‘When Failure Succeeds’: The true goal of BDS and the ASA vote

In the recent boycott resolution passed by the America Asian Studies Association and being voted on by the American Studies Association we uncover the innate hatred, bigotry and destructive intolerance directed at Israel by boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) adherents and supporters.  BDS stands for the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel.

Despite its virulence, the BDS effort in the United States has had virtually no success. Even the AASA and ASA resolutions will have no impact whatsoever. Though this past spring a number of University of California campuses passed student resolutions that support a boycott of companies that do business with Israel, not one of those campuses has instituted such a ban. Time and again, Jewish Voice for Peace and other organizations have attempted to get TIAA-CREF (one of the largest faculty pension funds) to divest from Israel only to be rebuffed.  

Yet, there is a problem when Jewish responses to BDS activity have the unintended consequence of giving BDS and anti-Israel perspectives far more publicity and coverage than they would have had without a response. It is time that those of us opposed to BDS and the growing anti-Israel rhetoric BDS engenders rethink our strategy. 

Understanding the BDS long term strategy may help us develop effective policies in response. At a conference held at UC Hastings Law School in the spring of 2011,  Gwynne Skinner, plaintiff lawyer for Corrie vs. Caterpillar and Professor Jules Lobel, of Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) –argued that winning such legal cases, or by definition divestment and boycott efforts, are not and should not be the end goal of BDS.  Instead, they said that the goal should be to change the opinions of young Americans about Israel.

Similarly, over the last two years members of organizations supporting BDS have argued in the same fashion at similar conferences, workshops and training camps about BDS campaigns.

Clearly, the goal of anti-Israel organizations is way beyond any boycott, divestment or sanctions initiative.  Banning Soda Stream from Walmart and Costco or stopping the cafeteria from serving Sabra hummus might otherwise be farcical if that were the goal. But the mission that is increasingly revealed to us is changing the minds of the American public by delegitimizing Israel. Understanding this goal is critical for Israel and for the pro-Israel community, Jewish and non-Jewish, in the US and around the world. We must also understand that myth-based campaigns are by nature intended to delegitimize.

A historical example of such a myth-based campaign during prewar Germany is instructional for all of us who are fighting the BDS campaign, on or off campus.

In 1924, Julius Streicher, editor of the Der Stürmer newspaper, began a campaign of daily anti-Jewish invective, diatribe and hate. Liberally plagiarizing the already plagiarized Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Streicher embarked on a long-term campaign of vilification against many German Jewish community leaders and organizations. These community leaders and organizations sued Streicher in court dozens of times and won every verdict. Each time, Streicher paid the fine and laughed that, “Something always sticks.”  “Something always sticks” became his unofficial motto.

Our conceptualization of the conflict surrounding BDS needs to change. Every time BDS or lawfare is mounted by anti-Israel forces something sticks, and over years attitude changes will ultimately have an impact on American student views toward Israel.  We need to change the way we confront disinformation, lies and innuendo, while at the same time understanding that too much of a reaction and making campus issues into academic freedom or freedom of speech issues gives too much oxygen to the real goals of the BDS. 

BDS efforts on college campus—though inconsequential to the actual campus policies—generate negative propaganda, the effects of which can “stick.”  Such propaganda not only pollutes a campus environment but also tarnishes the reputation of the academic institution.  Our universities are paragons of dialogue exchange; BDS quashes the freedom which we hold dear.

Therefore, the discussion on campus must be reframed to recapture the offensive from BDS supporters who have successfully used images, tropes and rhetorical strategies pioneered by the Zionist movement in supporting the creation of the state of Israel for their own use in attacking the legitimacy of Israel. We must focus our accusations against BDS to show that it inherently exists to counter the best interests of universities, students and faculty. We should communicate the relevance of Israel to faculty, students, trustees and administrators through joint research programs, curricular projects and courses, travel programs and faculty exchange programs between the US and Israel.

Nurturing a positive relationship with Israel is not only a matter of national security, but part of our democratic values as Americans.  Engagement and conversations about Israel have to become organic parts of a campus experience where the message is not defensive rather educational and inspiring.  Regardless of differences about Israel politics and social complexities, we have to encourage non-defensive communication about Israel and pro-active messaging that preempts the efforts of BDS. 

Samuel M. Edelman, CSU Chico Emeritus Professor and former Dean at the American Jewish University