans of the BDS program is the key to the Israel=Apartheid narrative, saying in effect that if South Africans say Israel is an Apartheid state, then it must be true.  This is why the name of Desmond Tutu (one of two South African names most Americans would recognize and a strong BDS supporter) is invoked on nearly every anti-Israel petition, on nearly every BDS web site and in every BDS letter to the editor, speech and article. 

The other universally recognized name is, of course, Nelson Mandela whose relationship with the Jewish state is more ambiguous than Tutu’s (which is why anti-Israel activists have gone so far as to create fraudulent anti-Israel quotes to stuff into Mandela’s mouth). 

Beyond these two, the names and activities of other South Africans (including the many South African Jews who formed the backbone of anti-Apartheid protest within South Africa) are lost on both young and old BDSers, as is the fact that Israel as a multi-racial society bears no resemblance to Apartheid, a term that would be much better applied to state policies regarding gender, sexuality, religion and even race practiced by Israel’s self-declared political enemies (including the ones who rule in Gaza).

Underlying the need to wrap their anti-Israel branding exercise with South African flag is the assumption by BDSers that the political trials suffered by black South Africans has turned them into saints who cannot be criticized in any way, which is why any criticism of Desmond Tutu’s stance on Israel (for example) is used to support accusations of racism against Israel’s defenders. 

Interestingly, this formula of suffering = sainthood is not applied to anyone else, especially to Jews who also suffered murderous racism (in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, and in the Middle East today).  Instead, many boycotters make the case that Jewish suffering created damaged souls whose suffering destroyed their empathy for others.  Some go even farther, suggesting that rather than learning mercy from the Holocaust experience, many Jews learned at the feet of their former tormentors, becoming Nazis (or Nazi-like) in the process.

This apparent double moral standard makes sense only if you understand that the BDSers have no moral standards, and no actual concern for Jews, for South Africans or for Palestinians for that matter, despite endlessly repeating and tweeting their universal love for all mankind.  For them, “Apartheid” (like racism generally) is not an actual thing suffered by actual people, but rather it is a slur and a weapon to be thrown at their political foes while ignoring it when practiced by their political allies.


Penn BDS

The Penn community holds no stock in the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement

The BDS movement — a group that encourages boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the State of Israel — will run its national conference here at Penn in early February. In reply, President Amy Gutmann clarified that though BDS will be held at Penn, Penn holds no stock in BDS. In a recent statement, she wrote that “this is not an event sponsored by the University … The University of Pennsylvania has clearly stated on numerous occasions that it does not support sanctions or boycotts against Israel.”

By withholding the university’s imprimatur from BDS and its boycotts, President Gutmann reflects the Penn community’s strong and long-established ties with Israel.

The Penn community, as President Gutmann wrote, “has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise.” Many Israelis are visiting or standing Penn Professors. Penn’s Katz Center hosts numerous Israeli fellows each year. Recently, Penn joined with Israel’s Ben Gurion University to honor acclaimed Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld.

The Penn community does not support BDS because boycotts are destructive and divisive, undermine hopes for peace and do nothing to help the Palestinians improve their lives, begin state building or develop democratic institutions. Above all, boycotts squelch all forms of dialogue and nuanced understanding by consigning blame to and penalizing only one side of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Penn, like all other universities, stands for the free exchange of ideas. Boycotts at the University, therefore, are especially repulsive.

The Penn community does not support BDS because its quasi-rational basis — the charge that Israel’s behavior mimics Apartheid South Africa’s, and, as such, Israel should be similarly punished — is spurious at best, Orwellian at worst. Despite her tough situation, Israel embodies liberal democratic freedoms and boasts a westernized, open, liberal and free society.

Israel’s record on human rights is among the world’s best, especially among nations that have confronted comparable existential threats. For instance, Israel minimizes civilian casualties by exposing its own soldiers to the risk of door to door “retail” fighting, rather than resorting to “wholesale” bombing of the kind done by many other countries, including our own.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East where minorities such as gays, Arabs and women are generally granted equal civil rights.

Gays flock to Israel not only because Israel grants them equal rights but because Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where gays have the right — to life. Hanging homosexuals is unfortunately commonplace in Israel’s neighbors — including the Palestinian Authority — but is unheard of in Israel. In fact, Israel ended discrimination against gays in her army long before the United States repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Arab-Israelis comprise about 20-percent of Israel’s population and participate in Israeli democracy at all levels. Arab men and women continue to vote in elections for and serve in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Out of respect for the complexity of Arab-Israeli identity, Arab citizens are exempt from the compulsory military service that has secured the accomplishments of Israeli democracy.

Not only can Israel’s women drive and dress as they wish — rare freedoms in the Middle East — but they are equal to men in all respects. In fact, the second most powerful elected Israeli official is Tzipi Livni, a woman.

Israel’s Supreme Court is the only independent judiciary in the Middle East and one of the most highly regarded in the world, and has not shied away from confronting other branches of government to advance human rights. The Supreme Court consists of Arabs, such as Justice Salim Joubran, and is led by a woman, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch.

BDS is right that Israel is different from all other western countries: only Israel took black Africans out of slavery and into freedom, instead of the reverse.

This list could go on and on, and by every single standard Israel would surpass most other countries, especially those that perpetrate real human rights violations and against which no divestiture petition has been directed, such as Syria, Sudan and Somalia (just to name three countries whose names begin with the letter “S”).

To be sure, Israel is far from perfect. But ignoring the fact — that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a moral army, a commitment to the equality of minorities and an independent judiciary — in an effort to single out the Jewish state of Israel as if it were the worst human rights offender is a bigoted double standard, pure and simple.

Ignorance can excuse bigotry, but neither — like BDS — has support on our college campus.


PennBDS – Packaging BDS

While the session at the PennBDS program entitled “Packaging the Movement – Apartheid or Jim Crow” will likely focus on the “Apartheid” and “Jim Crow” parts of that title, I’d like to zero in on the “Packaging” portion for a moment.

As I’ve described a number of times before, BDS is essentially a branding exercise, marketing-speak for a program designed to associate one thing with another. When you reach for a Kleenex to blow your nose, buy a Coke to quench your thirst or use the browser you’re currently reading this blog on to Google for more information, your use of brand names (instead of “tissue,” “cola,” or “search engine”) is the result of successful efforts over the years to get you to use the name of a company’s specific brand instead of a generic noun.

While techniques for getting you to associate one name with another can be sophisticated and expensive, one of the simplest and cheapest methods for achieving this goal is constant repetition. This is why the branding exercise associated with the BDS “movement,” to get you to associate the words “Israel” and “Apartheid,” consists first and foremost with never writing a sentence that includes one of those words without the other.

If you look at some of the back-and-forth on the PennBDS conference that took place in the comments section of this article, you’ll notice this marketing trick playing out with near perfect discipline. Regardless of the quality of thought put into any posting by a BDS proponent, they will never fail to write, speak and even shriek “Apartheid! Apartheid! Apartheid!” at every possible opportunity.

If you understand BDS to be a branding exercise, you will also understand why it is difficult – if not impossible – to get BDS advocates to respond to any arguments that claim Israel is nothing like an Apartheid state or why places like Hamas-ruled Gaza are (at least with regard to attitudes towards women, gays, and religious minorities – including Jews). For expecting BDSers to defend their opinions with facts and arguments (as opposed to cherry-picked links and shouted accusations) is like expecting the Coca Cola Company to give Pepsico a space for rebuttal at the end of every Coke commercial. Simply put, discussion and debate, which are part of any legitimate political process, have no home in the type of political branding exercise that is BDS, an exercise more commonly referred to as “propaganda.”

If you read this statement by the person who will be speaking on this subject at the PennBDS event, you will see that “Apartheid” is not the only word in his vocabulary (although it is the one he seems to use most frequently). In addition to the “A-word” (and “Jim Crow” which is also in his session title), you have a whole panoply of terminology and names meant to associate the Israel-Palestinian situation with the repression of darker-skinned people by lighter-skinned ones. The speaker’s credentials as a union leader, an activist against Apartheid South Africa and – yes – an African American who has been involved with both African American and anti-Israel organizations also helps to cement the link between the struggle for justice for blacks in the US and South Africa with the Palestinian cause.

We will get to the subject of BDS and the Black community in a few days when we get to the Penn agenda item with that title. But for now, I’d like to analyze this linkage with the context of another marketing concept: market segmentation.

Not just the article linked above, but virtually the entire BDS vocabulary is designed to reach a very specific section of the political marketplace: progressive audiences. In fact, the reason why anyone choosing to defend Israel and counter these accusations (including this blog) is frequently condemned as “right wing” is because the BDSers want to claim full ownership of the left end of the political spectrum.

Beyond just trying to gain adherents to their cause among progressive individuals and organizations, the boycotters make it very clear that their agenda item is not just one among many but is the single defining issue for left-leaning audiences with anyone who disagrees cast out as a member of the “racist right.”

Now I have friends and colleagues that are driven to distraction by the fact that anti-Israel polemics are cast entirely in progressive terminology, including actual progressives bitter at the hijacking of their vocabulary and conservatives who use this phenomenon to prove that the left is intrinsically anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic.

I tend to avoid these two extremes of bitterness, knowing something about the history of how anti-Israel politics nested itself in progressive circles, but also knowing about the damage caused by using the Middle East conflict and Peace Process as surrogates for other partisan political issues (especially in the US and Israel itself).

It’s also worth noting that because boycott and divestment advocates have chosen to sink their talons into progressive organizations (colleges and universities, Mainline Protestant churches, unions, etc.), that this is where the BDSers have fought and lost all of their major battles, meaning that their message has been actively looked at and rejected almost entirely by left-leaning audiences.

These marketing tricks (repetition, staying on message and ignoring responses, market-segmentation, etc.) work for products that actually do what they are supposed to do. Kleenex effectively wipes tears and mucous, Coke refreshes a parched throat, and Google will find what you’re looking for (based on just tying a few letters – a gift of Israeli technology, BTW).

But no matter how frequently or effectively they are employed, these techniques can’t convince most people that a sow’s ear is actually a silk purse. Simply put, they are not that helpful when trying to sell a lie (such as the “Israel = Apartheid” formulation).

Given the rejection of BDS by virtually every audience to which it has been targeted, it’s safe to say (so far at least) that the BDSer’s belief in Barnum’s adage that “a sucker is born every minute” has yet to be proven true.

PennBDS and the Black Community

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

While any discussion involving race in America can trigger some heat, debate over subject such as “BDS and the Black Community” (the next item on the PenBDS agenda), can be particularly problematical given that BDS proponents have a tendency to accuse their opponents of racism at the slightest (or even non-existent) provocation.

This phenomenon is particularly interesting, given BDSers tendency to claim that any criticism of their “movement” consists of nothing more than insincere accusations of anti-Semitism designed to shut them up (or in JVPparlance: to “muzzle” them from speaking truth to power). So, once again, we seem to be in a situation of anti-Israel advocates projecting their own faults onto their critics.

One way to avoid such conflict is to focus on statistical information. Unfortunately, while African Americans (and Hispanics) are appropriately represented in this professional survey, they are not broken out as a separate demographic. However, there is some insight we can glean from aggregate data.

For example, general support for Israel in the US tends to run at around 60%, sometimes dipping a bit below, sometimes climbing to as high as 70%. This is in contrast to support for the Palestinians which tends to rattle around the 20-25% range. This general 3:1 ratio of support between the parties to the conflict is actually an average with Republicans falling in the 4:1 ratio range and Democrats hovering around 2:1. If we assume that African American attitudes tend to clump around the same numbers as Democrats (or are even responsible for pulling Democratic numbers down), even numbers low enough to move the Democratic ratio from the 3:1 national average down to 2:1 imply parity of support between Israelis and Palestinians.

While partisans will occasionally try to make hay of the overall disparity between Democrats and Republicans, a more neutral observer would marvel at how this issue (unlike nearly any other political issue one could name) demonstrates such widespread levels of support for one side in a heated controversy (even if the level of intensity for this support might vary). I’m at a loss to name any other single domestic or international issue where all parties and nearly all demographics agree at levels of 2:1 or higher.

Absent statistical evidence of support one way or another, we are left with anecdotal information and certainly the speakers who will be participating in this PennBDS panel will be making the case that certain African Americans (including, one expects, most of the ones participating in the conference) share the BDS view that Israel is the successor to Apartheid South Africa and the Jim Crow American South.

The trouble is, I could provide equally compelling anecdotal evidence of black support for Israel, such as this speech by Cory Booker, the African American Mayor of Newark (and the man who gave the single most powerful speech in support of Israel I’ve ever heard). Naturally, participants at the PennBDS event are free to ignore the existence of people such as Booker, or try to dismiss them as some kind of “sell out.” But as with so many issues, the ignoring of inconvenient evidence is no substitute for proof of the BDSers claim that African Americans are generally in alignment with their political goals.

The reason it is so important for BDS advocates to allege such an alignment (with or without evidence) is the nature of their target audience: political progressives. For such an audience, accusations of racism and Apartheid – especially coming from black Americans – would be particularly resonant, especially since black supporters of Israel are less likely to (1) hurl similar accusations of bigotry against Israel’s international foes; and (2) claim to speak on behalf of a black majority as a whole. The desire to claim ownership of “black opinion” would help explain the extreme hostility that greeted news that Jewish organizations would be reaching out to the black community (a community anti-Israel activists would prefer to outreach to without competition).

In researching this topic, the most interesting quote I found was on this article where the speaker questioned what dog African Americans might have in this particular fight. While this argument might seem self-centered, it actually demonstrates significant wisdom, especially in light of how African nations have historically been asked to join in on Arab League condemnations of Israel (funneled through the UN and other organizations), only to see their own concerns (such as stopping the oil-for-gold trade between the Arab states and Apartheid South Africa) ignored.

Given this history, it seems wise indeed for a community to focus on its own issues before agreeing to allow its history (and its voice) serve one side or the other in someone else’s political battles.


In some language (probably Yiddish) there exists a word that combines the notions of chutzpah and clownishness. And if one needed an example to illustrate this concept, one need look no further than the biggest campaign on the BDS agenda: the one asking the massive educational retirement fund TIAA-CREF to divest from the Jewish state.

What makes this campaign so absurd is that, according to the BDSers themselves, TIAA-CREF already complied with their wishes and divested from Israel back in 2009!

If the chronological paradox of a group launching a major campaign to get CREF to do what the boycotters claimed they have already done sounds like a badly written Doctor Who episode, you need to understand that 2009 was what I refer to as the Year of the BDS Hoax.

The hoax that Hampshire College divested in 2009 was exposed years ago (and confirmed with absolute certainty just a few weeks back). But in that same year, the BDS presses were running hot with stories of major investment firms following their wishes and pulling funds from the dreaded Zionist entity.

The story behind the original TIAA-CREF hoax was that the retirement fund sold off shares in a company called Africa-Israel, a company headed by a controversial figure who had been targeted by anti-Israel activists. But more importantly, it was a highly leveraged company heavily invested in real estate that was struggling with massive debt after the financial crisis of 2008. And CREF's decision to sell off shares had everything to do with the company's financial woes, and nothing to do with politics.

The story behind subsequent divestment hoaxes was that in 2010 Israel emerged as a First World economy, exemplified by the country joining the Organizationfor Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD (over the protests of the usual suspects). The Israel economy, you see, has nearly doubled in size over the last decade (i.e., during the very years the boycotters were working tirelessly to bring that economy to its knees). This fast growth, coupled with sound governmental financial management, transitioned Israel from a developing to developed economy, similar to the transition the so-called “Asian Tiger” economies went through in the 80s and 90s.

This transition had counter-intuitive consequences in the financial markets since many institutional investors have funds specifically chartered to only invest in developing economies. And once Israel left that developing category by joining the OECD, those funds were legally required to sell their Israel-based assets. Now there is always a lag between when such required/automatic sell-offs take place and when investors chartered to buy stock in developed economies get around to doing so. And so, ironically, First World economic status led to a transition period where more selling (i.e., “divestment”) than buying (i.e., “investment”) of Israeli equities took place.

In the case of sell-offs related to the Africa-Israel's financial crisis and OECD-related financial-timing issues, the BDS brigade took advantage of ambiguity regarding the word “divestment” to claim that these sell-offs were a result of their work and should be seen as acknowledgement of their Israel = Apartheid message by the financial community. You see, there is “divestment,” the selling of stock for any reason (the usual one being expectation that it will down in price), and “divestment” the deliberate action by an institution to sell shares in certain companies purely as a political statement (something I refer to as “political divestment” to avoid the aforementioned ambiguity).

Now we all know what real, genuine political divestment looks like. We saw it with regard to South African during the Apartheid years, and we see it now in connection with countries like Sudan and Iran. In each and every case, it is the people actually performing political divestment that explicitly tell the world they are doing so. Political divestment done in secret is utterly meaningless, so the one and only way you know that divestment is political in nature is that the organization doing this type of divestment (be it TIAA-CREF, Hampshire College or some else) say so themselves. And just as Students for Justice in Palestine cannot speak in the name of Hampshire College, so too divestment advocates don’t get to project their own political motivations onto the actions of financial institutions.

To state the obvious, neither TIAA-CREF or other organizations claimed by BDSers as political divestors did anything of the kind. And they were none-too- amused that partisan political organizations were trying to stuff propaganda into their mouths by claiming purely financial decisions were actually political. So within a few days of the BDS press releases going out, claims of divestment by TIAA-CREF and others were thoroughly debunked.

Now most normal people would either own up to such dishonest behavior (if they want to act ethically and morally) or shut their mouths, pretend the whole thing never happened and never mention TIAA-CREF again (if they’d rather avoid the whole ethics and morality thing). But what are we to make of the fact that less than a year after getting their hand caught in the cookie jar the BDS “movement” announced that their brand new, biggest campaign yet was going to consist of getting TIAA-CREF to actually do what the boycotters just pretended they did the year before?

I actually played with the whole time-travel notion in this epic time waster (which you are free to read during the PennBDS/Jewish Voice for Peace session on this topic). But here in the purely linear temporal space you and I call reality, the idea of fraudulently claiming an organization like TIAA-CREF as your ally one year only to turn around and campaign to get them to really do what you claimed they had already done qualifies as positively weird.

Beyond this weirdness, this story also raises the question of whether one should trust anything (including claims about Middle East realities) coming from the mouth of a “movement” that would lie about something so blatantly. And given that the facts noted above are just a .13 second Google search away, it makes you wonder when they decided that everyone but them is a complete and total idiot.


This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

With a panel discussion entitled “BDS, Hillel and the Question of Anti-Semitism,” our old friends at Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) finally take center stage on the PennBDS agenda.

As regulars reader know, JVP has been the topic of several serious and not-so-serious discussions here at Divest This. But since these PennBDS-related postings seem to be evolving towards capstone essays on subjects I’ve been writing about for several years, it’s worth taking time to highlight the significance of the JVP organization and the subjects it has chosen to talk about at the upcoming national BDS conference.

Starting with the obvious, Jewish Voice for Peace is an organization made up primarily (although not entirely) of Jews who advocate for BDS and engage in other activities which are anathema not just to people like me but to the bulk of the American Jewish community (organized and disorganized).

Now some people I know get totally bent out of shape that in any BDS debate the leadership of both sides will likely be Jewish. Personally, I simply take this as a fact of life and while I’ve touched on the subject of Jewish involvement (and even leadership) in anti-Israel activity, getting into a frenzy about the phenomena is about as effective as a Medieval general complaining that his enemy’s cavalry make use of horses.

Like any political group, JVP is free to organize, take positions on issues and engage in the age-old branding exercise of putting the words like “Peace” and “Justice” in their name and mission statements. They are also free to advocate for thing like BDS and all kinds of other goals that other Jewish community members and organizations oppose, although they must live with the reality that as a group pushing a minority opinion, they are obliged to win over others via the force of their arguments and the willingness to engage with their critics.

But this is the very thing that makes JVP stand apart from what I would refer to as “normal politics,” and what makes them such a perfect representative of the BDS phenomenon as a whole.

For it you look at their track record, JVP is not willing to accept its role as representatives of minority opinion, but rather desperately seeks to speak in the name of people who do not share those opinions. This is why they gate crash at events like San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival or the Federation’s Community Heroes Project (sometimes days or weeks after organizing disruptions at events sponsored by the same community they insist they be allowed to join).

This is why they complain endlessly that they are not given immediate membership and equal status to other Jewish groups I places like campus Hillels, despite taking positions that are diametrically opposed to what those groups have chosen to stand for. Rather than live with the responsibility (and the freedom) of speaking just for themselves (which, as someone representing no one but himself, I can attest has plusses and minuses), their entire project is based on creating the illusion that they speak for a “silent majority,” knowledge of which is being repressed by sinister forces that snuff out all debate about the subjects JVP holds dear.

This is how JVP serves as such a good stand in for BDS as a whole. For just as JVP is trying to barge into the broader Jewish community in order to get into a position to speak in the name of others, so too does BDS use any means necessarily (such as moral blackmail and back-room maneuvering) to try to get their Israel = Apartheid accusations to come out of the mouth of prominent institutions such as schools, churches and municipalities. And when they fail (which is always), their response is not to reflect on how they might be able to actually win the argument, but rather to claim anyone who stands in their way (even by simply criticizing their positions) is guilty of censoring (or “muzzling”) them.

The irony is that just as JVP desperately covets everyone else’s civic space, no organization I can think of is more protective of its own. Joining JVP requires signing of a pledge (which some have deemed a “loyalty oath”) requiring agreement with the overall JVP agenda (including BDS). And while I have light heartedly played with the idea of doing to them what they try to do to everyone else (i.e., joining their group solely for the purpose of claiming to speak for them), the folks at JVP know full well that those of us who criticize them would never sign such a pledge with the sole purpose of subversion.

I’ve talked quite a bit about how JVP’s (like all BDS organizations) refuse to allow comments (i.e., free-flowing discussion) on their many Web sites (including their Muzzlewatch site which they claim was created specifically to open up dialog). And even after they announced a program specifically designed to engage in the conversations they claim Hillel is repressing, they remain stone silent when offered the chance to engage in a real dialog, as opposed to the type of conversation they would prefer in which they get to set themselves up as a rabbinic authority handing down wisdom to the uninformed.

Just like any BDS organization (including, or should I say, especially PennBDS), the last thing groups like JVP want is the discussion and debate they claim desperately to crave. Rather, they demand that they unconditionally be handed the moral high ground based solely on their claim to stand for “Peace” just as they insist that they be given unquestioned access to community spaces and resources.

And when they don’t get what they want, they scream “censorship,” or claim that their opponents do nothing more than hurl empty accusations of anti-Semitism at them, knowing full well that it is their opponents who truly stand for the openness (not to mention commitment to peace and justice) that single-issue partisan groups like JVP only feign.

PennBDS – Consumer Boycotts

I’ve written a number of times on the subject of consumer boycotts, and anyone interested in more information and case studies can read about them in the Divest This Guide.

To start off, boycotts were rather slow in coming to the US where BDS campaigns focused on divestment for most of the last decade, specifically trying to get well known institutions such as colleges and churches to buy into their Israel = Apartheid propaganda program. Consumer boycotts played out much more in Canada during this period, but they traveled south and got built into the overall BDS target set, especially once divestment proved to be such a bust.

An irony of consumer boycotts directed at Israel is that the only reason the BDSers have so many products to target is the very success of the Israeli economy the boycotters working for over ten years to undermine. Twenty or even ten years ago, an Israel hater would have to drive for hours to find an Israeli product not to buy, and even then they would struggle to locate anything beyond wine and oranges. Today, however, not only is Israeli technology behind the scenes in virtually every computer the boycotters use to build their web pages and write their press releases hailing the latest tuba player and puppet troupe to boycott the Jewish state, but Israeli brands are starting to find an established home on the store shelves of major retailers.

Some of these continue to be food items (such as the Israeli couscous you’ll find at Trader Joe’s), but brands such as Ahava and SodaStream have been increasingly finding premium positions at upscale retailers such as Williams Sonoma, Macys and Best Buy.

As mentioned previously, consumer boycotts can be either personal or institutional. In the case of personal boycotts, consumers are encouraged to not buy particular brands of products for political reasons. Generally, this is not a direction the BDS folks tend to go, not least because announcements that an individual or group of Israel haters is no longer buying Israeli products would elicit a “so what else is new” response, rather than a headline. And this makes sense since one person making individual decisions not to buy Israeli couscous for political reasons is no more remarkable (although certainly no less so) than ten Israeli supporters deciding to buy the same couscous for opposite political reasons.

But since BDS is essentially a tactic to try to make news, the targets of consumer boycotts have been retailers, such as Bed Bath and Beyond (which sells Ahava beauty products) and Trader Joe’s (which sells the aforementioned couscous). The trouble for BDSers begins with the fact that these retailers are sophisticated institutions with their own legal and marketing departments who understand full well that they are being asked to affix their name (i.e., their brand) to someone else’s political agenda. Which is why the rejection rate of boycott requests directed at such retailers currently stands at 100%.

With retailers unwilling to play along, the boycotters have chosen a strategy of protests and stuntwork to try to draw people’s attention to their cause, organizing pickets and song-and-dance protests outside of retail shops or taking their clothes off and smearing themselves with mud inside department stores. The problem with this approach (in addition to bewildering or appalling the public) is that it is easily countered by the effective tactic of Buycott (i.e., Israeli supporters shopping en mass to buy out Israeli goods targeted for boycott).

The beauty of the Buycott tactic is that it allows Israel supporters to undermine a boycott protest through the simple and low-risk tactic of asking people to go shopping (vs. the effort the boycotters have to go through to organize an event and the risks they take if they decide to become disruptive or even break the law). Nowhere was this contrast more apparent than in downtown Toronto in 2009 where an attempt to picket a liquor store selling Israeli wines turned into a street party where Israel’s supporters danced in the streets drinking “boycotted” wine they had just purchased en mass while the BDS types were forced to slink out into the night in defeat.

With direct and indirect attacks on major retailers proving so problematical, the boycotters did stumble upon one subset of food sellers they could try to work their will upon: food co-ops. These are smaller, cooperatively owned retailers, many of whom serve and are run by the type of progressive-minded thinkers for whom the BDS message has been crafted.

But even here, efforts to get food co-ops to strip Israeli products from their shelves has been rejected again and again by co-ops in places like Seattle, Sacramento and Davis, California (i.e., by the very progressive communities the BDSers insist must support their boycott agenda). In fact, the only co-op that ever enacted a boycott (the Olympia Food Co-op in Olympia, Washington) did so only because the BDS cru managed to get the organization's leadership to pass a boycott vote behind the backs of the co-op’s membership.

We will be talking more about Olympia once we get to a PennBDS session dedicated to that community. But the final take-away from that boycott (which is still in place) is that it has served as an iconic example to other co-ops throughout the nation of what not to do when BDS comes knocking at the door.


PennBDS: Community and BDS

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

The PennBDS talk entitled “BDS as a Community-Wide Political Campaign” originally had the word “Winning” or “Victory” in the title (I can’t remember which). I can only guess why a word indicating progress was removed from the talk’s name, but as with this discussion that hung on the word “Beginners,” the key term in the newly crafted title mentioned above is “Community.” And by “Community,” I’m talking about a very specific, very unique community: Olympia Washington.

To provide some background, as I’ve noted before support for Israel tends to hover at around 60-70% in the US and wherever it lands in that range on any particular day, it tends to outpoll support for Israel’s foes by a factor of 3:1. But this does not mean that two-thirds of the US population (which would add up to 200,000,000 people) is active in pro-Israel organizations or that a third of this number supports BDS. While these numbers indicate general support levels, the number of Americans actively involved with fighting (politically) for one side or the other in the Middle East conflict can probably be measured in the tens of thousands.

And these activists are not spread out evenly across the country. In fact, they tend to bunch up in cities (notably places like Boston, New York and San Francisco), especially cities with large university populations (colleges and universities being places where supporters and defamers of Israel are fairly evenly matched).

In most of these places, Israel’s supporters still tend to outnumber their opposition and even if we are less aggressive in our political activism than are BDS proponents, when we decide to get off our duffs and do something, the result tends to be defeat and humiliation for anti-Israel forces.

But there are a few isolated places where anti-Israel activists are in the clear majority (or at least have the unquestioned upper hand). These places tend to be college towns where Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) types easily outnumber their opponents AND such college activists can count on heavy support from the broader community. In fact, I can think of only two places that fit this description: Western Massachusetts (home of Hampshire College, which may explain why Hampshire’s SJP group feels entitled to runamok) and Olympia, Washington.

In the case of Olympia, this formula of a strong anti-Israel presence on campus (in this case, the campus of Evergreen College) plus well-organized anti-Israel activists outside of campus is supplemented by the “Great Big Thing” that comes up whenever one discusses Olympia: Rachel Corrie.

Corrie was an Evergreen student recruited by a group called the International Solidarity Movement (or ISM) to enter Israel for the purpose of staging militant protests. And while in Israel, she placed herself between a Caterpillar bulldozer driven by an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian house built on top of a tunnel used to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip. And while standing in this position, she was hit by the bulldozer and killed.

Now whenever the issue of Rachel Corrie comes up, one must maneuver carefully to avoid the trap being laid by supporters of her cause. For the ISM (and like-minded individuals and organizations) make endless political use of Corrie’s “martyrdom,” making all kinds of political statements and judgments based on her tragic death. But if one responds by making political statements the BDSers disagree with, you quickly find yourself staring at photos of Corrie as an infant or young teen and accused of gross insensitivity to the death of a young girl and her family.

I’ve actually mixed it up with one of the people on this PennBDS panel over this very issue, and to avoid the whole thing becoming a focal point for debate again, suffice to say that there are various people and organizations to which you can apportion responsibility for Corrie’s death including: Israel, the Caterpillar bulldozer company, the International Solidarity Movement which brought her to Israel and convinced her to put herself in harm’s way, Corrie herself (who agreed to go this route) and the Palestinians (who decided to build weapons tunnels under civilian structures and ally themselves with folks like the ISM). Corrie’s supporters assign 100% of the blame to the first two members of this list, while the rest of us tend to spread the numbers out a bit more broadly.

But getting back to Olympia, this is one of the few places where a mix of numbers, aggressiveness and (in Olympia’s case) the Corrie factor (in the form of a foundation named after her and run by her parents) means that you can’t walk down the street without condemnation of Israel staring you in the face (literally). Anti-Israel films and cultural events are almost weekly occurrences in the town and Evergreen College (even more than Hampshire) is a school so unwelcoming to people not willing to toe the anti-Israel line that students have actually transferred out to avoid harassment.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back happened in 2010 when the local food co-op decided to become the first (and, so far, only) co-op to pass a boycott motion stripping Israel-produced products from their shelves. Now I’ve written about Olympia so many times that I won’t dwell in the details here (although feel free to punch "Olympia Co-op" into the search box to the right or just look at “Tale of Two Co-ops” in the Divest This manual to read a synthesis of the discussion of how boycotts have played out in the co-op community).

But in the case of Olympia, the result was not a “Community-Wide Political Campaign” but an assault on the community (in this case members of the co-op) which woke up one morning to discover that a bunch of partisan activists had worked behind their backs in order to speak in their name. This was followed by a revolt of that same community against the co-op featuring resignations, a vigil of protest and, now, a lawsuit.

We’ll be joined by a guest writer later in the week to talk about another co-op impacted by BDS partisans. But for now, its worth remembering that in one of the few places where the BDSers have the muscle to get their way, they were more than ready to shaft their neighbors in order to create and maintain a trivial victory, regardless of the pain it has caused to everyone around them.


Pennbds-The Zionist Response

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference. Check out this landing page to find out more.

Building momentum from small victories is a time-honored tactic for political activist groups. And BDS proponents have been more effective at this than most, anchoring two years of heavy-duty campaigning on their 2004 victory in getting the Presbyterian Church to pass a divestment resolution (an admittedly not small, but ultimately ephemeral win).

The trouble is that defeat also creates momentum, and as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement” closes in on twelve years without being accepted by a single major institution they have been courting for over a decade (indeed, with massive rejections by previous supporters, including the aforementioned Presbyterian Church, in their wake), the need to redefine what victory looks like becomes paramount.

This is what’s behind all those “by losing the vote, we actually won” -type statements that accompany each boycott or divestment rejection, whether high profile (like Berkeley) or lower profile (like every food co-op, save the one in Olympia). While claiming that “lack of concrete victory is incidental to the movement’s success” may seem idiotic or self serving on the surface, it allows the BDSers to claim nothing more than their continuing existence as a form of victory (with BDS campaigns positioned as simply the means to an end, the end being the injection of the Israel = Apartheid propaganda message into public discourse).

Absent “concrete victory,” the other metric the boycotters have gravitated towards to prove their importance is the reaction of Israel and its supporters to their program. This is the focus of the PennBDS session entitled “The Zionist Response to BDS.”

At one level, this choice for defining victory seems to resemble a bad pickup artist using his rejection by every woman at a bar and being laughed at on their Facebook pages as “proof” he’s making progress (“Hey, at least they’re talking about me!”) But at another level, redefining anything done by your political opponents as another example your own accomplishments serves two important purpose: (1) giving the “movement” something (anything) upon which to hang claims of success; and (2) getting your political foes to question what they do (lest they “hand you another victory” by publically opposing you) while all the time allowing the BDSers to do whatever they like, whenever they like.

This conundrum says more about the psychology of pro- vs. anti-Israel activists than it does about the actual political issues being debated. For if you pointed out to members of PennBDS that, by their own standards, the fact that they are holding a BDS conference just demonstrates the success of Israel and the effectiveness of its supporters (otherwise, why run a conference against them?), they will do what they do with every challenging question and simply ignore it. Similarly, highlighting the many reasons why Jewish organizations openly condemn BDS that have nothing to do with the program’s alleged effectiveness is greeted with total silence.

Now I’m happy to admit that there have been excesses in Israel’s response to the alleged BDS “threat,” (some grandstanding anti-boycott legislation being the best example). And even here in the US, I’m not a big fan of some of the legal or governmental remedies people have flirted with regarding dealing with anti-Israel political activities (particularly on college campuses). Not that these actions can’t be justified, but it’s not entirely clear why they are needed, given how well we seem to be doing countering the BDS “movement” politically. And, the Internet being what it is, it’s always just a matter of time before someone posts something complaining about this BDS activist or event and says something incorrect or inappropriate.

But here we get to the biggest challenge facing divestniks who want to use criticism by their opponents as a demonstration of their own strength. To illustrate this challenge, take a look at this hysterical response to the fact that people who don't agree with the BDS agenda have organized their own modest counter-program. Or the anger that greeted this obscure blog where the writer mistakenly claimed that the PennBDS conference was sponsored by the organization Penn for Palestine vs. a different anti-Israel group on campus called PennBDS. Rather than take this as a simple, understandable error (along the lines of Brian’s mistaking the Judean People’s Front for the People’s Front of Judea), it is treated as proof the dishonest nature of the Zionists. And naturally, the BDSers will blog, tweet and Facebook these and other accusations over and over for days, claiming them as proof of the impact they are having.

At the same time, when presented with a series of specific arguments that respond point-by-point to every item on the PennBDS agenda, these same indignant poseurs have clearly made the decision to pretend that these arguments do not exist. And I’m not just being self serving here. I’ve mixed it up with an organizer of the conference here and here, so they clearly know someone has been giving them the debate they claim to crave. And they are obviously Googling “PennBDS” on a regular basis so that they can post comments on other sites that do no more than mention them in an unflattering light.

Given that Divest This postings vie for position with PennBDS’s own public statements on Google, it is painfully obvious that the this allegedly triumphal “movement” – a “movement” that claims a monopoly on truth, virtue and courage – has decided to avoid addressing any genuine criticism while simultaneously striking an indignant pose and jumping at every mild error or sloppy condemnation they find anywhere else on the Internet.

And this demonstrates the greatest problem with using your opponents’ political activity as the basis for proving your own success. For only if you are actually engaging with those opponents and challenging their strongest arguments (rather than just hunting down and jumping on the weakest ones you can find) can this tactic be effective. Absent this, the folks gathering in Philadelphia next week come off looking cowardly and hypocritical, two adjectives a “movement” trying to build a reputation for strength and devotion to justice cannot afford.


PennBDS Reveals Its Real Agenda

BDS Reveals Its Real Agenda

A controversial online video promoting this weekend's National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference at the University of Pennsylvania was pulled by organizers at the height of their effort to advance their agenda targeting Israel.
The flap over the video highlights the charged nature of the issue and suggests the tenor likely to be heard at the conference, which is sold out, with more than 300 people expected to attend.

The video contained a clip of the Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi, who called for a boycott of "all Israeli goods"; in other venues, he's called for a full cultural boycott of Israel.

At least one professor, Eve Troutt Powell, withdrew her participation after the video went live. It is no longer available online, and Powell declined to comment.

The speakers on the agenda include some of Israel's most strident opponents, with activists who claim that Israel's occupation in the West Bank "recalls the Jim Crow laws of the American South" and that Israelis are "incapable of empathy and compassion for other people."

The fact that the national movement to boycott Israel, known as BDS, is holding its conference here, at the region's most prestigious university, has set off alarm bells in the local Jewish establishment. In response, pro-Israel groups on campus have organized dialogues and programs to help better educate students about Israeli society. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, in partnership with Hillel and other groups, organized an event featuring Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

The long-term impact of the conference, if any, remains to be seen, including whether it will affect the Middle East debate, the efforts of pro-Israel students on campus or the decade-long attempt to liken Israel to apartheid-era South Africa.

Organizer Matt Berkman, a Penn graduate student in political science, said the video was taken down because Kanazi's statement about boycotting all of Israel is shared "by a lot, but not all, of the people who identify" with the movement known as BDS.

"If we erred with the video, it was in not showcasing this particular diversity of opinion within the movement," said Berkman.

Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, saw the video before it was taken down and said it clearly articulated that the goal of the BDS movement is not a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the creation of one Arab-majority state that would, in essence, eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.

Alpert said that by distancing themselves from the video, organizers are hiding "their true agenda. That is disingenuous."

Slated speakers at the conference include keynoter Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian-American journalist who founded Electronic Intifada, which has been described as one of the most popular Web addresses for anti-Israel rhetoric.

According to material compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, Abunimah has written that Hezbollah and Hamas constitute legitimate resistance organizations rather than terrorist entities and he has likened Israel to a fascist state.

The author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, Abunimah has also argued for a one-state resolution of the conflict.

Another slated speaker is Palestinian-American journalist Ahmed Moor, who in a recent piece on The Huffington Post, made clear that his problem goes beyond Israel's presence in the West Bank.

"Many liberal Zionists don't like to acknowledge it," he wrote, but "the process that yielded the land West of the Green Line," meaning Israel proper, "was just as wrong as anything the settlers have done. Its scale was also several magnitudes larger."

More than a third of the listed speakers are Jewish, including Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Listed by the ADL as one of the most anti-Israel groups in the country, Jewish Voice for Peace advocates a resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem, but does not speak to whether such a resolution would end Israel as a Jewish state.

Asaf Romirowsky, acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said the event lacks academic credibility. "This is not a scholarly debate."

Berkman said his group had reached out to several prominent academics, such as Columbia University's Rashid Khalidi. He apparently declined, citing a scheduling conflict.

Berkman's academic adviser at Penn, Ian Lustick, is a well-known critic of Israel and sits on the advisory board of the U.S. chapter of Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, which supports the BDS movement. He has not publicly supported or lent his name to the BDS conference at Penn but he declined to be interviewed for this story to explain why.

His colleague in Penn's political science department, Anne Norton, had withdrawn her participation in response to the video, stating that she was "in sympathy with the BDS movement, but I do not endorse a complete academic and cultural boycott of Israel."

Norton later changed her mind. "I decided to participate in the panel because I saw the efforts of the BDS supporters and indeed those whom merely wanted to discuss the issue being met with a campaign of hostility and intimidation."

Berkman said that he has reached out to Jewish groups on campus, arguing that the movement is not extremist. He cited the movement's goal to pressure Israel to end what it calls the occupation, discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel and the Palestinian refugee issue.

"I don't think anybody in the movement is in any way anti-Semitic or wants to drive the Jews into the sea. It's about rights," said Berkman.

Yet most Israelis consider the so-called Palestinian right of return a non-starter because it would likely end Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that a number of the speakers have problematic records, but he didn't want to overstate their influence.

"This is the largest gathering of its kind," he said, but "we have to recognize that this is a campaign that has not succeeded elsewhere -- it has not gained traction."

Penn officials released a statement that the university does not support the conference or boycotts of Israel, but some alumni are upset by the decision to allow the conference to take place at all.

"Permitting the holding of the BDS conference on Penn's campus brings shame to Penn, its graduates, faculty and students," alum William Wanger, a Blue Bell attorney, wrote in a letter to Penn president Amy Gutmann. He added that the conference "will create deep divisions" and "promote an atmosphere of intolerance on campus."

Stephen J. MacCarthy, vice president of university communications, responded to Wanger by saying that "the University has repeatedly and forcefully expressed its opposition to the ideas underpinning the BDS movement."

In an interview, MacCarthy said that the university has received about 80 emails from individuals, most of whom weren't alumni, who were upset about the conference.

"The notion and idea of free expression is an important one at a university," he said. "That very important principle is the most challenged when the speech in question is most problematic."

The Feb. 2 "We Are One With Israel" event featuring Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz is at full capacity due to an overwhelming response. Community members interested in participating in this program can go to www.livestream.com/jewishphilly at 7:30 p.m. for a live streaming from the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Clergy Condemn PennBDS

February 01, 2012 - Bryan Schwartzman

A group of more than a dozen Christian clergy members have signed on to a statement condemning this weekend's Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference at the University of Pennsylvania.
According to the statement, the BDS movement "does not explicitly support the internationally recognized goal of two states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side by side in peace and security -- and therein rests an implicit rejection of the right of self-determination of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland."

The Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia spearheaded the effort to craft a statement, with the help of the local chapters of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Adam Kessler, executive director of the JCRC, said that the language of the page-long statement was largely crafted by the clearly members themselves. For a full version, click here.

The 14 signers consisted mostly of Main Line Protestant clergy members, including: Rev. William Borror, pastor of the Media Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Cynthia Jarvis, minister of the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Rev. David A. Canan, rector of the Trinity Episcopal Charch; and Rev. James Pollard, pastor of the Zion Baptist Church of Ardmore.

Dr. Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph's University and William Madges were the lone Catholic signers of the statement.

Nationally, the Presbyterian church and several other Main Line Protestant groups have repeatedly raised the issue of targeted divestment of certain Israeli products and companies. Locally, Borror has been among the movement's leaders in combating such efforts.

The clergy members also stated that "without a clear recognition of both Palestinian and Israeli narratives, there can be no stability in the region."

The members also said in their statement that the BDS movement "stresses the rights, not responsibilities, of the Palestinians, and the responsibilities, not rights, of the people of Israel, for example by failing to acknowledge that the Palestinian leadership shares in the responsibility for the failure of past negotiations."