School’s In Session

It’s intriguing to listen to BDS organizers as they talk about their plans for the year, as they do here.Not because their words are amusing or threatening, although I did crack a grin when they talked about “all these BDS victories,” without mentioning any specifics (for the obvious reason that none exist), and a frown when I heard a “movement” that specializes in forcing people they don’t want heard off the stage accuse their opponents of “bullying.” Rather, such glimpses into the organizational world of anti-Israel activism are fascinating with regard to their focus on process, sometimes even bordering on professionalism.

I had this same reaction when watching a video of a recent BDS conference in which organizers spoke about recruiting, goal-seeking, even performing a SWOT Analysis on their own organizations; business-like procedures designed to focus a team to execute well-thought-out tactics around a common strategy with a full understanding of both their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of their opponents.

Which forces the question as to why a “movement” that seems capable of at least talking the talk in terms of serious organization-building harnessed to effective execution seems so stuck on a strategy (BDS) that has brought them nothing but defeat after more than ten years of effort.

Why do they continue to pass around petitions on college campuses calling for divestment that administrations and fellow students have already rejected time and time again?Why do they trot out the same worn-out cardboard “Apartheid Walls” and hold ever-less-attended “Israel Apartheid Week” rallies and marches when it is clear they are only bothering uncommitted students and that their opponents are well aware (and well prepared) for their antics?And why do they continue to push BDS hoaxes, even though previous frauds (such as the one at Hampshire College) has helped ensure their project will never be taken seriously by anyone (least of all the college administrators they long to have on their side)?

An answer to this conundrum can be found in the nature of radical vs. more traditional civic political organizations.Civic groups, ranging from the Boy Scouts to church choirs, tend to be true volunteer organizations where – despite the grousing that often takes place within such groups – individual members are listened to, contribute and are inevitably called to lead.In contrast, radical groups, despite the hospitality they often show to perspective recruits, are generally top down organizations with real decision-making power residing in a senior echelon (or Politburo) who make decisions based on the needs of a broader (and never-quite-defined) “movement.”

I remember this type of drama playing out in Somerville when a local BDS leader (of a group named SDP at the time) could not get what he wanted out of the current membership of the organization he founded.And so he decided to import new members more ready to follow his lead (even if that meant driving older members out in the process).So while organizational savvy is valued in such organizations, such skills are frequently trumped by those who are willing to act the most ruthlessly to get their way.

Infiltration is another dynamic that has prevented anti-Israel groups from ever achieving the type of stability and permanence they envy in the Jewish political world (a world that I would say contains too much stability, where 50-100 year old organizations with overlapping missions vie for the spotlight and the same funding sources – but I digress).

Just as BDSers often join a political group or organization (like a food co-op) for the sole purpose of bending it to their will, so to do the factions upon factions within the anti-Israel community (separated by Left/Right, religious/secular and national-particularist divisions) try to take over any Palestinian advocacy organization once it shows signs of success.This is what happened to the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM), the force behind much of the divestment activity early in the last decade which collapsed under the effort of trying to perpetually fight off hostile takeovers.And this is likely what will happen to Students for Justice in Palestine (the flavor of the month of Israel hating campus groups) if they ever get above a certain threshold of size and success.

In the meantime, SJP will be holding its first national organizing conference in just a week’s time (be still my heart).And on the agenda are such lovely (and original) subjects as “Situating Palestine as a settler-Colonial Project” and “The Economics of Israeli Colonialism,” more mundane matters such as “Coalition Building on Campus” and “Media Training,” but interestingly enough just one talk on divestment.BDS watchers take note.

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One Response to School’s In Session

  1. Anonymous October 8, 2011 at 12:03 am #

    ” In contrast, radical groups, despite the hospitality they often show to perspective recruits, are generally top down organizations with real decision-making power residing in a senior echelon (or Politburo) who make decisions based on the needs of a broader (and never-quite-defined) “movement”.

    Many years ago, I attended a meeting of ” united for peace and Justice.”. In spite of the lip service they paid to decision making by concensus, it was clear we 'd never leave the meeting if we didnt write off on the organizers pre made agenda.

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