Winners and Losers

My friend CitizenWald sent me a couple of interesting pieces which, between them, debate who is winning and losing in the effort to de-legitimize Israel (a broad campaign, of which BDS is just one component).

In this JTA Op Ed, Gary Wexler is emphatic about who is losing: Israel. In fact, as a marketing professional, he marvels at the PR prowess that has led Israel, a perfectly reasonable if imperfect country, to be transformed into the embodiment of all evil in the modern world.

Wexler attributes this propaganda success to the creative genius of those behind the de-legitimization/Apartheid-Strategy/BDS “movement” whom he sees as having succeeded, after decades of effort, in “branding” Israel is such a dark light. While appalled at their mission and goals, the writer is still highly impressed with their effectiveness in marketing Israel as the black hats and the Arabs the white hats in a morality play that has achieved global acceptance.

Having dabbled a bit in marketing myself, I can understand the author’s point of view, especially with regard to comparing the systematic and consistent efforts of Israel’s opponents vs. the on-again, off-again, sometimes-this, sometimes-that nature of the response by Israel and its supporters.

At the same time, I tend to be skeptical of any thesis that involves organization (including an in-the-shadows organization of marketing geniuses) among Israel’s detractors. I’ve simply been exposed to these groups – with all of their fractiousness and fissures – far too often to believe in the existence of some form of central command.

This is especially true in this day and age when new communication technology minimizes the need for centralized coordination. Via blogs, newsfeeds, social networks, Twitter and a host of other communication tools, Israel’s critics (and its supports) have an endless feedback loop in which new ideas can be tried, failures rejected and successes built upon, providing activists access to a “wisdom of crowds” which at times can be just as effective as a central command.

I also take issue with Wexler’s use of anecdotes to measure success. As I’ve noted here, if anti-Israel branding has been so successful, then why has Israel’s allegedly boycotted economy doubled in size over the last decade? Why do Europeans (who decry Israel in their newspapers) invest more venture capital into the Jewish state than in any country on their own continent? And, most importantly, why has Israel’s popularity among the general US population soared twenty percentage points during the very decade where this de-legitimization campaign has allegedly been so successful?

A significant critique of the “Israel is Losing the Propaganda War” thesis can be found in this article by Barry Rubin. In Rubin’s piece, he broadens the canvas to suggest that the entire de-legitimization project is testament to the fact that it is Israel’s foes, not Israel, that are the losers.

After all, suggests Rubin, trying to defeat Israel on the battlefield requires creating and maintaining trained and skilled armies, and being able to successful deploy them and lead them in the field. And truly isolating Israel economically would require Israel’s Arab foes to create economies that could successfully compete with the Israeli one, something they have not been able to do despite trillions in oil revenue placed cost-free beneath their feet. Without the ability to defeat or compete with Israel on the two stages that really matter (war and economics), Israel’s enemies turn to propaganda as a low-rent way to create the illusion that they are actually achieving something of substance.

As with Wexler, there are parts of Rubin’s argument I find compelling. Taking BDS as one example, all it takes to start a campaign is to sign up for some free petitioning software, get 200-300 friends to sign it, send out a few press releases and – BANG – a new front in the de-legitimization wars is opened up! And given that the BDS “movement” measures it success not in actually achieving anything, but only in the publicity it manages to create (most of it generated by their own press releases), the who can argue with the notion that propaganda is what you resort to when everything else you’ve done has been a failure?

But I think Rubin also misses an important point, as do I when I highlight Israel’s growth in popularity during the BDS decade of the ‘00s. For the de-legitimization campaign is first and foremost targeted at elites: academics, the media, government leaders, etc., and there are not many countries where the popularity of a particular cause (such as Israel in the US) drives foreign policy.

Both arguments also fail to highlight the fact that de-legitimization campaigns are primarily driven not by local activists, but by Israel’s primary political adversaries: neighboring Arab states. These are the entities that fuel (and, yes, fund) anti-Israel (and anti-Western) propaganda worldwide. They provide the bulk of votes at organizations like the UN designed to ensure all human rights eyes are focused on Israel and nowhere else. And while they’ve not been successful in depressing the Israeli economy, they also have the wealth and power to make individuals, companies and nations choose between operating in the larger Arab market or the much smaller Israeli one.

Now most of the BDS activists I have met think I am speaking Klingnon when I inform them that the only reason their faux “human rights” attacks against Israel gets more airplay than all of the other human rights work taking place on the planet put together is that the BDSers are allied with wealthy and powerful states, which includes all of the friends wealth and power can buy. But it’s no news that divestniks can delude themselves into thinking they are Gandhi while they rush to embrace Goliath. Nor does their refusal to believe in their obvious alliance with wealth and power negate this reality.

Both arguments also miss the fact that those with militant goals will always have the advantage when it comes to taking the offensive initiative. As I describe here, the reason Israel’s supporters cannot maintain a counter de-legitimization campaign targeting its opponents is simply because our ultimate goal is to live in peace with those who are waging war against us. That being the case, we must come up with new metaphors to drive our strategies (like the siege), and not simply hope that Israel’s opponents, in their effort to de-legitimize the Jewish state, will continue to do what they’ve done up until now: only de-legitimize themselves.

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3 Responses to Winners and Losers

  1. Bella Center June 13, 2010 at 10:50 pm #

    I somewhat disagree with you for a couple of reasons. Although there isn't a Wizard of Oz behind the screen masterminding the delegitimization campaign, the movement, including BDS, has played this as a very, very long game. It started in the 70's among the far left and has slowly, slowly worked its way into the mainstream. The Reut Institute ( a good analysis of how this works and suggests how vitally important it is to separate out genuine peace-seekers from the anti-Zionists.

    I am also not as sanguine about Israel's economic condition. As Bernard Avishai describes in “The Hebrew Republic”, Israel may not be able to sustain economic growth if foreign investors get cold feet because of the growing success of delegitimization campaign and fear of violence. And, if the 'situation' doesn't improve, Israel's upcoming entrepreneurs and professionals may decide it isn't worth staying — hence a brain drain.

    All of which is to say, you and others are doing a great job demystifying BDS' self-congratulatory nonsense, but we have got to figure out how to systematically drive a wedge between the haters and the innocent peaceniks with a PR campaign so subtle and sophisticated they won't know what hit em. Oy.

  2. Anonymous June 14, 2010 at 11:57 am #

    The success of the anti-Israel movement is owed largely to two things:

    a) the tendency described so well by Paul S. Berman of ostensible liberal minds to disbelieve that a cause may be driven by a utopian movement that is, at its heart, nihilistic and totalitarian

    b) the tendency identified by Bertrand Russell of the left/liberal to confer the “superior virtue of the oppressed” on a percieved underdog. Hence, the BDSers see no agency on the part of the Palestinians for preferring life under a kleptocracy or theocracy at any cost, rather than working toward a two state solution by insisting that their support for the Palestinians is contingent on just that.

  3. Jon June 14, 2010 at 4:02 pm #

    Dear Bella – You bring up an excellent set of points, ones I struggle with as I try to balance the important need to put the success (or lack thereof) of BDS into perspective without creating the impression that divestment (and the overall de-legitimization campaign launched against Israel) are not legitimate threats.

    As you note, situations can change quickly, and we shouldn’t discount that the real players in the de-legit movement (Israel’s self-avowed foes among wealthy and powerful national governments) have succeeded in creating the impression that any act of Israel self-defense is illegitimate. And the intellectual trends mentioned by the second commenter also play an instrumental role in shaping elite opinion.

    All that said, while I agree that our own PR is necessary to counteract the propaganda message of the BDSers, it’s just as important (possibly more so) that the business, cultural, academic and personal ties between Israel and the rest of the world continue to grow at an even faster pace. This is not just to push the goals of the boycotters forever out of reach, but to also play off our greatest asset: the fact that those who are exposed to Israel the reality (vs. Israel the violent fantasy of the de-legitimizers) tend to be immune to the blandishments of boycotters strutting their poison around the globe.

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