When dealing with a “movement” like BDS which thrives on anecdotes, numbers are a great way to pierce the fog and get to the real truth. After all, what tells us more about the success vs. failure of boycott and divestment: the story of a Danish retirement fund selling a few thousand dollars worth of Israeli stock for political reasons, or the numbers showing that the Israeli economy and exports have both doubled during the decade when BDS has been operating?
At the same time, casting peripheral issues in numeric terms can make them seem more central than they really are, leading to poor decisions regarding strategy and tactics. For instance, this situation may ring a bell, particularly with campus activists:
“SJP brought in an anti-Israel speaker and drew a crowd of 300 people and we had 10 protestors at their event. The next week, we had a pro-Israel event that drew 140 people and SJP showed up with 20 protestors. So it looks like we lost by 170.”
While this dialog may be fanciful, the notion is not. As activists (and as human beings) we like to be able to measure our success and failure in numerical terms, and lacking many things to count when it comes to campus activism, we tend to fall back on counting heads at one and other’s events to see if we’re gaining or losing ground.
This is one of the reasons why bringing in speakers and hosting Israel Days or Anti-Israel Days are so popular. Activist organizations (both on and off campus – on both sides) like to be able to present lists of their projects to members and funders, ideally with headcounts showing that their work is reaching people. And thus the need to generate numeric information drives a strategy based on maximizing the number of speaking events and maximizing the size of the audience at each event.
But if you look at more meaningful numbers (which I have), you’ll discover interesting insights like the fact that pro- and anti-Israel camps at most universities never tops more than 5-10% of the student population, with the other 90%+ viewing activists on both sides as mostly engaged with talking to themselves or shouting at each other. Which means that efforts both sides are using to swing this undecided vast majority one way or another might actually be turning them off to the issue entirely.
Remember also that hostility to Israel is most prominent on elite campuses, a small subset of American higher education as a whole. Now this subset is high profile and extremely influential, so should not be ignored. But we also shouldn’t lose site of the fact that on the vast majority of campuses, support for Israel looks a lot more like national trends where it outstrips hostility towards the Jewish state by 3:1.
Even if we assume that at places like Berkeley, sentiment about Israel on campus is closer to 1:1 (i.e., supporters and detractors evenly matched), suddenly the question becomes why anti-Israel activism has such a high profile at these places, even without an overwhelming (or even clear-cut) numerical advantage. In this case, sheer numbers may make less of a difference than other factors.
This should come as no surprise. After all, smaller armies have defeated much larger ones for centuries. Whether we’re talking about the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans held off a million invading Persians (or more historically likely figures of 7000 Greeks holding off 100,000+ invaders) or Israel’s numerous military victories against vastly numerically superior foes, the size of an army often takes a back seat to factors such as strategy, tactics, leadership, training, equipment, morale and the choice of terrain on which to fight.
In the case of the Spartans, the choice of a narrow pass as the battlefield meant that even a million-man army would have to enter Greece just a few hundred at a time, which meant better-trained and more disciplined troops protecting such a narrow space could hold the enemy at bay so long as the fight was taking place in one direction and the defender’s morale held firm.
In the case of Israel’s victories, technically sophisticated weapons actually made less of a difference than the training and discipline needed to integrate this hardware into creative battle strategies. The fact that Israel’s attackers could always retreat to their home countries safely while Israel knew it was fighting for its existence also dictated the level of commitment of each side’s soldiers.
Numbers provide us crucial information to make decisions, but we should beware of assessing our own strategic situation or making tactical decisions based on numeric factors (such as number of activists on each side) that might make less of a difference than strength of organization and tactical choices, each of which will be addressed in separate postings over the next two days.