Among the enduring strengths of the Israel boycott movement are its ability to convince certain types of people that the cause is not only just but successful. But with whom are those arguments effective? There is a strong contrast between institutions governed by rules and evidence and those controlled by emotion.
Negative examples are ample: the European Commission's relentless demands that products from Israeli communities in the West Bank be specially labeled, the refusal of the student government at Vassar College to fund a J Street group on the grounds that "Zionism is an inherently racist ideology," violence directed at Jewish participants at the National LGBTQ Task Force's Creating Change conference, the demand that singer Matisyahu denounce Israel as a condition for performing at a Spanish reggae festival. Many more could be cited.
There is a strong contrast between institutions governed by rules and evidence and those controlled by emotion.
A look at the boycott movement's failures, and successes, tells us much about the worlds in which it is embedded.
Those diverse worlds—of universities and academic associations, liberal Protestant denominations, the European Commission, far-left protest movements and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), far-left Jewish groups, and Islamists—are failing, in the sense of intellectual coherence, the ability to persuade, and basic morality. Some, like liberal Protestants, are actually shrinking fast. But that doesn't mean they will lose in the end.
Few Organizations Are Discriminating Against Israel
Reality is different from how the movement portrays itself. Successes, in terms of convincing institutions to boycott, divest from, or legally sanction Israel, are meager. Global industries are uninterested in excluding Israel. Investment in Israel is rising, especially from Asia. Even trade with Europe is unimpeded. No university or corporation has sold its stock in companies, like Intel or Caterpillar, for doing business in Israel. Claims of the movement's success are therefore misleading; misrepresentation is part of its tradecraft.
Successes, in terms of convincing institutions to boycott, divest from, or legally sanction Israel, are meager.
For another thing, backlash against boycotts is growing, particularly at the state level. Legislators in Florida and California have followed the lead of Ohio, Illinois, and South Carolina in proposing laws that would prohibit anti-Israel discrimination by state agencies, including pension funds. Remarkably, similar controls are under consideration in Britain, where the Conservative Party has proposed to restrict the ability of local councils and pension funds to discriminate against Israel on political grounds.
Even at universities, where pro-boycott activists have occasionally managed to manipulate or coerce student governments into passing boycott and divestment resolutions (while harassing Jewish and pro-Israel students), in no case have university administrations, much less boards of trustees or investment managers, followed suit. To the contrary: Israel boycott and divestment resolutions are regularly denounced. It is one of the few signs that universities remain under the control of responsible adults.
Where Israel-Hating Thrives
But the opposite is true in student governments, which are regularly co-opted by pro-boycott forces and their far-left allies. So too are campus politics at large, increasingly dominated by retreaded New Left politics of pique, the Black Panther revivalism of Black Lives Matter and Ferguson, the Occupy movement's watery socialism, and neo-Victorian anti-rape protests, against a backdrop of incoherent rage over cultural appropriations and grievances, many so small as to be labeled "micro-aggressions."
It is also not surprising the anti-Israel movement also finds limited success in local "human rights commissions" and city councils—but only in places like Cambridge and Portland, where students who never fully grew up maintain the adolescent tone of local politics.
The very idea of education and the mission of the university have succumbed to the politics of rage.
A similar attitude of wide-encompassing anger applies to academics, particular academic organizations. The Israel boycott resolution adopted by the National Women's Studies Association is especially notable in this regard. Their resolution is motivated ostensibly by "intersectionality" and the "interconnectedness of systemic forms of oppression," predictably personified by Israel. Such a complex formulation of a traditional animus is neither a sign of clear thinking nor a healthy discipline.
These are signs of intellectual and moral failure, the collapse of any ideal animating the very idea of education and the mission of the university beyond the politics of rage. They portend ill for society, for there is no doubt that the activism of professors and students alike has poisoned countless classrooms.
In contrast, the rejection of an anti-Israel resolution by the American Historical Association is heartening. It suggests, unlike in women's studies, "American Studies," or anthropology, that an academic discipline which is still actually about something academic may be salvageable, before it descends down the rabbit hole of "relevance" and "social justice."
The Borders Between Rationality and Rage
But campus radicalism and "social justice" also have their limits. Despite decades of anti-American agitation, America has still not been transformed into a socialist paradise. Reality burns away many collegiate fantasies and idylls, and the sheer hysteria and accompanying intimidation of campus protests today is likely to alienate as many students from causes as attract them. That alienation is quantifiable in plummeting enrollments in the humanities and social sciences, the epicenter for anti-Israel and anti-American agitation. Another index is rising anger from parents, although skyrocketing costs play an equal role with politics.
Despite decades of anti-American agitation, America has still not been transformed into a socialist paradise.
It is also worth pointing out that calls for boycotting Israel have not impeded the actual mechanism of the university, the daily life of operations and finances, the churn of students and flows of money. Giving to universities, including, paradoxically, by Jewish donors, remains at record levels. Apparently the body and certain higher functions remain alive even as large parts of the brain have turned rabid. Of course, a university comprised of administrators, "diversity coordinators," and part-time instructors hardly deserves the name. But rules and procedures associated with the profitable business of being a university are not easily overthrown in the name of "social justice."
The recent decision by a Spanish court to award damages to an Israeli university, located inconveniently across the "Green Line," when a Spanish agency illegally excluded its students from an international technology competition, is also notable. It suggests that certain higher social functions, namely the judiciary, have not been completely infected by the virus of anti-Israel bias. In this respect it will be interesting to see the result when the European Commission's blatantly discriminatory labeling regulations for Israeli products from communities in the West Bank enters court or World Trade Organization arbitration.
The Flight from Responsibility Accelerates
There are striking contrasts between how Israel boycotts are treated by rules and results-based institutions, like legislatures, courts, and pension fund managers, and institutions ruled by emotion that have no oversight, like academic organizations, student governments, the European Commission, or the NGO sector. By exempting themselves from rules, and in some cases from the political process as a whole, the latter are often uniquely in synch with Israel boycotters, and the pro-Palestinian movement, which put the Palestinian cause above examination and exempt it from criticism.
The flight towards ideological politics and away from practicality and responsibility is a growing problem in the West.
But the fact that some institutions with real responsibilities, like British councils and labor tribunals, could contemplate Israel boycotts in the first place is another sign that politics have been infected. While the Labour Party continues to deny it supports Israel boycotts, numerous members of Parliament believe the opposite, both to pander to constituents and as a matter of personal conviction, economic consequences and morality be damned. Similar trends are evident in the progressive wings of the Democratic Party.
The flight towards ideological politics and away from practicality and responsibility is a growing problem in the West. This will intensify, precisely as a function of cascading social and political disasters, especially the collapsing Middle East and social unrest resulting from mass immigration to the West. Pressure to focus on the unique evil of Israel and away from these self-inflicted wounds and their progressive policy causes will be enormous.
But in a world of human rights abuses by ISIS, Russia, Iran, and others, the health of institutions can be measured in part by how they stand up to calls to boycott Israel. Corporations and judiciaries, and occasionally even academics, each with greatly differing mandates, have the potential to stem the flows of bias and hatred. There may even be hope for universities. The trends are not positive, nor are they so terrible to give up all hope that with strong leadership from above sense may prevail.
Alex Joffe is editor of The Ancient Near East Today, the monthly e-newsletter of the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is also a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.