My first anti-BDS battle took place at the 2007 annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the 35,000-member organization for literature and foreign language teachers. There already had been anti-Israel divestment resolutions at Berkeley, Harvard, MIT and a few other schools, but this was the first major drive at a national faculty association.We debated the resolution for a couple of hours, and—in those more innocent days—we were able to defeat it.
We were helped in part by the opposition’s tendency to get their facts wrong. They did sloppy research and relied more than anything else on their passion to carry the day. Those of us defending Israel had plenty of passion as well, but we also did careful research. Even as recently as 2014, the pattern of poor research was sustained.That year the BDS proponents announced at the annual MLA meeting that Israel surrounded Gaza and, thus, controlled all the exits that students could use to travel abroad. Israelis wouldn’t let the students out.We rose to tell 350 faculty attending the MLA’s business meeting that there was a strange country to the south of Gaza, and it was called Egypt, not Israel. The Rafa crossing on Gaza’s southern border was the main transit point; the beef was with Egypt, not Israel. That year the acrimonious debate—at a chaotic meeting generously described as a circus—took nearly four hours. By the time a vote on an anti-Israeli resolution took place, many of our supporters had left in disgust.BDS fanatics stood their ground; we lost the vote, but the resolution failed when it was presented to the full membership.
That was then.When a resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli universities passed the 2015 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, it was accompanied by a 135-page report making a large number of accusations about Israel. The report was rife with misrepresentation and error, but refuting it was a major task. Just how many anthropologists actually read the “report” or our detailed rebuttals is hard to say. One worries that many BDS advocates did little more than skim it to reconfirm their preexisting views.
Unfortunately, those preexisting views are hardening across multiple cultural and political domains, even as the BDS movement becomes increasingly adept at amassing “evidence” to prove its case. Certainly on campus, many BDS supporters know little more than the slogans that drew them to the cause in the first place, whether it was simply a call for “justice” or a chant like “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.”
BDS meanwhile has metastasized into a series of linked movements in the academy, in Protestant religious groups, in nongovernmental organizations, in labor unions and in the financial services industry. Some BDS leaders specialize in one these areas, while others cross boundaries to work in multiple arenas. Jewish Voice for Peace is active promoting BDS in every arena, and its leaders turn up in venue after venue.
BDS sometimes dominates conversations in public spaces, while disingenuously claiming its views are being suppressed. Its tactics range from semi-violent efforts to shut down dialogue to far more subtle efforts to delegitimize Israel. One recent BDS financial tactic is to assemble progressive investment portfolios in alternative energy companies and the like and market them to groups and individuals; it just so happens that no Israeli companies and no companies doing business in Israel are in the portfolio. Thus, they can try to undermine the Israel economy without even mentioning Israel.
Make no mistake about its fundamental goal, however; every major BDS spokesperson makes it clear it aims to eliminate the Jewish state.
When I meet with people in Michigan, I want to bring you up-to-date on both BDS itself and the effort to counter the movement. There is much work to do to defeat BDS, and there are roles for all of us to play. I look forward to sharing our experiences and hearing your views.