Somerville Divestment Revisited – Democracy

19 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me. 

Commander Montgomery Scott, USS Enterprise

Why do organizations whose name includes “The People,” usually have the fewest members?  Probably for the same reasons that groups who brag most about their local “grassroots” origins are usually dominated by college students from faraway states.

According to the latest communication from the So Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP), the group is positively giddy about “demonstrating its grassroots power” through a ballot question that “will show the will of the people.”  “Let the people decide!” they cry out, even complaining that anyone mentioning Israeli democracy should support their ballot initiative punishing that democracy as proof of the democratic bona fides of Israel’s supporters in Somerville.

Given this passion for “people power,” one wonders why divestment’s backers didn’t attempt a ballot initiative first thing last year; instead of doing everything they could to keep the people of Somerville in the dark about their negotiations with the city’s aldermen.

If you want to get an SC-SDPer to pose indignantly, just point out their attempt to sneak divestment into the city without the public’s input last winter.  Yet here is what one member had to say when two of the city’s aldermen forced their anti-Israel resolution into the light of day:

“The Aldermen are 5 to 1 in favor of the resolution. However, the remaining Alderman threw us for a loop by insisting that “the other side” be allowed to speak.”

Given the magnitude of divestment’s defeat in 2004, this panic was understandable.  Having told the alderman that the Middle East consisted exclusively of Israeli torturers and Palestinian victims, having flushed 10,000 Israeli victims of terrorist bombing and 800,000 Jewish exiles from the Arab world down the memory hole, having neglected to mention to the aldermen that divestment would bring rancor and bitterness to the city, and possibly put Somerville in violation of federal anti-boycott law, their carefully cultivated secrecy was about to be breached by the truth.

Flash forward a month later and what seemed a sure victory for divestment turned into a 10-0 defeat.  And contrary to the fantasies of divestment’s backers that they were confronted by overwhelming organized Jewish power that pressured the aldermen to change their vote, opponents of the divestment measure never had time to organize, but instead simply communicated directly with their representatives by phone, by mail and in person.  During the resulting educational process, our leaders simply discovered that they had been had by the SC-SDP, that the Middle East was far more complex than they were led to believe, and that divestment was a means of perpetuating a propaganda war, not a human rights initiative designed to wage peace.

Heaven knows that if divestment’s backers had won in 2004, they would have hailed this as the ultimate victory for democracy and fanned across the nation to tell every city and town official that would listen that Somerville had declared Israel a racist, Apartheid state, alone in the world at deserving economic punishment and isolation.  No doubt many had Al Jazzera on speed dial, waiting to announce to the world that our city had joined the world-wide boycott movement against the Jewish state (forgetting that they had told the aldermen that they were voting on a simple, human-right’s measure).

If appealing to the people over the heads of their leaders seems like a strange tactic for a group that recently tried to go over the heads of those same people to have narrow political opinions enshrined into law, it makes sense if you understand their definition of democracy.

For most of us, democracy is the leadership of the citizenry, either directly making decisions or (more frequently) working through elected representatives.  Pretty simple. Civics 101.

To the So Called Somerville Divestment Project and their comrades (often in arms), democracy means one thing only: them getting their way.  Any setback, any rejection of their agenda by elected leaders or by the citizens themselves is proof positive that democracy does not exist.

Fortunately, Somerville – including its leaders and its voters – is not a city of saps.  And we wont be fooled again.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Dialog

18 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

During last year’s alderman’s debate, I kept noticing a nattily attired fellow who spent an inordinate amount of time jotting little notes on a printout of this Web site.

As I packed up my signs and prepared to go home to a celebratory peanut butter sandwich (having missed the latkes served at the Chanukah party the Divestment Project forced me to miss), this same person came up to me and asked if I was interested in joining the local synagogue.  Informing him that family obligations kept me from doing so, he replied with the seeming non sequitur: “So, I guess you’re not interested in dialog.”

Given how much bizarre behavior was taking place in City Hall that night, I had forgotten this particular exchange until recently when a letter in The Somerville Journal attempted to take this site to task for “offering no way of leaving comments,” in order to “moderate useful discourse.”

It should be noted that the name appearing at the bottom of my letters (and the bottom of each page on this site) is associated with an address in the Somerville phone book, allowing an avenue for useful discourse to anyone willing to buy a postage stamp.  Given that the threshold for discussion is little more than the cost of an envelope (preferably purchased from the Somerville-based Mass Envelope Company), to date, the dialog-starved members of the Somerville Divestment Project have kept their silence.

This thirst for constructive dialog seems particularly strange, given that it is being requested by those who have introduced the ultimate conversation killer into the Middle East debate: the call for divestment, for economically punishing one set of participants in the discussion.

With the loaded gun of divestment being pointed in only one direction, I’m left wondering what this “useful discourse” is meant to cover.  Are we free to talk about the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in the Arab Middle East and the robust oil-for-gold trade between the Gulf States and white-ruled South Africa?  Or is dialog to be limited to defending Israel against accusations of Apartheid?  Can the expulsion of 850,000 Jews from the Arab world after 1948 enter into the conversation, or is ethnic cleansing only a moral issue when Arabs are the alleged victims, rather than the perpetrators?

Someone from the divestment crowd wrote a very telling essay analyzing their defeat last year, pointing out that once the discussion veered away from “human rights” (defined, of course, as solely the human rights of Palestinians under Israeli jurisdiction) they lost control of the debate.  Thus their frantic desire to suppress any other topic: the 10,000 Israelis murdered, maimed and orphaned in the last four years, the state of human rights of Israeli’s neighbors, the needs of the people of Somerville, that might interrupt “dialog” that consists of the SDP acting simultaneously as prosecutor and judge.

Given that their own vocabulary seems to consist of “Apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing” and a few pronouns, one would think that the Arab oil-for-gold trade with Pretoria and the expulsion of the Jews from the Middle East are at least relevant topics of discussion.  Yet Israel’s critics will never make mention of these issues, even to deny them, hoping that they can narrow debate by taking advantage of our actual concern for human rights, vs. their use of human rights and other lofty principles solely as a weapon to bludgeon their enemies.

Then again, perhaps I am wrong and that the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) is more than ready to have a frank conversation, with all subjects being on the table.  If this is the case, they have an extremely simple option to prove their sincerity: removing divestment – the ultimate discourse crusher – permanently from the table.  Only then can true dialog begin.

Anyone interested in taking this step towards useful discourse will find me ready to join their conversation.  Just drop me a letter.


Somerville Divestment Revisited – Evolution

17 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

They tell us that
We lost our tails
Evolving up
From little snails
I say it’s all
Just wind in sails
Are we not men?
We are devo!


There is something noticeably different between this year’s anti-Israel divestment campaign and the one that was so soundly defeated in 2004.

For all of their cynicism, those pushing divestment last year knew how to frame a debate to their advantage.  As lopsided as their resolution was, it contained that single passage condemning killings “on both sides,” an escape hatch useful to deflect legitimate criticism of lack of balance.

Their argument that the Somerville retirement funds’ holding of Israeli Bonds and shares in Caterpillar Tractor somehow translated into the city’s “investment” in Israel’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, turning divestment into a means to “level the playing field” was a masterstroke.  It transformed their efforts to get our city to attach its name to a worldwide boycott and propaganda campaign into a simple issue of “fairness.”

While appalled at the time, I find myself becoming nostalgic for the creativity and political acumen of divestment supporters of yesteryear, especially looking over the crude petition that is currently being circulating around the city in hope of getting divestment onto this year’s ballot.

Gone from their presentation is any pretense of fairness, even-handedness or pretensions of peacemaking.  In its place are vile slurs of “Apartheid,” feverishly truncated and rewritten history, and inflated numbers without even a gratuitous nod to the 1000 Israelis killed by suicide murderers in the last four years.

What can explain this “d-evolution” of political skills on the part of Israel’s Cambridge (whoops! I mean Somerville)-based critics?  I suspect the answer has something to do with the nature of the team.

We’ve all been involved with team-based activities, with companies, volunteer groups, sports teams, theatrical productions, etc., in which the total result was far greater than the sum of the parts.  There is something immensely satisfying about working in a group and seeing “it all coming together” to create something no individual could do on his or her own.

Unfortunately, for every successful team effort, one can list dozens of failures: the product fiasco, the company bankruptcy, the 0-19 baseball drubbing, the theatre or film flop, in which many fingerprints could be found on the same turkey.

In most cases, group catastrophes can be blamed on groupthink, the lack of enough leadership or followership to make decisions or set priorities.  Thus, every choice is subject to an endless (and often fruitless) drive for consensus, with all output gravitating towards the mean.  “It looks like it was designed by a committee,” is the critique one often hears about a group project that has gone off the rails in this familiar way.

But there is darker dynamic that affects some groups, particularly ones that require members to possess a high degree of passion, such as political organizations.  In these types of organizations, it is often the people who are the most aggressive, who exercise power most ruthlessly that rise to the top, using their own passion and uninhibited commitment to an issue to create a hierarchy based on ideological purity.  The Middle East is rife with this type of dynamic (which is why compromise has been so hard to obtain there), as are fringe political movements of the Right and Left in America and elsewhere.

While I am not privy to the inner workings of the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP), their most recent output has all of the earmarks of groupthink in a group where ideologues have driven out the practical political activists who almost got their will made law last year.

Whether I wax nostalgic for the return of the skilled operators, or simply bid them “good riddance,” there is an upside to this transformation of Somerville’s branch of the anti-Israel global coalition.  For in many ways, this year’s petition, with all of its dishonesty and crassness, represents the true face of divestment, one which they only chose to show us in their defeat.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Numbers

16 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

A friend who sells for a living once taught me that no matter how well a sales presentation or demonstration goes, the only thing that travels up the decision-making chain is numbers.  Quantitative information plays a similarly powerful role in the presentation of an argument.

Thus, the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project’s (SC-SDP’s) fondness for numerical detail, even if they play as fast and loose with numbers as they do with words.

For example, with their current petition drive, the SC-SDP has been littering our billboards with posters bewailing the 780,000 Palestinians made refugees in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.  Yet just some simple arithmetic is all that is needed to demonstrate that this number is impossibly high.

Before the 1948 war, there were 1.2 million Arabs living in the area.  After the war, 450,000 remained in the Arab-controlled West Bank and Gaza, and another 160,000 stayed in their homes and became citizens of Israel.

Taking out my pencil, 1,200,000 – (450,000+160,000) = 590,000 total possible Arab refugees from 1948.

Putting aside that this calculation is the most generous one possible for the Palestinian refugee count (restrained as we are in the tyranny of addition and subtraction), one wonders why the divestment crowd felt the need to inflate a number that was already high enough to serve its propaganda purposes.

It is the facts and numbers NOT stated that damage the anti-Israel crowd’s argument most, which is why such information is left on the cutting room floor of their presentation (or in the words of Orwell, “dumped down the memory hole”).  How many of these 500,000+ people simply got out of the way of the five Arab armies that attacked Israel in 1948, for example?  How many of them joined the ranks of those five phalanxes of troops, only to be pushed beyond Israel’s new borders once fighting ended?

Of course, the 800,000+ pound gorilla of a number left out of this debate is this calculation:

Number of Jews in the Arab world before 1948: 860,000

Number of Jews in the Arab world after 1948: 5,000

860,000 – 5,000 = 855,000 Jews kicked out of the Arab world after Israel’s 1948 victory.

Looked at numerically, what happened in 1948 was not the exclusive mass expulsion of Arabs by Israel endlessly repeated by Israel’s critics, but a population exchange, similar to those that took place between Germany and Poland after World War II or between India and Pakistan after independence.  Such exchanges are never pretty (ask the hundreds of thousands of Jews who had to be resettled in Israel as penniless refugees), but they are historic.

What has no precedent is the perpetuation of the Palestinian refugee crisis for decades.  All of the other world’s refugees, including over 800,000 Jews of the Arab world, were resettled within a generation, with the nations of the world providing resources to find homes for the unfortunate millions who were forced to flee conflict.

Only in the case of the Palestinians have vast resources been spent to perpetuate a refugee crisis rather than solve it.  All so the Somerville Divestment Project and similar propagandists can inflate the numbers still further to score points in an argument that collapses once the actual numbers are known.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Gratitude

15 Aug

Over the course of August, I’m republishing a series of posts from a now-defunct site that covered the first major municipal divestment fight that took place in Somerville MA between 2004-2006.  A description of how that issue played out can be found here and I hope these essays will continue to be useful for those battling against the BDS propaganda arm of the anti-Israel war movement (as well as demonstrating how divestment was and can continue to be soundly defeated by people of good will ready to take up the fight).  

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Sir Winston Churchill

Last night, Somerville got to see democracy work.  Putting aside how divestment was first introduced into town debate, once it got there our alderman chose to give it a fair hearing, listened to the voices of the public, and then made the right decision to vote it down.  While this decision was primarily motivated by what was in the best interest of our city (as it should be), by avoiding becoming a partisan in the anti-Israel propaganda war, they also acted in the best interest of all parties in the Middle East.

There are a number of people to thank for this successful outcome, beginning with all members of the Somerville Board of Aldermen.  After grappling with a difficult issue and using it as a means to begin a voyage of discovery, individually and as a group they avoided having the town manipulated into a role almost no one wanted it to play.  Special thanks to Bill White and Bill Roche who “smelled a rat” early and forced the issue to play out in the light of public debate.  Their skill in navigating negotiations helped all of us understand that a principled stand against divestment and an ongoing commitment to human right were fully compatible.

Now that a stake has been driven into the heart of anti-Israel divestment, the best gift we can give our representatives is a brief, well-deserved “thank you” and then to leave them alone.  All of our leaders, those we agreed with on divestment and those we did not, have important work to do, and this debate (as heated as it got) should now be put behind us.  Somerville has already lost an important month of business, a month when (among other things) critical transportation issues have descended on us.  A united leadership, supported by citizens who refuse to wallow in bitterness, is what we need right now.  Borrowing a phrase that’s been with us for the last decade, it’s time to MoveOn.

Very special thanks to Mayor Joe Curtatone who got out in front of the subject early on with a principled stance, eloquently articulated and backed by his willingness to use his veto power for what he knew was right.  Just as in the gay marriage debate, our Mayor seems to display a knack for not just saying the right thing but doing the right thing, the best demonstration of leadership.  Who would have thought that only a year after our mayor was elected the nation would be looking to Somerville’s for inspiration?  Best to keep an eye on this young man.

While all support from everywhere is warmly appreciated, it was the contribution of Somerville citizens to the discussion that deserves special thanks.  Almost all of the aldermen told us that it was the words of their constituents, those who were against divestiture and those who simply told them to stay out of international issues and get back to work solving Somerville’s problems that won the day.  We spoke.  Our leaders listened.  That’s the definition of democracy.

On a personal note, I would like to thank all of those who tracked me down to give me comments, criticisms and suggestions for this Web site.  All of your encouragement helped make this an energizing and fun project.  Special thanks to Mike, my Webmaster, who agreed to update this site in exchange for a case of Otter Creek beer, which brings the sum total investment in the site to $37, twenty bucks for the beer and $17 to purchase the URL.  (Who says you need to be rich to have a voice in politics?)

Having already missed two of the last three nights of Chanukah, I’m looking forward to lighting the next five candles with my two young boys without divestment hanging over our heads.

So finally, thank you all for reading this, and happy, happy holidays!

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Sincerity

14 Aug

Over the course of August, I’m republishing a series of posts from a now-defunct site that covered the first major municipal divestment fight that took place in Somerville MA between 2004-2006.  A description of how that issue played out can be found here and I hope these essays will continue to be useful for those battling against the BDS propaganda arm of the anti-Israel war movement (as well as demonstrating how divestment was and can continue to be soundly defeated by people of good will ready to take up the fight).  

Sincerity is highly overrated, or more accurately, sincerity is often ascribed to those who do not deserve it.

Take those behind the divestment movement as an example.  On the surface, they are credited with being a grassroots Somerville group with sincere devotion to human rights in the Middle East based on their passion and willingness to work so hard to see Somerville divest from the Jewish state.  As they present themselves, they sincerely care about fairness, they sincerely care about human rights, and they sincerely care about Somerville.

Yet, if they are so sincere, why did they try to maneuver our aldermen into passing this resolution behind the back of the public?  If they are so concerned with our town, why did they not inform our aldermen:

  • That the complexity of the Middle East conflict makes assigning blame to only one side both grossly unfair and detached from reality, a reality in which the Arabs can clearly be assigned blame for substantial human rights violations?
  • That bringing this issue before the town would cause the same bitterness and divisiveness created whenever this same group (under different names) tried to import the Middle East conflict into other communities?
  • That this “simple/symbolic” petition might put Somerville in conflict with US Federal anti-boycott law?  Considering that US Commerce Department is considering whether divestiture activities falls under US law regarding secondary boycotts of friendly countries, didn’t the divestiture movement at least owe our leaders the truth about the potential consequences of the action they were requesting?

Sincerity has a pair of ugly cousins: self-righteous fury and ruthlessness.  The fact that the divestiture crowd is willing to say anything and do anything, regardless of the consequences, to further their cause should not be confused with sincere commitment.  In fact, the willingness to hide critical information, manipulate communities and leaders, and seize on “virtue words” like “human rights” and “fairness” purely for propaganda purposes is a textbook example of an “ends-justify-the-means” strategy that defines ruthlessness.  Their ability to pose indignantly when their efforts are rejected by the people (as they have on every campus in America and will be tonight in Somerville) should not be confused with the real virtue of sincerity.

Which gets us to tonight.

While it is preferable for our aldermen to lump the Middle East into the many, many other conflicts upon which they do not feel informed enough to speak, must less take action, there will likely be an impetus to vote on some resolution if and when the current one is rejected.

If our leaders feel it critical to make some statement on this matter, it is important that any such alternative cannot in any way be interpreted as a victory for the forces of self-righteousness and ruthlessness that have brought so much misery to our town.

Even seemingly innocuous suggestions such as singling out Israeli bonds or Caterpillar Tractor shares for scrutiny represents a way to let one-sided criticism of Israel in through the back door and must be resisted.  If our aldermen want to make a statement concerning a desire for peace in the region and asks for the US government to work towards that end, this would be in keeping with statements Somerville has made in the past on international issues, and while not likely to do much good, at least will do no harm.

“First do no harm” is the mantra of the medical profession, and it deserves to be the guidepost to action on this sensitive issue at this sensitive time.  Sincere devotion to human rights councils no other action.