Pro-Israel blogger shoots holes in BDS puffery

After 10 years of huffing and puffing, the BDS movement has failed to blow down the house of Israel.

That’s the summary offered up by Jon Haber, a Boston-based pro-Israel activist who writes the blog “Divest This.”

BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Since 2001, BDS advocates have tried to persuade colleges, churches and others to buy in to their credo of boycotting Israeli goods, divesting from Israeli companies and urging governments to impose sanctions on Israel.

Jon Haber photo/cathleen maclearie

So far, Haber said, they have virtually nothing to show for their efforts.

Haber was in the Bay Area last week meeting with supporters. His core message: While vigilance remains necessary, the BDS movement has failed.

It has not persuaded a single institution to divest from Israel for political reasons, Haber insisted, adding that boycott efforts often backfire — especially when pro-Israel groups such as StandWithUs organizing “buycotts” of Israeli products.

Notes Haber, “When I talk to Jewish groups I say, ‘Don’t panic, but don’t be complacent.’”

He says the BDS movement is not a movement at all, but rather a tactic that has been employed by those who seek to delegitimize  Israel. It launched a decade ago with the U.N.-sponsored Durban Conference, which equated Zionism with racism.

In 2004, BDS leaped into the headlines when activists persuaded the Presbyterian Church’s governing body to begin a process of phased, selective divestment from companies that do business with Israel.

The victory was short lived. Two years later, the church’s general assembly overturned the divestment in a 95-5 vote, Haber said.

“The purpose of BDS is not to actually trigger economic damage to Israel,” Haber suggested. “It’s to leverage the reputation of well-known institutions for their own purposes. The victory for BDS was to say the Presbyterian Church agrees with us, Israel is an apartheid state that deserves to be divested from.”

According to Haber, BDS supporters  claimed false victories, such as alleged 2009 moves to divest by Hampshire College in Massachusetts and the British investment firm, Black Rock.

Never happened, Haber said.

In these and other cases, according to Haber, institutions sold stocks in Israeli companies based  on financial considerations. “It’s the ambiguity of the word ‘divestment,’ It’s what you do when you sell your stock.”

Though always a supporter of Israel, Haber didn’t become an activist until the first Gulf War, when Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv. The software executive began volunteering for CAMERA, a pro-Israel media watchdog organization.

But it wasn’t until BDS came to his hometown of Somerville, Mass., in 2004, that he focused on the issue.

“The BDSers came in and gave [city aldermen] the usual story of Israeli villains with twirled moustaches and Palestinian virgins. A month later all hell broke loose.”

After the aldermen unanimously passed a divestment measure, they then started getting emails from places like Qatar thanking them for “standing up to the Jews,” Haber said. “They realized they were had. A month later they overturned it.”

That’s when Haber launched his blog, later writing and publishing a slick booklet, also titled “Divest This!,” which he distributes nationwide. It chronicles the history of BDS, its failures and its one actual success.

That occurred at a co-op in Olympia, Wash. After the co-op passed a boycott measure last year, BDS activists hailed it as a triumph, yet the co-op lost members.

Haber said in the wake of its failures, BDS activists now go after “soft targets,” such as co-ops, university student governments (U.C. Berkeley’s student Senate narrowly defeated a divestment measure last year), and stores such as Trader Joe’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Much of the time, Haber noted, the activists are reduced to shouting down visiting Israeli dignitaries or blowing air horns at performances of Israeli artists.

“You can only go so long without victories. America is not turning against Israel. The message of [Israeli] apartheid does not resonate at all — in fact, quite the opposite.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.