Given that the topic I and two top-notch StandWithUs activists will be covering at next week’s anti-BDS conference in LA is called “Organizing the Community to Fight BDS” (or something along those lines); I wanted to highlight an example from my neighborhood that shows just what an effective ground game looks like.
Last night, the Student Government Association (SGA) at Northeastern University in Boston voted down a divestment resolution proposed by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, with the final tally including 9 for and 25 against (with fourteen abstentions).
This scale of this victory didn’t come from nothing, but was rather a case study of pro-Israel students doing everything right – especially with regard to following the rules that have led to virtually every success I’ve seen in the fight against BDS over the last 14 years.
To set the stage, SJP actually has a substantial presence at Northeastern which allows them to engage in numerous agitprop campaigns as well as muster the organizational oomph needed to put a divestment resolution in front of student government. At the same time, their scale has given them the people power needed to make flesh some pretty nasty stuff, including their move last year to stuff eviction notices under fellow student’s doors in a particularly Jewish dorm (a stunt which got their organization temporarily suspended).
When that suspension was reversed (in no small part due to legal threats made by attorneys from the Lawyer’s Guild – a group that primary exists today to serve as consiglieres to the BDS movement), the organization may have deluded itself into thinking the student body was now on their side when they chose to bring a divestment referendum petition to last-night’s SGA meeting. But while lawyers might be able to make conflict-adverse administrators stand down, they can’t eliminate the (accurate) impression on campus that SJP is a bunch of fanatical jerks.
Set against this mixed bag of SJP strengths and weaknesses were students making up Northeastern’s school’s pro-Israel community, including the campus’ Huskies for Israel organization which helped pull together a Students for a United Northeastern campaign to counter SJP’s divestment push.
Now on this particular campus, the Hillel director is top notch – both in her support for Israel, her political talents, and – most importantly – her trust in students doing the ground-level work of pro-Israel activism on campus. And given the list of thank you’s in Hillel’s post-victory announcement linked above, those students clearly pulled in expertise as they needed it, while never losing sight of the fact that it was their responsibility to determine what would work and what wouldn’t in their unique campus environment.
I bring this up not just to congratulate everyone involved with this successful struggle (although they deserve all the congratulations you can send them), but to highlight the elements of what constitutes a successful ground game, with some thoughts about the choices we have when one or more of those elements is missing.
For example, I’m familiar with many instances where people wrestling with a BDS-related issue have turned to local Jewish community organizations or (in the case of college campuses) the school’s Hillel, only to find limited support for their efforts.
There are many reasons why this might be so. Most obviously, in many parts of the country Jewish human capital is pretty thin on the ground. And even when there are community or campus groups, their resources or their skill and appetite for confrontational politics might be limited (as I discovered in Somerville a decade ago when the only synagogue in town decided to sit out the first issue in a hundred years that required Jewish solidarity).
In some instances, there exists bad blood between local activists and mainstream Jewish organizations (fights over J Street seem to be a source for many of these conflicts – a fight I want to note, but not dwell on in a piece dedicated to “how-to”). Especially since the point I’m trying to illustrate is what to do when you are not as fortunate as were the kids at Northeastern who had both strong student leadership and a wider Jewish community that had their back.
One choice (the least effective, in my opinion) would be for local activists to try to shame a mainstream Jewish organization into supporting their cause. The reason this rarely works is that (1) an organization choosing to sit out a conflict probably doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to make that big a difference anyway; (2) any ally who would prefer not to be by your side is going to sap energy from your efforts; and (3) such shaming tends to create more bad blood, increasing vs. decreasing community tension (especially in the case of a loss, which often leads to finger-pointing).
The second best option when others you hoped would take the lead can’t or won’t do so is for local activists to step into the leadership role themselves. Time and time again: on campuses, at food-coops, within churches and cities (including Somerville) it was local people, many of whom had never participated in pro-Israel activism in their lives, who rose to the occasion, organized the community, and handed the BDSers their latest humiliating defeat.
The third (and my favorite) alternative, however, is when local activists and mainstream organizations that might be bitterly divided over political issues (J Street, or even the Middle East conflict generally) put aside those differences to work together towards a common goal (the defeat of BDS) with an understanding that such solidarity did not require them to agree on all things, or even continue to work together in coalition after the battle was done.
This is the situation I wrote about at the end of the three-year Somerville divestment saga, a series of campaigns that involved people who usually spend all their waking hours bad-mouthing one another to put aside mutual hostility in order to staple signs onto pieces of wood, stand in front of polling places, hand out literature, and perform other concrete, vital tasks that left no time for political bickering.
Such a project-oriented approach lets people who ultimately care about Israel (even if they have different ways of expressing that care) to do some practical good (kick the BDSers’ butts) by fighting side-by-side. And you’d be surprised how hard it is to trash someone on your blog a week after you’ve just fought (and won) the good fight alongside them.
Now we are involved with a long war and do not have the people or resources to enter every fight with the army we want, or even to win every battle. But given that BDS is getting to the middle of its second decade with little more than a handful of meaningless student council resolutions under its belt, I’m guessing that the chemistry described above exists in enough places to be making the difference.