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Sir Martin Gilbert

6 Feb

A brief moment to pay tribute (and give thanks) to a giant who passed away this week.

Looking over the nine pages of books Sir Martin Gilbert has listed on Amazon, it seems amazing that he was only on this planet for a mere 78 years.

Gilbert came to prominence as the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and a number of his dozens of works cover Britain’s legendary Prime Minister or weave the Churchill story into the author’s other favorite topics: British, World War II, Jewish and Israeli history.

The obits published since news came of Gilbert’s passing highlight the astounding scope and quality of his work, with this short piece providing a telling anecdote regarding his qualities as a scholar and human being (a simple and powerful lesson in an age when debates over academic discourse have devolved to defending the right of professors to spew expletives on Twitter).

Since I’ve read far less of Gilbert’s work than the many people covering his passing, I’d like to simply give personal thanks for one of his slimmest volumes: The Routledge Atlas of the Arab Israeli Conflict (one of many Atlases he created, others covering British, Jewish and World War II history).

While not every picture manages to tell a thousand words, a well-constructed map (with accompanying detailed labels) can explain and illustrate narratives that might take chapters to describe through prose alone.  And when those maps fit together to tell a true story, that story becomes not just convincing but compelling.

I discovered this almost twenty years ago when I began my journey on the road to activism by taking a class at a local adult education organization on modern Judaism.  Word had it that the teacher had issues with the Jewish state (a condition I later learned afflicts a number of Jews in my part of the country), but given that the course was described as offering lessons on bringing Jewish meaning into one’s life, I decided to give it a go (especially given the lack of both meaning and Judaism in my own life at the time).

No sooner had the first class commenced, however, that the teacher’s hostility to modern Israel began creeping into almost every discussion.  And while I tried to grin and bear it (despite having self-identified as someone searching out his Jewish and Zionist identity at the start of the class – which upon reflection probably got me pegged), once discussion moved to Middle East history, it was time to act.

I think it was at the eight minute mark of a description of the 1948 war consisting solely of Jews dumping Arab bodies down wells in Dar Yasin that I put my foot down (not rudely, but firmly) and asked if I could be allowed to fill in a few holes in the history being presented the following week. And given the informal nature of the class (not to mention the general unease of my classmates over who/what to believe) I was given the green light to go forward.

Keep in mind that this all played out during an age previous to our current “Powerpoint uber ales” era, which meant I would have to make an accurate and compelling presentation of Israel’s actual history with words and black-and-white photocopied handouts rather than dancing bullet points, animated timelines and downloaded talking heads.

Fortunately, my anchor was Martin Gilbert’s Atlas of the Arab Israeli Conflict.  And as much as some of my classmates (as well as the teacher) did not want to believe the story these maps so clearly laid out, their ignorance and craving for a different narrative could not withstand the power of truth so elegantly and eloquently spoken on the pages of Gilbert’s atlas.

Now I wish I could say that this presentation turned everyone in the room into ardent Zionists, but that would be a stretch.  By the time the class ended (after several more sessions that included the ongoing tale of Israel – facilitated again by Sir Martin’s maps) the class had dwindled to half its original size, and most of those who remained (including one I ended up dating) could best be described as confused, rather than convinced.

But given that the teacher was clearly hoping to replace confusion with his own inappropriate and inaccurate storyline, I think it’s fair to call the thwarting of that effort (which included, I learned later, some reflection by the teacher himself over whether his approach to the subject was appropriate) a success.

And suffice to say, I owe it all to Martin Gilbert who educated me to a point where I was able to educate others.

And his work goes on.  For when my eldest son recently watched his favorite history blog (CrashCourse) as its narrator made a foray into Middle East politics, it was clear to him that something was wrong.  And rather than doing going down the Dad/Activist route and telling him what was missing (which would be everything that has ever happened in the Middle East outside of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians), I simply pulled Martin Gilbert’s atlas off the shelf and gave them to him, with the expectation that the stories they tell will help him think for himself.

So as a lover of history, as a Jew, as a Zionist and as a parent, I’d like to stop and say: “Thank you Martin Gilbert.”  For while he probably could have cranked out another dozen books had he lived as long as Churchill, the contributions he made to scholarship, truth, history, the British and Jewish people have already assured his immortality.

All a Twitter

30 Jan

As a follower of various news feeds for subjects related to Israel-related activism, I’ve been curious about the recent spate of stories that derive not from action (such as war, terrorism or elections) or long diatribes or complex arguments, but from people saying stupid things in 140 characters or less.

Exhibit A: Earlier this year, CNN anchor Jim Clancy (one of the network’s most stable Israel dissers) ended a peculiar Twitter spat with critics over the Charlie Hedbo cartoons wit this gem of a tweet:

jim-clancy-tweet

Translation: I have no genuine critics, just organized pro-Israel propagandists (i.e., “the Hasbara team”) who think they can get the better of me, not realizing that I’m a big, tough journalisto-hombre (see my shirt!) a la Mel Gibson in Year of Living Dangerously

Mr. Clancy nixed his Twitter account and left CNN shortly after this post appeared, possibly over judgment issues related to his juvenile online behavior, possibly due to criticism over his use of the word “cripple,” but decidedly not because of his 30+ year history of unbalanced journalist vis-à-vis Israel and the Middle East.

Exhibit B: Given its prominence as a Jewish institution, and the prevalence of Jews in anti-Israel organizations (including many promoting BDS), it’s not that surprising that Brandeis University has become a hotbed of Israel-related political agitation over the last ten years.

As debates over police brutality charges in Fergusson and NYC became coopted by the “Free Palestine” crowd, this merging of conflicts played out at Brandeis over a set of hugely inappropriate tweets written by a young African American student (which I won’t reproduce, for reasons noted below) that were picked up by a student journalist associated with conservative and pro-Israel causes.  This led to even more tweets, not to mention Facebook postings and blog comments, many of which were dedicated to demonizing and threatening one party to the conflict vs. another.

While it might be tempting to pick sides in this particular battle (for matters of principle, of course), I tended to look at this story through the lens of social media generally, notably how it enables those stupid things we all say (especially in our younger years – things that might still make us wince upon remembrance) to be broadcast around the globe where they get to live on forever in screen grabs of Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines long since deleted.

In each of these cases (and in countless others where people get into hot water over their online commentary), there seems to be an assumption that the quick-and-dirty meta-communication people pump into the Interwebs on a minute-by-minute basis represents a window into the soul (rather than the id).

Personally, I’m not buying it any more than I’m buying the assumption that #Bringbackourgirls trending for 48 hours will involve any girls actually getting brought back, or that #JeSuisCharlie is going to lead to a lot of “Je’s” actually “Suis-ing” Charlie (i.e., putting themselves at risk to stand by principle).

I recall a story (now lost to that Internet ether) that questioned whether the hashtag #BDSFail should be used every time an Israeli company lands a big deal or scores some major investment, vs. just being set aside for actual examples of BDS failure (like their recent AHA debacle).  But if hashtag volume is going to equate to political momentum, how can we compete with the boycotters who spat out a dozen #BDS tweets during the 3-5 minutes it took me to read that #BDSFail-debate story?

Perhaps I’m just an old fogey who doesn’t understand or respect the power of social media to establish (and ultimately control) discourse.  But as a blogger, I obviously embrace the power these new tools of communication give us to leap over former gate-keepers of information to reach audiences and build communities hungry for citizen journalism and analysis.

Sure, a big chunk of that citizen journalism consists of unedited crapola, and much analysis found online is designed to spread hatred or pump up lies.  But that just increases the responsibility of individuals to exercise sound judgment over what information to seek out and believe.  And, unlike online journalism which – good or bad – at least requires the better part of an hour to knock out, tweets let you unburden yourself in a second – leading to the aforementioned id-based communication or intentional hashtag stuffing designed to push nonsense into more people’s faces.

All this bellyaching might just represent the sour grapes of someone who has never managed to sustain a social-media-based self-promotion campaign for more than a couple of weeks (which reminds me, I need to tweet about the last half dozen blog posts I’ve written over the last few months).  But I don’t think I’m the only person who is skeptical (and a bit nervous) when trending hashtags are used by mainstream news sources and political leaders as a stand-in for the pulse of popular opinion.

Personally, I actually use (and like) Twitter – as a newsfeed or human-driven search engine, one that must take its place alongside other information filters (including my own brain).  And if you ever need to follow an obscure event (like the BDS vote at a student senate or food coop) on a minute-by-minute basis, there is no substitute.

But as these thirty-second communication tools become proxies for what we are thinking, or bricks in the wall of confirmation bias too many of us are building around ourselves, it might be time to reflect on how tools originally designed to help us make friends should not be used to destroy lives.

My Promised Land – 2

25 Jan

As the first half of this review hinted, the title of Ari Shavit’s 2014 best-seller My Promised Land telegraphs the narrator, identifying the ultimate source for the thoughts spoken in the heads of the many characters of a book best described as a hybrid of history, novel and personal-internal memoir.

I also noted last time that looking at Israel’s history through the lens of multiple historic characters – interpreted through the author’s use of a novelist’s devices – has its advantages.  As one commenter pointed out, James Michener’s The Source does something similar (although that book is clearly identified as a work of historic fiction).  Leon Uris’ Exodus, also blended real and made-up characters and few books have had more of an impact on American attitudes towards Israel (held by Jews and non-Jews alike) than has Uris’ tale.

But unlike The Source and Exodus, My Promised Land is presented as a work of non-fiction.  And even if the blurring of genre lines gives the author the opportunity to reveal interesting things going on in his own head, this artistic license does not free him from responsibility with regard to stories presented as fact.

When those stories touch on known events (like the development of Israel’s “secret” nuclear program or the politics that led to the Oslo Accords), then the personal reflections the author writes into his characters can be illuminating.  I already mentioned the power of this technique in the context of my favorite chapter of the book (The Project – having to do with Dimona and Israel’s nuclear deterrent).  And even if I long ago stopped giving those who brought us Oslo points for good intentions (given everything their efforts unleashed since then), it is valuable to hear from Shavit (a member of this peace camp) how this group judges itself.

It’s when My Promised Land provides new historic “revelations,” however, the blurring of lines between fiction and factual history becomes more problematical (and troubling).

I previously mentioned the chapter that has gotten the author into the most hot water (Lydda, 1948).  In one sense, there’s nothing surprising that a story involving the expulsion of Arabs from their homes during Israel’s’ War of Independence the War would provoke controversy under any circumstances.  And I’m not going to get into a debate over what happened at the “Big Mosque” vs. the “Small Mosque” or where Jordanian Legionaries were located when events at Lydda unfolded.

But if you read Shavit’s description of those events, and then follow it up with this rebuttal presented by Middle East historian Martin Kramer, it’s safe to say that – at minimum – what happened at Lydda in 1948 is up for serious debate.  And even if such a debate is likely to never end, it’s more than likely that what ultimately took place back then will sound more like a military story (full of conflicted strategy and tactics, plans that ran aground when they confronted the reality of the battlefield, confusion and brutality on all sides) than a morality play.

Yet Shavit presents the story not just as fact, but as Israel’s “black box” – not a black box as in a great unknown, but as in an airplane flight recorder – the device which, if found and decoded, will provide the uncompromised and true data needed to explain a tragedy.  But given that every detail Shavit provides about what went on in Lydda in 1948 is – at best – questionable, what are we to make of the author’s seeming insistence that readers should treat his story as the black-box data needed to understand the 1948 War, if not Israel’s history in its entirety?

An easy answer would be to simply condemn Shavit as a “Nakbahist” – someone who joins Israel’s enemies in wanting to translate the country’s founding into nothing more than a catastrophe for Palestinians expelled from their homes and ignore everything else that’s happened in the region before, during and since.  But Shavit (unlike some) does not shy away from telling stories about the brutality visited upon the Jews of the region, nor pretend that legitimate peace offers extended by Israel since ’48 don’t exist.

True, his tales of Arab terror can seem clinical and detached from living, breathing Arabs, as opposed to the named, flesh-and-blood Jews who pull triggers in Lydda.  But getting back to my original thesis about the nature of My Promised Land, why is it so important for the author to believe, accept and communicate one particular (and highly contentious) interpretation of events vs. some other?

Shavit gives no hint that he is in possession of heretofore unknown facts or documents that have revealed to him new truths.  Which means he has chosen the “facts” in his Lydda story for the same reason he chooses to believe his grandfather “did not see” the Arabs as he made his way through the Holy land in 1897: to demonstrate that the Tragedy part of his subtitle (“The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel”) is of Israel’s own making.

And why might this be so important to the author?

Well given the liberty Shavit takes with his characters’ internal dialog, allow me a moment to speculate on what might be going on in his head for a moment.

For there are two possible reasons why Israel has been the focus of so much hatred and war over the last century.  The first possibility is that the country is guilty of some hideous crime which might not justify the years and decades of attacks upon it, but would at least explain them.  Alternatively, the war against the Jewish state might have nothing to do with what Israel has done, but rather represents the return of dark forces (the law of the jungle, the ascension of the ruthless, and – yes – anti-Semitism) that most civilized people had hoped disappeared after the last century’s World Wars I, II and III (otherwise known as the Cold War).

For the civilized person (which Shavit clearly is), the notion that we might be living through World War IV – which includes a new war of hatred directed against the Jewish people – is too much to bear.  And so we end up looking not at Gaza (where religious fanatics join forces with tyrants across the region to perpetuate ever-escalating conflict) or Europe (where Jews are once again becoming an endangered species), but at Lydda in 1948 (or at least the author’s contentious account of it) and offered absolution if we just allow ourselves to peek into this “black box” and accept judgement.

Ruth Wisse, who prophesized on the ever-escalating need to blame Israel and the Jews for the war waged against them, wrote a review of My Promised Land far less generous than the one you are reading now.

The reason I’ve been less harsh than Wisse is that I sympathize with those struggling with the deep personal conflict that underlies every chapter of My Promised Land.  There is, after all, a reason why the book proved so popular with American Jewish audiences.  For even if the country (outside of a Jewish Voice for Peace square dance) is not filled with unquestioning Nakbahists, there are many (including many people I know and love) who prefer the morality play of Lydda, 1948 to the messier reality of what goes on in war.

And if the Jews are somehow responsible for the war that has waged every day since ‘48, then perhaps it is in our power to do something to end it.  The alternative (that dark days have not only returned, but never went away) requires us to both understand the genuine Jewish condition circa 2015 and accept that the law of the jungle has not been banished from the human condition just because many of us living in anomalous comfort and security wish that it has.

My Promised Land – 1

22 Jan

At a certain point last year, I became convinced that a new book had been added to the Tenakh, a book that seemed to have become required reading at every temple I visited (my own dedicated three reading-group sessions to the work – all of which I missed, which led to this review).

In case you haven’t deduced yet from the title of this piece, I’m talking about My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, the 2014 best seller by Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit which tells the tale of Israel’s past and present through stories of various participants in the birth and continued life of the Jewish state.

If that structure sounds familiar, that’s because another book that came out around the same time, Like Dreamers by Yossi Klein Halevi, took a similar approach to presenting history through storytelling.  And while Dreamers is generally acknowledged to be the superior of the two, Shavit’s My Promised Land seems to have struck a chord with American audiences, especially mainstream Jewish ones, as the book garnered rave New York Times reviews, was excerpted in the New Yorker, and found its way onto those aforementioned reading group lists in synagogues and Jewish community groups around the country.

While Halevi’s book focused on a set of characters from a particular point in time (the men depicted in this iconic photo of the liberation of Jerusalem), Shavit’s characters extend much further back, starting with the author’s own great-grandfather who first visited the Holy Land in 1897 when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, and Zionism was still an idea just gaining traction in Europe.

More than another dozen stories follow, including the tale of the zealous youth who made up the early kibbutz movement, a farmer who managed to keep his orange grove growing as  winds of war gathered in the 1930s, up through the soldiers and politicians, settlers and activists, hippies and hackers making up contemporary Israeli life.

Because of the controversy surrounding an important chapter of Shavit’s book (the one titled Lydda, 1948), I decided to read that part last so as to avoid having it color my opinion of the book overall.  This helped me better experience My Promised Land as others had, especially those who celebrated Shavit’s ability to make history come alive with a work that many describe as “reading like a novel.”

When applied to non-fiction, this phrase is usually meant as a compliment, implying that the author has managed to incorporate real-life characters into engaging narratives – something that definitely sums up two the key virtues of My Promised Land – excitement and readability.  But like all attempts to fit the complexities of history into satisfying storylines, leveraging the tools of fiction to bring to life challenging real-world situations carries with it both risks and responsibilities.

This issue hit me almost immediately in the first story of the book, the one chronicling the author’s great grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, who visited pre-state Palestine at the end of the century (the 19th century that is) as part of a combined fact-finding mission and pilgrimage.

At various points in the chapter, Shavit refers to photos of his ancestor, so perhaps he also had access to journals Bentwich kept on his journey, which could explain the author’s confident description of what his great-grandfather was thinking about during this important moment of his life. But Shavit goes much further than this, describing what Bentwich (and other characters in his book) were NOT thinking about at important points in the narrative.  And, as far as I know, the only people who can claim to understand (rather than just guess at) what others didn’t consider are novelists in full control of their character’s internal lives.

For instance, Shavit repeatedly tells us that his great-grandfather “does not see” the Arabs in the Holy Land (people the author characterizes as indigenous peasants and serfs) during a pilgrimage suffused with living monuments to the Jewish past and hopes for a Jewish national future.  But couldn’t another writer (me perhaps) decide that what Bentwich did not ponder was how the co-religionists of the Muslim empire that then ruled the area were as impoverished as everyone else?

No doubt such an attempt to put words into the brain of a man who died decades ago would be dismissed as mere speculation (perhaps politically motivated speculation since it would be put to the purpose of characterizing Arabs of the region as imperialist invaders).  But why should the speculations of Bentwich’s great-grandson (which are equally politically charged) be treated any differently?

While it would be easy to treat this and other examples of omniscient narration as agenda-driven, I think it is safe to say that – like a novel – My Promised Land does traffic in important and honest internal dialog: that of the author.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Take, for example, my favorite chapter in the book: The Project, 1967, in which Shavit uses a sit down/drinking session with Israeli engineer Avner Cohen, who helped Israel build the Dimona nuclear plant, as the launch pad for reflection on the development of Israel’s nuclear deterrent.

Like other characters making up Shavit’s narratives, the taciturn Cohen provides a number of blanks the author needs to fill in.  And, in this case, those spaces are filled by Shavit’s marvel at both the ambition of Dimona and the paradox of a nuclear Israel.

For every other time in human history when one nation outgunned all of its enemies, it put that military advantage to political use, by directly controlling its neighbors or using the threat of overwhelming force to dominate or influence them.  And most military breakthroughs (like the bomb) lead to dramatic changes in military doctrine, such as the de-emphasis on conventional forces that took place in the US military during its brief monopoly over atomic weapons.

But Israel not only does not use its local nuclear monopoly for political advantage, it doesn’t even admit to having it.  And even as the nation’s political leaders (Left and Right) prefer to keep Israel’s nuclear status ambiguous, those same leaders prefer to pretend it does not exist when it comes to a national military strategy designed to win wars through conventional force alone.

What other nation behaves in such a way?  And why should Israel be an exception to almost every rule of power politics?  These are questions and paradoxes that fill Shavit’s mind (and thus his characters’ minds), which makes his working his thoughts out publically particularly illuminating.

Unfortunately, such a personal approach to history runs into a minefield when he tells that aforementioned tale of Lydda, 1948 – a story I will get to next time.

Continued…

Arguing with Mike – Is that all you got? ;-)

20 Dec

Continuing on with my back-and-forth with Mike Lumish of Israel Thrives/Times of Israel/Elder of Ziyon fame, in my last contribution I hedged a bit in my challenge to Mike’s critique of Left-wing anti-Zionism, given that his original critique was more implicit than direct.  But now that he has made that critique explicit in his most recent reply, I shall make my challenge to it more explicit as well.

His argument rests on three linked observations/premises, the first being what Mike (and many others) consider to be one of the most prominent of President Obama’s foreign policy failures: his choice to support the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt coupled with the President’s choice to wrap his hopes for a democratic Arab spring in Egypt and elsewhere in the language of America’s two most sacred struggles (the War of Independence and the Civil Rights Movement).

With this charge in place, an accusation can then be directed at “The Left” (or least the US Left) based on an objective fact: that it voted overwhelmingly for someone (twice!) who pretended the Muslim Brotherhood (which all of us know as the Ur-Jihad, out of which so much of today’s Islamist mayhem sprung) was the inheritor of Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Parks.

With those two facts in place, the indictment which follows simply points out that a US Left which chose to vote for this President two times cannot possibly be considered friendly to Jewish peoplehood, especially given the role Israel plays in Jewish identity in the 21st century.

And given the overlap between left-leaning Americans and American Jews (78% of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 69% in 2012), Mike’s third observation is that these huge numbers were clearly voting against their most important interests – a choice which I suspect fuels his frequent condemnation that many Progressive Jews (and those who do not condemn them) suffer from having their heads “buried in the sand” (probably the nicest way of putting a sentiment that lends itself to a more scatological version).

I will agree that each of these observations has merit and the logic linking them together is likely to be convincing – even compelling – to some.  But I would like to challenge each observation/premise and the logic linking them, not to fly to the defense of the Obama administration, but to highlight how this argument actually weakens the case Mike is trying to make against Left-leaning opponents of the Jewish state.

To begin with, as much as I agree that each of us is entitled to focus on aspects of an issue (like Mike’s choice to focus on Obama’s behavior when the Brotherhood was in power in Egypt), genuine understanding can only come from focusing on more than one fact – no matter how revealing  that single fact might seem.

For even in the case of Egypt, the Obama administration provided aid to the Mubarak government before it fell, the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government that replaced it, and the el-Sisi government that overthrew Morsi.  So in terms of action, Obama has simply been part of a continuity that goes back to the 1970s in which both Republican and Democratic administrations made the wise choice to pay Egypt to keep it out of direct military participation in the Arab war against Israel.

Now while I can split hairs regarding whether Obama was directly praising the Brotherhood when he used civil rights language to express his hopes for the Arab Spring, I think it’s safer to say that Obama’s Middle East policies in general (which included supporting Muslim Brothers Egypt wing while dropping bombs on its ISIS wing) reflect a complex reaction to a complex world.  And while one can praise those decisions, or condemn them as naïve or dangerous (I’d tend to fall between those last two), resting one’s case on just one aspect of administration policy (as Mike does) actually makes your case vulnerable to a wide variety of counter-examples (like the ones you just read).

Regarding “The Left” voting overwhelmingly for Obama in two elections, putting aside what we mean by “The Left,” there is a perfectly valid reason why such a group would vote for the Democratic candidate in 2008 and 2012: because that’s what left-leaning voters do.

In fact, most of those who voted for (or against) Obama were destined to do so even before the current President was born based entirely on partisan preferences (either inherited or chosen) that tend to overwhelm any particular issue.  And given that this same “Left” is just as likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who is not hostile to Israel over any Republican in the next election, focusing a critique on the Left for supporting a Democratic presidential candidate seems like condemning the tide for coming in and getting your beach towel wet.

I’m more sympathetic to the argument regarding Jewish voters (and Jewish organizations) that ran interference for the current President, rather than pressuring or lobbying him to stop his needless fight-picking with Israel’s government and appeasement of Middle East dictators.  But even here I make a distinction between Jewish Voice for Peace (which is the enemy of the Jewish state and its supporters) and Jewish community and defense organizations that have lost their way.

The former must be fought at all cost, but the latter have the potential of doing the right thing or, in the case of defense groups like ADL, of coming back to their roots.  And even if this is an uphill (and potentially fruitless) battle, I prefer it be waged in the context of trying to convince friends to get their priorities straight, rather than treating potential allies in the same way I treat enemies (like JVP).

Getting back to more general voting patterns, this 70-80% of Jewish voters was part of more than half the electorate that voted for the current President in two separate elections.  Which leaves us with the choice of treating the majority of Americans as foes of the Jewish state vs. treating them as what they are: a complex group with differing preferences and priorities, most of whom didn’t give Israel a second of thought when they made their choice for President.

Now keep in mind that I have picked at Mike’s argument not because we disagree that the Left is a vital battlefield over which the Middle East conflict will be fought, but because I feel that his major indictment – anchored as it is in a partisan moment that is going to change one way or another over the next few years – is both fragile and time-bound.

This is the reason I gravitate towards historic arguments (like Wistrich’s) or prophetic philosophical ones (like Wisse’s) since they are much too strong to challenge without serious engagement (which is why Israel’s foes ignore them) and are as relevant today as when these authors first started making them decades ago.

Yes, they take a little more work than does a contemporary partisan fight.  But if we are to make the right choices in the war over (not against) the Left – especially given the power and ruthlessness of our foes – we need to be armed with ideas that are as powerful as they are timeless.

Infiltration

11 Dec

Since returning to the anti-BDS fold earlier this year, I find myself doing more analysis of recent BDS-related stories, rather than covering breaking news as it happens (although I can’t resist pointing readers to the latest BDS hoax story, something we’ve not seen in a while).

But moving right along, today, I’d like to talk about the brouhaha over the recent defection of Holly Bicerano, the former Campus Out-Reach Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel, an organization you have met on this site previously.

It will come as no surprise that many on this side of the aisle understood Open Hillel to be just another attempt by BDS activists to infiltrate the mainstream Jewish community under the guise of “openness” and other words with positive connotations.  And I don’t think I’m the only person to have noticed that the groups that form the backbone of Open Hillel (notably Jewish Voice for Peace) or the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization which Open Hillel warmly welcomed to their recent national conference have always erected high barriers around their own institutions and events to limit those of differing opinions from participating.

But Ms. Bicerano’s decision to publically break with the group and expose how much BDS and anti-normalization advocates are driving Open Hillel’s agenda is obviously newsworthy, given the former Open Hillel leader’s position in the organization she left, and her general attitudes towards BDS (which she supports, at least with regard to the Presbyterians) and Israel (which she blames for last summer’s Gaza war and for thwarting Palestinian democracy).

It is always interesting to see if this kind of “defection” represents the start of a journey by someone like Bicerano, or simply represents a red line over which even someone active in anti-Israel political activities and programming will not cross.  If it’s the former, I wish her well.  But even if it’s the latter, the activities that turned her off from Open Hillel provide an interesting window into why anti-Israel organizations tend towards instability.

Unlike Jewish organizations like Hillel (and the alphabet soup of community institutions – some of which have been in business for a century), anti-Israel organizations tend to form, rise, fall, break apart and either disappear or reform into new organizations with a cycle that seems to repeat every 5-7 years.

For example, when I first moved back to the Boston area, a group called the Middle East Justice Network (MEJN) got up my nose, but I was too busy to do anything about it.  Yet when I finally did get around to putting time into pro-Israel activism and tried to find out what the group was up to, no trace of it could be found.  But within a few years a new group (the Somerville Divestment Project, or SDP) was in the driver’s seat, pushing the first municipal divestment program in my then home city of Somerville MA.  And lo and behold, this group seemed to include the very same people I remember from MEJN days.

Today, SDP consists of a cobweb and new groups with names like The New England Committee to Defend Palestine and Ads Against Apartheid have come and gone (or formed for the soul purpose of engaging in a single activity – like running anti-Israel bus ads).  Similarly, while pro-Israel organizations are rightly concerned over the aggressive behavior of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on campuses, almost no one remembers the Palestinian Solidarity Committee (PSM) that drove divestment back in the early 2000s.

The rise and fall of PSM provides an interesting window into why anti-Israel groups tend to be so unstable.  For once that group gained momentum (especially on college campuses where their petition-driven divestment activity was centered), everyone from every side of the anti-Israel continuum (Left to Right, Secular-Marxist to Islamist) vied to seize control of the organization – to the point where its leaders had to spend more time fending off infiltrators than tending to their own mission, leading to the group’s demise.

If this tactic of infiltration sounds familiar, it is exactly what BDS activists do all the time to third parties (student government, academic associations, Mainline churches, etc.) in order to drag those groups under the boycott or divestment umbrella (regardless of how much damage such moves cause to the organizations they have infiltrated).  So it should come as no surprise that the infiltration skills they use on outsiders also come in handy when it comes time to drag the latest ascendant anti-Israel organization under this or that partisan umbrella.

Reading Bicerano’s piece over with this history in mind, it is clear that what she calls anti-normalization activity within Open Hillel (“anti-normalization” refers to a policy which says all pro-Palestinian organizations should reject dialog with any Jewish group that does not accept their pro-BDS stance and opinions on the Middle East in advance) is really just another example of the infiltration of a group formed with one agenda (Open Hillel – which allegedly wants to up dialog on campus) by another group (anti-normalization activists who want to shut such dialog down).  And as the former Campus Co-Coordinator for Open Hillel discovered, when such infiltrators want in, they are ready to do whatever is necessary to get their way.

As I mentioned earlier, it will be interesting to see if her experience with Open Hillel opens Bicerano’s mind to what others suffer when BDS infects this or that civic society group.  But for the rest of us, the lesson to learn is that, left on their own, anti-Israel groups (including Students for Justice in Palestine) contain the seeds of their own destruction in the form of their allies rather than their adversaries.

In a way, this situation is analogous to what we see in the Middle East where an Israel which focuses on staying strong and tending to the needs of its own people (including the need to protect them from harm) can grow and prosper, even as more numerous, wealthy and politically powerful adversaries fall to pieces as they contend with the contradictions built into their own societies and historical choices.

As much as BDS has been in the news this year (and as important as it is to continue to fight it), Israel’s supporters abroad also need to be ready to play a long game which will never involve total victory but will hopefully involve more wins than losses stretched over enough time to let Open Hillel and SJP join their predecessors in the cemetery of anti-Israel organizations whose names have long been forgotten.