Every couple of years, we are given a reminder of how much the choices of both pro- and anti-BDS campaigners are constrained (if not driven) by geopolitical forces beyond the control of even the most effective, thoughtful and successful activist individuals and organizations.
Going all the way back to 2001, the pre-cursor to today’s BDS “movement” originated at the Durban II conference (a UN event which, by definition, makes it a conference of state actors). While the original agenda for that event was supposed to be the fight against global racism, that goal was quickly abandoned in favor of supporting racism, notably, the racist campaign to brand Israel as the inheritor of Apartheid South Africa (the so-called “Apartheid Strategy”).
An associated Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) conference, which consisted of organizations under the sway of those aforementioned state actors (demonstrated by their following the lead of the nation-states making decisions at the adjoining main conference), helped distill that “Apartheid Strategy” into a set of tactics that involved recruiting civic organizations (such as schools, churches and municipalities) – by any means necessary – into embracing a position we today refer to as BDS.
That strategy laid fallow for several months as the world’s attention turned to 9/11 and its aftermath (the defining geopolitical events of the 21st century). But once another quasi-state actor (Yasir Arafat, whose source of authority was always the nation-states of the Arab world which declared his PLO to be the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people”) decided to unleash a terror campaign on Israel, another state actor (Israel) was forced to respond.
It was this response that led to global street protests, part of a galvanization of domestic political activity directed at Israel and its supporters, activity that had post-Durban blueprints ready to follow. But that agenda might never have been activated (and our counter-activity never needed) had state actors and other powerful geopolitical forces not created the war-and-peace framework to which all of us had to respond.
Since then, the same game has played out every 2-3 years: in Lebanon (’06) and Gaza (’09, ‘11 and today), with either Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza choosing to start a war (through kidnapping, bombing or missile-launching campaigns), triggering an inevitable Israeli response. But Hezbollah and Hamas were and are not grassroots organizations working on their budgets during the day and firing rockets at night, but forward military allies of those from whom they receive their weapons and money – notably nation-states like Iran. And even if geopolitical alliances might change from year to year, the reason Hamas receives multi-million dollar arms shipments and checks while Tibetans must endure with bumper stickers is that the former has friends in the capitals of powerful nations, while the latter does not.
As the street protests we saw in ’02 repeated themselves in ’06 and ’09, they quickly morphed into an extension of the wars they were allegedly protesting. Put simply, those claiming the title of “peace activists” (who are ready to shriek in your face or punch your lights out if you refuse to acknowledge them as such) pretty much have nothing to say when missiles fly from Lebanon or Gaza into Israel. But once weapons start firing in two directions, suddenly these once-somnambulant peace warriors roar to life, taking to the streets to demand an immediate cease fire, followed by war crimes trials of any Israel who dared to return fire.
These choices make no sense whatsoever if we were dealing with a genuine peace movement. But if you realize that these activists (and the BDS tactic they re-committed themselves to in 2009) are part of the arsenal of war, then all the facts fall neatly into place.
For war is not just fought with guns, missiles, tanks and planes. It is also fought with propaganda. And the goal of propaganda arm of the anti-Israel war movement is to limit Israel’s military choices while maximizing those of the Jewish state’s weapon-wielding enemies. So the reason you never see pressure applied to Hamas in response to kidnapping murder and missile attacks – while Israel’s response triggers immediate calls for a cease fire – is that those demanding a halt to two-way (vs. one-way) war want to ensure groups like Hamas are not so degraded that they aren’t free to rearm and restart their war another day.
While I promised to give the Presbyterians a rest, I’ll use them as an example of the dynamic I’m talking about. For during an entire week allegedly dedicated to praying and thinking and talking about peace in the Middle East, did PCUSA ever make their devotion to the Palestinian cause conditional on an end to kidnapping and rocket fire, or threaten some put their divestment program on hold until kidnapped boys were released and missiles stopped landing in Sderot? Nope. Instead they offered generic prayers for peace while directing all condemnatory resolutions with teeth at the target of kidnappings and rocket fire. In short, their choices made them part of a war project, which is why so few people inside and outside their organization take their self-characterization as peacemakers the least bit seriously.
The difference between earlier eras of joint military-propaganda operations and those taking place today is that the entire region is now aflame after an Arab Spring turned from Islamist Winter to a pan-Middle East war of all against all. And as nations rise and fall and new organizations and alliances emerge to fill various vacuums, geopolitical actors with money, arms and power continue to be the decision-makers regarding what happens next.
In a way, this Arab civil war has precedent in the 1950s and 60s when the monarchs who ruled the region either lost their heads or fought to the death against secular dictators who hoped to redraw the map of the Middle East in their favor (with the global superpowers playing their role by arming and supporting an ever-shifting set of allies).
Today, as those remaining monarchs and aging dictators (or, more specifically, their sons) find themselves in a new death match against religious fanatics, the major difference is that nations which spent three generations justifying limitless violence, a violation of every norm of war and peace, and the weaponization of the vocabulary and machinery of human rights in their fight against Israel now find themselves on the receiving end of the same weapons (including propaganda weapons) they originally hoped would be targeted at the Jews alone.
While some of the geopolitical actors creating facts (and corpses) on the ground have different names than earlier tyrants, all past and present wannabe dictators and Caliphs are joined in representing the latest variant on mankind’s oldest enemy: ruthlessness.
Long-time readers will recognize what I’m talking about when I use that term (and, if not, you can grab a cup of coffee and read this series on the subject). But for purposes of this discussion, we need to keep in mind that when the next BDS proposal gets made by people brandishing photos of dead Gazans (including those that are just recycled pictures of dead Syrians), those pushing for such proposals are not grassroots peace activists but weapon systems that both support and are supported by equally militant geopolitical actors.
This does not diminish the need to fight against such propaganda efforts everywhere and always. But as we do so, we need to maintain a humble understanding that the ultimate decisions over whether there will be war or peace are – as always – in the hands of those holding the reigns of power, hands that will either pull or not pull triggers based on things other than what we do or say or write.