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.