Reading Rules for Radicals from beginning to end provides important insight to those trying to better understand the mindset of those advocating for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel.
Starting with the famous (or infamous) “Rule #12” which specifies to “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it,” what better way to describe the BDSers targeting of Israel, personalizing the conflict through pathos-based argumentation (usually featuring context-free photos of dead children) designed to short-circuit reason, and creating a polarized world of evil Jews (whoops! I mean “Zionists”) and innocent Palestinians that allows no room for context, history or anything resembling a shade of gray.
The boycotters’ inability to accept any information in conflict with their Manichean world view (and willingness to shout anyone presenting alternative information off the stage) also fits nicely into the context of “freezing” a target since, as far as they are concerned, nothing must be allowed to intrude on the characterization of the enemy they have frozen in their own minds and so desperately want to freeze in everyone else’s.
But other rules (and other sections of the book) that talk about activism as a form of community empowerment also explain why those involved with BDS campaigns are so willing to engage in activities that seem so counter-productive (if not bizarre).
Why put so many resources into getting toothless divestment resolutions forced through student councils when everyone knows they are meaningless? Why dedicate time and effort into un-noticed boycott protests in front of tiny retailers (while ignoring that the Israeli brands you are boycotting are going from strength to strength in the world market)? Why come up with irrational rationales to explain how everything – including actions by your opponents that lead to your defeat – amount to a illustrations of your effectiveness (if not disguised forms of victory)? Because doing so helps create the feeling of empowerment within a community, specifically the community of BDS activists.
But think for a moment how much the BDS implementation of Rules for Radicals diverges from what Saul Alinsky meant by community empowerment. For even if you don’t have a high opinion about his goals and methods (and, as you can probably tell, my opinions are mixed), when Alinsky was trying to organize a community to fight on its own behalf, any success he achieved derived from placing the knowledge and needs of that community at the center of his work. So when he was trying to create a common front among local citizens, church and labor groups, for example, “never go outside the experience of your people” was a call to follow the lead of this church or that community group with the ultimate goal of empowering others to lead themselves.
In contrast, for the BDS “movement” a church, food coop, union, minority organization student or municipal government – far from taking center stage – doesn’t actually exist, except as a “mere means” to be used to achieve the BDSers desired ends.
To take one example, if the Presbyterians vote in divestment later this month, expect to see a replay of what happened ten years ago when the BDS groups who pushed that vote onto the church immediately moved on to their next target, leaving PCUSA behind to deal with the wreckage that reckless decision created.
That wreckage included a decade-long battle that depleted church ranks, strained relations between church leaders and members, condemnations raining down on PCUSA from every corner of the country, and a near severing of interfaith relations between Jews and Presbyterians. Every one of those predictable results left the church less able to fulfill its spiritual mission, less able to support broader social causes (which it had once done in partnership with the very synagogues it spent the last decade alienating) and less able to see to its own significant needs during an era of crisis within the organization. In short, the BDSers were able to empower themselves, but only by at the expense of a religious community who were never more than the means to the boycotters ends.
Actually, the divergence between Alinskian and BDS “community organizing” is much worse than what I just described. For the boycotters actually possess the intelligence and intuition required to understand the strengths and weaknesses of whichever organization they target. But rather than help them build on those strengths, they instead take advantage of those weaknesses in order to get others to do their bidding.
Pulling out another familiar example, most food coops have relatively light governing structures since they are built around the assumption that everyone participating in such an enterprise does so in order to cooperate with other members of the community on matters related to healthy and affordable food. But while normal people will put aside political differences unrelated to that mission when they participate in such a cooperative enterprise, the BDSers instead see a lack of rules as a welcome mat that allows them to drag their boycott campaigns into the organization no matter what the cost to others. And their ability to ape the language of human rights and progressive values (coupled with their insistence that anyone subscribing to those values must do as they say) allows them to prey on the good nature of any progressive community through campaigns comprising little more than moral blackmail.
And never lose sight of the fact that the mission the BDS movement is ready to sacrifice all these communities to achieve is built around spreading a lie (that Israel is the inheritor to Apartheid South Africa) and then freeze that falsehood into place.
Now some have criticized Alinsky’s Community Organizing principles as only being effective when working in support of causes that have already reached societal consensus (like labor rights in the 40s or civil rights in the 70s). So, perhaps the BDS application of Rules for Radicals to the cause of creating a new consensus built around a lie is doomed from the start. But that does not seem to prevent the BDSers from turning the principles of Community Organization on their head by wreaking havoc on (and thus disempowering) other communities in order to prop up their own fantasies of power and effectiveness.
It’s tempting to let Alinsky off the hook and claim everything described above is a corruption of his principles (similar to the way in which Marx is often separated from the crimes committed in his name). But such forgiveness ignores the mean-vs-ends issue I talked about last time. For when you create a philosophy that says anything is allowed if you believe your cause to be just, what is to prevent any fanatic from doing anything necessary (including harming innocents) to achieve what they perceive to be as glorious ends? And if you tie that “means don’t matter” argument to a set of powerful political techniques, you can’t just walk away from the results when other people use those techniques in support of a militant cause which destroys not just communities but the meaning of words like “human rights” and “justice” in the process.
So with that in mind, I’d like to end this week’s series tomorrow with a reflection on whether there is anything good that can be extracted (or salvaged) from a set of Rules for Radicals that was so easily corrupted to serve an unjust cause.