Opinion

The BDS Win at Barnard Is Moral Posturing Gone Insane - They Should Learn From Portman

Morality isn't adopting BDS' absurd agenda and yelling at Barnard College to divest shares in 8 'complicit' companies, it's taking personal action like Natalie Portman did

Bold, beautiful, BDS” is how the Columbia University Apartheid Divest group described the campus campaign to boycott a handful of Israeli companies, and American companies doing business with Israel.

Whatever else you might say about the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement, “bold” and “beautiful” aren’t two of its qualities.

The Columbia/Barnard CUAD poster celebrating the BDS vote.
Columbia/Barnard JVP Facebook page

If it were bold, the movement would come clean about its goals. But a careful reading of the CUAD editorial that appeared on April 13 in the campus newspaper (which carefully follows the worldwide BDS line) makes clear that the movement doesn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist.

Not that you would expect the BDS movement to state that explicitly, but strikingly, its list of demands doesn’t include a call for a Palestinian state. That’s a glaring omission and is prima facie evidence that the cause BDS wants college students to sign onto doesn’t seek a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Dissembling isn’t beautiful, and calling for the elimination of a legitimate country, and the death and destruction that would inevitably entail, is outright ugly.

Being forthright about its goal is to replace Israel with a single state would win the movement fewer peace prizes and have made it difficult to garner the two-thirds majority of students at Barnard College who voted in favor of the BDS referendum last week. Better to use terms like “international law” and “justice” while appealing to moral ideals and avoiding uncomfortable conclusions  about where all this loftiness is supposed to lead.

Yet, even if you take BDS at face value, its campaign is too full of moral absurdities to be taken seriously.

Moral grandstanding

The Barnard vote calls for moral grandstanding, not moral action. The referendum targets all of eight companies, and in the highly unlikely chance that the college’s board were to abide by the referendum and sell stakes in these eight, it will have no impact on the companies’ share prices or their policies. Barnard’s total endowment was about $340 million as of last June, hardly big enough to have an impact on the market cap of companies, each generally worth several times as much.

Selling the shares would be making a statement, but the practical impact, if anything, would probably be to deprive the college of investment income, because it would be forced to make less than optimal investments. The Palestinians would gain nothing, but students might lose out financially on the margin.

If the 730 students wanted to do more than make a statement about how the college should act morally, they could boycott those eight companies themselves, or the many, many others that do business with Israel. But the BDS movement's record in getting people to actually make those kind of sacrifices hovers somewhere around the zero mark.

You can’t blame them. The standard set by BDS for corporate complicity in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is so severe that if it were applied to all companies doing business anywhere in the world, Barnard would probably have to divest its entire portfolio.

Let’s take Bank Hapoalim, which was included among the eight because it provides mortgages for settlers. But so do all the other banks in Israel. If the moral taint of supporting settlements extends to matters as marginal as mortgages, shouldn’t Barnard be divesting from Hapoalim’s correspondent banks? and anyone who invests in the bank’s shares?

The most egregious company on the list in terms of oppression is Caterpillar, whose bulldozers have been used to raze the homes of Palestinian terrorists’ families. In the last four years 45 homes have been destroyed after a 10-year hiatus when Israel had abandoned the policy. There’s no arguing that home demolitions are unjust and needlessly cruel, but divesting Caterpillar is really the best way Barnard or anyone else can expend their moral ammunition?

Israel isn't a moral paragon, as the recent unnecessary carnage in Gaza show -- 39 Palestinian dead, hundreds injured, versus no Israeli casualities, despite claims of Palestinian “terrorism” at the border. But to accept BDS’ claims is to say that Israel is so singularly evil that it deserves the world’s special attention. That self-evident absurdity is what has rendered the movement so ineffective.

Against this, Natalie Portman’s decision to boycott the Genesis Prize ceremony in Israel over those “recent events” shows how anyone who wants to protest Israeli actions should do it.

Portman chose not to attend the ceremony as a personal statement, rather than asking someone else or an anonymous institution to act morally.  She has no hidden agenda.

The only unfortunate part of this whole affair has been the reaction of the Israeli right, with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz saying it borders on anti-Semitic and MK Oren Hazan calling for Portman’s citizenship to be revoked, among other absurdities.

Again the right shows its true colors: Love for Israel has to be unconditional; there is no room for expressing moral qualms or doing anything less than fawn over the flag and the country’s leader, and cheer on the army no matter what it does (unless it harasses settlers). Israel’s democracy doesn’t allow for critical opinions (unless they are about the traitorous High Court).

The Israeli right’s knee-jerk response to any critique -- even coming from an actress who is, as far as anyone knows, a proud Israeli citizen -- is to attack, rather than engage in an iota of self-examination. It’s the kind of reaction that dangerously fails to distinguish between enemies like BDS and friends like Portman.