The Conspiracy

More Buzz on BDS

Students learning about Israel advocacy as part of their campus engagement work at the Hillel Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, which took place Aug. 11-15, 2010. (Hillel/Jonathan Pollack)

Training at the Hillel Institute

In case you’ve missed one of the hot topics of the Jewish media this year, Members of the Tribe have their panties in a bunch over the slowly growing BDS movement in the US and worldwide, which urges universities to divest from, boycott and sanction companies that do business in the West Bank and Gaza. And in case you missed the New Voices feature on the Jewish role in BDS, here it is.

Both sides of this debate are gearing up as the new school year moves along. Hillel made this a focus of its summer training, and Jewish Voice for Peace–a Jewish pro-BDS group–is increasing its activity across the country.

Activity is also increasing internationally. This week the University of Johannesburg, South Africa, decided to make a joint scientific research project with Ben Gurion University of the Negev conditional on BGU increasing its collaboration with Palestinian universities. The Jewish Chronicle reports:

UJ’s deputy vice chancellor Adam Habib said: “In developing this recommendation we were mindful that our recommendation would need to be consistently applied in other similar contexts.”

In more activity on the BDS front, JVP re-released a message from earlier this year to its members admonishing anti-divestment groups for what JVP considers to be inappropriate tactics. The message accused these groups of “Silencing debate; Confusing the facts; Tak[ing] over student senates; Making indiscriminate charges of anti-Semitism; Criminalizing BDS and anti-occupation activism on campuses; and Remaining silent and/or actively fueling atmosphere of hate against Muslims, Palestinians and progressive anti-occupation Jews.”

It is true that many people and  groups–some that JVP specifically called out were AIPAC, Hillel, the ZOA and Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor–used extreme rhetoric. I would add that there is a difference between being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic and that while the two do intersect at times, much of the time they do not. Those who call anti-Israel activists anti-Semites are, much of the time, engaging more in fearmongering and less in honest debate.

It’s also true, however, that pro-BDS groups use extreme language and focus more on combating perceived enemies than on promoting constructive solutions. What’s significant about the JVP message, I think, is that it does not give its readers any guidance for dealing with these tactics. All it seeks to do is criticize its opponents.

This is also why I think the BDS movement as a whole is doomed to irrelevance and marginalization. The group insists on divesting from Israel but advocates for no concrete solution to an incredibly multi-layered, complex and heretofore insolvable conflict. That’s what the University of Johannesburg did well: the faculty told BGU that unless certain productive partnerships formed, the research collaboration would end.

JVP’s business, however, is shining the spotlight on problems, not promoting solutions. Sure, let’s say we did divest from the West Bank and the companies that do business there. What happens next?

Until JVP and other BDS groups can answer that question, I’m not sure how their movement can add to the Israeli-Palestinian policy discourse.

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8 Older Responses to “More Buzz on BDS”

  1. Yakov Wolf
    October 6, 2010 at 1:00 am #

    I think youre missing the point. One of the strengths of the BDS is it’s decentralized character. Though it’s supporters all have a common goal–increasing pressure on Israel to respect human rights–there is no Central Committee or anything that reeks of vanguardism to decide the next steps. It seems like your expecting JVP and BDS to create some sort of savior figure or figures for itself to lead it into the next phase. History, though, has shown us the dangers of putting all our eggs in one basket and all our hopes on one leader. Assassination, persecution, arrest, harassment and other forms of targeting is less a danger when it remains a mass movement of independent chapters that are still united by a sense of justice.

    That BDS is getting international coverage–such as when the tiny Olympia Food Co-op’s historic boycott of Israeli products made Ha’aretz [ ] all the way in Israel sit up and take notice–gives evidence contrary to your claim that BDS is irrelevant. Once the OFC passed the Israeli boycott, in fact, the BDS movement seemed to become so much a crisis for Israel that no less than the Israeli consulate intervened to lobby against another co-op in Port Townsend [ ] adopting a Boycott.

    JVP and BDS already ARE adding to the discourse–before them, NO ONE here in Olympia made the Israel/Palestine conflict a huge priority–now it’s being talked about and debated like never before. The first step is to begin bring attention to the situation. That leads to discourse. It’s the DISCOURSE that will determine the next steps.

  2. David Zarmi
    October 6, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

    Evidence that anti-Israel and anti-Semite usually go together is found in the singling out of Israel. If a group had a list of 20 or so countries that violate human rights in horrifying ways and included Cuba, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, North Korea, China, Libya, Zimbabwe… And this was off the top of my head. A look at Freedom House reveals that Israel is a free country in the second freest category (1.5) and has 47 not-free countries (ranging from 5.5 to 7.0). So why Israel? Answer that question for each anti-Israel protestor and you’ll have an answer to the levels of anti-Semitism.

    Israel is special – it is a religious issue for Muslims (of course, so is Spain, but you don’t see them doing nearly as much to take back Andalus). But it is also the only homeland the Jews have. Among some it represent a slap in the face to internationalism, and is emblematic of the anachronistic nation-state which the Jews should have a special anathema to after the Third Reich. But really, that’s just throwing the question back a level: why Israel out of all the nation-states out there? What about the Baathist Syrian nation-state? I could go on forever, but if you mean to be intellectually honest, these questions must be struggled with. There are some, of course, who are sincere. Maybe they’re just ignorant of other human rights movements and atrocities. And of course Jews (and Israelis) might care more about Israel for good and bad, because the actors are Jews. But it’s important not to close your eyes to the majority of these folks and their motives, even if unspoken.

  3. Tildon Katz
    October 6, 2010 at 4:34 pm #


    As one of (i believe) two managing editors of this online magazine for Jewish students, how can you justify calling the BDS movement irrelevant and marginal? I commend you on following this movement closely, though I’m displeased to find your cynicism so pungent in your presentation. (i.e.” And in case you haven’t had enough BDS news for the month, there’s more!”) The movement itself is at worst, a purely academic discourse “doomed,” as you say, to remain a subject of debate and an example of the clearly antagonistic relationship between pro-Israel Jews and those Jews against the occupation. Though at best, the BDS movement could lead to a crippling of Israel’s economic stranglehold on the land that Palestinians want as their future state. The Israeli government, as well as other governments and multinational corporations, profit hugely off of the expansion of the Israeli state and therefore the subjugation of the Palestinian people, and the occupation of their land. In addition they’re profiting hugely off of making entirely symbolic financial gestures to the Palestinians that have no relevance in their society (i.e. the Ramallah Cultural Center built by the Japanese, which goes almost always unused). BDS is a method that follows the underlying truth of all major changes in the history of the world – from the fall of Rome to the abolition of slavery. No change will come unless it is economically viable and necessary.

    What bothers me is not the present or future of the BDS movement, though. It is your irresponsibility as editor of this publication to present the movement as irrelevant. It is unfair and unnecessary and you may eventually regret saying it so publicly. Moreover, the worst case scenario — that BDS remain an academic discourse, marginalized, as you say — makes it that much more important that as a New Voice for Jewish students, you foster these debates, lift them up, publicize them, and bring awareness to the community of Jewish students as you’ve done throughout the last month. It is the opinion lurking in your tone that is, without doubt, irrelevant.

  4. howiej
    October 6, 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    It is interesting how those supporting BDS have their blinders on quite tightly. In their view, Israel is the prime mover for evil in the world. How many places of higher education did the Palestinian Arabs have before 6/67? To listen to many politicians, the babbling of the representatives of many nations, and read many newspapers throughout the world, peace will come when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is solved. The denigration of Israel will not uplift the Arabs. They must do this themselves and are not doing it for lack of funding. The “Palestinian refugees” receive more money per capita in foreign funding than any other group in the world. For more than 60 years the Arab and Muslim world has decided to keep them in the condition that they are in now. The answer to BDS is the “Buycott.” When a boycott is organized against a store or product line, those in favor of the State of Israel must shop at that store or buy that product.
    I strongly recommend that all should read as many sources, from all sides about what is the history of the region and exactly what is going on. Slogans are easy to learn and repeat. What is harder is to know both sides of the story and then make ones decision.

  5. Harpo Jaeger
    October 6, 2010 at 10:53 pm #

    @Tildon Katz, Ben is indeed an editor. Hence he has taken to the blog to express his opinion. You’ll find that his articles on the main site consistently adhere closely to journalistic standards of fair reporting, and that he’s generally a mensch. You’re not obligated to agree with him, but a cursory review of the opinion and news pieces he’s written reveals that most of what you’re saying about is just not true, and that he probably agrees with you on most of the substance of the issues, although perhaps not on the political and practical viability of BDS (Ben, please correct me if you feel I’m putting words in your mouth).
    There are plenty of people conducting non-fact-based investigation into and writing non-fact-based opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ben is not one of them.

  6. Yakov Wolf
    October 6, 2010 at 11:08 pm #

    What David and Howie miss is that their hoarse voices repeating over and over the claim that “Israel is better than North Korea, China, etc.” is not convincing because it rests on the assumption that Israel has no greater ambition than to be better than the worst human rights violators. Israel is an advanced developed nation with developing democracy; shouldn’t it’s aim be a little higher than dictatorships? If Israel wants to be acknowledged as a first world nation, then maybe it should start comparing itself to the first world and NOT the third world?

    And just to acknowledge Howie’s point, in his claim that “Palestinian refugees receive more money per capita in foreign funding than any other group in the world”, he should at least be intellectually honest enough to explain WHY Palestinians need such funding–because they are systematically prohibited by the siege and occupation from creating their own industries, from even importing materials to create such industries, and therefore have no basis upon which to create jobs, resulting in unemployment and poverty. If you are not permitted to get a job, then of course you need to get humanitarian aid from SOMEWHERE to prevent a mass fatal starvation.

    The situation is made even worse by the fact that Hamas appropriates much of the aid. There’s no forgiving that. There’s just not. But let’s not forget that with the occupation we’re literally walling Palestinians into being forced to submit to and be dependent upon the very group that is stealing from them–instead of letting them earn their money the normal way, by selling their goods and services on the open market. I’m sure Howie is familiar with the old “give a man a fish, he eats for a day, teach him how to fish he eats for a lifetime’ adage?

    If Howie is so opposed to such Humanitarian aid to Palestinians, then I’m eagerly looking forward for his denunciation of the occupation that makes such aid necessary.


  1. Memo to Jewish college students: BDS is not your enemy « New Voices - October 6, 2010

    […] Ben Sales’ contribution offers a reasoned and fair critique of BDS – namely, its sacrificing of longer-term practical goals for the sake of a (completely defensible and just) moral standpoint.  This is a tactical choice that the movement has made.  It’s one with which I disagree, but have no problem accepting as a valid and respectable form of activism. […]

  2. JSPS does not equal JVP « New Voices - November 9, 2010

    […] As I’ve written before, I think that JVP will be ineffective and–in the end–irrelevant because of this. The organization does not articulate a vision for what it wants; all it does is protest what it does not want. And JVP doesn’t always have its eyes on the prize, whatever that prize may be. At the GA, the movement cared more about getting attention than about changing the minds of Jewish organizations. […]

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