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Going on the Attack

23 Jun

A couple of items on this year’s “War on BDS” news list overlap with a theme I’ve mentioned previously: the efficacy of the “offense vs. defense” paradigm when talking about what to do about the propaganda assault on Israel.

At the fundraising event I mentioned last time, one hint of how donors were hoping to see their money spent was to turn the battle against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions into one where the other side was no longer in full control of the initiative.

Like most high-level political desires, such a hope cannot be judged until implemented as a set of concrete strategies and tactics. But a different initiative, one that’s been making news since it launched about a month ago, does provide something to grasp onto and analyze.

The project is called Canary Mission (not sure if this name is a reference to the “Canary in the Coal Mine” metaphor or if it’s just an inside joke – or the last obtainable URL), a web site (and associated social media assets) designed by folks eager to “take the fight to the enemy.” And controversy surrounding the project centers around how “taking the fight to the enemy” has been defined.

Canary Mission approach falls under the category of “naming and shaming” with the focus of the site being a long list of individuals (and a shorter list of organizations) with BDS ties, each of which is called out with extensive descriptions, bios and links that highlight each person or group’s atrocious behavior (mostly on college campuses).

I suspect that had Canary Mission focused just on groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), they would have received less pushback from the Jewish media and parts of the organized Jewish community.  But a naming-and-shaming approach that targets individuals has elicited less-than-fulsome praise by many people and organizations that are themselves staunch critics of BDS and similar anti-Israel propaganda campaigns.  And, needless to say, the BDSers are crying “McCarthyism!” and desperately trying to link any and all opponents to the now-controversial Canary site.

Years ago, another “take-the-fight-to-the-enemy” type launched a different site called “SH*T List” (or something to that effect) which included hostile bios of Jews associated with anti-Israel projects (I believe the SH stood for “Self-Hating,” although I can’t remember what the IT abbreviated).  And while the Canary Mission site is less vulgar and more well-put-together than I remember that SH*Tlist site to have been, it’s worth recalling the reaction to this previous instance of “naming-and-shaming” targeting individuals when critiquing this new effort.

Before getting to that critique, I should note up front that profiling individuals (and hinting that getting profiled persons in trouble with potential employers is a campaign goal) doesn’t sit all that well with me.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a wuss too huddled into a defensive crouch to do what needs to be done.  Or perhaps my distaste for the personalization of politics (by foes and friends) rubs me the wrong way.  And while I understand enough real history to dismiss the BDSers charges of McCarthyism, a program that can be perceived as attacking real people in hope of causing them harm (at least when it’s time for them to get a job) seems like a bad choice.

These personal feelings aside, most of the issues I have with this “going on the attack” strategy are pragmatic.  For – as just mentioned – in the months since Canary launched it has been condemned by a number of people across the political spectrum who share the organization’s goal of seeing the BDS “movement” sent back into the hole it crawled out of, causing cracks in an otherwise remarkably united anti-BDS front across Jewish and pro-Israel communities.

Meanwhile, after launching into their usual mode of outrage, the BDSers seem to have settled into wearing inclusion in the Canary Site list as a badge of honor (similar to what happened with SH*T List).

Also, as someone with a penchant for military analysis, I’m not exactly sure what the goal of this political tactic might be.  Is it to get BDS partisans so worried about their future that they withdraw from the field?  This might provide some advantage to our side, although only if a shamed person is not immediately replaced by some other as-yet-unnamed (and unshame-able) individual of equal energy and talent.

Perhaps such public outing is designed to educate the public about the vast, interlinked network of organizations behind BDS propaganda campaigns.  If that’s the case, the site certainly does the job by making these networks part of storylines associated with specific individuals.  But organizations like NGO Monitor are able to accomplish this same goal far more effectively (by exposing sponsors of BDS activity who would prefer to remain in the shadows) without turning to tactics that divide allies.

Another possibility is that these types of aggressive tactics are ends in themselves, a way to show that Israel’s supporters can throw a punch, rather than just be on the receiving end of the boycotters endless propaganda blows. This psychological factor certainly seems to be in play among many friends and allies who are more comfortable with Canary’s name-and-shame tactics then am I, and it’s one I can sympathize with.

But only to a point.  For looking out at our side’s most recent successes (notably passage of anti-BDS sanctions legislation by many states), it’s not clear that campaigns which risk casting us in a bad light are as effective as is working with people whose sympathies partly grow out of respect that we have not stooped to the opposition’s level.

As I’ve stated again and again on this site, if you’ve got militant goals (like seeing Israel destroyed), that leads you to accept certain strategies, such as waging a propaganda war designed to make that destruction seem moral and appealing. And if allies share those goals, then it is easy to create a united front around ugly and manipulative tactics like BDS.

But if you are not united behind destroying someone else (which we are not), then a strategy built around ginning up hostility, while easy to kick off, becomes impossible to sustain long enough to bite.  Which means our side is required to select different strategies and tactics, ones which may lack the kind of offensive explosiveness we have come to expect from Israel’s enemies.

But remember that the explosive choices made by Israel’s foes – including their choice to engage in a war against the Jews where no rules apply – has led to a war of all against all across the Middle East where “no holds barred” now applies to what those enemies are doing to each other.  Which points out that aggressive tactics carry risks when they become both ends and means.

While all wars must combine offensive and defensive strategies, it is vital that choices of when to attack and defend be smart and made at the right time. For every example of when the choice to engage in a pitched battle has led to victory, there’s another when an overeager desire to take the fight to the enemy has led to self destruction.

Once again, the IDF (which has successfully defended Israel’s borders while rarely initiating needless offensive military action) should serve as our role model.  For no one can doubt the aggressiveness of their defensive strategy, just as no one can doubt how the “Attack! Attack! Attack! “ strategies of Israel’s opponents have led them over a cliff.

RIP Robert Wistrich

20 May

It is with unmitigated sadness that I must join the chorus of the tearful mourning the passage of Robert Wistrich who died last night in Rome at the age of 70.

Like Barry Rubin, another lion who passed away recently (and far too young), Wistrich was a shocking powerhouse of productivity.

But while Rubin’s staggering output fell into the category of journalism and analysis, Wistrich was first and foremost a scholar.  And in an era when some people bearing that label might spend their careers hocking one book (or one idea taking the form of many books, only one of which ever needed to have been written), Wistrich took on the huge (and – sadly – ever-relevant) topic of anti-Semitism, both dissecting it as a scholar and fighting it as a champion of the Jewish people.

Wistrich’s writing has impacted my thinking for as long as I can remember.  And his recent masterpiece, From Ambivalence to Betrayal (which some of you might recall served as the basis for a five-part review a couple of years back) helped clarify mine (and, I hope, other peoples’) thinking about one of the most vexing political issues of our time: the prominence of anti-Semitism on the Left.

If you share my belief that ideas ultimately have more impact on the world than do mobs of clashing activists (or even armies, navies and air forces), then the body of scholarship Wistrich left behind will be continuing his life’s work for decades to come, hopefully contributing to a world where the phenomenon he studied and wrote about his entire career is no longer needlessly chewing up lives across the planet.

So Rest in Peace, Robert Wistrich, and rest assured that those you inspired and informed are ready to carry on the fight to the end.

BDS Scorecard

23 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconsideration II – See You in Court?

16 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconsiderations I – Is BDS Still a Loser?

10 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northeastern Beats Back BDS

18 Mar

Given that the topic I and two top-notch StandWithUs activists will be covering at next week’s anti-BDS conference in LA is called “Organizing the Community to Fight BDS” (or something along those lines); I wanted to highlight an example from my neighborhood that shows just what an effective ground game looks like.

Last night, the Student Government Association (SGA) at Northeastern University in Boston voted down a divestment resolution proposed by the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter, with the final tally including 9 for and 25 against (with fourteen abstentions).

This scale of this victory didn’t come from nothing, but was rather a case study of pro-Israel students doing everything right – especially with regard to following the rules that have led to virtually every success I’ve seen in the fight against BDS over the last 14 years.

To set the stage, SJP actually has a substantial presence at Northeastern which allows them to engage in numerous agitprop campaigns as well as muster the organizational oomph needed to put a divestment resolution in front of student government.  At the same time, their scale has given them the people power needed to make flesh some pretty nasty stuff, including their move last year to stuff eviction notices under fellow student’s doors in a particularly Jewish dorm (a stunt which got their organization temporarily suspended).

When that suspension was reversed (in no small part due to legal threats made by attorneys from the Lawyer’s Guild – a group that primary exists today to serve as consiglieres to the BDS movement), the organization may have deluded itself into thinking the student body was now on their side when they chose to bring a divestment referendum petition to last-night’s SGA meeting.  But while lawyers might be able to make conflict-adverse administrators stand down, they can’t eliminate the (accurate) impression on campus that SJP is a bunch of fanatical jerks.

Set against this mixed bag of SJP strengths and weaknesses were students making up Northeastern’s school’s pro-Israel community, including the campus’ Huskies for Israel organization which helped pull together a Students for a United Northeastern campaign to counter SJP’s divestment push.

Now on this particular campus, the Hillel director is top notch – both in her support for Israel, her political talents, and – most importantly – her trust in students doing the ground-level work of pro-Israel activism on campus.  And given the list of thank you’s in Hillel’s post-victory announcement linked above, those students clearly pulled in expertise as they needed it, while never losing sight of the fact that it was their responsibility to determine what would work and what wouldn’t in their unique campus environment.

I bring this up not just to congratulate everyone involved with this successful struggle (although they deserve all the congratulations you can send them), but to highlight the elements of what constitutes a successful ground game, with some thoughts about the choices we have when one or more of those elements is missing.

For example, I’m familiar with many instances where people wrestling with a BDS-related issue have turned to local Jewish community organizations or (in the case of college campuses) the school’s Hillel, only to find limited support for their efforts.

There are many reasons why this might be so. Most obviously, in many parts of the country Jewish human capital is pretty thin on the ground.  And even when there are community or campus groups, their resources or their skill and appetite for confrontational politics might be limited (as I discovered in Somerville a decade ago when the only synagogue in town decided to sit out the first issue in a hundred years that required Jewish solidarity).

In some instances, there exists bad blood between local activists and mainstream Jewish organizations  (fights over J Street seem to be a source for many of these conflicts – a fight I want to note, but not dwell on in a piece dedicated to “how-to”).  Especially since the point I’m trying to illustrate is what to do when you are not as fortunate as were the kids at Northeastern who had both strong student leadership and a wider Jewish community that had their back.

One choice (the least effective, in my opinion) would be for local activists to try to shame a mainstream Jewish organization into supporting their cause.  The reason this rarely works is that (1) an organization choosing to sit out a conflict probably doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to make that big a difference anyway; (2) any ally who would prefer not to be by your side is going to sap energy from your efforts; and (3) such shaming tends to create more bad blood, increasing vs. decreasing community tension (especially in the case of a loss, which often leads to finger-pointing).

The second best option when others you hoped would take the lead can’t or won’t do so is for local activists to step into the leadership role themselves.  Time and time again: on campuses, at food-coops, within churches and cities (including Somerville) it was local people, many of whom had never participated in pro-Israel activism in their lives, who rose to the occasion, organized the community, and handed the BDSers their latest humiliating defeat.

The third (and my favorite) alternative, however, is when local activists and mainstream organizations that might be bitterly divided over political issues (J Street, or even the Middle East conflict generally) put aside those differences to work together towards a common goal (the defeat of BDS) with an understanding that such solidarity did not require them to agree on all things, or even continue to work together in coalition after the battle was done.

This is the situation I wrote about at the end of the three-year Somerville divestment saga, a series of campaigns that involved people who usually spend all their waking hours bad-mouthing one another to put aside mutual hostility in order to staple signs onto pieces of wood, stand in front of polling places, hand out literature, and perform other concrete, vital tasks that left no time for political bickering.

Such a project-oriented approach lets people who ultimately care about Israel (even if they have different ways of expressing that care) to do some practical good (kick the BDSers’ butts) by fighting side-by-side.  And you’d be surprised how hard it is to trash someone on your blog a week after you’ve just fought (and won) the good fight alongside them.

Now we are involved with a long war and do not have the people or resources to enter every fight with the army we want, or even to win every battle.  But given that BDS is getting to the middle of its second decade with little more than a handful of meaningless student council resolutions under its belt, I’m guessing that the chemistry described above exists in enough places to be making the difference.