Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The BDS Harvard Blues

Many supporters of peace and democracy in the Middle East woke up on Monday morning and were dismayed to find a widely disseminated report that Harvard University had sold off its shares in Israeli companies and was divesting from Israel in support of the International Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS). It was, frankly, a disturbing and flabbergasting prospect. One of America’s largest and oldest University endowments falling in line with the perilous notion of boycotting Israel would be an enormous victory for the so far inept and entirely unsuccessful BDS movement, and a body blow to supporters of Israel. Harvard was uncharacteristically silent for some time on the issue. When it did finally clarify the issue, what became clear was that once again, the BDS movement exposed itself as an opportunistic, dishonest, and frankly second rate political movement, further burnishing its credentials of rank hypocrisy and utter failure.

Harvard spokesman John Longbrake told reporters clearly “The University has not divested from Israel.” In fact, the sales of shares in Israeli companies took place primarily because of Israel’s success and maturation from an emerging to a developed market. Israel’s sustained leadership in high tech and software development, its unique venture capital environment, its highly educated workforce, and its economic resilience during two wars and a global recession put it squarely among countries and regions not represented in Harvard’s emerging markets portfolio. Taking, for example five Israeli companies – pharmaceutical giant Teva, Checkpoint software, Nice Systems, Partner Communications and Cellcom Israel, institutional investors with a six month to six year horizon would have realized significant returns by selling these stocks at this time, even though some of them have underperformed in recent months. Israel’s recent accession to the OECD – The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, cemented its position as a developed economy.

Longbrake also indicated that Harvard also has “…holdings in developed markets, including Israel, through outside managers in commingled accounts and indexes.” Indeed, Israeli companies account for the largest number of NASDAQ listings after the US, having recently surpassed Canada. These holdings represent in excess of $100 billion, most of which is held institutionally and privately outside of Israel.

Harvard has come a long way since the days of quotas; in any case, dollar signs have always meant more to the Boston Brahmins who run Harvard than have protest movements. Intellectual and technological progress have meant more to them as well. From its summer school in Ashkelon, to the proud support of Israel rendered by former Law School Deans Alan Dershowitz and Supreme Court Justice Elaine Kagan, to the dozens of Israeli researchers, visiting scholars, and guest speakers at Harvard, divestment from Israel is as far and foreign an idea as could be imagined on the banks of the Charles River.

To what end, then, did the BDS movement publicize this falsehood? One answer, it seems, is desperation. Over the past three years every BDS campaign aimed at retailers has provoked a frenzy of purchasing of Israeli products, backfiring on BDS campaigners in Baltimore, Toronto, New York, and elsewhere. There has, to my knowledge, not been one single successful divestment campaign at any American University or college. Not even at the People’s Republic of Berkeley (UC Berkeley) or at Montreal’s Concordia University, site of the infamous 2002 riot, has there been a successful campaign. An attempt to boycott the Toronto Film Festival last fall created a groundswell of anger and disdain against the BDS instigators, even prompting Jane Fonda (!!) to reverse her original support.

Yes, there have been a number of artists and musicians who have cancelled appearances; a number of trade unions around the world who have predictably joined the chorus; and indeed some Christian denominations in the US who have followed suit – apparently not content with traditional Replacement Theology, they would seem to have graduated to the Elimination Theology that the BDS movement clearly states that it adheres to. The mainstream has rejected the call. Investment, celebration, dialogue, and innovation continue to be sought out by the world in Israel at an amazing rate. Beset by failure and blowback on all sides, it fell to intrepid researchers to find these details in Harvard’s 13-F filings for the second quarter 2010. BDS campaigners at that point faced a choice. They could ask Harvard if there had been a policy change (as any responsible journalist, advocate, or Harvard alumnus would do) or they could simply flood the media with a wildly inaccurate story, knowing that the initial story would play far wider than any subsequent clarification. Lacking any substantive successes in a years long campaign, the BDS decision makers did not disappoint. What a predictable shame that they took the liar’s route.

Abject failure does sometimes have a nobility of its own, and thus if the BDS cause was only a simple plaintive cry on behalf of those Palestinians who have suffered in the conflict, it might be able to generate more sympathy. The cause goes well beyond a plaintive cry, though. BDS leaders Diana Buttu, Ali Abunimah, Omar Barghouti (who is redefining the meaning of hypocrisy by pursuing studies at Tel Aviv University) and others are very clear that they will accept no solution other than a single bi-national state with an Arab majority – no solution other than the elimination of Israel. So, in fact, a boycott is not enough, and those who may support it but would perhaps balk at the elimination of Israel are being hoodwinked. The hypocrisy goes well beyond Barghouti, though. Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada spearheaded the online campaign ten years ago. The technologies powering his computer then, and those powering PCs now were developed in Israel. A number of years ago I led a group of Jewish students to Israel. We had planned to meet with Buttu, in the interest of hearing the Palestinian narrative. She was not able to come, and we left her a voice mail to see if she could reschedule. She was, then as now, perfectly comfortable using voice mail (and her cell phone, for that matter) even though these technologies were developed in Israel.

If there are any lessons to be drawn from the Harvard non-divestment episode, they are these:

The BDS movement can not be trusted to tell the truth about events close to home. How can it be believed to accurately portray events and disputes halfway around the world?

Israel’s successful economy, as well as its immense contributions to science, academia, culture, and innovation has demonstrated the value of a modern democratic state to its partners, investors, tourists, and the beneficiaries of its contributions. The people of disaster wracked Haiti, the children of Save A Child’s Heart, those around the world who make better lives for their families using Israeli inventions like drip irrigation, even the forgetful people who welcomed Israeli rescuers to Turkey a decade ago – they know that they owe their lives to a country Omar Barghouti wants to boycott and ultimately eradicate. This episode most emphatically underlines the fact that it’s time the rest of the world knows too.