Jackson Doughart
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Don’t ignore the anti-Israel movement

Prince Arthur Herald, 12 April 2014

In Wednesday’s National Post, Robyn Urback argued that Ryerson’s “anti-Israel zealots” are of no great concern. With respect, I disagree. Even if the supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) campaign constitute a small minority of students and the general public, their activities merit worry and response.

In the short term, Ms Urback is correct that Israel’s economy and legitimacy will not be harmed. But this is not necessarily true for the Jewish state’s long-term prospects, which I would argue is a more important issue, given the crucial support provided to Israel by Canada and the United States—two countries where the BDS movement is concentrated. Aggressive radical activism from a vocal minority may seem insignificant today, but the ideas that it thrusts into the public sphere can eventually trickle down into the general consciousness.

The culturally-Marxist literature from the 1960s, for instance, was well-regarded by only a small group of people who were not treated seriously by the mainstream. But the agenda that the New Left pushed consistently—about “the other”, about the politics of gender and sexuality, and about the supposedly-oppressive influence of tradition—has become the nucleus of today’s political correctness, which effectively all “respectable people” must observe in public.

Ms Urback’s argument hinges not only on the reaction of people who care deeply about Israel, but to a greater degree of those who have no investment in the issue and who brush off the anti-Israel nuts out of apathy; ergo, the small cadre of activists is just talking into an echo chamber, with its noise reaching only deaf ears elsewhere. Perhaps I’m just more pessimistic than she, but I think that the apathetic faction is the very population to be worried about. It is these people, who are “too busy getting a university education” to care, that could well come to accept to their formulations in the future.

A familiar and salient story emerges from all of the big social debates since the 60s, which showcases how changes in the use of language can inform the views of the wider public. Consider abortion: when the possibility arose that it might be worthy of legalization, the partisans on both sides took the moral status of the unborn human to be central, with the burden of proof resting on the pro-abortion supporters to prove that their position was not an endorsement of murder. To tip the scales in their favour, pro-abortionists campaigned to refocus the debate around individual choice—an abstract value that is greatly respected in our society. It wasn’t the committed anti-abortionists who eventually accepted the “choice” framework, but rather the bulk of the population that had never a great attachment to the issue. Once the prospect of being called “pro-choice” instead of “pro-abortion” was adopted by the apathetic, it was the pro-lifers who carried the burden of proof, as they had to justify their desire to abrogate a woman’s freedom to choose.

Similar linguistic shifts have happened for physician-assisted suicide and same-sex marriage. In both cases, the Left’s consistent and uniform promotion of new language on the issues—individual choice for one and equality for the other—has led more-or-less directly to changed attitudes from the public. Whether these movements have merit is not the point; rather, what matters is that over time and with enough pushing, those with little interest in these debates have accepted the new language and hence the new values. In the case of Israel, the delegitimizing language promoted by its opponents may seem crackpot today, but could well succeed in the future.

Furthermore, the fact that fervently anti-Israel students may not be the best or most-dedicated pupils does not defeat their potential relevance. Many politicians, big-name activists, and political commentators—especially on the Left—cut their teeth as university activists, where they gain experience, make connections, and find their first jobs in the political world. Some of the brighter ones will become professors or lawyers or high-level civil servants, taking their beliefs with them to promote to people in power.

“This BDS campaign, like all BDS campaigns, achieves next to nothing beyond symbolism,” Ms Urback writes. Perhaps so, but symbolism is not meaningless. It’s fine to assume that the people who are off studying to be engineers or accountants will not be immediately swayed by campus activists who dishonestly characterize Israel as an apartheid state. Just don’t speak too soon. This slander is designed to put any supporter of Israel on the immediate defensive by equating his opinion with support for the sordid former regime of South Africa. Today the charge is ignored as nonsensical, but given enough time and enough endorsement from celebrities that the hoi polloi admires, and the preferred language of the BDS movement may well become mainstream.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com