Boycott revival?

Resurrecting the dead

boycott israel 248.88  (photo credit: Bloomberg)
boycott israel 248.88
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
After a three year slumber, the divest-from-Israel "movement" in the US is making an attempt at self-resurrection. It remains to be seen if history will repeat itself this time as tragedy or farce. "Boycott, divestment and sanctions," or BDS, originally just one of many competing tactics used by anti-Israel activists and organizations over the last 30 years, became a galvanizing force for Israel's foes between 2001 (when BDS was endorsed as the tactic of choice at the UN's now infamous Durban "human rights" conference) and 2004 (when the Presbyterian Church in the US voted in favor of "selective divestment" of its retirement fund from companies doing business in Israel). It was during this period that BDS crashed onto the national scene with divestment petitions appearing at Harvard and MIT, followed by copycat petition-driven divestment projects cropping up at dozens of other US campuses. As these university divestment calls were making news, a 2004 vote within the Presbyterian Church in favor of divestment was followed by similar activities within other mainline Protestant churches as divestment began to spill out from campuses and churches to municipalities and unions. Globally, it appeared, BDS as a political project was on the ascendant. Yet once the initial euphoria on the part of Israel's critics and hysteria on the part of its defenders had died down, there appeared to be a lot less to BDS than was initially hoped or feared. From 2001 until today, not one US college or university has divested a single share of stock based on demands from divest-from-Israel activists. And while divestment was facing both rejection and denunciation from college administrators, it also failed to sway students and teachers on campuses where anti-divestment petitions routinely out-polled pro-divestment ones by a factor of 10:1. Off campus, the lack of popularity for divestment was even more pronounced. In Somerville, Massachusetts, the only US city where a divestment vote was actually held by city officials, its leaders rejected divestment unanimously. The Presbyterian Church, which put a vote on divestment directly to members at its 2006 conference, rejected the its previous 2004 position by a margin of 95:5. The fact that this lopsided defeat for divestment advocates took place at the height of the Israel-Hizbullah war indicates the level of unpopularity then for BDS, even within organizations with a history of skepticism toward Israeli security arguments. Once the anchor for institutional divestment projects, the Presbyterian Church in 2006 turned out to have been a linchpin which, once removed, led to an unraveling of church-based divestment in both the US (where the Methodists rejected divestment unanimously in 2008) and beyond. During the last three years when support for BDS was falling apart, there were constant assertions that some Israeli action (the Second Lebanon War, settlements, the election of a Likud government) threatened to rekindle the divestment campaign at any moment. And it seems as though last year's Gaza campaign has finally provided the catalyst for renewed interest in BDS as the tactic of choice for the 2009-2010 academic year. But without a victory to serve as a foundation for a newly energized divestment "movement," the course of BDS in 2009 has turned out to have been a strange one. HAMPSHIRE COLLEGE, a small, progressive liberal arts school in Western Massachusetts, which in February made headlines as "the first US college to divest from Israel," set the stage for a born-again divestment movement trying to create momentum based on pretend vs. actual victories. Hampshire has one of the smallest endowments in the country. But as the first college to have publicly divested from apartheid South Africa, it has always been seen as a potentially symbolic prize if those divestment decisions could be repeated with Israel as the target. This is why campus divestment, which died out at most colleges after 2006, persisted at Hampshire for years afterward. The spearhead for the divestment campaign was a student group called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which had made several appeals to college administrators to remove from their portfolio companies (such as Caterpillar) that have long served as divestment targets. But while the Hampshire administration gave SJP broad leeway to promote its campaign, meeting with SJP leaders and taking part in SJP-sponsored events, the college's president, Ralph Hexter, also made it clear in a 2008 statement that his administration had no intention of actually taking any divestment action against Israel, even if it was happy to let students discuss and promote any issue they wanted on campus. This is why news reports that Hampshire had become the first US college to divest from Israel seemed suspicious. As facts related to the issue became clear, it turned out that Hampshire College had recently hired an outside consultant to review the school's investment holdings against the college's ethical investment guidelines (policies that included support for unions, and statements on issues such as Darfur, but no stance regarding Israel). And during the course of this review, a fund was sold that contained shares in some of the companies identified by SJP as divestment targets. SJP leaders quickly declared victory, announcing to the world that Hampshire had become the first US college to openly divest from the Jewish state. But given the importance of this alleged "success," it was curious why SJP made these public pronouncements on its own, rather than standing alongside college administrators and investment managers to announce this supposedly historic move. The reason for SJP's independent action quickly became clear when the administration announced that its investment decisions had nothing to do with Israel or the Middle East, and that SJP was deliberately misleading the public for its own political ends. Confusion over the matter continued for several weeks as Hampshire College administrators tried to have it both ways, allowing the student group to declare victory while assuring the press and alumni that the school had not divested. Ultimately, however, Hexter declared in no uncertain terms that the school had not divested in Israel; that the school maintained investments in the very companies SJP claimed were being boycotted and would continue to invest in them in the future; and that SJP was inappropriately speaking on behalf of the college, unacceptable behavior that could have consequences for the student group. The image of students blasting out news releases and giving press conferences claiming an institution had done what it clearly did not do (divest from Israel) has become the archetype for much of the BDS activity that has taken place since Hampshire. In April, for example, BDS activists declared victory after Motorola sold a unit that manufactured bomb fuses to an Israeli company. According to divestment partisans, this decision was the direct result of pressure their recent "Hang Up on Motorola" campaign put on the technology giant. But according to reports in the business press, Motorola had abandoned the electronic fuse business years ago, with Motorola Israel, which had contracts with the Israeli military, being the last part of the company interested in this product line. So like many companies with diverse product portfolios, Motorola sold off the unit, in this case to an Israeli defense firm, for $20 million. Those crowing over the Motorola divestment triumph were never clear why the company's providing Israel full ownership of this military technology was somehow a victory for their cause. Nor did they make mention of the billions Motorola has invested and continues to invest in the Israeli economy. Also, given that even small mergers and acquisitions transactions take months to complete, it was a reasonable question whether the relatively recent "Hang Up on Motorola" campaign was even on anyone's radar during the period prior to April when this deal was being negotiated. As with Hampshire, Motorola's alleged divestment was looking less like a victory and more like a rooster who claims his crow caused the sun to rise. TWO MORE incidents over the summer demonstrate a pattern within the BDS movement to rely on hoaxes in order to create the appearance of political momentum. During the recent economic crisis, one of the hardest-hit Israeli companies has been the Africa-Israel Group, an international holding company struggling under massive debt with a portfolio of real estate with rapidly diminishing value. In addition to his financial woes, the company's chairman and controlling shareholder, Lev Leviev, has drawn criticism by boycott activists because of his support for controversial building projects in disputed West Bank territories. Two institutional investors, Blackrock in the UK and TIAA-CREF (a massive retirement fund for US academics) sold off shares in Africa-Israel this year, actions that were quickly publicized by BDS activists around the world as their latest divestment successes. Even after both investors issued official statements explaining that their sale of Africa-Israel (just $250,000 worth in the case of TIAA-CREF) was due not to politics but because of the company's plummeting stock price, both companies continued to be named as supporters on BDS Web sites and public statements. These bizarre attempts to claim a divestment victory where none exists reached its climax in June when protesters made their annual pilgrimage to the shareholder meeting of Caterpillar Corporation. As they do every year, the protesters used their ownership of a few shares in the company to grandstand at board presentations, demanding Caterpillar stop selling its products in Israel (a demand rejected by shareholders each year by margins of 90%+). This year, their activities caused the company's CEO Jim Owens to explain to the protesters that "if they don't like the way Caterpillar operates, then they don't have to hold onto their stock." To the untrained ear, this sounds much like a polite executive telling his critics to take a hike, but the far more nuanced BDSers in the audience had their headline for the next day's breathless press release: "Caterpillar CEO endorses divestment!" But not all divestment news over the last year has been fraudulent. The British Trade Union Council's (TUC) vote on divestment in September was real, even if it looks as though the TUC has simply started on the roller-coaster ride the Presbyterians got off in 2006. And a series of divestment-related conferences that started in September with a national event in Chicago, continuing in October and November at colleges like the University of Pittsburgh and Hampshire, demonstrates that BDS is this year's tactic of choice for anti-Israel partisans. Given the amount of PR and internal momentum divestment received between 2004-2006 with the single "anchor client" of the Presbyterian Church, the threat of a program that can quickly capitalize on one institutional victory should not be minimized. And this dynamic explains a great deal about the bizarre lengths divestment champions seem to be going to this year to try to create the appearance of victory, given their lack of real ones. At its heart, divestment is a political, not an economic act. While it's theoretically possible that BDS might cause some financial hardship to the Israeli economy, the more important motivation behind the divestment project is to brand Israel as an "apartheid state," whose human rights record is so vile that it, alone among nations, deserves to be the subject of a concerted boycott, divestment and sanctions program not seen since the fall of apartheid South Africa. But because of their political nature, any real divestment decisions must be accompanied by clear and unequivocal statements by those actually doing the divesting explaining that these choices are being made for political, not financial or other reasons. If Hampshire, or Motorola or TIAA-CREF were joining the BDS chorus, their decision to do so (like decisions made by the Presbyterians in '04, even if rejected in '06) would be public and clear and should come from the institutions themselves, not from self-serving divestment partisans stuffing words into the mouths of organizations wanting nothing to do with their agenda. The writer is the creator of the anti-divestment Web site