How to (not) defeat the lies of BDS

On November 21, delegates of the American Anthropology Association (AAA) voted by an overwhelming margin of 1040 to 138 for a resolution calling for sanctions against Israeli academic institutions an scholars.

Its delegates endorsed the findings and recommendations of a Task Force Report (TFR) commissioned by Dr Monica Heller of the University of Toronto, the outgoing President of the AAA The Resolution now goes to its entire membership of more then 10,000 for a final vote in the Spring.

Back In October 2013, in Boston, some 200 members of American Public Heath Association’s Executive Council decisively repudiated, by a margin of 74% to 25%, a somewhat diluted resolution sanctioning Israel submitted by a group of academics and public health workers to its Resolutions Committee. The APHA has some 28,000 members and its is the world’s leading professional society in public health with a proud history of leadership in the sanitary revolution, immunization, and sanitation, medical care. It was the organization at which I presented my first scientific papers on slum housing and health in East Harlem in 1970.

Why did APHA so decisively repudiate its BDS Resolution and why did the AAA endorse its BDS resolution? And what are the lessons from the contrasting results?

It’s worth noting that in the APHA BDS resolution was endorsed by 5 past presidents of the organization, including Dr Linda Rae Murray, formerly President Obama’s physician, as well as Noam Chomsky, who spoke to a packed auditorium—and activists from Physicians from Human Rights-Israel, Their campaign was supported by a sophisticated PR Campaign at the conference, including 5 scientific sessions specifically devoted to the public health impacts of “occupation”. Everywhere at the conferences, I was approached by BDS activists handing out brochures, including a comically uninformed young Reform rabbi from Boston who fled when I asked him for data to back up his case.

There were strong similarities between the claims made by the AAA TFR BDS’ers and the APHA BDS petitioners. Both claimed that Palestinian public health and medical care suffered as a result of Israeli Occupation since 1967. Both claimed that oppressive rule was undermining mental health. Both claimed there were oppressive barriers to travel of academics and scholars, and problems with checkpoints, notably from the wall/barrier/fence. Both presented data and literature citations for their case. It is noteworthy that their arguments date back to Richard Horton’s notorious essay in the NY Review of Books in 2007, reports by NGO groups and the Goldstone Report —-before he repudiated it. Both the APHA petitioners and the AAA TFR examined the painful consequences of war—in the first case from Cast Lead, and the second from Operation Protective Edge’s high death toll, and especially among children, a painful fact for everyone.

What did those challenging BDS at APHA do which those fighting BDS at AAA not do, and vice-versa? The two employed strongly contrasting strategies. At APHA, those challenging BDS warned that endorsing BDS would not only destroy its credibility but would polarize the organization. Worse it would distract APHA from the real priorities– the genocidal mass murder and butchery in Syria and Iraq.

We refuted the misinformation and disinformation propagated by the BDS’ers. We showed that since 1967, and “occupation”, infant mortality fell, life expectancy, immunization rates, and water security all massively increased, comparable to similar trends in Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

We presented data showing that permits for medical entries into Israel and hospitalizations from Gaza increased even as rocket attacks and terror attacks increased.

BDS protest in Melbourne, Australia in 2010. (Wikipedia)
BDS protest in Melbourne, Australia in 2010. (Wikipedia)

We showed that large numbers of Palestinians were receiving training in public health and medicine in Israel, and there were many joint projects in cooperation. And we also showed that after 1995, when the PA took control of civll administration in the West Bank and especially in Gaza after Hamas’ 2007 takeover, pubic health indicators stopped improving, despite massive aid from the EU. We cited Palestinian sources on the corruption being the reason for this plateau.

And we refuted charges that Israel’s use of force was disproportionate, citing the assessments of Col Richard Kemp, the former British Commandeer of Forces in Afghanistan, and other authorities on warfare

But we did not stop with refuting the fundamental errors of commission in the BDS resolution submitted to APHA. We condemned equally fundamental errors of omission. Most notably, we condemned the BDS’ers for totally neglecting the toxic effects of cradle to grave incitement on the mindsets of Palestinians, the years of missile and terror attacks, and the asymmetric warfare and shielding. We reminded APAH that terror attacks indiscriminately targeting civilians were crimes against humanity.

And finally, we called upon APHA to promote regional cooperation, not polarization in dealing with regional challenges in public health—and gave examples of such cooperation.

We did not waste one word arguing the rights and wrongs of BDS. We attacked the flawed evidence for BDS. Our position was simple: The evidence was wrong, selective, biased and discriminatory, and because the evidence for BDS was wrong, the ethical case was wrong. it was APHA, not Israel, whose credulity was on the line.

At APHA in Boston, we convinced one out of every two BDS supporters from the 2012 Executive Council to vote No to BDS, despite the large size, power and organization of the BDS campaign waged against us.

At AAA in Denver, BDS’ers recycled the erroneous claims rejected at the APHA conference two years earlier—and made some even more wrongheaded claims. At AAA in Denver, BDS’ers recycled the erroneous claims rejected at the APHA conference two years earlier—and made some even more wrongheaded claims. The TFR’s most embarrassing failure was its inept interpretation of the public health data cited in its own Report. For example, its review of Palestinian public health missed the glaring relationship between the sharp increase in stunting in children in Gaza after 1995, and then continuing.

BDS’ers rightly addressed the painfully large death toll—especially in children, in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after APHA. But they ignored Hamas violation of 8 ceasefires, Israeli efforts to avoid harm to non-combatants, and Hamas’ asymmetric warfare and civilian shields.

The AAA Task Force Report recommending BDS listed all previous BDS decisions by six other professional societies, but inexplicably omitted the 3 to 1 repudiation of BDS by the 300 member APHA executive council Anti –BDS’ers noted that AAA’s literature review was selective and biased towards including work by anthropologists with a strong record of opposition to Israel.

BDS supporters protesting in London. The poster reads, "Boycott Israeli Products". (Wikipedia)
BDS supporters protesting in London. The poster reads, “Boycott Israeli Products”. (Wikipedia)

The AAA TFR report focused on barriers to academic travel and study. Its context was a narrative framing Israel as a colonialist usurper of indigenous peoples. Its authors displayed ignorance of the long history of Palestinian population growth triggered by Israeli economic growth. And the AAA ignored one well known case of persecution and threats to a famed Palestinian academic—and many other less well-known cases.

Worst of all, the AAA Task Force, like the APHA BDS’ers, neglected the mass butchery in Syria, the Jihadist Islamic terror in Iraq, North Africa, the Iranian incitement to genocide, and the slavery, FGM and abuse of women so widespread in the Muslim world. They ignored persecution of Christians, Copts, Yezidis, Kurds and Assyrians.

All the above major defects make a powerful case for asking if AAA’s flawed procedures and distortions were in violation of its own Code of Ethics for professional integrity. I ask: does AAA’s outgoing executive, Prof Monica Heller. who convened the TFR, bear personal responsibility for its major errors of commission and omission? And should AAA be called to reexamine its TFR, with the help of panels of outside experts in epidemiology, public health, history and ethics, in keeping with academic norms of peer review.

Somewhat bizarrely, the case made by the anthropologists opposing BDS was that the case for the boycott were not morally wrong but counterproductive. They argued that a BDS resolution would weaken the influence of Israeli anthropologists fighting Israeli government policy. But the they were mute about the validity of the flawed evidence presented in support of BDS. They said nothing about terror, incitement to terror, Syrian butchery, PA corruption, and persecution of dissent in PA universities.

When the AAA Task Force began its work in 2014, the death toll in Syria had long surpassed 150,000, and millions of Syrians had become refugees. Now there are some 300,000 dead, and millions more refugees.

It is the AAA, not Israel, which is on trial. AAA is now irrelevant, as its promotion of eugenics became irrelevant in the 1930’s. Ten years from now, when historians revisit the story of the 2015 TFR, they will ask how AAA remained a callous indifferent bystander to all the above. They will ask how AAA’s leaders allowed their organization’s honor and credibility to be undermined by the TFR’s flawed, selective, biased and discriminatory report. They will ponder the bizarre timing of AAA’s BDS decision—days after murderous attacks by Jihadist terrorists in Paris, Mali, and murders of Israelis by Palestinian terrorists. And ethicists will note how AAA slid down the slippery slope from celebrating the universals of life and human dignity amidst the wonders of cultural diversity to wallowing in the fetid rot of moral equivalence.

Anthropology, Heal Thyself.

About the Author
Dr. Elihu D Richter is a founder of the Jerusalem Center for Genocide Prevention
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