Going on the Attack

A couple of items on this year’s “War on BDS” news list overlap with a theme I’ve mentioned previously: the efficacy of the “offense vs. defense” paradigm when talking about what to do about the propaganda assault on Israel.

At the fundraising event I mentioned last time, one hint of how donors were hoping to see their money spent was to turn the battle against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions into one where the other side was no longer in full control of the initiative.

Like most high-level political desires, such a hope cannot be judged until implemented as a set of concrete strategies and tactics. But a different initiative, one that’s been making news since it launched about a month ago, does provide something to grasp onto and analyze.

The project is called Canary Mission (not sure if this name is a reference to the “Canary in the Coal Mine” metaphor or if it’s just an inside joke – or the last obtainable URL), a web site (and associated social media assets) designed by folks eager to “take the fight to the enemy.” And controversy surrounding the project centers around how “taking the fight to the enemy” has been defined.

Canary Mission approach falls under the category of “naming and shaming” with the focus of the site being a long list of individuals (and a shorter list of organizations) with BDS ties, each of which is called out with extensive descriptions, bios and links that highlight each person or group’s atrocious behavior (mostly on college campuses).

I suspect that had Canary Mission focused just on groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), they would have received less pushback from the Jewish media and parts of the organized Jewish community.  But a naming-and-shaming approach that targets individuals has elicited less-than-fulsome praise by many people and organizations that are themselves staunch critics of BDS and similar anti-Israel propaganda campaigns.  And, needless to say, the BDSers are crying “McCarthyism!” and desperately trying to link any and all opponents to the now-controversial Canary site.

Years ago, another “take-the-fight-to-the-enemy” type launched a different site called “SH*T List” (or something to that effect) which included hostile bios of Jews associated with anti-Israel projects (I believe the SH stood for “Self-Hating,” although I can’t remember what the IT abbreviated).  And while the Canary Mission site is less vulgar and more well-put-together than I remember that SH*Tlist site to have been, it’s worth recalling the reaction to this previous instance of “naming-and-shaming” targeting individuals when critiquing this new effort.

Before getting to that critique, I should note up front that profiling individuals (and hinting that getting profiled persons in trouble with potential employers is a campaign goal) doesn’t sit all that well with me.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a wuss too huddled into a defensive crouch to do what needs to be done.  Or perhaps my distaste for the personalization of politics (by foes and friends) rubs me the wrong way.  And while I understand enough real history to dismiss the BDSers charges of McCarthyism, a program that can be perceived as attacking real people in hope of causing them harm (at least when it’s time for them to get a job) seems like a bad choice.

These personal feelings aside, most of the issues I have with this “going on the attack” strategy are pragmatic.  For – as just mentioned – in the months since Canary launched it has been condemned by a number of people across the political spectrum who share the organization’s goal of seeing the BDS “movement” sent back into the hole it crawled out of, causing cracks in an otherwise remarkably united anti-BDS front across Jewish and pro-Israel communities.

Meanwhile, after launching into their usual mode of outrage, the BDSers seem to have settled into wearing inclusion in the Canary Site list as a badge of honor (similar to what happened with SH*T List).

Also, as someone with a penchant for military analysis, I’m not exactly sure what the goal of this political tactic might be.  Is it to get BDS partisans so worried about their future that they withdraw from the field?  This might provide some advantage to our side, although only if a shamed person is not immediately replaced by some other as-yet-unnamed (and unshame-able) individual of equal energy and talent.

Perhaps such public outing is designed to educate the public about the vast, interlinked network of organizations behind BDS propaganda campaigns.  If that’s the case, the site certainly does the job by making these networks part of storylines associated with specific individuals.  But organizations like NGO Monitor are able to accomplish this same goal far more effectively (by exposing sponsors of BDS activity who would prefer to remain in the shadows) without turning to tactics that divide allies.

Another possibility is that these types of aggressive tactics are ends in themselves, a way to show that Israel’s supporters can throw a punch, rather than just be on the receiving end of the boycotters endless propaganda blows. This psychological factor certainly seems to be in play among many friends and allies who are more comfortable with Canary’s name-and-shame tactics then am I, and it’s one I can sympathize with.

But only to a point.  For looking out at our side’s most recent successes (notably passage of anti-BDS sanctions legislation by many states), it’s not clear that campaigns which risk casting us in a bad light are as effective as is working with people whose sympathies partly grow out of respect that we have not stooped to the opposition’s level.

As I’ve stated again and again on this site, if you’ve got militant goals (like seeing Israel destroyed), that leads you to accept certain strategies, such as waging a propaganda war designed to make that destruction seem moral and appealing. And if allies share those goals, then it is easy to create a united front around ugly and manipulative tactics like BDS.

But if you are not united behind destroying someone else (which we are not), then a strategy built around ginning up hostility, while easy to kick off, becomes impossible to sustain long enough to bite.  Which means our side is required to select different strategies and tactics, ones which may lack the kind of offensive explosiveness we have come to expect from Israel’s enemies.

But remember that the explosive choices made by Israel’s foes – including their choice to engage in a war against the Jews where no rules apply – has led to a war of all against all across the Middle East where “no holds barred” now applies to what those enemies are doing to each other.  Which points out that aggressive tactics carry risks when they become both ends and means.

While all wars must combine offensive and defensive strategies, it is vital that choices of when to attack and defend be smart and made at the right time. For every example of when the choice to engage in a pitched battle has led to victory, there’s another when an overeager desire to take the fight to the enemy has led to self destruction.

Once again, the IDF (which has successfully defended Israel’s borders while rarely initiating needless offensive military action) should serve as our role model.  For no one can doubt the aggressiveness of their defensive strategy, just as no one can doubt how the “Attack! Attack! Attack! “ strategies of Israel’s opponents have led them over a cliff.

6 thoughts on “Going on the Attack”

  1. I have not understood the objections to Canary from either side. It seems they are compiling information that is already available in news reports and on social media, in many if not most cases posted by the BDS-holes and organizations themselves.

    Are BDS-holes under the illusion that there is a complete blank slate that comes in after college, and all previous news, web, and social media presence is forgotten just in time to get that sweet button-down corporate job or find that spouse in a nice Jewish family? I should hope they are not that naive. Because if not, then what is Canary doing that they aren’t already doing to themselves?

  2. This is an issue that needs more discussion, as there are several salient points that you brought up. (disclaimer: I am not involved with Canary Mission in any way except that I follow them on Twitter. Nor do I know who is behind it, though a read through their website will give you some ideas).

    1. organizations vs individuals– as you pointed out, NGO Monitor does a fine job of investigating these groups, their funding, and their activities. That’s extremely relevant when such a group is funded by otherwise supposedly reputable organizations (ie churches, governments)that may not even be aware exactly what their “charitable” contributions are being used for. ADL has done similar tracking of such groups in the past. But that doesn’t really hold individuals accountable for their own statements and actions. And when individual activists seek positions outside the anti-Israel advocacy world, it’s a lot less likely that an employer would investigate groups on their resume with words like “peace” and “justice”. On the other hand, it’s far more common now for potential employers to at least do a Google search to see what public record their applicant has personally left online. That’s why it’s important to name them as individuals.

    2. Calling out specific individuals who have gone far over the line of behavior– posting selfies with knives and threats to kill Israelis, or even just insisting that as long as someone supports the right of Israel to simply exist “then I’m going to hate you”– is far from the rhetoric of the other side demonizing and delegitimizing an entire nation and its people. Now of course this requires a fair measure of good judgment in deciding who to include. The previous list you referred to was widely reviled because it included anyone whose politics on Israel were to the left of a very right-wing agenda. As long as Canary Mission focuses on the individuals who are leaders and high profile activists in SJP, JVP, al Awda, ISM and similar groups, then they’ll avoid that problem.

    3. Allegations of McCarthyism fall flat when these people are shamed based on their own public record. None of this is obtained by wiretap, by fraud, by informants, or any other illicit method. This is the public record these people have chosen to write themselves. Even in the legislative arena, it can be very useful when lobbying to compare who is on our side with who is on THEIR side– and looking at their own public record of statements! IN addition, it is BDS who routinely shouts down pro-Israel speakers on campus. It’s SJP which has adopted an “anti-normalization” policy.

    Now, having said all of this, it’s critical that any organization embarking on this type of campaign choose their targets carefully, only use verifiable statements, and avoid crossing over lines of both politics and civility that characterized the SH*T list. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that Canary Mission has failed in any of these areas. And forcing them to be on the defensive– for their own publicly uttered/posted statements– is long overdue.

    1. I know there was a similar exchange when I wrote something a while back that express unease with dropping the hammer down on college kids who do stupid crap on Twitter, and I definitely understand arguments highlighting that people that age are responsible for their decisions, and that all the information Canary is using to “attack” individuals is freely available on those individuals own web sites. Which is why I minimized my own sentiments in this piece (while still owning up to them) and framed the bulk of my argument around what the strategic purpose is for a campaign like this one. If it’s to diminish the effectiveness of the other (by causing them to leave the field of battle over fear of public shaming), I can sympathize with that goal (even if I question how effectively such a campaign achieves that purpose). But if it’s to improve our side’s morale by demonstrating that we are capable of throwing a punch, I’m less sympathetic – especially if it actually decreases our morale or diminishes our effectiveness by creating a flash point that divides different parts of the anti-BDS coalition.

      The passage of anti-BDS legislation in Congress (which is likely to be signed by the President) is testament to how powerful and successful this coalition can be, and I suspect that some of the sympathy we receive from non-Jews (especially in the US) derives from the fact that we (unlike the boycotters) are not jerks. And while I wouldn’t use that term to describe Canary (although the SHTList guy probably falls under that category), I think a campaign like this one has a clear downside which I’d be willing to live with if someone could demonstrate (or even explain clearly) the upside (above and beyond the psychological benefit of not perceiving ourselves to be “on the defensive”).

      1. As always, you do cut to the heart of the matter– does this serve our purpose strategically? But it’s a question that can’t be answered definitively, because you’ll never know if any potential SJP activist (who plans a career outside of anti-Israel advocacy) will be deterred from having this aspect of their record made more easily visible to prospective future employers or graduate schools. Actually, such a record might be beneficial if they seek a graduate program in anthropology, sociology, or similar fields! (I can see it the resume now: “Mentioned on Canary Mission as a prominent anti-Israel activist!”) On the other hand, even a graduate program in “social justice theory of oppression” (not sure if that is an actual thing or not) might think twice about someone who posted a selfie with a butcher knife describing his dreams of disemboweling an Israeli with it.

        It’s also interesting that just yesterday I was sent a lengthy (and error-filled) report put out by the “International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network” filled with detailed reports of how Jewish foundations and community organizations fund pro-Israel organizations. Wow, who would have thunk it! It’s their attempt to “out, name and shame”. So both sides play this game; the problem that the other side faces is that the majority of the American people don’t have a problem with groups that fund a pro-Israel agenda.

        This discussion is really the same one, in many respects, as the one our community has had for years about whether to actively protest anti-Israel events and speakers. Of course, you know what side of that argument I stand on. Even that has to be selective, if only for the sheer volume of such events in our area. There’s no such consideration needed for Canary Mission, as they can continue to add names/organizations as needed. I would not, however, discount the value of the psychological benefit to our side. You yourself have pointed out the value of being seen as being part of the winning side. And when we can give people on our side a psychological boost by allowing them to, quite literally, stand up against the haters of the other side, they’ll feel less on the defensive and, we hope, be willing to do more. We’re going to be picketing Max Blumenthal’s talk in Berkeley next week– we’re explicitly telling our people that we’re not trying to prevent anyone from going in, nor are we going to try to disrupt the talk. But we’re going to give people– both ours and theirs– the message that we’re not going to always be on the defensive. And there is value in “rallying the troops” every so often.
        Avoiding divisiveness on our side is important– which is why the folks at Canary Mission need to be responsible about who they choose to mention and how they do it. Our community rightly ignored those who promoted the SH*T list; if Canary Mission wants to avoid the same fate, they know they need to be more responsible. Thus far, I haven’t seen evidence to the contrary.

          1. of course! Not really for those going in to hear Max (our experience will be that these are already the true believers) but for anyone walking by wondering what’s going on. We’ll be sure to highlight his popularity among the neo-Nazi set (Stormfront, Rense, Veterans Today). If you’re on Twitter, you can check my timeline (@drmikeh49) for a little interaction I had with Max last night.

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