One of the things that continually surprised me about BDS battles within a university or other institution is how unsurprising they are.
BDS itself generally has but one tactic: to find a progressive institution and (often working behind the scenes) to convince them that their principles leave them no choice other than the embrace the BDS agenda. So no surprise there. But it’s kind of startling to see how debate tends to unfold thereafter with the regularity of a Noh drama.
This déjà vu is most pronounced when a boycott or divestment battle comes to a head, often unfolding in a series of intense meetings (always three in number for some reason). Whether those meetings take place within Berkeley’s student government chambers, Somerville City Hall or the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, all parties immediately assume their assigned roles.
In the case of the boycotters, this involves presenting an endless stream of gut-wrenching (and context-free) images of Palestinian suffering with an unwavering accusation of the one and only party responsible for this presented woe: Israel (and/or “The Occupation” or “The Settlements” presented as near metaphysical entities).
The performance of Israel’s defenders also tends towards the familiar, even if it’s a familiarity of inconsistency. For unlike the boycotters, Israel’s friends are not united on their goals or approach. Some want to lash out and attack their critics (bringing up the human rights catastrophe that is Gaza and the Arab world, for example). Some want to focus on peace, reconciliation and ways to work together. Still others zero in on the pain an divisiveness that BDS battles always cause, with everyone frequently invoking the “complexity” of the Arab-Israeli conflict (in contrast to the simple-minded storyline that characterizes Israel’s accusers).
Now the endless failure of BDS would seem to indicate that this is a winning presentation, even if it is seems somewhat confused and predictable. Which presents the question of why criticize a winning tactic? To which I would respond that in any type of conflict (from a political battle to an actual war) it’s never the best idea to be in a position where you opponents know exactly what to expect from you well in advance.
Two stories provide some perspective on what happens when people don’t act according to their assigned roles. Starting in the US, a group of San Francisco pro-Israel activists decided to use the tactics of the BDS organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) against them.
You may recall that JVP was the group that chose to disrupt a speech Prime Minister Netenyahu gave in New Orleans last month, using a tactic of repeated interruptions that’s become popular within West Coast universities as a means of muzzling pro-Israel speakers. This time, however, it was JVP’s turn to be on the receiving end of their own medicine (at a meeting celebrating the Young, Jewish and Proud Netenyahu-interrupters no less) where pro-Israel forces jumped up repeatedly to read from Hertzl and other Zionist texts.
Now some of you may wonder why this “sauce for the gander” approach is not taken more often (a subject for another time), but in the case of the Young Jewish and Proud event the JVP crowd was caught completely off guard. So stunned were they at the very notion that their tactics could be used against them that violence ensued, starting with a JVP assault on an elderly activist, leading to a pepper spraying, leading to JVP calling the cops on their opponents. Putting aside attempts to propagandize this kerfuffle to advantage, the real lesson is how disorienting it can be to Israel’s foes when its friends do not act in ways they are told they must.
The other story did not involve pepper spray or cops, but was no less educational with regard to the effectiveness of surprise. By now, many of you will have read about the student who took part in the umpteenth Oxford Union debate over the Middle East, this one set up to debate the subject of whether or not “Israel is a rogue state.”
Usually when these events take place, everyone lines up along predictable patterns, each party plays its assigned role, a vote takes place and no one remembers the results. But in this case, Gabriel Latner (in support of the assertion that Israel IS a rogue state) brilliantly redefined “rogue” to provide an accurate illustration of why Israel is unique among the nations.
Needless to say, Israel’s critics cried foul that the sides did not line up as they were supposed to. But in this case there was no “cheating” involved. For the Oxford Union is meant to challenge people, to address a particular issue given the full range of rhetoric tools at the disposal of opponents to an issue. And unlike the many now-forgotten debates over Israel’s perfidity (debates designed to package the same dreary propaganda message in the garb of Oxford robes), this story has lived on to become the stuff of lore, simply because one bold individual decided to surprise the world by not doing exactly what was expected of him (a lesson we would all do well to learn).