College Campuses, Academic Boycotts and Ethics

College Campuses, Academic Boycotts and Ethics

by

Howard Adelman

I had written that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel did not originally include the boycott of Israeli academics speaking on campuses outside Israel. The effort to boycott academics had an earlier and separate origin. The academic boycott movement did not begin among Palestinians or Arabs but by Westerners. In fact, Jews initiated the idea of academic boycotts. The key mover and shaker was Stephen Rose, an illustrious professor of neuroscience at the Open University in Britain and an expert on the physiology of memory who also wrote popular versions of his scholarly work (Genes, Cells and Brains). He is perhaps best known to the wider public for his radical opposition to evolutionary psychology and sociology, that is, the effort of scientists to use Darwinian theory to explain social adaptation. As an ex-Orthodox Jew and an adamant atheist and Marxist, he and his sociologist wife, Hilary, started a petition in 2002 that eventually garnered over 700 signatures of scholars, including 10 Israeli academics, to boycott Israeli academic institutions for their complicity in the occupation of Arab lands.

Rose belongs to a long list of renowned academics, some of whom, like Tony Judt and Hannah Arendt, began as Zionists. They include Eric Hobsbawm, Judith Butler and Richard Falk, as well as lesser lights such as Ilan Pappé (originally at the University of Haifa) and Norman Finkelstein. If cultural figures are to be included, add Harold Pinter to the list. In 2013, even Stephen Hawking, though not a Jew, was recruited to join this anti-Zionist Jewish cabal of Jewish humanists and secularists.

Some may assume that this is a victory for the Palestinian cause. Certainly it is a victory of liberal utopians who believe that Jews have only individual rights and no national rights. Unfortunately, it feeds a trope that the problem is one of rights when it is one of national self-determination. Palestinians and Arabs as the indigenous majority in the region have that right. Colonizing Jews do not but, ironically, this is a contention that cannot be established by right. That has to be openly stated. Further, against these armchair Jewish anti-Zionist academics who subvert the Palestinian cause by seducing others to join with them in the belief that the matter can be settled by intellectual and economic pressures when any realistic analysis will demonstrate that it can only be settled by force of arms. If it were not so far-fetched, one might be led to believe that the Jewish-led academic boycott is really a secret Zionist plot to milk the Palestinian movement of its militancy and reduce its efforts to petitions, protests and verbal haranguing with few substantive victories, however well publicized, and far more substantive setbacks.

Case after case demonstrates this. Let me list them:

  • The Rose petition instigated a counter-petition which garnered even more signatures
  • Not one university has joined the divestment effort and many universities have turned the tables and formally denounced the academic boycott campaign, including almost 300 S. university presidents who in 2007 denounced the boycott movement
  • When Mona Baker, inspired by the Rose petition, delisted Dr. Miriam Schlesinger of Bar-Ilan University (who also happened to be a former chair of Amnesty International in Israel and a staunch defender of the Palestinian cause) from the editorial board of her prestigious journal, The Translator, she added the delisting of Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University to the dismissal list when Schlesinger refused to quietly resign. The result was a storm of protest, including from Judith Butler, a defender of boycotting Israeli institutions and not individuals, Harvard Professor Stephen Greenblatt, President of the Modern Language Association of America, and an overwhelming vote of condemnation by the British Parliament. (Can you imagine, parliament becoming involved in the appointment process of members of an editorial board of an academic journal?) Baker then put her foot further in her mouth when she insisted that she was only in favour of boycotting institutions and not individuals, and then complained she was the victim of a Jewish cabal
  • Even major victories – the overwhelming majority support (73%) in March 2015 of the students, faculty and support staff of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London favouring the Israeli academic institution boycott and divestment campaign – had no concrete practical results
  • The Association of University Teachers (AUT) in Britain initially supported the BDS campaign, but subsequently rescinded its support when the organization merged with the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), which had just voted to boycott Israeli academics who did not vocally speak out against their government; the merged result, the University and College Union (UCU) voted to withdraw from supporting the BDS movement following the lead of the AUT which decided in 2005 to cancel the boycott of Israeli universities because of the damage to academic freedom and the hampering of dialogue and efforts at peace between Israelis and Palestinians; however, in 2010, the UCU reversed course again in a very minor way against the backdrop of the Israeli operation against Gaza in 2008-2009 when the UCU agreed to begin an investigative process into the Ariel University Centre of Samaria
  • In 2010, the Olympia Food Co-op decided to divest in any investments in companies supporting the Israeli occupation (a symbolic move) and, more substantively, to remove all Israeli goods from its shelves in a campaign led by Noah Sochet, a Jew, but that decision failed completely to serve as a catalyst for any other co-op to follow its lead; on the other hand, Israeli and Jewish lobby attempts to use lawfare and other techniques to rescind the action failed abysmally and backfired against the efforts on the grounds that any organization had the right and freedom to decide which items it would sell and which it would not
  • At a totally different scale, SuperValu food distributors in Ireland decided to no longer distribute food products from Israel, but the gap was quickly picked up by another distributor
  • In 2010, the Senate of the University of Western Sydney cancelled its relationship with Ben Gurion University thereby offering token support for the BDS movement
  • Following Wayne State, in 2010, the Student Government General Assembly of the University of Michigan in Dearborn, an area inhabited by 40,000 Arab Americans, passed Resolution # 2010-003 endorsing the BDS campaign
  • Following a vote by the York University Federation of Students endorsing BDS, in 2013, the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) at Berkeley voted to demand that the university divest the $14 million it had invested in companies affiliated with the IDF, namely Caterpillar, Hewlett– Packard and Cement Roadstone Holdings, but the motion was vetoed by student government president, Will Smelko. (The veto seemed to be with respect to divesting its $135 million in General Electric and United Technologies and I have not yet been able to clarify the discrepancy.) The final vote for divestment was passed by a tiny rump left at 4:00 a.m. by a vote of 16:4
  • UofT Mississauga Students Union passed a similar motion as had a rump group at the end of the previous year representing the Graduate Students Union (GSU) at the university
  • At Oxford University, support for BDS was defeated by a vote of 69:10
  • The University of Manitoba Students Union voted to strip financial support from the Students Against Israeli Apartheid;
  • In April 2013, theAssociation for Asian American Studies (AAAS) and in December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) by a two-thirds majority and the Council of Native American and Indigenous Studies Association unanimously voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions;
  • 500 anthropologists from around the world called on Israel to end its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 but did not endorse divestment and/or a boycott
  • In February 2011, the Carleton University Student Association (CUSA) first voted in support of an abstract motion condemning any state engaged in occupation of another territory and recommending divestment and then, after the amendment universalizing the motion of the Students Against Israeli Apartheid (SAIA), voted to declare the whole motion redundant which then resulted in the very opposite of democratic dialogue – shouting, intimidation and even the temporary blockade of the room in which the meeting was being held thereby proving by the actions of the protesters that the arguments based on abstract human rights were a sham
  • In January 2015, student leaders at Trent University by a vote of 47:28 with 14 abstentions reversed a previous motion of the TCSA (Trent Central Student Association) to boycott Israel on the grounds that it was discriminatory
  • The numbers of academic associations and universities that have rejected such calls for boycotts and divestments are far, far longer, and include the best universities in the world like Princeton and Stanford as well as institutions like the Norwegian University of Science and Technology
  • Further, the American Council on Education in the U.S., its equivalent in Canada, the Canadian Association of Universities and Colleges (CAUT), have unanimously condemned boycotts aimed at Israeli academic institutions or Israeli academics individually; the American Association of University Professors also condemned the boycott effort. As AAUP worded their objections, “condemning violations of academic freedom whether they occur directly by state or administrative suppression of opposing points of view or indirectly by creating material conditions, such as blockades, checkpoints, and insufficient funding of Palestinian universities, that make the realization of academic freedom impossible” was both acceptable and even desirable, but NOT boycotts of either individual academics or their institutions. Dialogue, discourse, critique – there were the proper avenues for academics to make their views known
  • The states of Tennessee, Indiana, New York with other states lined up to follow, have voted to sanction learned societies that support BDS, in particular, ASA; in the U.S. Congress in February 2014, a bill, the “Protect Academic Freedom Act,” was introduced “to bar federal funds from going to academic institutions that back the BDS movement”
  • An objective and detached analysis would reveal far more defeats than the few and often only empty victories of the BDS movement after ten years of sustained and well-funded efforts. Instead, a few victories are broadcast ad nausea and often greatly exaggerated without a detailed examination on whether any changes on the ground have been effected, reinforcing the view that what counts for BDS are rhetorical and propaganda successes rather than any significant concrete wins .

Have the economic sanctions efforts yielded better results than the academic ones? It is true that Israel’s membership in a variety of international political and economic organizations (EU, OECD, etc.) provides a veneer of respectability, and, more importantly, an instrument for strengthening the economic foundation of the state, but that is merely an acknowledgement of the political, military and economic imbalance between the two sides. Turning it into a message of moral indictment is simply akin to blaming the wealth of the United States for impoverishment and impotency of others.

In the very first year of accession to membership by Israel in the OECD tourism council in 2010, when the Israeli Tourist Minister, Stas Misezhnikov, made the claim that the decision by the OECD for Israel to host the 2010 annual meeting was a recognition of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, Sweden, Turkey, South Africa and Ireland all decided to stay away from the conference in protest against such an outrageous interpretation of the decision. The UK also stayed away,but said its decision was not politically motivated. Greece and Denmark sent low level delegates. The Palestinians claimed this as a victory for the BDS movement – OECD refused to consider moving the locale of the conference even when the stupid assertion was made by the Israeli tourist minister. All the evidence pointed to simply another self-inflicted wound by the Israeli government. Had the minister made no such statement, the conference would have gone ahead as planned. But quite aside from the conference, the reality is that tourism from Europe to Israel continues to increase. Swedes increasingly head to Eilat as a winter destination. The reality is that this was not a boycott in any substantive sense, but a protest against an irresponsible and factually incorrect claim by the Israeli tourist minister; the effect had nothing to do with the BDS movement and, in any case, had no repercussions on the ground.

What about the widespread and oft-repeated report by electronic intifada that Brazil cancelled a $2.2 billion security contract for the 2016 Olympics with International Security and Defence Systems (ISDS) of Israel? BDS allies in Brazil had been lobbying for a decision to exclude ISDS since it won the contract for the FIFA world cup. BDS Labour unions in Brazil had protested the possibility of using a company which they linked to the use of technologies in suppressing the Palestinians in the West Bank. BDS claimed an enormous victory.

The reality was something else. ISDS did claim to have won a contract in October 2014, not for $2.2 billion, but for a small part of that huge security budget. The contract was for design, organization, procurement and management of the security operation. The contract was not for provision of the security. On 8 April 2015, the Brazilian government denied that a $2.2 billion contract had ever even been contracted with ISDS let alone cancelled. Whether ISDS even obtained the small part of the contract for planning and coordination, I was not able to learn, but it now seems clear that it never received or even claimed to receive such a contract. The contract for planning and coordination could have been cancelled, but neither ISDS nor the Brazilian government opined on the subject and, given that this was a core security issue, it is no surprise that both the Brazilian government and ISDS remained otherwise silent.

It seems unlikely given the lead time needed to undertake the planning and coordination, that such a planning, coordination and procurement contract would have been cancelled. Further, the Brazilian Air Force purchased Israeli drones to patrol the skies during the World Cup in 2014. It is likely that Brazil will rely on even more of those drones for the Olympics. Even if Brazil had cancelled the contract, it was only for a very small part of the overall $2.2 billion sum. ISDS would have had to have completed or almost completed its work by April 2015 if the security were to be in place by the time of the Olympic opening ceremonies in 2016. Whatever the case, BDS had been engaged in gross exaggeration and in the practice of claiming great victories where they were at best ephemeral.

Elbit Systems Ltd. is another Israeli international high tech firm engaged in the provision of homeland or company security systems offering a wide range of defence, homeland security and commercial programs throughout the world. It won a contract for supplying the Philippines with 28 upgraded APCs for the army in a modest $20 million deal in spite of an enormous BDS effort to prevent the contract. In 2010, BDS did succeed in getting the huge Swedish pension fund, Foersta AP-Fonden, and the Norwegian Oil Fund to delete Elbit from its investment portfolio.

I have argued above that any consequentialist examination of the BDS movement ends up finding it contradictory and self-defeating rather than capable of producing better results than any other alternative. I have also implied that on situational grounds, the BDS movement is not grounded in an in-depth analysis of the economic and political forces arrayed against the BDS movement and how the Palestinian cause can emerge victorious. Rather, the movement is based on the contemporary ethos of shaming, which can and has produced results on an individual, corporate or national front, but often misguided, poorly targeted, and unfocused results in the electronic equivalent of the Salem witch trials.

There is also a deontological ethical argument. Like the genocide and many other international conventions, what counts in determining exploitation, colonization, expropriation and apartheid are intentions. The 2002 Rome Statute defines a crime against humanity as an action by a regime that systematically institutionalizes “oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”  Proving intention becomes the key. The dilemma is postulating ethical concerns between two polarities, a regime dedicated to establishing equal rights for all members of a polity and one dedicating to denying rights in perpetuity to a polity.

In this case, there are three different groups: 1) non-Jewish members of the Jewish state, 2) members of a Palestinian collectivity on territory controlled and/or occupied by the Jewish state, and 3) refugees with the same ethnicity as the previous two outside the territory of either state. Re the latter group, if denial of return were to be termed genocide, apartheid or even continued oppression, virtually every state in the world in which there has been ethnic and religious conflict would fail such a litmus test. If it is the second, then the case has contradictory evidence – the seizure of territory, sometimes privately owned, to expand the territorial control of the state and, on the other hand, the provision for the creation of universities (there were none there prior to 1967), and elections in that territory as well as educational and religious autonomy.

Even if the depiction of good will cannot be sustained, the charges of evil intent also cannot be proven given the mixed record. Piling up the evidence on one side without considering falsifying evidence is no way of determining evil intent. This has even greater truth when applied to the discrimination against Israeli Palestinian citizens of Israel even when they are treated as second class citizens and discriminated against with respect to employment and housing. This is why a political argument for collective rights falls flat because what comes forth is the need to defend individual and NOT collective rights and then to offer self-defence as a higher moral ground when faced with discontent and criticism.

But the key and most important issue is a teleological one. For those involved in and concerned have four choices, two mushy liberal ones each with a proven record of failure, even as many still cling to hopes for the first option.

  1. Liberal support for a two-nation solution in which Palestinians and Jews have their own nations and purportedly live side-by-side in peace, a position which still seems to enjoy support from some leading Palestinian figures such as Sari Nusseibeh, currently president of al-Quds University;
  2. Liberal support for a singular secular state with equal individual rights for every individual in the one state;
  3. A Conservative Jewish ideology or maintaining superior power and control by Zionists over the territory under the guise of both security and maintaining a Jewish majority in the territory;
  4. A Radical Palestinian vision of a single state dominated by Palestinians, including the refugees who, through victory on the ground, exercise their right to return.

The BDS movement is really based on the second of these options, even when sometimes, and in contradiction, employing the two-state language. If number 1 seems to be headed for the bankruptcy courts, considerable investment in option 2 might be warranted if the position were not so strategically weak in terms of situational ethics, and self-contradictory in the defence of Palestinian national and collective rights while denying the same to the Jews when insisting on a universal discourse of individual human rights. And when clearly understood, the resort to number 3 by more and more Jews and Zionists only undercuts both 1 and 2 even more, and moves state and national legislatures to introduce bans on promotion of BDS in the U.S. so that the most powerful state in the world more and more supports the hegemonic right-wing agenda in Israel.

The fourth option seems the only one left after discrediting the others, though this paper only focused on the BDS movement. If option 4 is reinterpreted as a focus on one’s own power, on the need to own and exercise that power instead of focusing on the horror of the other, if there is recognition that freedom and self-determination must be first exercised by oneself before one can become a true sovereign state, then everything is once again possible.

Conclusion (to follow in a separate blog)

A Performance Critique of BDS – Part II

A Performance Critique of BDS – Part II

by

Howard Adelman

                                                                                                           

 “More than any other tactic of the Palestinian liberation movement, the BDS campaign has succeeded in creating a global outpouring of support for Palestinian rights and placed Israel’s violations of them under international scrutiny like never before.” This is the boast that appears on the BDS website in an essay written by Sherry Wolf entitled, “What’s behind the rise of BDS?” The answer presumably is a record of success. How is success measured? By the following:

  • moving the issue of Palestinian rights from the margins into mainstream discourse
  • instead of a discussion of obscure territorial border issues and competing narratives, debate has now opened up in the media, in corporate board rooms and in academia

For the moment, let’s presume the truth of both claims. How then do such “successes” relate to the goal of ending the occupation and colonizing of all Arab lands? Wolf makes no effort to draw any connection. Like magic, a campaign for the rights of Palestinians will lead inevitably to the roll back of the armies of the colonizers and the surrender of all land seized back to the Palestinians. One need only utter the connection to recognize how absurd and preposterous any claim for such a connection using the means that BDS employs. Instead of an argument and evidence, we get repetition upon repetition of the three aims of the BDS movement as if they were a mantra rather than realizable political objectives.

The anti apartheid movement against South Africa is usually offered as the forerunner of the BDS campaign. But everyone knows the context, the histories and the global situation were radically different. The Boers, for example, had lived in South Africa for centuries unlike the Zionists who had really been in Palestine for less than half a century before they gained control initially of just over half the land and then in the 1948 war increased that to over 70%. The Zionists became, through the forced exodus of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the majority in their own state. In contrast, the Boers never achieved majority status in their areas of occupation, even if the English white population was added to their own numbers. In ethnic, religious and racial conflicts, minorities have a choice – rule over the rest or be ruled, but do not pretend that, as a minority, you can rule as a minority for very long without external support and/or internal ruthlessness.

Further, the Jewish Zionists were much cleverer than the advocates of apartheid. Apartheid was not practiced in Israel primarily through the rule of law and the denial of the right to vote as it was in South Africa and in the Southern United States. The exclusively Jewish Israeli government let Palestinians in Israel become full citizens and cast ballots and practiced any apartheid through informal rather than legally coercive measures. The BDS charges the Zionists with racism and preaching racial superiority with no evidence to support such a claim. The Zionists are much cleverer than that. They practice the superiority of their power, not the superiority of their blood. The latter offends the world as it did for the advocates of apartheid in South Africa, Alabama and most of the Deep South in the USA. The superiority of power, in contrast, is often widely admired even when the group controlling and wielding the power is repulsive. More importantly, the only real way to challenge power is with countervailing forces that are stronger, more committed and have the vision of the long run rather than pandering to liberal doctrines of rights to get mushy liberals on one’s side.

In putting forth this liberal non-violent mode of fighting what is really a hundred years war, the BDS movement distorts and deforms Palestinian history. The militant Palestinian movement never envisioned winning its battle against the hostile forces arraigned against it “through the mobilization of Palestinians alone.” Quite the contrary. Initially, the Palestinian leadership placed too much reliance on the efforts of others. And then when it took its destiny into its own hands, instead of raising the morale of its partners so they could enter the fray with enthusiasm and an all-out effort, the PLO ended up getting into one conflict after another with them even as the PLO agreed to non-interference in those Arab states in return for financial support, something which BDS acknowledges. Instead of mobilizing other Arabs and Muslims to fight on their side, the Palestinian leadership counted on governments that were already insecure in their own power without taking on Israel and its Western backers. The Palestinian leadership, indeed, did not work alone, but got in bed like prostitutes with regimes without deep roots in the will of the people and without any stamina for a long and necessarily sacrificial struggle.

The problem was not that the militants went their own way, but that they went the wrong way, pussyfooting around the central issues rather than directly confronting them and rallying the resources and the will to accomplish the real goals. The BDS movement opts for non-violence in its actions, but violence in its goals and aspirations. The position is inherently contradictory and doomed to be an even greater failure than the weak militancy of the PLO leadership even as BDS celebrates its rare pyrrhic victories.

Look at the contrast between reality and the following BDS claims:

  1. Success as evidenced by the admission of Israeli and Zionist leaders that BDS is “delegitimizing” Israel and threatens Israel’s authority and prestige;
  2. The shift in American public opinion so that a majority now view Israel unfavourably;
  3. Success because of Israel’s own brutal actions in activities such as Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009) and in Operation Protective Edge (2014) in Gaza, activities which BDS puts on display and amplifies.

In other words, BDS admits that its successes have largely depended on Israel and Zionists shooting themselves in the foot rather than any role BDS plays except magnifying and publicizing Israel’s self-inflicted wounds.

But what is the reality? For purposes of space, I will concentrate only on the claimed successes with respect to U.S. attitudes and support and set aside both an examination of successes outside America and whether BDS has taken sufficient advantage of Israel shooting itself in the foot.

I begin with the first claim, that Israeli and Zionist leaders have recognized BDS as a central threat. Wolf wrote, “At the 2014 conference of the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), unquestionably the most influential pro-Israel group in the United States, speakers from Secretary of State John Kerry to Netanyahu felt the urgency to deride BDS. In his keynote address to AIPAC, Netanyahu mentioned BDS no fewer than eighteen times. To rousing cheers, Netanyahu called on Zionists to ‘fight back’ against boycott advocates, ‘to delegitimize the delegitimizers.’ [16] Many BDS activists rightly took this to be a form of distorted respect from an enemy that previously ignored the movement’s existence.”

How revealing! Success is marked by recognition of one’s existence, not by the degree to which specific goals have been achieved within an overall larger strategy. It is as if the black flies of northern Ontario announced that they were winning the war against human encroachment on nature in general and their habitat in particular because they are such an irritant to the increasing number of humans invading their territory. The BDS movement has shown it can be a bothersome irritant. The BDS has shown that it can become a focus of attention by the current Zionist leadership that continues to repeatedly shoot itself in the foot. Swatting the back of its neck may be perceived as a form of shooting oneself in the foot, but it can also be recognized as a minor distraction, not only for the Zionists but for the goals of those who really see Zionism as the imperialist colonizer. The real question is whether serving as a gnat will stop the continuing invasion. Claiming that Israel has become a global pariah does not make it so.

Let us look hard at claims of enhanced support for the Palestinians and the branding of Israel as a pariah. I neither have the space nor time to undertake a world survey, but an examination of shifting attitudes in the key battleground for the BDS movement, the United States, offers very little encouragement and belies the BDS claim that Israel has become a pariah. A swarm of mosquitoes or an attack of black flies are certainly bothersome, but they cause little change in the actual forward march of the colonizer and occupier.

Note the following:

  1. U.S. military aid to Israel has not decreased but has steadily increased beginning with the establishment of the PLO until it more or less flat-lined and achieved a plateau over the last thirty years:
  2. The U.S. Congress, including Democrats and Republicans, remain unwavering in support for Israel even when the Prime Minister of Israel challenges the President of the U.S. not simply on U.S. soil, but in the U.S. Congress.[1]
  3. There was absolutely NO significant media coverage that Congress continued to vote support for shipping sophisticated weaponry to Israel, even if some held their noses at the extent of the destruction in Gaza.
  4. In various surveys, although there is a vocal and significant minority opposed to such military aid, there is a clear majority in America who support supplying Israel with the same level of weaponry into the future; that support has not declined because of Israel’s actions in Gaza; further, in spite of the revelations of Edward Snowden, the Obama administration has supplied Israel with covert support by sharing intelligence, and there is little sign of any significant objection.
  5. Almost 40% of Americans continue to support a two state solution, a number unchanged in spite of the Gaza wars between 2008 and 2014.
  6. Also unchanged is the number – estimated at 18% – who support a one state solution with the Zionists in control.
  7. What has changed as the prospect of a two state solutions recedes is the number supporting Israel evolving into a bi-national state with Arabs having equal citizenship if, and for many who take this position, only if the two state solution really is dead.
  8. Since the PLO has shifted tactics and set aside the bilateral pursuit of peace with the U.S. as a mediator, at least while Netanyahu and his ilk hold power, and has shifted to the international diplomatic route more in line with the BDS approach, only 25% of Americans want the U.S. to support such an effort.
  9. On sanctions, in spite of a majority of Americans opposing expansion of Israeli settlements, most oppose imposing sanctions; BDS efforts have not seemed to have been proven effective in getting support for sanctions aligned with opposition to settlements.
  10. More telling than any of the above polls perhaps is the fact that only 14% of Americans want the U.S. to be more supportive of Palestine while 55%, in spite of opposition to settlements, want the U.S. to lean towards the Israeli side.

None of this data supports the self-advertisement that BDS has had a significant effect on American attitudes let alone policy with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Quite the reverse. Given the ambiguous and equivocal position of BDS on whether BDS favours a one state or a two-state solution, and certainly around the issue of whether Palestinians should have the defining power in such a state, BDS can be accused of retarding rather than enhancing this development in consciousness.

However there is one cogent argument in support of BDS in spite of any significant lack of progress to date. 31% of Americans rank human rights concerns as their highest priority compared to real politic and the defence of American interests (24%) or 14% because of Israeli interests. However, of those 31%, a majority believe that Israel is a stronger defender of human rights than the Palestinians. This indicates that making an appeal on the basis of human rights might seem the most efficacious route to some success since rights are so central to many Americans’ concerns, but in doing so, perhaps the spotlight reveals more about the Palestinians than the Zionists. On the other hand, rallying around the theme of human rights does allow those most sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and those most supportive of international action to recognize a Palestinian state, to coalesce. But is that success consequential, or does it merely make Palestinians feel good without any accomplishments on the ground?

This is the telling poll about attitudes. The most recent Pew poll continued to show that Americans, in spite of Israeli ruthless behaviour, continue to support Israel over Palestinians by a wide margin. BDS has not had any significant effect on this even when the poll was conducted immediately after the last cessation of fighting in Gaza in 2014. Even after the havoc Israel inflicted on Gaza, 34% of Americans strongly sympathize and 32% somewhat sympathize with Israel, while the equivalent figures for the Palestinian cause is 11% and 35%. More telling, the sympathy for the Palestinians is not with their cause but their condition as victims, while the sympathy for Israel is for their cause. Pursuing BDS goals is a self-defeating exercise because, in order to earn more sympathy for the Palestinians, they have to continue to be victims, not victors. Further, in spite of all their suffering, almost half of Americans still have little or no sympathy for the Palestinians, while those with little or no sympathy for the Israelis is half that figure.

This points to the real flaw in the BDS philosophical approach and efforts. They are totally marginal in effecting change. To the extent they do succeed, they may boomerang back against the Palestinians even more. Finally, and most importantly, such efforts undermine the real struggle, the struggle between two national groups for dominance. Once that is surrendered, the Zionists are bound to win because, disastrous as it is, they have a better track record in the human rights field than the Palestinians. Further, they are bound to win because they are stronger. The only way Palestinians will win is if they understand that they must be stronger, more dedicated and more committed to winning the struggle. BDS is really a route to surrender while engaging in a rhetorical superego trip. The reality is that wars – even the wars in South Africa and the American South – were won because of who had the power, and not because of an appeal to human rights, however important human rights were as a rallying cry for the majority to overthrow the power of a minority.

What has changed? Support for a two-state solution has declined as the vision of a two states living side by side in peace has receded as a possibility. BDS supporters who deep down do not believe in victory for the Palestinian cause, but espouse a week-kneed vision of a secular society of individuals with equal rights, whether they have Jewish or non-Jewish backgrounds, a utopian dream if there ever was one, would appear to have gained ground because of this shift. The problem, however, is that the support for a Palestine dominated by the Zionists has increased even more. As the two-state solution recedes, the issue is not whether a utopian paradise of individual rights will rise out of the ashes of a doomed pursuit, but which community will dominate in the resultant power struggle. Does the BDS movement offer any indication that the Palestinians will emerge on top as they pursue everyone ostensibly living at precisely the same level of rights and benefits? Quite the opposite. Both domestically and certainly in the U.S., understanding for a hegemonic Zionist enterprise has crept to the forefront both in Israel and the U.S.

Demonizing the Zionists is totally insufficient. In fact, the greater the demonization, the more the morale of the Palestinians will suffer as their dream of recovering their lands and their historic place in the world recedes. What is required is not demonization of the Zionists but their total defeat, and the BDS platform offers no route or prospect to achieving such a goal. As the prospect of a two-state solution recedes, the benefits will not go to the mushy liberals who build a program based on human rights. They did not emerge victorious in the recent Arab spring and have failed to learn or apply any lessons to their inconsequential efforts when fighting the Zionist colonizers and occupiers. The benefit will go to the hard Israeli right who change hirsute for sheep clothing at the bat of an eye and much faster and more successfully that Jacob did in robbing Esau of his birthright.

As long as the BDS movement propagates the illusion of a so-called just outcome in which everyone can live in a polity that guarantees everyone human rights, then the Zionists cannot and will not be defeated. They will be irritated. They will scratch away at the bites of no-see-ums at their hairline. But the Zionist entity will not surrender as the minority apartheid regime in Rhodesia and South Africa and the American South were forced to do. Standing up to Israel’s human rights violations and the collaborators with the Zionist enterprise of colonization and occupation is not and can never be just a human rights struggle. It has to be a struggle for the Palestinians as Palestinians, for the Arabs as Arabs, for Muslims as Muslims, against an enemy that has to be destroyed. Otherwise, BDS is just a proponent of a long series of illusions that have led to one setback after another for the Palestinians. If the Zionists are inherently colonizers, if they are inherently occupiers, then joining forces with bleeding heart liberal Jews on a human rights platform can only be self-defeating. Viewing themselves as the civil rights movement of the twenty-first century may appease sensitivities, but will not bring victory over the Zionists any closer. Cloaking oneself in the mantle of universal rights will no more disguise and hide the real battle ground than the Zionists wearing the magician’s cloak of a two-state solution.

But the supporters of the BDS movement know this. They are not total fools. They know they lack the domestic power to bring the Zionist entity to its knees. That is why they, like the PLO, have taken the international route. In their own words, “Though BDS is a magnificent tactic for winning sympathy and drawing activists into solidarity with Palestinians, even landing financial and ideological blows against Israel, it is ultimately a struggle for reforms within capitalism—an exploitative system that is part of an imperial order.” In other words, the real ultimate goal is the defeat of capitalism of which Zionist Israel is just an early and easier target. And all of this in the face of China as a rising communist-capitalist power and the virtual decimation of the communist utopian enterprise everywhere.

What about the claims for specific accomplishments? On the sanctions front, the score is zero. Does this suggest to the BDS proponents that their utopian vision in which they hypocritically espouse Palestinian self-determination while denouncing Jewish self-determination all in the guise of the universality of human rights has little in common with the civil rights struggle in the American south or the struggle within South Africa to overthrow apartheid? And when they shift gears and insist that they are true liberals opposed to prioritizing either form of national self-determination, it is clear that they cannot make up their minds whether they are the avant-garde of socialism, of universal liberalism or of support for the Palestinians as a movement for self-determination in the face of a powerful colonizing occupier. The confusions and contradictions only muddy the waters even as they use this creative ambiguity of traditional diplomacy to gain more support.

On the divestment front, BDS calls for withdrawal of investments in stocks and bonds in corporations deemed to be complicit in support of violations of Palestinian human rights. Again, even on this inconsequential front with an effect that is barely noticeable, the reality is that the BDSers are really not aiming at victory, but consciousness raising, about using the divestment campaign to help blacken the image of Israel. My argument is simple. To the extent the BDS campaign has succeeded, the success has been infinitely miniscule. Secondly, the backlash has been far more powerful than any small benefit. Third, part of that backlash entails revealing the hypocrisy of a movement that campaigns on human rights as a universal position but singularly focuses on Israel which even its most ardent enemies have to admit is far from the most heinous criminal on this front, quite aside from the fact that in a power struggle between one group and another for supremacy, human rights, however important, become relatively a side issue. Finally, BDSers have a record of flouting victories when the actions lauded have often had little if anything to do with supporting the aims of BDS.

Take the Hampshire College issue where BDS claimed its first victory in 2009 in the soft underbelly of its campaign for divestment. BDSers claimed that, as a direct consequence of their campaign, Hampshire College regents voted to terminate investments in companies associated with Israel and the exploitation of Palestinians.  What are the facts? Hampshire College is one of the myriad of small liberal colleges that populate the American landscape with a total enrolment of only 1,400 students boasting small classes, small faculty to student ratios, and an impressive record of graduates going on to complete graduate degrees. It is far from the most prestigious of such colleges, but it is no slouch either. Hampshire is among the better of the myriad of small liberal colleges in the United States.

The campaign for divestment on campus was begun by a group which, consistent with the BDS position, viewed all of Palestine as occupied and colonized. Though the Board denied it was responding to pressure, the Board voted to divest its $40 million endowment of any investments in 200 companies including six pushed by BDS on campus, e.g. General Electric, ITT and Motorola. The President of the college at the time, Ralph Hexter, admitted the college had initiated its actions in response to student pressure, but that the action taken had nothing to do with any opposition to Israel. This aroused the ire of Alan Dershowitz, whose son went to Hampshire College. Within two years, Ralph Hexter was no longer president; he was replaced in 2011 by Jonathan Lash, an environmental expert who for six years in the nineties chaired the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

Hexter was forced to leave after only three years even though he was an Ivy-league educated classicist, an openly married gay scholar with an excellent record as a fund raiser. What he did not know how to do was manage a student body that was radically left, whether the issue was security cameras in parking lots, ostensibly to protect vulnerable students from sexual assault but interpreted as invasions of privacy, or the issue of his alleged support for institutional racism (Hampshire College in overwhelmingly white Amherst Massachusetts hosted a student body in which 25% were members of visible minorities.), and over the attempt to move administrative offices to a more central convenient location. The cause for “firing” was not just over the blow-up over the divestment issue. What the whole sorry episode indicated was a record of a significantly-sized but a minority of a supposedly radical group of students incapable of discriminating between issues of security cameras, world political crises or the location of administrative offices. All these issues demanded the same fiery inflammatory speeches and the belief that outrageous speech is equivalent to radical action.

The policy that the College Board approved on 7 February 2009 was a decision to divest investments in its small endowment from 200 companies perceived as in breach of the college’s standard of social responsibility. No reference at all was made to Israel. The list included Caterpillar, Terex, and United Technologies as well as the three companies previously mentioned on the list targeted by the Students for Justice in Palestine.

All the protests and press releases could not overcome the reality that the Board’s actions were perceived as bending before pressure to a radical group of students with an anti-Israel agenda. The reality was that these were ersatz radicals, satisfied with the most ephemeral of victories with trivial or no consequences except the backlash that made almost all other colleges fearful of following the Hampshire College precedent. Further, the college insisted that the divestment was based on the fact that these companies were ostensibly guilty of “unfair labor practices, environmental abuse, military weapons manufacturing, and unsafe workplace settings.” The press release was unequivocal: “Israel was not the cause for divestment from the State Street Fund.” Hampshire College insisted, in fact, that the college “had refused to divest from Israel.” Perception, however, won over substance. In the long run, both the College and the BDS movement suffered enormously from the negative fallout and the misrepresentation of what had taken place.

BDS had its fifteen seconds in the divestment limelight. Drugged with the illusion of success, by 2014 BDS claimed additional breakthroughs at Swarthmore and Vassar, two other even more esteemed liberal college campuses of privilege and detachment from the harsh realities of life. Those students, however, were not satisfied with a picayune pinprick; they went after the pension giant TIAA-CREF in spite of a past record where BDS claimed a victory over an action by the fund that had nothing to do with the BDS campaign. Victories in student votes of a small minority of students who pack a meeting proved inconsequential. This was true of even causes that have much broader and deeper support among the student body, the effort of Mountain Justice to get the Swarthmore College to divest in firms involved with fossil fuels. This was the response of Gil Kemp, Chair of the College Board of Management, in an open letter on divestment dated 13 September 2013 that is even more applicable to the Palestinian issue than the environmental one.

After firmly proclaiming support for the climate change doctrine and the fears of the negative consequences, and the support for alternative energy sources, after lauding its own action plans to deal with the issue by the college, in response to the effort of Mountain Justice to eliminate fossil fuel shares from their portfolios, the College Board rejected the request on consequentialist grounds that costs would far outweigh any benefits posing “an unacceptable risk to the College’s finances” and an estimated loss of $10-15 million in income annually for the fund. Nor would divestment have any significant impact on the “behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels.” Even as a “a symbolic act designed to mobilize public opinion against fossil fuels,” the efficacy of such a move was denied. “Divestment’s potential success as a moral response is limited – if not completely negated – so long as its advocates continue to turn on the lights, drive cars, and purchase manufactured goods.” Is this not far truer of efforts to enter into the hazardous fray of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the support is far less and the complexities far greater?

The divestment strategy may have had a few minor and meaningless empty victories, but the negative repercussions have been far greater than any accomplishments. What about the sanctions campaign?

I will discuss that effort in my blog on Sunday morning when I focus more intently on the boycott efforts, the campus campaign and wrestle in greater detail with the ethical issues.

[1] For these and subsequent polling results, I have relied primarily on the surveys of the Brookings Institute in cooperation with the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and its polls of American public attitudes to various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (December 2014).

ON BDS

ON BDS

by

Howard Adelman

Defining BDS

Yesterday evening, Derek Penslar was in town and gave a talk on BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign launched in 2005 on the first anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the illegality of the Israeli West Bank barrier. The blog below is not a record of Derek’s talk, but rather my own take on BDS with comments that arose from points Derek made or from some of the questions and comments. Needless to say, Derek’s talk was excellent as his talks always are.

In much of the public mind who are aware of the BDS campaign, the purpose is thought to be about West Bank settlements and objections to them. In fact that campaign has three stated purposes:
1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

This is a program far more extensive than opposition to West Bank settlements. Derek thought the goals were ambiguous since, given the goals as stated, according to Derek, no country, especially Israel, could know when it had satisfied the wishes of the BDS protesters. By parsing what the stated goals are and from talks with some of the proponents of BDS 4 or 5 years ago, I suggest that the goals are not as ambiguous as Derek suggested; rather, the ambiguity arises from the various ways different parties have interpreted the BDS campaign and how they apply it, for, as Derek noted, the BDS campaign is a movement not an organization and one with a bottom-up buy-in that allows different people and groups to use the BDS campaign for their own purposes.

As I read the goals of the BDS platform, the Israeli political right is correct in its interpretation. For BDS, Israel is considered to be on occupied Arab land. The program opposes the “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands”. (my italics) Though the program does not go as far as calling for the expulsion of Jews from the land, with the call for return of the refugees to their original homes (NOT stated in UN Resolution 194, though subsequently interpreted by UN resolutions to mean that), the object of the BDS plan is both the delegitimation and elimination of Israel as a political entity because Israel is considered a colonial and colonizing state occupying Arab lands. The campaign is not just about the current government’s policies and practices — however much many of us may disagree with them. Nevertheless, many supporters of the BDS campaign believe that the focus of the campaign is the West Bank settlements and have either ignored or not bought into its longer range goals.

In response to my original draft of this blog, Stuart Schoenfeld sent the following explication of those goals that clarify the vision embraced by those goals. On the goals of BDS: The three stated objectives were written to be inclusive of the three Palestinian constituencies

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; WEST BANK AND GAZA
2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; ARAB / PALESTINIAN ISRAELI CITIZENS and
3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. THE DIASPORA

The intention was to have a campaign that would bring these constituencies together rather than have their issues addressed separately, avoiding the “divide and conquer” situation in which Israelis have more leverage. It also allows those who come from these different constituencies to work together in Europe and North America without in-fighting over their separate interests.

As a consequence of this coalition strategy, the only way to fully realize the interests of all three constituencies would be the maximalist position – a binational state with a Palestinian majority. This is a hard sell in public relations terms or as an achievable goal, but it seemed fairly clear a few years ago when reading the material for the “one state” conference written by the same people leading BDS. There seem to have been fewer “one state” conferences recently, but this is tactics, the strategic goal has not altered.

Calls for BDS go back to the origins of Jewish settlements in Palestine at the beginning of the twentieth century. They really took off after the 1948 War of Independence or what the Palestinians call the Naqba with the boycott led by Arab countries, a boycott which the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf ended following the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. Ironically, the BDS campaign took off after many Arab states began to covertly or overtly engage in cooperation with Israel.

The campaign has three thrusts: 1) an economic Boycott of businesses, academic institutions and artists from Israel and artists refusing to go to Israel; 2) a Divestment of investments in or loans to companies initially focused on businesses operating in or servicing or undertaking manufacturing in the West Bank; and 3) a Sanctions campaign. The campaign underway currently has not only these three main tools but three main foci: business, academia and culture. In the business campaign, the main tool is the boycott since sanctions are largely a state responsibility. Perhaps this is because, as Derek suggested, boycotts resonate so much with the disempowered for it allows them to do something to advance their cause and to feel that they are accomplishing something. As one of the students present last evening said, the BDS movement has a romantic rather than a realist appeal.

The main focus of the boycott is business. Ahava products are boycotted. They have been produced from products from the Dead Sea since 1988 with little relationship to settlement activities in the heart of the West Bank, unlike Dexia Bank, SodaStream (its stock fell 25% when it became the focus of the BDS campaign) and Veolia. Ahava products are produced in Mitzpa Shalem, a kibbutz located on the Dead Sea. There have been a number of successes here with an independent Ahava store forced to close its outlet on a fashionable London shopping street because of the disruption of picketers. Selfridges Department Store, the leading department chain in Norway and the second largest in the Netherlands have all removed Ahava products from their store shelves. One year ago, the Norwegian retail chain, VITA, that is the major outlet for Ahava products in Norway, decided to boycott all products originating from settlements in “occupied Palestine”.

Britain’s Trade Union Congress supported the BDS campaign since 2009. Three British universities – Edinburgh, Kent and Dundee – have also boycotted some businesses as a result of BDS. So did the Irish Congress of Trades Unions. In the area of business boycotts, the BDS campaigners boast significant successes. Veolia purportedly lost a four and a quarter billion dollar operating and maintenance rail contract in Massachusetts because of the BDS campaign which targeted Veolia. However, the MBTA/MassDot Board of the Massachusetts commuter line said it awarded the contract unanimously on the recommendation of the General Manager to Keolis for a superior proposal in terms of pricing, operations and maintenance. Similarly, a $63.5 million contract was purportedly lost in Canterbury, UK, allegedly because of the BDS campaign, but the truth is that the municipality simply renewed its contract with Serco.

Second, the campaign involves a boycott of Israeli academics and institutions, but initially focused on Israeli institutions (and not individual academics) who are linked in any way with the West Bank settlements. As academics, this is the one of which we are most aware. Indirectly, a boycott campaign against academic institutions affects individual academics as Derek noted, but individual Israeli academics have been targeted in any case and many Palestinian academics now refuse to sit on panels with Israeli academics. However, as Derek also pointed out, almost ALL academics engage in personal boycotts of some kind. The BDS campaign, however, is of a different order.

Third, the BDS campaign entails a cultural boycott of artists from performing in Israel and a boycott of Israelis artists, but notably without any explicit relationship at all with West Bank settlements, who perform abroad. The most famous or infamous of these was the disruptions of the tour of Israel’s Batsheva dance company at the Burmingham Hippodrome and the Edinburgh International Festival (Don’t Dance with Israel Apartheid). The disruptions imitated those against the Soviet Union cultural tours of the Bolshoi and the Red Army Chorus to support the campaign to permit the emigration of Soviet Jews. The Israeli dance company Batsheva has been picketed throughout its tour and three protesters disrupted the performance in the theatre in Rome until they were removed and one protester in Theatre Royal in Plymouth used a megaphone to disrupt the performance. Disruptions took place in Edinburgh, Leicester, in the Birmingham Hippodrome with a banner dropped during the performance. With respect to Batsheva, they have affected performances from Turin to Aukland New Zealand, but have largely earned the BDS movement a negative backlash.

Individual artists scheduled to perform in Israel, such as the Rolling Stones Tour, have been lobbied and pressured extensively but resisted as have most artists. Some, like Chris “Daddy” Dave cancelled his appearance at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat. Ireland was the leading country in the artistic boycott campaign with 237 artists committed to boycotting performing or exhibiting in Israel but Riverdance resisted the pressure to cancel its show. There are a long list of other artists who have not resisted pressures by BDS. Artists seem to constitute one of the most susceptible groups to the BDS effort.

Support for BDS and the Divestment Campaign

Supporters of the campaign are varied but are concentrated in four institutional spheres, religious organizations, student and faculty unions and associations at and from universities and colleges, unions and, finally, states like Norway. The latter is important because Norway played such a critical role in getting the Oslo process going and concluded, erroneously in my analysis, that Israel was solely to blame for the failure of Oslo, a process in which Norway invested enormous personal resources and commitment. Norway was one of the first countries to support the BDS campaign when in December 2005, the Norwegian Sør-Trøndelag regional council supported a call for a comprehensive boycott of Israeli goods.

Ironically, just at a time when Norway has reversed course under a new centre-right coalition government (96 seats versus 72 for the opposition), Norway lifted its 2010 ban on investments in two companies in Israel, Africa Israel and Danya Cebus, on August 2013. The coalition backing the ban — including: Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee (BNC); Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel; The Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem; and The Palestinian Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign – called on the Norwegian government to reverse the decision since it claimed that the revocation was based on false information provided by Africa Israel in support of its claim that they were no longer building housing in Gilo. (Note where the housing was being built — in Jerusalem that in all the peace talks on land that will be ceded to Israel.) Norway’s leftist Minister of Finance in his 2010 decision determined that all land east of the 1967 Cease Fire Line was occupied land and, therefore, came under the purview of the fourth Geneva Convention.” In contrast, Africa Israel’s affidavit to Norway referred only to the West Bank. However, the BDS campaign in the end targets all Arab land usurped by the colonial Israeli state.

The trade unions in Norway have stepped up their support for BDS. The Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees (NUMGE) lobbied and succeeded in getting the Nordea Bank to resolve not to invest in Cemex, an Israeli company in the building materials industry, since Cemex allegedly uses material from the West Bank to manufacture cement. The University of Oslo, and subsequently the University of Bergen, decided not to use the security company, G4S Secure Solutions (Canada), even though it was the lowest bidder because critics claimed the use of G4S would cost the university 2.5 million NOK in reputational losses because of using the allegedly controversial G4S security company, a fifty year-old CANADIAN company, and the leading one in the provision of security, because of its work in the West Bank. A Norwegian government pension fund divested itself of Elbit Systems because of its business activities in the West Bank. This year, Dutch pension fund PGGM divested its investments in Israeli banks and Danish Danske Bank divested from Israeli Bank Hapoalim for their investments in the West Bank as well as Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus.

Support for BDS in Canada

Allan Dershowitz’s offer to lecture free on Norwegian campuses was turned down even though Ilan Pappé, a strong advocate of BDS, was supported in his tour of Norwegian universities. So some countries are particularly susceptible to the BDS campaign, countries with a record and reputation as a middle road country promoting peace. The BDS movement has had a few academic successes. Denmark’s Technical University dropped out of a scientific collaboration project with Ariel University on the analysis of its laboratories. Danish Foreign Minister Villy Søvndal stated: “We do not want to Danish scientific institutions participating in activities that may help to maintain the illegal settlements.” But overwhelmingly, the efforts have been a failure.

In Canada, BDS has been endorsed by, in Derek’s count, 9.5 student unions, the half point granted to McMaster because the students voted in support of BDS but the meeting giving that support lacked a quorum. The York Federation of Students, a university where I taught for 37 years, and the University of Toronto Scarborough Students’ Union voted to support BDS. The F4P, Faculty for Palestine, formed in the spring of 2008 as a sub-committee of the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid (CAIA) includes over 550 faculty of all ranks (tenured, contract, emeritus, independent researchers, retired, visiting scholars) in support of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israeli (PACBI).

Thus, Canada was not far behind Norway in supporting BDS. In May of 2006, the Ontario section of CUPE endorsed the BDS campaign. I believe more university student and faculty unions in Canada than anywhere else support BDS. (Windsor students, have joined the BDS campaign.) The BDS campaign is supported by the United Church of Canada by boycotting products of Israeli settlements. However, the effort to boycott Shani Bar-Oz soap products in Vancouver backfired and sales went up. Friends of Simon Wiesenthal started a campaign today against the McMaster University student union campaign in support of the BDS on the grounds that it has stirred up an anti-Semitic campaign on the campus.

Overall, the BDS campaign has been a general failure. It is a minority movement from the left often with union (CUPE) and United Church support, but overwhelmingly ignored by the vast number of faculty and students. More to the point, there has been little if any measurable effect on the Israeli economy. This raises the question of why have such a campaign if it only serves as an irritant and falls into the segment of 80% of boycott campaigns that fail?

Theorizing BDS – Judith Butler

One impact that I witnessed on my own campus, York University, was a coarsening of debate and discussion on campus. Judith Butler (UC Berkeley), who comes from a family whose Jewish roots go back to eastern Europe, is a leading proponent of BDS from the high intelligence rather than the mob side. Yet she backed a meeting restricted to pro-BDS supporters and banned anyone opposed. Heavily influenced by Derrida, Judith is a leading well-known philosopher of the postmodernist critical theory school who writes on gender and queer studies; her theory of defining gender in terms of performance rather than a natural essence is at the core of most modern gender theory. Though she roots her theories in an interpretation of the section of Hegel’s Phenomenology dealing with desire and life and with Lordship and Bondage that has been heavily influenced by the French Hegelian philosopher, Alexandre Kojève (cf. Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth Century France), it is a school of thought which the Toronto School of Hegelians (to which I myself belong) directly challenged in our close readings of Hegel that tried to show how this Marxist interpretation of Hegel inverted Hegel’s meaning.

Judith has a chair in a Department of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature rather than a traditional philosophy department in keeping with the fact that the Modern Language Association (MLA), an association dominated by postmodern theory, has been a leading exponent of the BDS campaign. (See a previous blog, Academic Boycotts and Israel, that I wrote last year that focused on the MLA vote.) As Derek pointed out, academic BDSers come from Literature, Philosophy and sometimes Anthropology but not history and certainly not international studies.

Judith Butler is not only a leading proponent of BDS and activist as an executive member of the Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in the United States, but a leading theorist of the movement. Just as in her theory of censorship as an instrument of the state’s effort to control language and discourse, one of her main rationales for the BDS movement is that it takes away from the power of the state to monopolize and control who can and who cannot be sanctioned and hands it over to the people themselves. This complements Derek’s thesis that BDS is adopted by youth who feel disempowered. Judith merged the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, largely relying on Theodore Adorno’s aesthetics, and French and postmodernist thinkers, to develop a theory in which the individual develops his or her individuality and character in contention with the dominant norms of society. Hence the appeal of BDS practices to young adults on the cusp of self-definition who are permitted to pick and choose their focus since the BDS movement lacks any top-down structure to define and determine the agenda of any group. Her ability to arouse the ire of the right was most evident when she received the Adorno Prize in Germany and the awarders of that prize were taken to task for that award by the German Council of Jews supported by Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, and Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem.

One of the interesting items that came up in the discussion last night was the fierce opposition of two Of Israel’s most formidable critics, Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, to the BDS campaign. Finkelstein called the BDS movement a cult. Chomsky has not opposed BDS, however, contrary to what was said last night, but has opposed its implementation and the harm it causes to those who should be protected, namely Palestinians. As Chomsky said in a 2010 interview just when BDS had started to take off, “BDS actions are both principled and most effective when they are directed at our crucial contribution to these crimes [of Israel], without which they would end; for example, boycott of western firms contributing to the occupation, working to end military aid to Israel, etc.” In other words, BDS is well intentioned but relatively frivolous because it is not rooted in an economic analysis of capitalism and Israel’s role and undermines a two-state solution. As someone said last night, the criticism of BDS by Finkelstein and Chomsky represent the Old Left versus the youthful new new left.

Conclusions

As Derek suggested, the BDS movement should be combated but it is nothing to become hysterical about. The approach should be to understand its goals, motives and sources of support. It is an educational campaign aimed at consciousness raising rather than a serious effort to damage Israel economically. It is a psychological tool, an irritant like a horde of Lilliputians picking at the body of an economic and creative giant.