Human Nature and the Fight Against BDS

Americans — including American Jews — tend to be a practical lot. Given that, could ideas derived from Existentialist philosophy (that French import discussed in this series) be useful in our fight against the global anti-Israel propaganda campaign known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)?

To start with, the redefinition of Israel as a “light unto nations” that ended an earlier column provides a new way of thinking about the “offense vs. defense” arguments pro-Israel activists often have among ourselves. In these debates, “offense” is defined as going on the attack against Israel’s defamers, smearing them with the truth as forcefully as they smear the Jewish state with lies.

A previous analysis of strategy and tactics discussed the difficulty we have sustaining such an attack strategy long enough to bite. But when contrasted with the limitations of what currently constitutes “positive campaigning” — such as highlighting Israel’s contributions to technology, health, and the environment, or celebrating the nation’s liberality, culture, and cuisine — it’s easy to see why going negative retains its appeal.

These limitations arise from the fact that touting Israeli falafel recipes, microchips, and gay pride parades all appeal to surface-level elements of human identity (appetite, love of gadgetry, or how we want others to perceive us politically). Touting these also reflects a messaging strategy that we Jews perfected during our diaspora of appealing to the majority culture based on the practical benefits our existence confers on others.

In contrast, using the Israeli story to demonstrate the impact of authentic commitment — in Israel’s case, to a nation worth building and fighting for — allows us to offer up Zionism as the supreme example of the rewards available to individuals who chose to live a meaningful life. Such a story also allows us to build our case around powerful words like “freedom,” “meaning,” and “purpose,” while generously holding out Israel’s example as something anyone can follow by abandoning causes offering only slavery, meaninglessness, and failure.

If those last three nouns sound familiar, that’s because that’s the only thing that Israel’s enemies, in their existential inauthenticity, actually offer the world, as we saw previously. Their insistence that progressive thinkers abandon both progressive values and genuine thinking in order to join the BDS cause is actually a demand that others enslave themselves to the BDSers in the name of “right thinking.” And the shrill (often violent) response the boycotters demonstrate when actually confronted by truth or resolve should be a lesson to would-be BDS supporters — that the only thing on offer is emptiness that no amount of screaming can fill.

Returning to the example offered by Martin Luther King Jr., that started this series, remember that the confrontations he triggered were not designed to promote guilt or self-disgust among the people he was appealing to (white Americans). Rather, he took it as given that most people — even those wielding batons and water cannons against him — thought of themselves as “good.” So the situations he manufactured (violent responses to his marches, broadcast on national television) was part of a well thought-out strategy to create precisely such situations that forced people to choose between changing their perception of their own goodness (a nearly impossible task) or changing the world in ways King wanted.

Might there be some equivalent strategy we can tap into as we think through how to appeal to those who are not necessarily committed to either side of the Arab-Israeli dispute? Currently, both sides in that dispute consider the uncommitted as empty vessels who can be won over by logical arguments (reasoned or fallacious) or emotional appeals (genuine or manipulative). But what choices might we make if we begin by considering these individuals, like all individuals, as hungry for purpose, and desiring to do things aligned with their own self-perception of goodness?

The boycotters’ habit of shoving photos of bloody babies under people’s noses can generate a sense of revulsion and a temporary passion for activism, but is unlikely to tap into an individual’s deeper existential need for authentic purpose — which might explain why support for BDS arguments in fact is so transitory among the public at large. In theory, the boycotters’ incessant invocation of “human rights” and “justice” provides others affirmation of their own self-perceived virtues. But the sheer amount of truth one has to ignore in order to embrace that BDS narrative conflicts with that self-perception, leading to even more internal anxiety that no amount of denial or shouting can eliminate.

It is our mission, then, is to build into our campaigns and communication an appeal to the foundational sense of self of those we are trying to persuade. When communicating with academics, for example, we should create arguments that make support for Israel (or at least rejection of academic boycotts) fundamental to what it means to be a scholar. Similarly, Christians and progressives being courted by Israel’s opponents need to be placed into situations that require them to choose between what the BDSers are demanding of them and their own self-perception of virtue.

The virtue(s) we appeal to and the way these appeals get made will vary from audience to audience. But one thing that should never vary is the first question we ask ourselves before deciding how to convince others, namely: “How can we offer others meaning, purpose, and confirmation of their own sense of the good and authentic self by joining our cause?”

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