I tend to see a difference between the controversies that arise whenever a major event (such as wars in Gaza or Lebanon) break out in the Middle East, and ones that are more typically triggered by a BDS initiative, such as a campus divestment or retail boycott conflict.
While both types of protests usually involve the same people and slogans, in the case of reaction to a Gaza War (for example), protestors against Israel are taking to the streets in reaction to an actual controversial event. And while those who rally to support Israel might disagree with their opponent’s characterization of the situation (for example, highlighting Hamas rocket attacks that Israel’s critics ignore), both sides are engaged in real politics about genuine, impossible-to-ignore crises.
But when a divestment battle breaks out on a university, for example, it is always the result of a BDS group first deciding to drag the Middle East conflict onto campus, then finding the pretext to do so.
Remember that one of the primary goals of BDS is to get their message that Israel is an Apartheid state, alone in the world at deserving economic punishment, to come out of the mouth of a well-known and respected organization. And, if they can’t accomplish that by actually convincing a college or other institution to divest (which they never have), at least they can brag that hostile accusations against the Jewish state are now part of the fabric of campus life.
Under this formulation, almost anything can be used as a hook to hang a controversy that will immediately divide an institution into armed camps, a dynamic that only serves to heighten tensions still further and make the Arab-Israeli conflict the Alpha and Omega of political/human-rights debate within a community.
Now BDS advocates will claim that a school’s ownership of this share of Caterpillar, for example, or that share of Motorola means they are currently “taking sides” in the conflict, and thus BDS is a proper response to an institution that is already making a political statement by holding such equities in their portfolio. But couldn’t that same argument be made to turn any investing organization of any size into a warzone?
After all, for every dollar these institutions invest in companies that in some way benefit the Jewish state, they invariably invest ten, twenty or even a hundred dollars in energy stocks such as Exxon that (by BDS logic) could be construed as a school or other organization “investing” in the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
So why are protests not breaking out on campus to get schools to “divest from Saudi/Arab/Islamic Apartheid,” with posters littering the campus of Islamic slave traders in Sudan buying and selling black Africans, women being stoned to death in Iran or homosexuals being hung in Egypt? Simply because those of us who stand against BDS refuse to ruin the communities to which we belong just so we can score points against our political foes.
It’s the same reason we are not hounding artists to cancel tours to countries hostile to Israel, or placing photos of broken bodies on the sides of public busses, or inviting partisan speakers to present on the perfidy of Israel’s political foes to elementary school classes. For even the most aggressive campaigners on our side, this kind of invasion of public spaces is impossible to sustain for the simple reasons that: (1) we are not ready to make the lives of our neighbors miserable for our own political gain and (2) ultimately, our goal is for Israel to live in peace with its neighbors, which means we don’t want to spend morning, noon and night portraying those neighbors as demons.
BDS advocates take a completely opposite position. For them, setting members of a once-friendly community at each other’s throats is a small price to pay for their own political aggrandizement. And as for “peace” being their end goal, their behavior highlights the fact that just as organizations whose names included “The People” usually involves the smallest number of them, organizations that proclaim themselves “peace groups” while endlessly demonizing their political opponents look suspiciously like the propaganda arm of a war effort.
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