Somerville Divestment Revisited – Strategy

This longish piece ends (or really capstones) this month-long summer series on Somerville with a set of strategic and tactical lessons that I’ve tried to implement when possible over the last ten years of fighting against BDS.  As Israel’s supports face one of our most challenging years yet, I hope it provides some useful thoughts for everyone else in this fight.

There is not much to be learned about political dynamics by reading communications put out by divestment advocates after each of their numerous defeats.  For, according to their analysis, time and time again, it turns out that setbacks are always the result of unrelenting pressure from the all-powerful, well-funded (albeit largely ill-defined) “Zionist Lobby.”

According to SDP, this “lobby” (or put more precisely “The Lobby”) strong-armed Somerville’s aldermen to reverse their position on the original divestment resolution in 2004.  In 2005, Somerville’s mayor and city officials (apparently following the dictates of “The Lobby”) thwarted the will of the people by refusing to allow divestment onto the citywide ballot (a decision upheld by a district court judge who one SDP member decried as being “bought off” by the you-know-whos).

In 2006, the year in which SDP finally got the ballot fight it craved, rejection by the voters was yet another example of co-opted “mainstream politicians” confusing the masses from voting in the way SDP claims was their only moral choice.  Outside of the amusing addition of a certain sinister Jewish millionaire to their storyline [Note: A story for another time], the tale remains the same: an all-powerful, well-organized, fully coordinated Jewish community/lobby united to defeat the heroic efforts of the SDP.

Would that this were remotely accurate.  But, in truth, each of the three Somerville campaigns represented different political dynamics, dynamics based on differing amounts of time, resources and organizational will.

In 2004, divestment advocates succeeded in catching the citizens of Somerville and the wider Boston-area Jewish community completely by surprise.  By the time their activities became public, they had nearly gotten the city’s aldermen to pass a resolution urging divestment from the Jewish state.  And once word got out, there was little more than a month to do anything about it.

Within this very tight timeframe, individuals and groups did what they could.  I started this Web site, Somerville citizens met with their own aldermen and communicated with others via mail (both snail and e-).   Jewish organizations in the area put out calls to members to attend aldermen’s hearings (which they did, although never in larger numbers than divestment supporters).  While it would be nice to think that our efforts were the determining factor in the city’s ultimate rejection of divestment, in truth the jig was up for SDP the minute officials realized that City Hall had become the latest front in the Arab-Israel conflict.  Once the aldermen understood that they had been misled on the nature of this conflict and the significance of their vote, these leaders rejected divestment and have been the sharpest critics of SDP ever since.

In 2005, the year SDP (for all intents and purposes) had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of a group called One Palestine, their plans to get divestment onto the citywide ballot were known well in advance.  To meet this challenge, Somerville veterans from the 2004 battle joined with members from a variety of community groups to launch an organized “decline-to-sign” campaign to educate Somerville citizens in hope that they would not sign the petition required to give SDP access to the November 2005 ballot.

Was that campaign successful?  We will never know for sure.  SDP claimed to have gotten more than the 4200 signatures required to get onto the ballot (which, if true, means we failed), yet no one has ever seen these documents or verified that they are legitimate (which means we might have succeeded).   For the sake of argument, and putting aside the dubiousness of their claims (see 4400), if our campaign was not successful, that means SDP was denied access to the ballot purely because of the political incompetence of its leadership which from the start of their 2005 campaign refused to play by the rules (and, as the courts verified, to obey the law).

This latest election [Note: In 2006] was the first time that either side in this debate faced the voters, requiring each of us to field a formal political campaign.  Unlike 2004, we were not taken by surprise.  But unlike 2005, we did not have six months to organize a counter-effort.  In fact, there was a serious debate as to whether we should engage divestment/right of return advocates this year, or simply ignore them.  It was only after a last-minute successful push to get volunteers to the polling places on Primary Day that we decided to use the next six weeks to organize a proper campaign urging a No vote on questions #5 and #6.

This relatively tight timeframe actually worked to our advantage.  For within the confines of six weeks, there was only time to get a specific set of tasks accomplished, with little time left over to create an organizational infrastructure or define a hierarchy of decision-makers.  Finite time and resources required us to prioritize: create strategies that involved doing some things and not others.  Most notably, the task-based nature of the campaign meant that everyone involved with the project performed tasks that they were uniquely qualified to accomplish.  My writing ability was put to the task of developing campaign materials.  People who lived in the area (and were comfortable with public politicking) took care of visibility before Election Day.  Organizations with political contacts got our message out to candidates and to critical audiences inside Somerville.  Political and religious groups (as well as individuals) put out the call for Election Day volunteers, a call which gave us over 100 people to send to polling places throughout the day.

In short, the campaign was not run by an organization but rather functioned as a team.  This is an important distinction that I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks since this strategy proved to be so effective on Election Day.

If you will indulge an analogy: in my work life, I run a small IT business, part of a larger organization providing services to institutions such as corporations and schools.  Historically, large institutions looking for major IT solutions would turn to a “white knight” company or consulting group such as IBM or Accenture to solve a major business problem or implement a complex technology system.

In recent years, however, these same clients are asking vendors (such as us) to work in partnership with other companies (sometimes even competitors) to create a solution that incorporates the best features or capabilities of each company’s product or service.  This project-based teaming has been discussed in industry literature for over a decade, but in the last few years it has become part of everyday life, particularly for those in the technology biz.  Where once market dominance was a sign of business health, today the ability to partner and integrate is defining industry leadership.

So what the hell does that have to do with the price of Guinness Stout in Somerville?

Within this business analogy, the central unit is not the organization (or company), but the project-based team.  Never mind that I might be slitting my competitors throat in the proposal going out on Tuesday.  On Monday, this same competitor is my partner and we are both contributing our best work for the sake of a successful project for a common client.

If you look at the world of Jewish political and social activism, there is an alphabet soup of major organizations: CJP, JCRC, ADL, JCPA, AIPAC and many others who have historically represented the institutional leadership of the Jewish community, supporting the diverse needs of the Jewish people in the US and beyond.  At the same time, a large number of new organizations have sprung up over the last decade (CAMERA, David Project, StandWithUs, JCUI, etc.).  These smaller groups are often focused on specific issues (such as pro-Israel activism) and have been a reaction to (1) the world situation vis-à-vis Israel hatred, terrorism and anti-Semitism and (2) a perception that the mainstream “alphabet soup” Jewish organizations have missions too broad to allow them to focus on key issues of concern.

To a certain extent, the emergence of smaller organizations with highly focused missions parallels changes in the last century’s economy when the number of small businesses exploded, providing innovation and energy to industries and ultimately changing the dynamics of much large business entities as well as the economy generally.  Naturally, there is a rivalry (often even antagonism) between bigger, well-funded institutions with broad missions (including the mission to sustain themselves) and more flexible, action-oriented organizations that can devote a majority of energy to activism on what they consider to be the most important issues of the day.

While many (possibly most) people see this rivalry as unchanging and unchangeable, a different way of approaching this challenge was recently demonstrated in Somerville.   Rather than asking any one institution to take the reigns of the campaign, instead the aforementioned team emerged consisting of local veterans from previous divestment campaigns and activisms from a variety of groups.  Never mind that in other contexts these individuals or groups might be bitterly divided politically and even religiously.  Never mind that some of the institutions involved with the campaign may compete for the same donor dollars.  For the purposes of winning the election in Somerville, each of us focused on what our particular skill set allows us to contribute to the team effort.  There was no need for us to agree on this aspect of the Middle East peace process or that aspect of American partisan politics.  We were not creating a permanent organization that would eventually have bylaws and positions on critical issues that would have to be carefully worded and agreed to.  Rather, we had a goal (victory in a local election), a timeframe (six weeks), specific (and limited) human and financial resources and a willingness to focus exclusively on the tasks at hand, not on the political identity of the person standing next to us at the polling place.

Now it may be that Somerville was a unique situation: a political campaign with a specific beginning, middle and end whose dynamic does not lend itself to replication in other political circumstances.  That said, even issues that seem daunting (like the international divestment movement), challenges that seem so large that they can only be assigned to a major institution can frequently be broken into smaller pieces, each manageable by a team.

Using divestment as a case in point, a team (populated both individuals and members of small and large organizations) proved very effective in derailing divest-from-Israel campaigns in US municipalities.  Within the mainline Protestant churches, major Jewish institutions played an important role in communicating to the Presbyterians and others the displeasure of the Jewish community with divestment decisions they had taken in recent years.  However, the actual work of overturning these measures was the effort of small teams, most notably groups of Presbyterians united to take back their church from divestment forces.  The accumulated, uncoordinated work of these many teams has led to the effective death of divestment, at least in the US, to the point where even the Somerville Divestment Project seemed afraid to use the “d-word” during their campaign for fear of being tainted by a loser issue.

I wish I could say how this team dynamic can be packaged and utilized in this or that political situation.  In truth, it probably can’t be used in everywhere and all the time.  There will be occasions when the influence of a major institution is called for, just as there will be times when a nimble, activist group needs to take to the streets to get something accomplished.  But in those situations where it one longs for the resources and reach of “the majors” combined with the flexibility and speed of smaller more focused organizations (or individuals), it would be wonderful to see the dynamic of the goal-oriented team replace rivalry and conflict as a central dynamic in Jewish politics.

Despite what our detractors think and say, the Jewish community has too few resources to waste any part of them: human, financial and otherwise, in intramural conflicts that could at least be temporarily put aside to accomplish a focused goal.  The team does not require us to agree.  It does not require us to love each other or even like each other (although members of successful goal-oriented teams often show better social dynamics than people organized around specific political beliefs or principles).  It just requires us to temporarily put what each of us does best into a common pot, and put aside any other matters just long enough to win.

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