Archive by Author

BDS Scorecard

23 Apr

I recently read some back-of-envelope calculations that said 20 student government divestment resolutions have been have been presented at 16 campuses this year (I’m presuming the four repeats are at places where the boycotters decided to not take “No” for an answer) out of which 6 student bills have passed.  (Whoops!  Make that 21 campuses where 15 #BDSFails took place – University of New Mexico just shot divestment down by a margin of more than 3:1.)

While that was going on, the Israeli economy apparently grew by 7% – a rate of expansion that seems to demonstrate that even three months of war last summer (never mind 15 years of unrelenting boycott and divestment activity) isn’t having much of an impact on an actual country called Israel that exists in the real world (as opposed to in the fantasy dystopia of the Israel-haters).

Oh, and at a recent chance meeting with an old family friend, I learned that the Chinese Ministry of Education decided to prioritize building official links between Israel’s top eight research universities and equivalent prestigious schools in China.  Which will likely have more of an impact on the role and status of Israel academia in the world than will the ASA’s continuing to pretend that they have a boycott in place against the Jewish state.

I bring this up not to renew the debate over my “BDS is a loser” meme since I fully recognize that the point of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns is to introduce a steady drip of hostility towards the Jewish state into public consciousness, rather than cause actual harm to the economy of that state.  And the data needed to prove whether or not the real purpose of the “movement” has been successful will come not from economic but social statistics (stats that could demonstrate whether or not graduates from SJP-stronghold colleges harbor animosity towards Israel a decade after graduating).

But until such data emerges, I think it is worth asking why – in an era of unprecedented economic and academic success – Israel and its friends have chosen other factors (like the prevalence of BDS campaigns  on college campuses) as our measure of progress and security (or lack thereof).

No doubt ugly propagandizing on the very campuses many of us attended in our youth is disquieting.  But should we really be so troubled over six toothless divestment Student Senate divestment resolutions passing when Israelis are enjoying prosperity known nowhere else in the world?  Does a debate over a hummus boycott at a food coop in Ithaca really matter when the nearby Cornell University is investing millions in an ongoing relationship with Technion?

Having spent a large chunk of my life writing about and fighting the boycotters, I don’t think I can be accused of not taking the BDS propaganda campaign seriously.  But I suspect that my concern is of a different type than that of others who fear BDS being “on the march.”

For belief in BDS ascendant requires conflating a number of things going on in the world that I believe need to be kept separate, at least when thinking through what our strategy should be to keep the forces of darkness at bay.

For example, it’s easy to look at SJP running amok at the University of California as the early onset of the full-blown violent Jew-hatred currently spilling out across Europe.  But what’s happening in places like Paris is ultimately about immigration patterns (including increasing Islamification within immigrant communities), demographic change (the so-called European death-spiral) and economic stagnation which creates the foot soldiers and environment where “The New Anti-Semitism” thrives.  And such circumstances would prevail even if the BDS “movement” had never come into existence.

Similarly, Israel’s current precariousness is being caused by factors few people (including few of us) can influence, much less control.  Violent Islamist armies are conquering territory, slaughtering their opponents (and one another), and visiting untold misery on much of the Middle East for reasons having nothing to do with Israel (or America for that matter).   Branches of those armies sitting at Israel’s borders (notably Hamas in the South and Hezbollah in the North) draw sustenance from their Islamist patrons and benefit from a wealthy and powerful Arab and Islamic world ready to supply them money and arms, overlook their excesses (as long as their guns are aimed solely at Jews), and erect a diplomatic blast shield around them the moment Israel starts to shoot back.

And here in the US, we have an administration that seems more than ready to let the whole situation go from bad to worse, while furtively downgrading relations with Israel and not-so-furtively denigrating its leaders (and, by extension, its voters) in an attempt to implement “peace in our time.”

Given how much of the world is heading in directions both troubling and horrifying, is it any wonder that many are detaching themselves from that world, either by retreating into our latest App or narrowing our political vision to where we can’t see beyond the latest partisan food fight? As we navigate an era more dangerous than any time since World War II, how much easier is it to inflate the importance of local enemies we can fight (such as the BDSers, who are only too happy to have their importance inflated) versus coming to grips with all the forces of history over which we have no power?

Which may explain why I diverge from some of my allies in a seemingly slight, but actually significant way.  For BDS to me is not the local manifestation of a global Green-Red front directed against Israel and the Jews but the weak link in that alliance.  For BDS only wins when others of good will are dragged or tricked into embracing its agenda.  And despite over a decade and a half of effort, we still see very few people or organizations embracing that agenda, which is why the boycotter’s “victory list” today consists of the irrelevant (student governments), the lame and cowardly (ASA) and the aged and dying (PCUSA, Hawking).

And since BDS requires the support of people of good will to succeed, the excesses it wallows in – especially in “victory” – makes it that much harder for them to win elsewhere (as the recent string of student government defeats demonstrates).   In other words, rather than embrace the BDSers narrative that says “Even when we lose, we win!,” perhaps a better (and more accurate) narrative we should be promulgating is that “Even when they win, they lose!!!”

Reconsideration II – See You in Court?

16 Apr

As my regular reader knows, I’ve always been skeptical about turning to the law (either in the form of the courts or legislatures) in order to solve BDS-related problems.

Part of this skepticism is purely pragmatic.  After all, in the few cases where organizations were dragged into court for either implementing or not implementing a boycott or divestment program the organization that did the dragging not only lost but lost big.

True, the number of cases where BDS came before a judge is small.  In Somerville, the city was sued for not allowing divestment onto the ballot (the judge dismissed the BDSers’ suit from the bench).  In Sacramento the Israel haters sued the local food coop for not allowing a member vote on a boycott (a suit which was dismissed with prejudice).  And in the one case where anti-boycotters sued (at the Olympia Food Coop), the result was again a loss for those that initiated legal action.

Putting aside politics for a moment, from a legal perspective these cases seem to have established (or demonstrated) a precedent that says courts of law are ready to give wide latitude to civic institutions to police their own affairs.  And, if the recent decision by a court in the UK to uphold a university’s choice to cancel a conference on “Why Israel Deserved to be Destroyed” (or something along those lines) is any indication, it seems as though the deference judges show to civic groups transcends national judicial systems.

Moving back to politics, suits and government-backed punishments also tend to provoke a backlash – giving those who should suffer for their boycotting behavior the opportunity to present themselves as martyrs.  The best example of this is the American Studies Association (ASA) that took real heat as fellow academics, college presidents and much larger academic associations all lined up to condemn their anti-Israel boycott.  But once state legislators got into the act – proposing cutting off funding to schools that maintained institutional membership in ASA – suddenly the debate shifted to whether or not ASA (not the Israelis they proposed boycotting) were having their academic freedom squelched.

All that said, a panel on legal matters at the StandWithUs conference I participated in a few weeks back got me re-thinking a number of issues.  And, unlike my “BDS is a loser” theme which – despite self-questioning and discussion – I still think is important and useful, on the subject of law it’s clear that my dislike of substituting legal for political action has given me too narrow a view of legal challenges and options.

Most importantly, it’s clear that the other side has no problem “lawyering up” as they go into battle.  Many have wondered, for example, how Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) can get away with the atrocious behavior they routinely demonstrate on campus.

One answer has to do with our old friend ruthlessness.  For in a society, such as a college community, that values discourse and assumes people will resolve problems reasonably and amicably, how do you deal with an organization ready to trash the entire enterprise in order to torture and smear their political enemies?

But, as has been demonstrated at schools where administrators were roused to take action against SJP chapters that behaved particularly egregiously, once punishments were announced, in marched Lawyer’s Guild and ACLU lawyers (usually working for SJP pro bono) to threaten school leaders with legal action if they didn’t reverse their decision.  And, as anyone who has ever interacted with such leaders will tell you, avoiding bad PR and lawsuits is a top priority.  So if SJP misbehavior must be tolerated to avoid landing in court or appearing in headlines, so be it.

But, as I discovered in LA, this same dynamic works both ways.  For example, when Jewish students decided to exercise their free speech rights by protesting against Megan “Blood Bucket Challenge” Marzec at Ohio University, Ms. Marzec (President of the Student Senate) had them arrested.  And the only reason the school dropped every charge was that pro-Israel students were provided legal counsel which meant Ohio University did the right thing in order to avoid having to defend their choices in court.

This is the most obvious example of situations where our side clearly needs both legal advice and legal advocacy.  And in a world of “lawfare” where Israel’s enemies are constantly devising ways to pervert the rule of law for their own political advantage, it would be a case of political malpractice to not “lawyer up” ourselves in order to fight these battles with the right expertise on our side.

How then to distinguish when “going legal” makes good sense vs. being the wrong choice?

Like most challenging decisions, there is no right or wrong answer to this question.  But I think some things we can ask ourselves as we navigate decisions should include:

  • Is a legal or legislative option our only choice, or are we looking to judges and legislators to solve a problem that would be time consuming and difficult to tackle politically? If it’s the latter, we should express requisite annoyance, but then do the heavy lifting needed to fight a political fight, rather than take a legal shortcut that can have negative consequences if we lose (such as setting legal precedent that cannot be easily undone).
  • Is this really a legal issue? In our hyper-litigious age, every problem can be posed in terms of legal rights, and every challenge is one where legislators are eager to pander to a constituency.  But before we accept the notion that our problems are legal (rather than political) or say yes to offers to punish our enemies by friendly politicians, we should again determine if we are really dealing with a legal problem that requires a legal solution (as well as think about whether such a route might have unintended negative consequences)
  • In situations (such as those involving harassment of students on college campuses) we should ensure parity (if not overwhelming superiority) between our side and theirs regarding legal representation. As mentioned earlier, school administrators are likely to cave to whoever sends them a legal notice, and while this knowledge must be used judiciously, when we decide to take action we should do so with full force.
  • As with any strategy we pick, we need to minimize damage to “civilians.” Which means that if a legal option (or any option) stands the chance or harming people who are not directly involved in the conflict, that option should either be rejected or scrupulously analyzed with an eye towards finding less harmful alternatives, lest we end up turning real people into “mere means” towards our ends.

After thinking it through, an increased comfort level with legal tactics represents less a turnaround than an expansion of what constitutes activity needing a political or legal response.  As already mentioned, I still think suing the BDSers or the people and organizations they drag under their tent or calling upon state houses to rain punishment down on our foes leads to bad legal precedent and bad politics (even if we win).  But that does not mean other situations are not entirely appropriate for a legal response.

But at the end of the day, we are in a political battle with a foe whose resources dwarf our own.  But just as the IDF has kept much bigger armies at bay for generation through training, discipline, creative tactics and a willingness to learn from mistakes, so too should those of us defending the Jewish state must be ready to engage in political warfare, even if a legal shortcut looks appealing at any given moment.

Reconsiderations I – Is BDS Still a Loser?

10 Apr

While Israel, it’s friends and allies can be stubborn – even bullheaded – about issues (even when we’re wrong), I still give us the edge over our fantasy-laden opponents who don’t just ignore things they don’t want to hear but have constructed their own version of reality in which to dwell.

This is not to say that fanatical verve doesn’t pack a political punch.  But so does stopping to look – and relook – at reality as it is.  To draw from my most frequently used rhetorical quiver, the IDF’s ability to defeat much larger armies over and over is due less to sophisticated weaponry than to their ability to learn from past errors (strategic and tactical) when faced with an enemy that continues to make the same mistakes again and again.

I bring this up because my recent participation in the StandWithUs anti-BDS conference got me thinking about a couple of issues I’ve spent a good deal of time talking about here at Divest This over the years, and questioning whether my stance on those issues is still accurate or relevant.

The first one I’d like to publically consider is my whole shtick regarding BDS being a “loser.”  Long time readers know that this has been a theme of many a piece on this site, and characterizing BDS in such a way is an important part of the strategy I have either used or recommended to those fighting boycott and divestment activities in their communities. But few other positions have generated as many arguments between me and my allies in the anti-BDS project.

Now I could be come up with glib answers to questions regarding how I can call a “loser” a movement that is generating so much controversy on college campuses, and has even managed to knock off organizations like PCUSA after hammering on them for a decade.  Sure, it’s fun to mock the boycotters when they break into a riot or bust into tears when they lose a battle, but given that their strategy involves relentlessly refighting the same battle over and over again until they win, is “loser” still an appropriate term for the BDS “movement?”

But rather than dismiss such questions as examples of panic or falling for the boycotter’s own propaganda, it is worth giving consideration to the overarching question of whether the situation has changed since the fight against BDS began.

Keep in mind that my choice to use and reuse the “loser” term was not just an attempt to attach a label to our opponents that is very difficult for them to take off (since declaring yourself not to be a loser is only something a loser would do).  Rather, it was based on a set of facts – many of which are still highly relevant.

For example, a successful boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (like the ones that targeted South Africa, Sudan and – until recently – Iran) should involve significant numbers of people actually boycotting, divesting or sanctioning the target of that campaign and should at least be able to demonstrate the ability to deliver an increment of financial pain.

But after close to a decade-and-a-half of effort, the “successes” the boycotters keep pointing to – added all together – would barely sum to a rounding error on one month of Israel’s balance-of-trade figures.  In fact, just as Israel’s alleged “genocide” has resulted in a Palestinian population explosion, a fifteen-year program to make the Israeli economy suffer has been accompanied by an explosion in economic growth, exports from and investment in the Jewish state.

Similarly, even if you just presume BDS is a convenient tactic to get respected institutions to lend their reputation to the defamation of Israel and its supporters, consider whose reputation has been more tarnished over the last year: the American Studies Association and PCUSA that embraced the BDS agenda or the nation they formally chose to condemn?

And winning movements with serious momentum don’t continue to pass off pretend victories as real ones, or dress up their true agenda in fake outfits in order to trick people into voting for them by claiming the vote is really about something else.  In other words, the very deception that makes up so much of the BDS playbook is another sign of the “movement’s” weakness rather than strength.

All that said, I would be remiss to ignore the power BDS campaigns have to insinuate themselves into a community and generate headlines at the expense of Israel and its friends (not to mention at the expense of the insinuated organization).  And successful tactics (such as taking over student governments you failed to convince) are both clever and troubling since they are easy to replicate and generate headlines (and thus perceptions of momentum).

Still, I’ve never been convinced that the most recent incarnation of BDS which began in 2009 has ever truly generated its own momentum vs. attaching itself parasitically to the momentum of other events.  For example, BDS efforts always seem to get redoubled after a Gaza war breaks out, which is no accident since they are the propaganda adjunct of those who insist on starting and restarting those wars.  And the Red-Green alliance that has the Greens conquer territory while the Reds explain why the rest of the world has no right to stop them has become the greatest threat facing humanity since the fall of the last century’s dictatorships, with BDS such a small player in that alliance to hardly merit notice.

And let’s not forgot that claims regarding Israel’s imminent threat of isolation and official sanction only seem less the stuff of fantasy due to the appalling behavior of the current US administration which has decided to make Israel their preferred villain as the entire Middle East (and beyond) bursts into flames.  After all, a less unpredictable (and genuine, simple) “critic of Israeli policies” would have made sure the boycotters of the world understood that the US remained a bulwark against their efforts, even as they dinged Israel and its leaders over this or that disagreement.

I guess this is a long way of saying that, even though we find ourselves fighting against BDS on more fronts that before, that this still does not change my mind over the program falling into the category of “loser.”  A winning boycott or divestment program, after all, would have generated genuine results by now.  It would be able to leverage the gifts they enjoy (such as support of some of the world’s wealthiest dictatorships) to even slightly move the needle on the public’s support for the Jewish state. And it would lead, rather than follow, the rest of the well-funded, well-organized and well-staffed anti-Israel delegitimization campaign.

But BDS has done none of that.  Which means that rather than confusing mayhem with momentum, we should still consider it the weakest link in the de-legitimization chain, one we can continue to pull on by handing the BDSers their next defeat, and ignoring or dismissing their latest claimed victory as decisively as they ignore all of their massive failures.

The StandWithUs BDS Conference

3 Apr

So a bear walks into a Dunkin Donuts and says: “I’d like a cup of coffee…” and 45 seconds later… “and a chocolate cruller.”

The guy behind the register looks at him for a moment and then asks: “Why the long paws?”

That opener (which, like most gags is better spoken than written) is meant to distract you from a two-week pause in writing, one that’s especially egregious since between my last posting and today, I was able to attend one of the most important events in the last several years dealing with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”

This was the StandWithUs anti-BDS conference that was held in Los Angles weekend before last.  And now that two harrowing un-political work weeks have come and gone, I’d like to post-mortem on one of the liveliest and most enjoyable pro-Israel events I’ve ever attended.

To start with, nearly all the people I’ve been reading, corresponding with, and working alongside in BDS battle after BDS battle were either on the stage or in the audience at the SWU confab.  Contributors to this terrific book on academic boycotts, including Sam Edelman, Tammi Rossman-Bejamin, Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, Dr. Roberta Seid, and Dr. Richard Cravatts were on a panel talking about academic boycotts.  Professor Gerald Steinberg from NGO Monitor and the unstoppable investigative journalist Edwin Black followed the BDS money trail.  My old pal Dexter Van Zile headed a panel on church divestment.  And I was honored to share the stage with my friends and allies Mike Harris and Rob Jacobs from SWU to talk about community organizing against BDS.

In addition to this (partial) list of people on the stage, the audience was filled with folks I’ve known, known of, or worked with for years, including the Hillel Director who played such an important role in the recent Northeastern BDS defeat, someone I had corresponded with during a recent academic union boycott brouhaha, and fellow bloggers and activists – including students who have been successfully fighting the good fight on campus after campus.

While I’ve not gone to that many big Jewish events, impressive and articulate students telling their stories always seem to be a staple at conferences and fundraisers hosted by major Jewish organizations.  But the kids who participated at the SWU event were not just there to impress us, but to teach us how on-the-ground organization mixed with verve has beaten BDS bullying time and time again.

The student who got divestment overturned in the Davis student judiciary?  He was there, telling us his tale over breakfast.  And that girl who was arrested by the BDSer/Student Senate President behind the now infamous “Blood Bucket Challenge?”  She was there too, and spoiling to continue to take the fight to the enemy once she graduates from college.

The celebrity headlining the three day program was – surprise, surprise – Alan Dershowitz.  But having watched the famous attorney give his standard Israel talk many times over the years, it was a total treat to see him in action over the course of several days spent conversing with others who already knew the basics, allowing Alan to talk more informally and expansively about a topic we had all gathered to not just discuss but do something about.

It was in the realm of action that SWU CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein and her team created a real breakthrough event.  For while much of the conference was given over to listening to experts talking from the stage, an even larger portion of time was set aside to allow people to gather in smaller groups and discuss areas of interest (BDS on campus, BDS and the Law, etc.).

In the community-organizing panel facilitated by Mike, Rob and myself, we hunkered down with folks who had been working at ground level for years who in aggregate had much more to teach us (and each other) than did the facilitators.  Which meant that successful strategies and tactics were unearthed, articulated, and spread across a community of activists ready to be put into action.

At programs that spill out over several days, some of the most important interactions take place in the off hours.  And my favorite surprise involved post-event beers with two folks from Calgary who I had never met before, but whom I will never forget.

One was a young woman whose family had gotten beaten up during an anti-Israel rally last summer when the streets of Calgary resembled those of Paris.  Apparently, a huge Muslim immigrant community meant that when the crap hit the fan in Gaza, pro-Israel Jews were outnumbered in the streets by a factor of more than a hundred to one.  But rather than let those odds cow her, my fellow conference attendee and her kin have only become more bold, more brazen and more determined to let the world know that Jews can fight (and win).

She had traveled to the event with another remarkable fellow, a native Calgarian Métis who has not only been fighting with the BDSholes for decades (having single-handedly dismantled an Apartheid Wall placed in his way while an undergraduate), but has also used the Jewish and Israel experience to bring comfort and confidence to fellow members of his (first) nation.

I’ll confess to knowing very little about the suffering of this particular tribe at the hands of Europeans who made it a point to strip them of their heritage during the process of “civilizing” the West.  But stories of abuse and a culture and language denied certainly jibe with what I know of how natives suffered over the centuries down here in the lower 48.

But for my new-found-friend, the Jewish tale of cultural survival in the face of all odds was an inspiration he was bringing to young Cree still suffering the wounds of the past.  And the Jewish people’s resurrection of their own nation (with the associated rebirth of an ancient tongue) also meant that even those who had endured unimaginable suffering did not need to see themselves as victims of history.

Of course, others are trying to teach these same kids to embrace their victimhood and make that the centerpiece of their lives.  And while everyone has a choice on what to make of their own suffering, the contrast between Israel and the victim cultures that surround it should give pause to anyone thinking that an embrace of victimhood brings either happiness or triumph.

More than anything else, this chance meeting with my new found Canadian friends taught me how much the Jewish story – especially its most recent chapter of near death and redemption from rebirth – has to offer.

And so the fight must continue against those who are trying to not just snuff out the Jewish state, but to silence a story which contains within it the power to redeem the world (if only enough people would listen).

Northeastern Beats Back BDS

18 Mar

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.

Ground Game

14 Mar

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.