Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, Reactionary, Totalitarian Palestine

It dawned on me that all of Israel’s friends and defenders have been wasting our time over the last several decades.

Instead of writing thoughtful essays that provide facts and perspectives while making the case for the Jewish state, or organizing talks, educational programs or other campaigns that present arguments in favor of our cause or against our foes, we could all have spent that time doing something much simpler, so simple that it requires almost no thought.

So what could we have been doing, rather than bombarding the world with longwinded explanations based on facts and logic?

The answer is simplicity itself, and so easy to implement.  For all it would involve would be to never use the term Palestine or Palestinian without first prefixing it with the string of pejoratives titling this piece. 

We would not have to be mindless robots uttering the same phrase over and over again.  Certainly whenever we find ourselves in debate, we would make sure the words “racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, totalitarian” precede the use of any reference to Palestine, Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas (and maybe their friends and allies throughout the Middle East).  But we could get creative with the ways we slip those words into the discussion over and over and over again.  For instance:

Comparative: Yes, there is a difference between the racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, totalitarian, corrupt Palestinian authority and the racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, totalitarian, religious fanatics in Hamas.  But the two have important things in common: they’re both racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary totalitarians.

Generous:  You are free to support all the racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, totalitarian political movements you like, including the racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, totalitarian Palestinian movement.  Just don’t also demand to be considered progressive, much less tell us you get to decide who is anti-racist and who isn’t.

Voltairian: I will fight to the death for your right to scream your support for the racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, totalitarian Palestinian movement, and any other racists, sexists, homophobes, reactionaries and totalitarians you like.  That is your right, just as it is my right to point out your choice to give racism, sexism, homophobia, and reactionary totalitarians your full-throated support.

Nostalgic: In my era, progressive politics meant being against racism, sexism, homophobia, reaction and totalitarianism, so forgive me if I choose to cling to those principles and fight against the evils you have decided to embrace. 

And on and on (so long as on and on means fusing our five mantras to any mention of Israel’s enemies and their supporters).

Needless to say, actual political discourse, compromise or the search for peace would have to be abandoned if this were our strategy.  For the purpose of making the name “Palestinian” synonymous with the worst sins of modernity is to reduce others to objects of disgust and loathing, with no concern over the consequences.

This is, in fact, the strategy Israel’s enemies have embraced for decades with their “Israel = Apartheid” smear, one they unleash in every discussion, regardless of the topic under consideration.  So the strategy outlined above is the most straightforward way to fight fire with fire.

Now we would have to be willing to keep this up for not just a few weeks or months, but for years and decades and we would have to put great effort into getting others to follow our lead, or condemn them for their own refusal to fight against racism, sexism, etc.  In short, we would have to be just as (if not more) ready and willing to poison politics in order to try to get our rivals to be perceived as utterly beyond the moral pale.

If both sides started playing the same game, victory would go to those who could shout the loudest, ignore critics more thoroughly, and be ready to shut down voices not willing to adhere to our vocabulary (by any means necessary).

Perhaps it is our general wussiness that keeps us on the course of dialog, discussion, argument, persuasion and compromise, rather than jumping into the sewer with those who have made it their life’s work to see the world’s one Jewish state dismantled.  Although given the state of Israel and the Jewish world – vulnerable though it might be – versus the hell on earth Israel’s enemies have constructed for themselves, perhaps hanging on to our humanity is a wise strategic, as well as a moral choice.

Holding the Bag

Continuing some end-of-year catching up…

One of the benefits of being an on-campus Israel hater is that you never have the pay the price for the damage you cause.

Take the case of Williams College which earlier this year had to settle a complaint by the Department of Education that it had discriminated against pro-Israel Jewish students on campus.  This complaint did not arise due to anything the college or its administration had done.  Rather, it was the result of irresponsible (and all too typical) behavior of students.

Earlier this year, a group of Williams students organized a new pro-Israel group called Williams Initiative for Israel (WiFi).  As with any new group on campus, the organization was required to follow a set of procedures for becoming a recognized campus club that could receive funding from the elected student government.  Those procedures were straightforward, and WiFi followed them to the letter.  But still they were rejected.

Why?  Because anti-Israel students who dominated the student council decided that their political positions – i.e., the legitimate opinions they wanted to advocate for – were inadmissible on campus.  So after a debate in which “Israel-is-always-wrong” proponents not involved with student government were given the floor to rail against the Jewish state and its supporters, the council rejected Wifi’s request 13-8.

Breaking with even more rules they were elected to live by and enforce, the council did all they could to avoid taking personal responsibility for their votes, not livestreaming the council meeting (which would otherwise be normal procedure) or including names of speakers on a transcript.  Given the contents of that transcript, which revealed staggering levels of ignorance and bigotry, one can understand why some students did not want to take responsibility for what they had said and done. 

That responsibility fell to the grownups on campus, specifically the president of the college who immediately condemned the vote and worked out a procedure whereby WiFi would receive official recognition, despite the student council vote.  Some students protested the president’s move, but to her credit she held fast to the principles the school she led was built upon.

This did not prevent a discrimination complaint being lodged with the Department of Education which took up the case and proceeded to investigate the charges.

Note that it was not the students who had acted in such an irresponsible and discriminatory way that had to navigate government investigators in order to avoid the whole situation being referred to the Department of Justice as a violation of federal law.  Rather, it was (once again) someone else who had to pay the price (in this case, the adults who led the college.

This is typical BDS behavior: causing mayhem in one community after another and leaving it to others to clean up the mess.  In theory, the student council could have changed the rules under which they operated in order to allow discrimination based on political opinion.  Such a move would likely have faced procedural and administrative hurdles, and would have been widely controversial (and may have failed).  But at least it would have represented an act of honesty on the part of student representatives who decided their real constituency was the BDS movement.

It is likely no accident that the whole matter was settled once summer began and the students who demanded the right to shred the rules they were elected to live by in order to discriminate against fellow students who did not share their political opinions were safely off campus.

As in many, many other situations where the BDSers ask an institution to do their dirty work, once consequences rain down on the institution that has done its bidding, the boycotters have already moved on to their next target, leaving it to others to deal with the wreckage.

Let’s hope this is a lesson for the next organization considering inviting the BDS vampire through the front door.    

The Death of Simone Burns

 “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

While the final words of John Donne’s seventeenth-century poem are more well-known than the first,  the complete quote captures my response to news of the suicide death of Simone Burns, the Irish anti-Israel activist who was caught on video in 2018 screaming racial taunts at the crew of an Air India flight that refused to serve her more alcohol.

Although I made a brief comment about the incident in this piece about BDSers behaving badly, that was the extent of the time-of-day dedicated to the story (although I will admit she popped into my head whenever I contemplated what boycotters would sound like if they generally let their masks slip).

Apparently Burns was arrested after her tirade and sentenced to six months in prison.  During her time behind bars, the video of her crazy behavior went viral, turning her into a punchline for strangers, an embarrassment to allies, and a stand-in for everything wrong with those who pretend their anti-Israel animus is actually a crusade for human rights.

Since the soul of other living beings is ultimately inaccessible to outsiders, there is no telling if Burns took her life out of guilt over her misbehavior, embarrassment at having her bigotry communicated across the planet, abandonment of former friends and allies, hate-Tweets from ideological enemies, pain from long-term skin cancer treatments, depression, alcoholism or (most likely) some combination of the above.

In retrospect, what came off originally as the BDS mindset taken to its logical extreme now seems like the ravings of a staggeringly lost soul, someone who – like all of us – desperately wanted her life to mean something.  The fact that she found that meaning in the objectification and negation of a people, then found a community ready to celebrate her “bravery” in doing so, are two early steps that likely led to her final fate.

Burns’ fervency in promoting the anti-Israel cause can be seen in the energy she devoted to it professionally, as well as her demands that complete strangers on an airplane give her the respect she clearly felt she deserved.  Yes, alcohol (and likely other factors) contributed to her Air India breakdown which ultimately led to her demise, but I wonder if all of this tragedy could have been avoided had she not fallen into a community built on turning an entire people (Israelis – although just the Jewish ones) into the kind of one-dimensional caricatures that Burns saw herself become on social media. 

As far as I can tell, Burns became a non-person among “friends” after that Air India video became a global phenomenon, although it sounds like there has been some effort to blame critics (especially the more irrational and threatening among them) for tormenting her into the grave. 

Personally, this rational critic feels more sadness and regret than contempt (much less joy) over the news that a political opponent chose to end her life.  Perhaps this is a sign of weakness, although the disastrous track record of those who celebrate the demise of opponents (as well as recruit the mentally disturbed to their cause) gives practical value to the moral choice of not treating anyone (even someone who hates you) as a thing.

The rise and (likely) fall of Cory Booker

While I have occasionally critiqued specific people and policies connected to a political party or wing of the political spectrum, I’ve made it a point to try to illuminate what’s behind the Left-Right divide on Israel, rather than contribute to it. 

With that as backdrop, the following critique of someone running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States should not be seen as an endorsement of anyone else in that race, nor support (or condemnation) of those who don’t have a (D) after their name.

But the rise and (likely) fall of US Senator Cory Booker should be a cautionary tale for those who think they can betray their principles, then “pivot” back to integrity after the damage has been done.

Booker has been on my radar ever since I attended my first AIPAC event where the young and rising political star gave what was possibly the most powerful and inspiring speech on Israel I ever heard. His talk drew from his experience interacting with the Chabad community while he was a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, notably how his relationship with their Rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, helped him appreciate both Judaism and the centrality of Israeli to Jewish life.

Since then I’ve kept track of Booker’s rise of the cursus honorum, hoping for the opportunity to vote for the man I saw all those years ago for President.  Unfortunately, now that the chance to do so has arrived, the person I was so impressed with is no longer there.

I suspect that the turning point for Booker came when he had the opportunity to vote against President Obama’s Iran deal, a vote that might have eventually earned him a Profiles in Courage award, but which would have cost him support of a popular president and the enmity of the most powerful people in his party at a time when a presidential run was clearly in his future.  Sadly, Booker took the expedient route and voted for something he probably knew was not right.  Even more sadly, in justifying that vote, had had to justify moving away from all he said – and I suspect believed – as a younger, wiser man.

Given the dynamics of the current presidential race, where dozens of candidates have to go to extreme measures to stand out from the crowd, Booker seems to be playing the game of saying the right things to the Jewish community, while acting against Israel’s interests (by, among other things, voting against federal anti-BDS legislation) and justifying those choices with stale talking points I can’t believe he really buys. 

Booker’s path has cost him the support (although not the friendship) of his old friend Boteach, and wavering over whether he should or should not have met with Louis Farrakhan simply illustrated more of the same triangulation calculated to signal to Left wing primary votes that he is one of them, while trying not to alienate the Jewish community so much that he loses their long-term support.

Unfortunately for him, all of this calculated pandering does not seem to have budged him in the polls. Part of this is the sheer difficulty breaking through all of the noise, especially with the most aggressive members of the Democratic pack out-Lefting him at every turn.  But I also suspect that primary voters with little involvement or even interest in Jewish or Middle East issues recognize inauthenticity when they see it.

The sad thing is that even Booker’s switch to a “balanced” position between Israel and her would-be destroyers has not earned him substantial or lasting support from Israel haters who are only too ready to not just abandon but punish anyone who deviates even an angstrom from their ever-changing list of demands. 

Demands for fealty by the BDS crowd stands in sharp contrast to large swaths of the Jewish community not ready to abandon Booker even when he acts against their interests.  Perhaps this longing for friendship (especially by a rising African American political star) represents weakness on our part, although it could also represent hope that the man who spoke so eloquently at AIPAC way back then is the real Cory Booker, who is just playing the cards he’s been dealt in a strange political era.

Maybe they are right and in four-and-a-half years we’ll be watching Cory Booker accept the nomination of his party for a second term in office.  But I suspect that what we are really watching is a man sacrificing both his soul and his dreams by walking away from what he believes in order to achieve what he wants.  

If Cory ends up an also-ran, with nothing to show for all he’s sacrificed, that should serve as a lesson not for just him, but all of us.  In ways large and small, we are asked to (and often make) compromises to get through life, but our integrity – that which makes us truly us – is something that must never be put up for auction.  Living an inauthentic life has a high cost, which Booker is currently paying.  But his sacrifice might have value if it teaches the rest of us not to make the same mistake.

Oberlin, Hampshire and Evergreen – Oh My!

More catch up…

Some bad news hit Oberlin College this year in the form of a $33,000,000 judgement against the school for libel ($11M in compensatory damages, $22M in punitive). While that initial judgement was reduced, it got topped off again with the school charged for plaintiff’s legal fees.

Legal Insurrection covered (and continues to cover) the Gibson’s Bakery vs. Oberlin case, so I suggest you head over there to get the details of what happened. I bring up the story now not because BDS was specific to events that led to the suit, but because it reminded me that Oberlin might be the third example of the gods punishing bad choices in strange and unexpected ways.

The first example is Evergreen College in Washington State, ground zero in the Northwest for the boycott and divestment “movement.” Evergreen was the school Rachel Corrie attended when she was recruited by activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and taught how to sneak into Israel, find her way into a conflict area, and protest by putting herself in harm’s way.

Her death during one of those protests triggered and then anchored anti-Israel activities at the school and beyond for years. As BDS hardened into dogma on that campus, it became clear that anyone with interest in identifying with or supporting the Jewish state should apply elsewhere, and so campus political life became more homogenized and radical.

In fact, the ability to say and do what they wanted without fear of challenge (much less punishment) turned the students of Evergreen into strange sorts of monsters who have been on a rampage in recent years, attacking professors and administrators who do not accept and embrace ever-enlarging lists of required beliefs and associated demands.

Behavior that once turned off any Jewish student who did not adhere to the BDS party line now seems to have turned off anyone not interested in going to a college where they might get threatened with baseball bats for saying or thinking the wrong thing. Understandably, Evergreen’s enrollment plummeted and budgets were cut to make up for the shortfall. In an era when colleges that can’t make ends meet are closing their doors, it is a very real possibility that Evergreen might one day have to decide whether to continue or close up shop.

One famous school already facing that stark choice is Hampshire College in Massachusetts. BDS-followers will remember Hampshire as the place where modern BDS project got kicked off after the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter created the momentum for campus divestment by claiming the school was the first college to divest from the Jewish state, a hoax the boycotters continue to spread today.

In the case of Hampshire, the school did the right thing by denying that divestment had taken place and chastising the students spreading that lie. But that wise choice did not prevent leaders at the school from allowing SJP to make the lives of Israel-supporting students (mostly Jewish) hell for years afterwards.

One amusing element of the whole Hampshire debate was that the school has always had one of the smallest endowments of any college, meaning there was very little to divest in the first place. But that small endowment became less of a joke once the school hit financial difficulties and had no cushion to fall back on. While the demise of Evergreen is speculative, the end of Hampshire is a very real possibility with the current entering class consists of just fifteen students hoping the school figures out a way to bail itself out of the current crisis, possibly through a merger with another institution.

Again, Hampshire’s current crisis has nothing to do with BDS, although I do wonder if the school might have had more good will to draw upon in seeking a partner to save them had they not earned a reputation for thoughtless radicalism through the “heroic” efforts of SJP years earlier.

Which gets us to Oberlin. Like Evergreen and Hampshire, anti-Israel forces have been in the ascendant at that college for years, driving supporters of the Jewish state underground (or causing them to apply elsewhere) and this success may have emboldened students towards even greater radicalism. All of the pathologies we have seen on college campuses: accusations of systematic bigotry (targeting a school that was at the forefront of abolition and civil rights movements no less) and demands for ever more subservience to the radicals have been turned up to eleven at Oberlin, which may explain how the college ended up looking down the wrong end of a eight-figure legal settlement.

While it is impossible to read minds or Tardis our way into the past to attend meetings where decisions were made, it seems likely that administrators at the school thought the most effective way to diffuse student attacks against them as being bigots was to deflect student fire towards an innocent small business that some students were accusing of racial profiling after an African American undergrad was arrested for shoplifting at the store.

That seems to be the storyline that won over the jury, and while the college continues to insist it did nothing wrong, there seems to be no acceptance that the school has a responsibility to use its voice to prevent students from harming others (in this case, harming a hundred-year-old small business that had to suffer days of protests – participated in by at least one college administrator – where the family that owned the store was condemned as racist).

The world is too complex to draw a direct line between tolerating intolerance towards one group (Jewish supporters of Israel) to tolerating intolerance generally, but it certainly makes sense that once you have decided to throw one group to the wolves that the wolves might take that as an open invitation to demand more food.

In the case of Oberlin, the food bit back and it remains to be seen if other places where BDS reigns supreme will suffer similar fates as Evergreen, Hampshire and Oberlin, now that we know even seemingly permanent institutions (including colleges and universities, academic associations, even centuries-old churches) might not last forever.

Palestinian Privilege

Continuing with some catch up…

In the zero-sum world of BDS politics, last summer’s Eurovision Song Contest could not be perceived as anything but a massive defeat for the boycotters.  Their extreme efforts to get the program moved from Israel, their strong-arming of artists to now show up, and their incessant calls for boycott could not prevent the thousands of people who visited Israel for the event or millions watching the song contest on TV from seeing the actual Israel, rather than the dystopia of BDS fantasies and *gasp* making up their own minds, rather than let the BDSers think for them.

The one bright spot for the boycotters were the antics of the Islandic band Hatrio Mun Sigra which did not misbehave during their performance, but did engage in politics by sneaking out a Palestinian flag during the announcement of the winner (it wasn’t them, BTW).

What little heat their “reveal” generated was soon forgotten, except for some BDSers looking for a fix and the Icelandic government which may punish the band for not playing by the rules.  But I got re-interested in the controversy when this piece appeared in Tablet revealing that – for all their goth, outsider posing, the members of Hatrio Mun Sigra are part of a hereditary caste of Iceland’s elite – the sons of diplomats and bankers – playing at punk while demonstrating their wokeness in the way all European aristocrats do these days: by dissing the Jewish state.

One need only look at the pale, scrawny members of the band to combine their appearance and background into a single well-worn phrase: white privilege.  In fact, if that term had any meaning among the people who use it the most, one might be led to think that anti-Zionism is the touchstone of the most melanin-deprived elite.

This fits nicely with the concept of Palestinian privilege that titles this piece.  For example, sixty million of the world’s refugees (including those from Syria for whom the world shows such concern) are supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) whose budget is comparable to the money spent on a UN agency, UNWRA, dedicated solely to not solving the problem of five million Palestinian “refugees.”

Many commentators describe Palestinian behavior such as refusing tax revenue from Israel unless it includes sums they have committed to pay those who killed Israelis or doing everything possible to derail an economic conference dedicated to their economic improvement as the acts of “spoiled children.” But another way to look at those choices is as the acts of an outraged elite doing everything in their power to preserve their wealth, power and position in society.

The poverty such choices might cause the average Palestinian might seem to counter any discussion of privilege, but keep in mind that the elite making these decisions are not impacted by them.  The wealth they have skimmed off foreign donors is not likely to be seized, and their positions of power is not threatened by those below them (unless the masses organize under the rule of a new elite of fanatical Islamists).   Similarly, the privileged Palestinian elite has no fear that parents of members of Hatrio Mun Sigra or their pals in the European diplomatic core will hold Palestinian members of their caste to account.

The privilege model also helps explain why members of this elite in “Palestine” are so quick to lash out at fellow Arab tyrants who seem to be distancing themselves from “the sacred cause.”  After all, with dozens of Arab nations allied with even more Islamic ones within the halls of the United Nations, having their way internationally has been taken as a given by Abbas and Company.  So condemning Arab leaders for not sacrificing their own interests is the equivalent of the rich and powerful condemning President Roosevelt as a traitor to his class.

Given how much our own intersectional elite demands they get to decide who gets to speak and who does not based on their own ever-changing ranking of privilege, it’s interesting how the power relationships described above: where European hereditary castes prove their progressive bone fides by embracing the anti-Israel cause, all in support of the least progressive regimes on the planet, is not mentioned (or shouted down when someone else brings it up).

Interesting, but not surprising.  After all, rank does have its privilege. 

The Third Founder of Israel

While I have written occasionally on American electoral politics in the context of BDS and the US-Israel relationship, I don’t think I’ve ever made any statements – besides the occasional aside – about an Israeli election. 

This is not just because I don’t subscribe to the fantasy that a lone US blogger can have an impact on international affairs.  Rather, this omission is likely the result of being part of the overwhelming consensus within the pro-Israel community that appreciates Israelis – and Israelis alone – carry the burden of citizenship and thus should not be hectored (especially by those who bear no responsibility for electoral outcomes) over whom they should vote for.

But this year’s election tumult(s) in the Jewish state does cry out for analysis, albeit one that hopefully sheds light versus casts aspersions.

Especially since the person at the center of the tumult, long-time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has not just helmed the Jewish state for so long, but that his tenure in many political roles makes him an historic figure, one worthy of being considered Israel’s third founder.

The first founder was Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian writer and journalist who initially created an imaginary Jewish state in his fiction, then worked tirelessly to turn that dream into reality.  While Herzl’s political organization and advocacy made him a controversial figure in his day, the fact that he never became the leader of an actual state meant he did not face the awesome challenge of rule which requires hard choices and trade-offs, some of them with life-and-death consequences.

Israel’s second founder was Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister who set in motion nearly all of the policies that define the Jewish state to this day: ingathering of exiles, standing firm against enemies while also holding out hope for peace, and creating and building institutions of statehood.  Like all of the Prime Ministers who succeeded him, Ben Gurion made his share of mistakes and his ruthless approach to political enemies helped cement political fault lines that have yet to heal.  But like Herzl, Ben-Gurion had a vision of a strong and independent Israel that served as his North Star, a vision that helps explain both his good and bad choices.

The list of leaders who succeeded Ben-Gurion includes impressive figures like Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, each of whom shaped Israeli history in their own way.  But, ignoring their successes and blunders (some of them – like the Oslo fiasco – monumental) each of these leaders played cards they were dealt, rather than inventing an entirely new game.

Netanyahu’s long-term vision, and his success at achieving it, pushes him past this pantheon into the tiny category of “founders,” i.e., leaders who transformed a nation, rather than just managing its affairs or navigating it through crises. 

While no single person can be credited with turning the Jewish state into an economic powerhouse whose brain-based industries put it on par with the oil wealth of Israel’s enemies, Netanyahu’s decades-long commitment to liberalizing the Israeli economy – freeing it from the shackles of Ben-Gurion’s state socialism – was one of the prime factors leading to Startup Nation.

Other Israeli leaders have caved in to pressures (internal and external) or hubris to “do something” vis-à-vis the Arab-Israeli conflict, leading to fiascos like the Gaza withdrawal and the aforementioned Oslo disaster.  But Netanyahu’s vision of a Jewish state with enough economic, military and diplomatic strength to stand on its own – despite its diminutive size and limited resources – served as his North Star, which helps explain Netanyahu’s ability to shape domestic politics and withstand foreign pressures (especially during an era when a hostile US administration required extraordinarily deft navigation) leading to the strong, wealthy, diplomatically successful Israel we know today.

Yes, Bibi has made his share of blunders, as have all his predecessors (and everyone else who has ever taken on the responsibility to lead a nation).  But I suspect that the pathological hatred of him outside of Israel is the result not of his prickly personality but of his success.  For if you look at what the Israel haters despise most (including Netanyahu, AIPAC and Israel itself) you see a list of those entities most effective at keeping the Jewish people safe, free and secure.

With that having been said, the title of this piece will ring a warning bell to those who know their Roman history.  For the “Third Founder of Rome” was an informal title given to Gaius Marius, the general who saved the Republic from destruction by foreign enemies that had threatened the nation for years, in the process reforming Rome’s military in ways that turned it into the most powerful in the ancient world. 

Having saved the state and serving five times in the top executive position of Consul, Marius’ star faded as a new generation of military and political leaders rose to power. Bitter at being left out to pasture, Marius threw in his lot with political radicals, giving him a sixth and seventh Consulship but leading directly to the first of many civil wars that would eventually destroy the Republic.

In bringing up Marius’ story, I am in no way suggesting that any politician hanging in there past their sell date must lead to catastrophe.  But if Marius ended up being the historic poster child for what happens when a political hero fails to know when to step back, another Roman – Cincinnatus – continues to serve as archetype for the democratic leader who knows when to call it a day. 

Legend has it that after Cincinnatus was given supreme power to defeat Rome’s enemies, and after succeeding in doing so, he voluntarily gave up the heights of leadership to return to his farm.  One need only visit our nation’s capital where a marble statue of George Washington in toga, handing the sword he was given back to the people, demonstrates the impact Cincinnatus’ story has had on democracy ever since.

Given his incomparable skill in outwitting political enemies, Netanyahu might emerge from this year’s election mess leading or co-leading the nation.  But despite that spot of bother the Jewish people had with the Roman Empire way back when, Roman history provides powerful archetypes that can – or should – inform the choices of even the most powerful men and women today.

Unfortunately, many have forgotten lessons we should have learned from Roman folly – such as the consequences of trying to prosecute our political enemies, rather than defeat them democratically (one of the motivations for Julius Caesar to finally draw down the curtain on the Republic).  But if we want more Cincinnatuses and fewer Mariuses in our political lives, we must find ways to give those who dedicate themselves to the nation a way to retire with the honor they (including their egos) deserve.

Entryism

I recently encountered the term titling this piece in the comments section of an article about how an organization become politicized when leaders of the group started taking stands on controversial matters.  When some members protested, these same leaders recruited enough like-minded new members to confirm their authority over the organization.

The term “entryism,” which describes such institutional takeovers, originated in the early 20th century to describe Communist partisans trying to get a foothold, and eventually take control of, labor organizations or political parties that were left leaning but did not subscribe to this or that flavor of Marxism.

While past labor groups and left-but-not-Marxist parties historically found the means and backbone to kick out those who had join with ulterior motives (the most notable example being the expulsion of the Trotskyite Militant Tendency from the UK’s Labour Party in the 1980s), the end of global Communism did not spell an end to entryism.  In fact, the democratic spirit reignited with the fall of the Soviet Union had the ironic effect of bringing a tactic once embraced by only a small conspiratorial fringe into the mainstream.  

One could actually look at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) “movement,” if not the entire anti-Israel project, as entryism turned up to eleven, dwarfing any version that has come before in both its scale and success. 

When student governments rejected divestment measures earlier this decade, proponents of those measures simply ran for office with the sole purpose of turning those “No’s” into “Yes’s”.  On the surface, this might seem like a democratically elected majority doing what it was elected to do, but in many of these elections pro-BDS candidates deliberately hid their divestment priorities during their campaigns for office, meaning their real goal for obtaining student council seats was hidden from voters.  In other words, they successfully took advantage of a political situation (in this case, student council elections with very low voter turnout) to practice a bit of entryism.

The way BDS has played out in other communities, such as churches and academic associations, has followed a similar entryist pattern, with members who are anti-Israel activists first, Presbyterians or American Studies professors second, taking leadership positions and forcing the organization to take stands that reflect their preferred views, the spiritual or professional needs of the organization be damned.   And when internal protests against those decisions erupted, steps were taken to limit the number of voices who could participate in discussions of those choices, or new members were found to shore up the power base of anti-Israel voices in charge.   

Entities not bound by democratic politics have been even more ripe for entriest-style infiltration.  For example, the descent of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) ostensibly dedicated to human rights into Israel-hating madness reflects a pattern in which every organization from Human Rights Watch to the United Nations, has been targeted for successful takeover by anti-Israel forces, dramatically limiting their ability to engage in genuine human rights practice anywhere in the world.

With regard to NGOs, problems of entrism can be seen in the category as a whole as hundreds of freshly minted anti-Israel “human rights” groups have formed (or been created, with financial support from the world’s great human rights abusers) creating a “community” in which horrific displays of anti-Jewish animus (like the 2001 Durban conference where BDS was born) became the sea in which once noble and effective groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International must swim.

Unfortunately, our side lacks the ability to meet fire with fire.  There are not, after all, 50 Jewish states able to exert control over bodies like the UN or finance the creation of hundreds of NGOs dedicated to smearing our enemies.  We also lack what is needed to turn the entire human rights project into a weapon to be pointed exclusively as our enemies.  But this might be a source of strength for our side, rather than weakness. 

This is because the tendency of entryism to cripple an organization can impact even the organizations practicing entryism against others.  The most illustrative example of this is the Palestinian Solidarity Movement (PSM), a group that led divestment efforts in the early 2010s.  Because their efforts earned them such a high profile, they became a target for takeover by every political and religious faction involved with left-leaning and Middle East politics.  After years of fending off such hostile takeovers, they eventually shut their doors, unable to both do their work and keep entriest forces at bay.

It would represent justice if other groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) met a similar fate.  But it would be even more preferable if today’s progressive organizations found the spine their progenitors exhibited when they kept infiltration by yesterday’s enemies of freedom and democracy at bay. 

Fighting Words

Continuing with another week of catch-up…

If you want to see an example of what “fighting back” looks like in the rarefied environment of academia, check out a recent edition Israel Studies, a journal published by Indiana University Press.

Actually, you’ll only be able to look at the whole thing if you have access to JSTOR, the online source for major academic journals and articles, or can find a print copy at a university library (although you can look at the first and last essay in the volume with a couple of extra mouse clicks).  But even this glimpse sets the stage for long-overdue analysis of the corrupt language that has infested Middle East studies and now threatens to take down other disciplines.

As regular readers know, Israel’s enemies have not just twisted the language of history, scholarship and human rights towards their own political ends, but have so monopolized discourse that any attempt to take back the language (by claiming that words like “genocide” and “occupation” have actual meaning, beyond their selective use to slur a single state) is met by hysterical resistance.

I’ve seen this on a small scale whenever I have used the word “settlement” to apply to both Jewish and Arab communities in Israel or the disputed territories (or simply used the word “disputed” – rather than “occupied” to describe Judea & Samaria/The West Bank).  Invariably the response is either aggression (usually involving shouts of “racism” for not handing an opponent control of the vocabulary immediately and unconditionally) or avoidance (i.e., my “debating partner” fleeing to find someone uninformed to propagandize).

Given this auto-response by those who live by BDSthink, one can only imagine the response to the latest issue of Israel Studies where credentialed scholars subject each and every one of the boycotter’s favorite terms (“colonialism,” “apartheid,” “the Israel Lobby”) to honest analysis fueled by sound scholarship.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine since the response to publication of that journal was as immediate as it was predictable.

Within days of the Word Crimes issue of Israel Studies hitting the streets, dozens of professors petitioned the organization sponsoring the journal to denounce and withdraw it, calling it a political propaganda exercise not worthy to be treated as genuine scholarship.  This from “scholars” who have spent decades publishing the most outlandish fabrications and gobbdygook about the Middle East, awarding honors and prizes to whoever can make the most absurd accusations against the Jewish state, usually based not on fact but on post-modern claptrap.

Some of the most hilarious accusations came from academics “concerned” over the areas of expertise of by some contributors to the Word Crimes journal.  Again, this is coming from groups ready to welcome academic birthday clowns like Stephen Salaita into the fold of Middle East studies solely based on his embrace of the anti-Israel narrative.

Fortunately, those behind Word Crimes stood their ground, labeling their opponents as academic thugs who want to shut down discourse they don’t like, and can’t respond to (a nice use of language on its own). 

Giving credit where it is due, the co-editors of the volume, Professors Miriam Elman and Asaf Romirowsky have found the right pressure point and a tactic to press it that does not involve sacrificing an ounce of academic integrity.  Yes, the essays that make up the volume are all trying to counter misuse of specific terms coopted and corrupted by the forces of BDS.  But the only reason the exercise is necessary is because proponents of the “Israel Must Go” narrative have made such a correction imperative.

Those who spend lots of time anguishing over lack of punch-back by Israel’s defenders might see the publications of a relatively obscure journal insufficient to turn back the tide of anti-Israel invective engulfing the academy.  But battles on campuses are primarily being waged with words (at least for now), which makes seizing back the language one of the most powerful and effective ways to bring the fight to the enemy in a war where ideas count.

Predators

By now, the rise and decline of the Women’s March – once hailed as the most important mass political movement in a generation – is well documented.

Interestingly, it was a piece of investigative journalism by the online publication Tablet that pulled the thread which began the unraveling.  Rumors of anti-Semitism within the national leadership of the March had been a staple of criticism of the organization’s leadership, as were questions regarding how those leaders were dealing with the millions of dollars earned through sponsorship, product sales and donations. But the detailed Tablet story added the names, dates and quotes needed to create a groundswell that couldn’t be swatted away as the work of racist critics by the March’s flawed and corrupt leadership.

I’m guessing most readers are aware of the sponsor withdrawals (some public, some quiet), failed attempts at explanations and apologies, too-weird-too-late shots at adding Jews back into the leadership fold, that led to movement’s main event (a March on Washington) declining precipitously this year.  But I’d like to focus on a dynamic that Divest This readers are well aware of: how the infiltration of a high-profile, fast-moving, progressive organization by anti-Israel activists always leads that the host’s corruption and ultimate demise.

I wish I could find the quote where one of the women who began the March talked about how the organization’s openness to new blood and eagerness to include diverse names and faces left them vulnerable to predators.  For if you look at the three women who became the flashpoint of controversy regarding the March, you can see that their agenda was not to move the fight for women’s rights forward, but to channel the momentum created by others towards their own political ends.

Phyllis Chessler highlights how little the agenda of the March has to do with issues specific to women.  Women obviously make up half the planet’s population, so a focus on immigration, economic justice (whatever that means), and international affairs is going to impact women as well as men.  But the point Chessler is making is that the concept of intersectionality (which links every injustice with every other) is so broad and amorphous that it allows anyone to claim the mantle of feminist leadership regardless of which issues they are actually fighting for.

Similar infiltration of progressive groups by anti-Israel activists is so well documented as to almost be a cliché.  When the Occupy Wall Street project popped up a few years ago, one of its most well-known features was lack of leadership and direction.  This was intentional, given that Occupy wanted to avoid hierarchy, relying on consensus to decide what would happen next (even if that turned out to never end in a decision). 

The Israel haters would have none of this.  As usual, their involvement in consensus building involved insisting that any consensus that did not embrace their agenda represented treason to the progressive cause (defined – by them – as an unquestioning embrace of the anti-Israel project).  And so an organization that could barely rouse itself from camp somehow managed to march on a single consulate – guess which one – increasing suspicion of the entire project (which eventually made it easier to shut the whole thing down).

Infiltration of other people’s institutions can be seen wherever progressive politics is ascendant, notably college campuses where intersectional coalitions somehow always include support for BDS.  BDS champions insist that this is simply a matter of justice, but as I’ve noted before, intersectionality seems to have ended up a one-way street where feminists and gay rights activists (to pick a couple of examples) must embrace an assault on Israel while shutting up about the abominable plight of women and gays everywhere else in the Middle East save Israel.

Why must everyone in a college intersectional coalition – including feminists and gay activists – submit to the will of mostly male, mostly straight BDS leaders far from campus?  Because the boycotters are ready to do anything, including destroying any organization they join, in order to get their way. 

Within the Women’s March you saw a similar drama play out as predators who have taken over a project they did not start were ready to see it go down in flames rather than free it from enslavement to issues of their choice. 

I suppose it is good news that so many women are voting with their feet by abandoning the national organization and either running events of their own or exploring other ways to make women’s rights a higher priority in the US and around the world.  But if any of these other groups find themselves taking off, best they learn a lesson on how to protect any institution they build from those who are ready to join it for the sole purpose of turning it towards different ends.

100 Years’ War

The term headlining this post refers to a century-long conflict in European history when England and France fought what were really a series of wars over the course of more than a century (from 1337-1453).

The phrase “100 Years’ War” was later applied by historians to cover a period in which the cause of specific flareups varied (succession battles, fights over lands, military ambition and hubris) as two powerful and dynastically entangled European powers battled for dominance, forming distinct national identities as “England” and “France” in the process. 

Remind you of anything? 

When most people describe the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict (or, as Ruth Wisse prefers, the Arab War Against the Jews), they tend to highlight specific armed conflicts between nation states that broke out in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 (occasionally including the 1982 Lebanon war against the PLO in the mix), with skirmishes and terrorism marking every year between “real wars” involving the armies of nation states.

Over the last two decades, full-scale wars attached to specific years and ongoing small-scale assaults on civilians have been supplemented by organized non-state militaries in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas) attacking Israel with missiles and – most recently – attempting at large-scale infiltration through tunneling.  Because clashes between the Israeli army and Hezbollah (2006) and Hamas (2008, 2012 and 2014) did not involve wars between states, these fights tend to not be grouped in with 1948, 1967, etc.

Our tendency to use the term “war” to describe certain types of conflicts blurs the reality that the war between Israel and its neighbors should really be seen as another 100 Years’ War, one declared against the Jews decades before Israeli became a reality in which even major wars like 1967 can be seen as battles in a single, large, ongoing conflict.

If you use the term “war” not to describe any event involving people shooting at one another, but reserve it for a specific conflict or set of conflicts designed to accomplish political goals, then wars can only end with the victory of one side over the other or, in some cases, reconciliation between belligerents (often motivated by exhaustion or a new internal or external threat).

When clear victory and defeat is not present, the end of one conflict is better thought of as a cease fire, during which belligerents take a time out to repair damage, heal wounds, and prepare for another go when timing is right.  In the case of England v. France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there was very little reason to end the war entirely, given that no victory was ever definitive enough to cause one or the other party to surrender.  So it continued generation after generation until civil war in one nation (England) led to new leaders finally calling it quits.

Such unending multi-generational conflict can seem unworldly in a modern age when not squandering resources and lives in warfare confers so many human and material benefits.  Who would sacrifice not just themselves but their children, their children’s children and their children’s children’s children in a century of military conflict when ending it would increase prosperity and hope for so many?

But as we have learned over the centuries, the ambition of leaders – especially in unfree societies – tends to trump factors such as the good of citizen/subjects. 

And why not?  Kings and tyrants tend to be the last ones to lose their fortunes or lives in the wars they instigate – and only when they are defeated.  In the case of every war that’s racked the Middle East over the last century (including those that did not involve Israel), how many Middle East kings, military dictators or mullahs fell in battle, or even fell from power after losing the many wars they began? With the possible exception of Saddam Hussein, I’m hard pressed to think of a single tyrant who started a war dying of anything other than a coup or natural causes.

As we learned in the last century, ideology (both secular and religious) can motivate a population to continue a multi-generational conflict.  If you think of the Cold War as an actual war, with so-called “wars” like Korea and Vietnam (as well as surrogate superpower conflicts between Israel and the Arab states) serving as battles in that larger conflict, then it was ideology – good and ill – that motivated the parties to fight it out until one of them collapsed.

The reality that we might be in a conflict ready to enter its second century can be both bewildering and disheartening to those of us who can easily see how much suffering would end if Israel’s enemies simply accepted the fact that a non-Arab, non-Muslim polity was destined to continue on a tiny sliver of land in the region.

This dynamic distorts perception, leading to the situation we are in now in which a subset of Israelis, American Jews and non-Jews (and others) are unwilling to believe in the true source of a century-long conflict, instead adopt false “narratives” (such as the war being the result of the Jews not allowing an Arab presence in the land they control) to avoid having the contemplate being at war with societies ready to throw a fourth generation onto the bonfire.

Given all this, the most powerful weapons Israel and her friends can bring to the battlefield are patience and historic understanding, psychological resources ultimately more important than the latest military gadgetry.

Changing Your Mind

Continuing to catch this site up with stuff published earlier this year…

I’ve become a big fan of Jonathan Haidt, co-author of the best-selling Coddling of the American Mind and a social-science researcher committed to bringing political balance and reasoned discourse back into academia and everyday political life. 

Haidt is a scholar who practices what he preaches, including one of the key virtues of a truly free and independent thinker: the ability to say “I’ve changed my mind,” especially about something he once believed deeply. 

In Haidt’s case, he revised his thinking about the role intuition plays in human reasoning between his first best-selling book (The Happiness Hypothesis) and one I just finished reading (The Righteous Mind).

Given that Happiness Hypothesis put Haidt on the map as a public intellectual, I can only imagine what it took to put into print an admission that that book contained a thesis the author no longer buys.  But the ability to both change your mind and admit you have done so has strategic as well as intellectual benefits.

For instance, when I first got into the fight against BDS, I repeatedly argued against turning to authority figures (such as lawmakers, courts or college administrators) to deal with demonization/delegitimization campaigns targeting the Jewish state.

This stance was based on the fact that, back then, BDS was largely taking place within civic organizations, such as colleges and universities, churches, municipalities and food coops, with anti-Israel activism driven by small groups of insurgents within individual institutions.  Since the majority of members of these institutions were either hostile or indifferent to the boycotters’ political agenda, the best strategy was to help that majority organize and find its voice so it could effectively beat back BDS (which they did again and again over the course of more than a decade).

Yes, the Israel haters are relentless which meant they kept coming back those organizations again and again to demand a revote, refusing to take “no” for an answer.  But such behavior meant that, by the time a handful student governments or church votes started going the BDSers way, the public had internalized how unrepresentative or corrupt such votes were, which meant the boycotters either lost or – at worst – acquired tainted victories no one took seriously.

Given how effective grassroots politics was at turning back BDS, I saw turning to authorities as a less effective and riskier short-circuiting of more effective, democratic processes.  But as the fight moved from these small communities to large and powerful institutions, such as the United Nations, I’ve had to revise my thinking regarding the best course of action to take in response new forms of the BDS threat.

As most readers know, the UN’s Orwellian Human Rights Commission is preparing a blacklist of companies doing business in Israel, the publication of which will put pressure on those companies to sever ties with the Jewish state.  Given that this blacklist effort is driven by wealthy and powerful states that dominate the UN and have subverted it to their will, local activists have no way to influence what happens in the halls of that body. 

Understanding this reality, the most effective counter-measure to a UN blacklist is the anti-BDS legislation passed or on the way to being passed in most US states and the federal government.  If one ignores partisan hyperbole regarding such legislation, these laws simply update rules that have been in place since the 1970s that make it illegal for US companies to participate in the Arab Boycott that goes back to the 1920s now that those same boycotters have hijacked the United Nations to give this age-old form of partisan warfare a veneer of global legitimacy.

Once anti-boycott laws are passed, companies (especially those more concerned with the large Arab market vs. the small Israeli one) considering participating in a UN-led boycott will have another factor to take into account: the impact such a choice will have on their relationship with the large US market.  We’ve already seen what happened to one corporation (AirBnB) that thought it would face no consequences for joining the latest version of the Arab boycott.  Given that companies are generally conservative, turning to US state and national legislators to add a counter-weight to the UN blacklist is not just a last resort, but our best choice. 

In science, there is a principle which says you should try to understand a problem in terms of the right level of scale.  For example, while the weather can be studied at the atomic level, there is more insight to be gained by studying the subject at a macro vs micro scale.

Similarly, grassroots fights are still the way to go when the battle is taking place at a local food store or student government.  But when powerful forces are arrayed against you, it is best to marshal equally powerful forces to counter them.

Sticking with an old formula when new situations require new tactics tends to lead to calcification and failure.  This is why I have changed my mind about enrolling authority figures in our fight, but only in situations where that option makes the most strategic sense.