Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Beinart Effect

The Beinart Effect

While this year has mostly been dark clouds for the forces of BDS, both small (failure at the Park Slope Food Coop), medium (another year of getting nowhere on college campuses) and large (the Methodist Churchrejecting divestment yet again), there is a silver lining for them that we in the boycott-fighting business should take note of.

You saw it play out with the Methodists who rejected divestment and just as sensibly rejected various partisan resolutions that could be presented as the church taking sides in the Middle East conflict.  But they did pass a resolution supporting boycott of one segment of Israeli society, namely businesses located in the disputed territories (better known as the settlements, or – to use BDS parlance – “The Settlements”).

We saw a similar decision last month in the UK where the largest food cooperative organization in the country also passed a settlement boycott measure, and it’s very possible you’ll see something similar play out when the Presbyterians meet in June (although I still anticipate that they will reject divestment, as did the Methodists, for a fourth time). 

The settlement boycott issue is a tricky one, for while general rejection of BDS has pretty much reached consensus across the entire Jewish political spectrum, attitudes towards what should ultimately happen with the disputed territories remains an issue of deep contention within Israel, among Israel’s supporters, and within the wider world.

And when these two issues (BDS and the politics of the territories) become conflated, it’s much easier to present a boycott of certain Israelis as the “moderate” option located halfway between “doing nothing” (which is deemed unacceptable) and broad-based BDS (which is deemed equally unacceptable).  This is the argument that was used (successfully) in the UK where decision makers thought they were actually being supportive of Israel by seeking this "moderate" option as an alternative to the blanket boycott that was being requested of them by anti-Israel partisans (who are quite strong in Europe).

Sometime in the next few weeks, I’m planning to start a series on the use of rhetoric in the Middle East/BDS conflict.  But just to give you a taste, what is described above is something called the fallacy of moderation which is often employed by partisans who want to convince you to do what they really want by presenting their preferred option as a compromise between “extremes” contrived for the sole purpose of locating their real goal in the mid-point between them.

To take a simple (fictional) example, a candidate who wants to raise the tax rate to 45% by insisting that this represents the moderate option between extremists in his own party who want to raise the rate to 90% and the opposing party that wants to eliminate taxes altogether, is intentionally using the fallacy of moderation to present what is really a major tax increase as the moderate choice located exactly between two extremes.  The fallacy comes in when you realize that the two extremes he is describing are not genuine, real-world options, but exist solely to locate his desired tax rate between them.

In the case of “partial BDS,” this too is an example of a moderation fallacy since there are any number of alternatives to “doing nothing” (defined as not having any boycott or divestment policy) and implementing a total boycott of all things Israeli.  You could, for example, pass a policy urging positive investment (as did the Methodists), which may not have pleased the BDSers but is certainly one of many alternatives to the false choices that frame an argument which says “well since you must do something, a boycott of settlements is better than nothing.”

When settlement boycotts are debated within the Jewish community, they are generally framed as an alternative to what is sometimes called “Full BDS” (meaning a boycott of companies within Israel proper).  But this analysis (like all analysis of which Israeli companies to boycott) misses the bigger picture.

For as I’ve noted ad nauseum on this site, the goal of BDS is NOT to hurt Israel economically, but to stuff the political positions of the BDSers into the mouth of a well-known, respected institution.  And once a boycott or divestment resolution of any size based on any target gets passed by one of these institutions, the message sent to the world is not “The such-and-such organization has passed a highly limited boycott of just a certain subset of Israelis…”  Rather, the message is “Such-and-such organization agrees with we the BDSers that Israeli is an Apartheid State.  And so should you!”

I titled this piece “The Beinart Effect” in honor of writer Peter Beinartwho first proposed a Jewish version of BDS, not targeted Israel’s foes but targeted fellow Jews on the “wrong” side of the Green Line.  This was Beinart’s too-clever-by-half attempt to both subvert a BDS movement (which he claims to loath) by using their own tactics to allow some Jews (who think like him) to demonstrate their dislike of other Jews (who don’t think link him), thus proving their righteousness while showing what a virtuous version of BDS might look like in the hands of people as moral and forward thinking as Beinart himself.

But as anyone who knows anything about BDS could have told him, his complex and somewhat convoluted strategy was doomed to be boiled by the BDSers into a much simpler message: “Progressive Jews (like Beinart and those he claims to represent) want you to engage in a boycott of Israel, and we’re the ones to tell you how to do it.”

With a couple of settlement boycott wins under their belt, it’s just a matter of time before the BDSers re-align their strategy to push for more of these kinds of votes (as opposed to the general divestment measures that have been such a bust for them) and begin to claim any wins they receive regarding such measures (and not their many losses elsewhere) as the only metric with which the rest of us should judge their success.

Having seen BDS tactics morph time and time again, I’ve never been much for whining when they eventually stumble onto something that works.  Rather, those of us who fight against boycotts and divestment activities need to be just as flexible in finding tactics that can counter this new offensive, and let the world know that the success of both Israel and its supporters is not something to be measured by the embrace of a new gimmick by a bunch of narrow-minded, self-righteous partisans who (like their new-found accidental ally Peter Beinart) cannot think beyond themselves.