Ground Game

Years ago, I remember hearing a radio talk-show host chastise someone who had called to complain about a local political issue.

The advice the host gave him was that if the caller wanted to see things go his way, all he had to do was run for office and dedicate the time and patience needed to visit and shake hands with as many people in the constituency as possible.

For in an age when few people even bother running for office (as any of us who filled out a ballot consisting mostly of people running unopposed can testify), such retail politics is unstoppable.  In fact, even in national politics (at least at the Congressional level) those ready to wear out shoes and shake hands routinely beat opponents with more money, name recognition and support from the political establishment.

In the context of the fight against BDS, this phenomenon works itself out in the context of victory frequently going to those with the best “ground game,” (i.e., those who have the highest number of competent people working locally).

Since student-government votes on college campuses seem to be the BDS flavor of the year, we can look at this ground-game phenomenon in the context of what is going on at colleges and universities in the 2014-15 academic year.  For if you look at the schools where SJP has won a student-council vote or has been able to pursue its aggressive propaganda strategy with limited opposition, these are mostly at places where the opposition’s ground-game is better than our side’s.

Gauging the relative political strength of each side is often distorted by the fact that our victories tend to be quiet ones (student government votes that don’t take place or anti-Israel events that don’t happen because anti-Israel groups are weak, pro-Israel groups are strong, or both).  But even if our side doesn’t fire off press releases announcing some BDS plan or event that was thwarted or never happened, political power tends to accrue to those with the best soldiers deployed in the field.

This observation needs to be filtered through an understanding that both sides have strengths (and weaknesses) derived from their political stances and ideology.  The BDSers power, for example, derives from their ruthlessness, their readiness to say and do anything (including lie, infiltrate and co-opt other people’s organizations and agendas) to achieve their ends, and their indifference to the suffering they cause others.  But while that behavior can pack a political punch, the fanaticism needed to behave in such a way also contributes to the excesses and organizational fragility that has contributed to many a BDS defeat.

Similarly, our side benefits from the need to only tell the truth about Israel and the Middle East (which frees us from the psychological and cognitive burden of having to remember what we just told someone else), as well as from the fact that we tap into general American support for the Jewish state that has remains high, despite decades of anti-Israel propaganda.  At the same time, our inability to match the ruthlessness of our foes (which would involve spending decades smearing those with whom we ultimately want to live in peace while trashing our own communities in the process) limits our ability to “turn the tables” on our opponents.

But putting aside the obvious ethical divide between each side’s sources of strength, I think it’s safe to say that power-wise, ideology is a wash. Which means that success and failure derives from who is able to recruit skilled people and put them to work getting their program implemented in a particular setting (whether that’s a college campus, a church, a food coop or some other BDS target).  In fact, having covered (and been involved with) BDS activity since 2004, I can make the empirical observation that our victories (and defeats) have always been the result of the talent and passion of those on the ground.

Getting back to college campuses, what this means in practical terms is that we have been playing (and will continue to play) a numbers game.  For students come and go on any given campus, which means that the level of pro- or anti-Israel activity is often determined by whether one talented leader (on either side) just graduated, is on exchange for a year, or is overwhelmed with schoolwork when Israel Apartheid Week/Month rolls around.

So for all those parents calling a school or Jewish community organization to complain when they read in the paper about what’s been going on at UCLA (for example), here’s some advice: teach your kids while they’re in high school (or even before) what the Middle East is really like, and either train them yourself or tap into other people who can train them how to organize, write and speak politically so it won’t take them until Junior Year to understand what is going on and contribute (or even lead) the good fight.

And for activists (including machers) incensed about the latest BDS campus outrage and want to do something about it, here’s something you can do: support those organizations that are making an effort to train and support students at ground level.

This last suggestion is often a difficult one to implement.  For just as many political partisans prefer to organize protests rather than run for office (which would require dealing with the details and compromises of representational government), and many educational reformers would prefer to come up with tools to support and evaluate teachers and students (rather than deal with either group directly), many a pro-Israel adult prefers to tell students what they are doing wrong (or provide their own resources such as web sites, curricula and fliers) versus getting involved with the messiness of having to deal with real students in real-world and diverse campus environments.

That last criticism comes from someone who is probably guiltier than anyone else of preferring to write long-winded articles (like this one) that few will read vs. jumping into the nitty-gritty of understanding the specific needs of specific communities unless forced to (by being invited to help a group fighting a divestment or boycott vote, for example).  But while I can justify that choice based on a perceived need to come up with a vocabulary and intellectual framework to deal with the BDS threat, I would never mistake the effort put into writing blog entries with the much harder work of organizing and supporting real live people who are doing most of the work of keeping BDS at bay.

As a final thought, we also need to keep in mind that (1) we are involved with a war in which BDS is simply the propaganda arm of the much wider War Against the Jews that has gone on for nearly a century; and that (2) this is a long war in which there will be battlefield wins and losses.  And the worst thing you can do in such a situation is to treat any particular loss (such as this or that student council vote that doesn’t go our way) as the beginning of the end, rather than just one battle among thousands we all have to fight until such time that Israel’s enemies decide there’s something better to live and die for than the demise of the Jewish state.

 

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