Opinion |

BDS Looks to Conspiracies to Explain Its Epic Failure

The Boston Mapping Project tries to explain support for Israel by illustrating a hidden network of oppression with Zionists at the center

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
BDS protest in Times Square, New York, June 2017
BDS protest in Times Square, New York, June 2017Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Ligh
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

I wonder whether the people behind the now infamous Boston Mapping Project noticed the deep irony of their opening statement?

Their aim is to illustrate all the links between the area’s institutions and power elite and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. They introduce themselves as a collective of activists and organizers living on “the land of the Massachusett, Pawtucket, Naumkeag and other tribal nations (Boston, Cambridge and surrounding areas).” In other words, they are acknowledging that they too live on occupied lands of indigenous peoples.

Yet while they seek to win back Palestine for the Palestinians, they don’t demand that the residents of Greater Boston hand back their land to Native Americans. As to the stolen land in America, the Mapping Project limits itself to calling for an end to gentrification and to rising rents that it blames on university land-grabs. Like a lot of the far left’s moral outrage, the Mapping Project’s demand for justice is selective.

The Mapping Project has come under criticism for listing pretty much every Boston-area Jewish institution as part of the Zionist conspiracy for no other reason than that they are Jewish. It has been condemned, as well, for playing dangerously close to encouraging violent attacks on Jews by creating, in effect, an enemies list complete with addresses.

Those claims are valid. But the Mapping Project tells us something more: namely about the bankruptcy of the BDS (boycott, sanctions and divestment) movement.

The BDS movement is amorphous enough to be anything its friends or enemies want it to be. But on its semi-official website, it talks about its origins in “Palestinian civil society,” engaging in consumer boycotts, respecting artistic freedom in cultural boycotts, and coins itself a “human rights movement that is opposed on principle to all forms of discrimination.” It retains the veneer of moderate lefty respectability.

The BDS movement doesn’t seem to be behind the Mapping Project (whose organizers have gone to great lengths to hide their identities), but the Boston BDS has lent its support to it, and I can’t find any sign the movement disavowed it.

The underlying assumption of the Mapping Project is that the network of links it illustrates aren’t casual or accidental.

Normal people would assume that in modern society, institutions naturally have connections with each other: universities to business, business to foundations, hospitals to the government and so forth. But to conspiracy theorists of all stripes, on the left and right, these links go deeper. They are part of an orchestrated campaign of manipulation and control that extends far beyond support of Israel, and promotes a grab-bag of evils that have no clear connection to Israel at all.

Stealing from ‘colonized Puerto Rico’

Thus, for instance, the Mapping Project informs us: “Boston’s Zionist leaders and powerhouse NGOs, which buy legitimacy and support from universities, use their influence to enable a range of oppressive agendas: supporting the Israeli army and Israeli settlements in Palestine; criminalizing Palestine liberation activists on college campuses; funding U.S. police departments and cop unions; extracting wealth from colonized Puerto Rico; and advancing the privatization of U.S. public schools.”

There’s a school of thought that says conspiracy theories emerge among people who feel powerless, who feel that events and institutions are beyond their control. The BDS movement seems to support that thesis. It has scored some successes on college campuses and jawbones an occasional performing artist into boycotting Israel, but the cultural/academic boycott is more about headlines than substance, and the business/consumer boycott has been a complete failure.

If any more proof was needed, just look how the Western business community rallied in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It wasn’t just about government-imposed sanctions, but a real response to public opinion.

By comparison, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that the great majority of Americans have never even heard of BDS; only 5 percent have heard at least “some” about BDS and express support for it (and that probably includes a lot of people who are too embarrassed to admit to the pollster they have no idea what it is).

The optimism that animated the early days of the BDS, assuming justice would win out, has no doubt long since passed – no matter how victorious the movement portrays its struggle in official communiques. Its supporters must be asking themselves all the time in private, “How could we have failed? The case against Israel and for the Palestinians is too obvious.”

The answer for many, no doubt, is that there are powerful forces at work behind the scenes: a Zionist conspiracy whose tentacles reach into government, business, the NGO world, and the universities, and thwart BDS’ campaign for truth and justice. The Mapping Project is there to explain everything, at least for Boston.

There’s no room here to begin to weigh in on the respective moral claims of Israel versus Palestine, but it is clear that BDS and its allies have not convinced the great majority of Americans (or for that matter even Europeans) that Israel is so criminal that it should be singled out for special treatment.

Contrary to what BDS conspiracy theorists think, Israel’s strength doesn’t lie with a hidden network of supporters manipulating institutions and public opinion. Rather, it arises in the very place where BDS has been such an abject failure.

Israel’s high-tech industry has not only boosted its economy but has enabled Israel to emerge as a military and diplomatic power far beyond anything once imaginable. It is more deeply enmeshed in the world community than ever before – even in the Arab world, as the Abraham Accords have demonstrated.

I can only wonder what the good editors of The Harvard Crimson student paper can make of this. Only a couple of weeks earlier the newspaper came out in a favor of BDS, yet, according to the Mapping Project, they are part of the conspiracy.

They (or more precisely, their parents) are paying Harvard tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition, the editors are living in dorms and studying in classrooms built on land once belonging to Native Americans and are earning degrees that will all but guarantee them a place in the very power elite the Mapping Project despises. If everything is indeed connected, dear editors, then you are just one more cog in the machinery of oppression.



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