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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.

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.