BDS Thought Experiment – Fini

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Thought Experiments

While the “turning the tables” strategy I’ve been describing might initially sound like fun (and justified), think for a minute what such a campaign might involve.

First, we would have to find some way to get our hostile political message (that Gaza is an Apartheid state or Islam an Apartheid religion, for instance) to come out of the mouth of a respected individual or institution.

For example, in recent months campaigns have arisen on many college campuses asking these schools to divest from companies profiting from fossil fuels.  This choice of targets is motivated by a desire to reduce global warming, but if we were to take on the BDS mindset we could easily infiltrate a percentage of these student groups and push them to add “the fight against the Apartheid practices of Middle East oil dictatorships” onto their list of reasons to divest from oil companies.

Or maybe we could save ourselves some time and simply declare that these fossil-fuel campaigns were really about our agenda item (the right against Apartheid Saudi Arabia, for example) and fire off press releases declaring that their momentum and hard work automatically accrues to us.

This might create rifts and conflicts within groups who are trying to do something for the environment, or even cause them to abandon their campaign (given the needless controversy our behavior has caused them).  But if we were in possession of the BDS mind, that would be their problem, not ours.

To describe such selfish, manipulative behavior should alone explain why our side doesn’t engage in it.  But another reason this approach might be a loser for us is that it would very likely be completely ignored by the people we would be using it to antagonize.

After all, over the last several years, student governments at the University of Indiana, Florida and Oklahoma have all passed resolutions supporting Israel and/or condemning her enemies (such as Iran).  Israel investment clubs are mushrooming at virtually every school that’s been in the news regarding BDS activity (Harvard, Berkeley, Penn, U Michigan and others).  And this student-driven activity is all on top of the massive strengthening of academic and business relations between Israel and virtually every organization BDS has spent years targeting.  Yet how many times have Israel’s foes treated these events as setbacks vs. simply ignoring them altogether?

The disparity between the lack of response the Israel haters bring to progress our side makes vs. the reaction that can be anticipated from us whenever they do something (the response to next week’s BDS Nuremberg rally at Brooklyn College being just the latest example) points to the last question I wanted to address with this thought experiment, namely: why is it virtually guaranteed that we will rise to any bait, rather than just ignore provocations as our opponents do?

One answer might simply be the militancy of the boycotter’s tactics vs. the lack of militancy of our own.  After all, our side is NOT getting resolutions passed at schools like Indiana and Florida in order to build anti-Arab divestment momentum across the country, or releasing hysterical press releases goading our foes with our latest “victory.”  So on one level, Israel supporters simply have more to respond to.

But I would also propose that we are behaving in ways that fit roles that have either been assigned to us by our opponents (or the media), or that we have assigned to ourselves.

As someone pointed out in a recent comment, our side can never agree on a common message equivalent to the simple “Israel = Apartheid” propaganda message of Israel’s foes.  And so at events like BDS votes in Somerville, Berkeley or Park Slope you’ve got disciplined opponents of Israel sticking to their script, while we play the role of “let’s look at this from all perspectives,” broad-minded thinkers trying to bring every angle into the conversation in order to highlight a complexity to the Middle East that does not lend itself to simple-minded sloganeering.

I would also add that we have also fallen into a rut, tactics-wise, to the point where our opponents can anticipate exactly how we will respond to their provocation (with letters to the editor and op-ed pieces, protests, handouts and aggressive questions during the Q&A session at events like Barghouti’s Brooklyn College event next week).  And since we’re so predictable, it’s easy for them to force us into our assigned role of angry Jews whom they can airily dismiss from the microphones they control, while they maintain the role they prefer of prosecutor, judge and jury.

Once a role has been assigned to you, it is very hard to break out of it (think for a moment how difficult it is to behave out of character with a friend or family members after years of establishing patterns of who is allowed to do or say what).  So even when we become enraged at the outrageous behavior of the BDS types, it’s tough for even the most aggressive Israel supporters to not allow themselves to slip into the dock.  (Think of all those pro-Israel editorials you’ve read that can’t help ending in a detailed case-by-case rebuttal of our opponent’s accusations, an approach built on the assumption that since they’ll never answer our accusations we might as well answer theirs.)

But given that we know the boycotters will never respond to our accusations (while angrily insisting over and over again that we must answer theirs), we are left in a quandary of what tactics to choose that allow us to break out of our assigned role (knowing full well that our opponents will never give up theirs).

Surprise and creativity come to mind as two options to pursue that don’t require us to behave in the same bestial manner as our opponents.  And the slow but steady spadework of building relationships that can act as a bullwork against BDS lies can also help ensure “the movement” continues through a second decade of defeat.

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One Response to BDS Thought Experiment – Fini

  1. DrMike January 31, 2013 at 10:37 pm #

    The whole question of the utility of responding to BDS attacks is quite complex.

    the first question is, ignore them vs respond to them. There’s a legitimate concern that silence, in the face of lies from BDSers, sends two messages: that we don’t have an effective response and that their chosen form of “discourse” (bullying, shouting down opponents) is acceptable. If the public only hears the BDS side, they might gradually shift their opinion which over the years in the US has been strongly and solidly pro-Israel. If they hear both sides, then they may do one of several things: weigh the competing arguments (we win), or tune out the issue entirely (we win again).

    The second question is tactics– if we are going to respond then what do we say and how do we say it? That’s where surprise and creativity come in. Of course, it’s a lot easier to be creative if you’re also being creative with the truth. Portraying a simplistic, cartoon caricature of the situation– without having to anchor yourself to the actual facts– allows one a great deal of creativity! Another facet is what you described above– the selfish, manipulative behavior that we don’t want to resort to. To take one example– when hate-Israel groups set up mock checkpoints on campuses at which they verbally assault and physically obstruct their fellow students, pro-Israel students don’t want to lower themselves to that level. Nor should they. They’re not motivated by a deep hatred. That doesn’t eliminate the ability to utilize surprising and creative tactics, it just adds additional constraints (morality, accuracy) that are not part of the BDS armamentarium. A tangential point which you have previously raised that SHOULD be part of our side’s discussion is putting a human face on the conflict– talk about children who have lost parents to terror attacks, talk about the Arab child from Gaza who was being treated in an Israeli hospital even as his government was launching missiles aimed at that very hospital!

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