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A Source of Optimism in a Time of Ruthlessness

16 Oct

Some recent communication crystalized thoughts regarding how to approach events in the Middle East (and their associated blowback at home) with anything but despair.

Most recently, a brief discussion in the comments section required me to think again about the conundrum of treating BDS as both a failure and a threat.

As I’ve explained in the past, failure creates its own momentum, just as victory does.  So there is ample reason to communicate the inability of a propaganda campaign like BDS to achieve any of its stated goals, especially since it is one of the few elements of the global anti-Israel de-legitimization/propaganda campaign we “civilians” can directly impact.

But the scope of things we cannot impact (at least directly) was brought home when my Rabbi (who I have come to admire more and more over the years) sent we congregants a series of missives over the summer which described his attempts to carry on a normal sabbatical in Israel while dodging missiles trying to kill him every other day.

After such a harrowing experience, we were braced for a post-sabbatical holiday sermon that would focus on events in the Middle East.  But what impressed me most about his impassioned first-hand description of front lines in the recent Hamas-initiated war was his ability to clearly articulate reality (which includes both the Hamas Covenant and the organization’s official policy of child sacrifice) while still holding onto his long-standing optimism that peace (somehow, some way) would eventually emerge out of so much violence and catastrophe.

In more cynical moments, I might wonder whether someone’s longing for peace when groups like Hamas and ISIS are holding (and gaining) territory might represent an inability to grasp reality.  And the argument that 20+ years of peace processing seems to have led to noting but endless war is one I wish more people (including more optimists) would confront.

But, at the same time, I maintain my own optimism about not just ultimately defeating BDS but the ultimate success of Israel and the Jewish people over the forces of chaos which are clashing and burning and killing across the globe.

Now this optimism is not blind to the fact that what we can expect in the coming years is more and more darkness and that even “victory” over the bloody forces arraigned against us represents nothing but a limited respite.  For, despite the slogans and costumes and Koranic verses, what we face on all battlefields is not ultimately Islam (or Islamism or Jihad or whatever euphemism we use to sooth the sensibilities and prejudices of ourselves and others) but mankind’s oldest enemy: ruthlessness.

If you read this series (or other things I’ve written in the past), you’ll recognize my cribbing from Lee Harris who describes history as the halting progress of civilization against a ruthless foe always dogging its heels.  When mankind was capable of nothing but foraging and hunting, it was the ruthless who discovered they could get all the food they wanted by simply killing others to obtain it, making the survivors their slaves in the process.

Moving ahead ten-thousand years, who could have anticipated that a blend of 18th and 19th century philosophy and economics, or the racial ravings of an Austrian paper hanger would harden into ideologies used to justify the murder of millions and the enslavement of billions?  But if you think of movements like Communism and Fascism as the intellectual infrastructure the ruthless use to justify their means, then everything makes perfect sense.  For the ends these ruthless Fuhrers and Commissars pursued was not the utopias they promised the public (and gullible foreigners), but their own absolute rule with a power of life and death beyond anything history’s most vicious tyrants and emperors could ever imagine.

Today, it is the Islamic world where a lethal blend of historic fantasy, cultivated grievance, and ends-justify-means ideology is driving the planet to a new brink.  But it is also a war-weary world that can’t bring itself to do what must be done to drive off the ruthless that has created the opening where a new group of warlords will fight to the death to win the right (and the power) to expand their war world-wide.

To be fair to folks like Neville Chamberlain, at least he and his generation made their decisions within living memory of the killing fields of World War I, which helps explain why they went to the lengths they did to ignore and appease evil until it was almost too late to stop it.  Our excuse is that we have become too comfortable with a half a century of non-war (or, more specifically, a half a century where most of us never had to make sacrifices in order to defeat a ruthless enemy).  Which is why it has become so easy to blame Bush, blame Israel, blame ourselves for the world returning to a state of nature we’d rather believe does not exist.

So what can possibly provide anyone a sense of optimism when facing a new conflict that is sure to lead to the re-ordering of the world (and not for the better), a re-ording likely to be accompanied by the death of millions (if not tens of millions)?  In a word: Zionism.

How can it be that the most loathed label in the global political lexicon can be a source of hope, even salvation?

The inspiration of a people at the brink of extinction creating a nation three years later which has grown into a successful, prosperous, mighty and humane democracy should be enough (dayenu) to justify a high degree of optimism.  But think for a moment about how much the history of the Jewish state defies the laws of the jungle that hold sway nearly everywhere else on the planet.

Israel has the might (and has always had the might) to actually commit all of the crimes it is routinely accused of, and yet it has chosen not to do so.  And as galling as it might be to be accused of genocide by the genocidal leaders of a Palestinian less-than-state whose population exploded under dreaded Israeli “Occupation” (rather than go down, as it has during all other genocides in history), as ludicrous as it might be to be accused of ethnic cleansing by Arab state who cleansed their nations of Jews decades ago (with Christians next on the hit list), as vile as it might be to hear nihilists and allies of the warlords bringing misery to the rest of the world declare “Zionism” to be the ugliest word ever uttered, Israel’s choices represent its determination to not let its soul be driven by the same ruthless nature that has historically guided those with power.

Want another example?  OK – How about an atomic-scale one?  For rather than use its nuclear arsenal to dominate the region (like any “normal” nuclear power would do), Israel simply shut up about it with the assumption that it would remain a last resort (rather than an asset to be pulled out for this or that strategic reason).  My guess is that a nuclear Iran will not show similar restraint.

One can find other examples, all of which add up to Zionism demonstrating to the world that a state can succeed without devolving into bitter ruthlessness or ends-justifying-means on a national scale.  And, given the mayhem that now engulfs virtually every one of Israel’s neighbors, it is a lesson worth considering – especially by those who might prefer to nail to the cross a nation that may have found a way to live with the many paradoxes (past vs. future, faith vs. politics, national vs. individual identity, power vs. humanity) that has made modernity such a vexing, thrilling, yet bloody experience for all of us.

Surviving the Upcoming BDS Onslaught – 2

5 Sep

I actually misspoke slightly when I said yesterday that a different set of rules apply when dealing with dyed-in-the-wool anti-Israel propagandists vs. those who have not de-normalized themselves through an embrace of BDS catechism and modes of behavior.

For when dealing with such people, the rules we should embrace (with some key modifications that I outline below) are the very ones the BDSers have spent years teaching us – the three tactics (The Pointing Finger, Ignore-ance and Pathos) – which define the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”

For instance, in a normal conversation (or even a heated but honest argument), one can expect (and should provide) normal give and take: genuinely listening to what someone is saying, answering their actual points (rather than pretending they said something else), and so on.  But when faced with a faux-interlocutor only interested in making their own accusations and ignoring everything you have to say in response, we are allowed (indeed obliged) to return the favor.

In short, if SJP types insist we talk about nothing but Palestinian “casualties” (and also insist they be given full control over that term), we shouldn’t respond by highlighting male-to-female casualty ratios or explanation of IDF knocking strategies that will just be sneered at and ignored. Rather, the only topic on our agenda should be Hamas’ unquestionable war criminality, its viciousness towards both Israelis and Palestinians, and the cowardice of its leaders who hid in spider holes under hospitals and schools (or in luxury hotels in Qatar) while others suffered and died for those leader’s aggrandizement.

Rhetorically speaking, numbers (particularly specific ones) tied to evocative images tend to stick in people’s minds.  So when they talk about 1,891 or 2,127 “civilian” deaths in Gaza, best to ask them whether that includes the 160 Gazan children Hamas worked to death building their terror tunnels or the 21 people Hamas shot in the head towards the end of the conflict (ideally accompanied by this photo or this one) with a hint that this only represents a glimpse of the number of direct Hamas murders buried in their “casualty” figures.  And if (or should I say when) they ignore you and repeat their death counts, we should simply add their chosen number to the 4,517 rocket attacks directed towards Israeli civilians and thank them for helping us calculate the minimum number of Hamas war crimes.

While Hamas did their utmost to prevent photos of their own soldiers (living or dead) from reaching the world, enough evocative images exist (including the ones linked above) to give our side ammunition in the emotional image war that tends to define many a debate on this subject.  Again, bloody images of the killed or wounded (not to mention child abuse shots like this one) are not something you want to throw in the face of those who might be open to reasoned debate.  But when confronted by those trying to prevent reasoned debate at all cost, different tactics apply (or, should I say, both sides are allowed to use the same tactics, stupid and unpleasant through they may be).

While we are on the subject of rhetoric, keep in mind how much the BDSers are trying to claim the mantle of progressive politics, which is why we should keep asking them (over and over and over again) how they can support racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary movements like Hamas.  In fact, when things get heated, I like attaching that “racist-sexist-homophobic-reactionary” prefix to Hamas with the same frequency the boycotters love to attach the term “Apartheid” to Israel.  Yes, this will cause them to howl and spit and hurl their own counter-accusations of Pinkwashing and God-knows-what else.  But that should just be your signal to keep ignoring what comes out of their mouths (or, better yet, respond that this just one would expect from apologists for a racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary movements like Hamas).

During this period of Middle East implosion, I’ve noticed how prickly Israel haters get when you point out that Hamas is all but indistinguishable from other militant groups racking up huge death tolls across the region.  Which should be our signal to dial up the Hamas = ISIS = Boko Harem accusations up to eleven and never let up.  Their inevitable shouts of “Racist!!!!!” for continuing to make such (accurate) comparisons should not deter us from continuing this approach (especially since that’s just the type of projection we would expect from someone embracing a racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary organization like Hamas).  Get the picture?

Now I mentioned that there are a few caveats to this type of approach, the first one being that we (unlike our opponents) cannot resort to lies – even when implementing an aggressive form of rhetoric.  This isn’t such a big deal, given how much the truth is on our side.  But we must avoid the peril of even inadvertent story-telling, especially in the heat of confrontation.

We must also forgo any strategy or tactic that would involve using “civilians” as mere means to our ends.  I talked about this issue at length in a previous discussion of Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, but simply put: we cannot drag innocents into our battles just so they can be used to harm our political foes.  This does give our opponents an advantage in that they remain free to do things like drag anti-Israel bills before student councils while we eschew trying to get those groups to officially condemn Israel’s enemies.  But in the long run, avoiding manipulating others will accrue to our political advantage while simultaneously leaving our souls untarnished.

Finally, always keep in mind that the ultimate audience for our arguments is going to be those who have not yet chosen a side in the battle.  Which means that our rhetoric – even when aggressive – should be spoken and not shouted, with our endlessly repeated Pointed Finger presented more in sorrow than in anger.

Let the other side show their true colors as they howl and spew and punch and douse themselves with blood, demonstrating to the public that they represent little more than the propaganda equivalent of random Hamas missile fire targeting anyone and everyone (including themselves).  We, in contrast, should take on the role of Iron Dome, meeting the other side’s weaponry (in this case, propaganda weaponry) with a counter-measure that is directed, accurate and unstoppable.

Surviving the Upcoming BDS Onslaught – 1

4 Sep

A day late (but hopefully not a shekel short) vis-à-vis next steps as the BDSers ready to drag this summer’s Gaza conflict into a college campus, church, co-op and heaven-only- knows what other civic organization near you.

In theory, we could just stand back and let an anti-Israel community already showing signs of being out of control last Spring provide us ammunition by punching out their critics or dousing themselves with blood (embarrassing behaviors that have required apologies with the school year barely begun).

But I suspect we will need a broader set of options to deal with the upcoming propaganda onslaught.  And before we get into our choice of tactics, it’s important that we re-familiarize ourselves with theirs.

For if the goal of BDS is the elimination of the Jewish state, their strategies are to put that state beyond the moral pale by having it declared the successor to Apartheid South Africa (or, more recently, Nazi Germany) and de-legitimizing its right of self-defense in order to justify and limit the consequences for those who get to actually get to do the kidnapping, shooting and missile firing.

Because the message that Israel is a vile state that deserves whatever violence is directed at it is embraced by so few, practitioners of BDS work tirelessly to try to get their message to come out of the mouth of someone else, primarily progressive organizations such as student groups, liberal churches or unions in the hope that they can make their cause synonymous with liberal thought.   And even if they lose, the ability to force such organizations to hold endless meetings on boycott or divestment motions gives the Israel haters the chance to do what they love more than anything else: rail against Israel for hour upon hour before captive audiences.

With their goals and strategies mapped out, we now get to their tactics that have really never changed – regardless of how hot or cold things get in the Middle East.  These tactics include:

  • The Pointing Finger – That is, an endless string of accusations hurled against the Jewish state for every conceivable crime (real or imagined).  This blame-based tactic is chosen to ensure that the BDSers retain the role of prosecutor and place their opponents perpetually on the defensive.
  • Ignore-ance – This tactic goes hand-in-hand with The Pointing Finger since the best way to avoid being put on the defensive yourself is to refuse to acknowledge any point other than your own accusations.
  • Pathos – Since facts that make the BDSers uncomfortable, such as the unsavory and illiberal nature of those they defend or the violence roiling the Middle East, support logical arguments against their positions, BDS must rely on raw emotion in the hope that they can short-circuit reason altogether.   This explains why their case consists almost entirely of grisly stories and heart-rending images shorn of any and all context which they hope will shock an audience into relying on their gut instinct vs. their brains (and thus do what the BDSers tell them to).

As anyone who reads this blog knows, my preference is towards reasoned argument backed up by accurate facts.  And the good news is that if you are a student on a campus where the Middle East conflict is a live issue, you will likely find many people (possibly a majority) who are open to reasonable (if heated) discussion.  But you are also likely to have to deal with an aggressive and noisy SJP (or the equivalent) minority who will fight to prevent reasoned debate from occurring at any cost.

If you are dealing with someone of good will whose opinions may be based on misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, the normal human practice of education and reasoned argumentation should take priority.   But if you find yourself confronting the SJP tactics noted above, then a different set of rules apply.

What those rules are and how to apply them will be the subject for tomorrow’s entry (promise).

Battle Stations!

2 Sep

While life required taking a break from new writing in August, it’s time now to get ready for what is likely to be an ugly year with regard to BDS battles brewing on campuses and elsewhere.

One of the reasons BDS hasn’t gone into remission (as it did between 2006 and 2009) is that it remains the tactic of choice for Israel haters eager to mobilize supporters into action.  For, despite all its flops and failures, frauds and faux-pas, the “movement” derives certain advantages from its choice of the BDS tactic, namely:

  • BDS campaigns are easy to explain and implement.  Set up a survey monkey account and BANG!, you’ve got a petition-driven divestment campaign up and running at a college or university.  Sign up a few volunteers to march in front of a local hardware store and POP! a SodaStream boycott effort is underway.
  • Because virtually every institution in the world retains some tie to the Jewish state (investments in Israeli companies or US companies doing business with Israel, academic exchange programs, sale of Israeli consumer products and technology), that gives the BDSers license to inflict themselves on any civic organization they please.
  • And because the boycotters could not care less about the damage they might cause to those civic organizations, there are not bound by the limits normal people confine themselves to (such as the need to tell the truth and not use others as mere means to an end).

As always, geopolitics beyond any of our control is what has allowed BDS to chug along since it was resurrected in 2009 (or – to be more accurate – when it was reborn in fraud with the Hampshire College hoax that took place that year).  For whenever Hamas decided to restart hostilities (as it did in 2009, 2012 and this summer), carefully orchestrated outrage brought people into the streets.  And those orchestrators have been ready to give anyone who shows up to their rallies desperate to “Do something” something to do: start a BDS project in their neighborhood.

Traditionally, anti-Israel activity on campus is more of a second-semester phenomenon since it often takes a few months for a chapter of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to get their act together, recruit new members, get funding, and plan and execute programming.  This is why events like Israel Apartheid Week (no matter how tired and loathsome) tend to be scheduled for the Spring.

But with this summer’s carnage still fresh in people’s minds, we have already seen the anti-Israel bandwagon rolling on college campuses and beyond.  And given that physical assault seems to now be on the SJP menu, I think we can expect the out-of-control behavior we saw in places like Northeastern and Vassar last year to spread and escalate.

As depressing as it might be to have to start dealing with the attack on Israel’s legitimacy (including its legitimate right to defend itself against endless rocket attacks) immediately and everywhere, keep in mind that our side brings its own assets to the fight.

First off, years of escalating anti-Israel activity on campus and beyond has created a counter-force in the form of enthused, energetic and informed pro-Israel groups fighting effectively against defamation of the Jewish homeland across the planet.    And both Israel and the diaspora have woken up to the fact that we need to take the battle against the propaganda weapon wielded by faux “peace-activist” war groups just as seriously as the IDF takes the threat of missile and tunnel weapons.

Finally, the sheer volume of lies people are being asked to believe in order to embrace the SJP/BDS/Hamas storyline of pure Israeli villainy and Palestinian pristine innocence is pretty much ready to not just snap the camel’s back but flatten him into a millimeter-thick camel pancake.  And with ISIS running amok in Iraq, Boko Haram kidnapping and raping their way across Nigeria and Syria racking up more Arab casualties per month than Israel has in decades, the notion that we must ignore the rest of the world and talk only about Gaza casualties (based on figures provided by Hamas, of course) becomes an ever-harder sell.

But how should we be framing our message during a period when SJP and the like minded will be doing all they can to manipulate the uniformed and shout down (or beat down) those with opposing views?

Some thoughts on that tomorrow.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Strategy

1 Sep

This longish piece ends (or really capstones) this month-long summer series on Somerville with a set of strategic and tactical lessons that I’ve tried to implement when possible over the last ten years of fighting against BDS.  As Israel’s supports face one of our most challenging years yet, I hope it provides some useful thoughts for everyone else in this fight.

There is not much to be learned about political dynamics by reading communications put out by divestment advocates after each of their numerous defeats.  For, according to their analysis, time and time again, it turns out that setbacks are always the result of unrelenting pressure from the all-powerful, well-funded (albeit largely ill-defined) “Zionist Lobby.”

According to SDP, this “lobby” (or put more precisely “The Lobby”) strong-armed Somerville’s aldermen to reverse their position on the original divestment resolution in 2004.  In 2005, Somerville’s mayor and city officials (apparently following the dictates of “The Lobby”) thwarted the will of the people by refusing to allow divestment onto the citywide ballot (a decision upheld by a district court judge who one SDP member decried as being “bought off” by the you-know-whos).

In 2006, the year in which SDP finally got the ballot fight it craved, rejection by the voters was yet another example of co-opted “mainstream politicians” confusing the masses from voting in the way SDP claims was their only moral choice.  Outside of the amusing addition of a certain sinister Jewish millionaire to their storyline [Note: A story for another time], the tale remains the same: an all-powerful, well-organized, fully coordinated Jewish community/lobby united to defeat the heroic efforts of the SDP.

Would that this were remotely accurate.  But, in truth, each of the three Somerville campaigns represented different political dynamics, dynamics based on differing amounts of time, resources and organizational will.

In 2004, divestment advocates succeeded in catching the citizens of Somerville and the wider Boston-area Jewish community completely by surprise.  By the time their activities became public, they had nearly gotten the city’s aldermen to pass a resolution urging divestment from the Jewish state.  And once word got out, there was little more than a month to do anything about it.

Within this very tight timeframe, individuals and groups did what they could.  I started this Web site, Somerville citizens met with their own aldermen and communicated with others via mail (both snail and e-).   Jewish organizations in the area put out calls to members to attend aldermen’s hearings (which they did, although never in larger numbers than divestment supporters).  While it would be nice to think that our efforts were the determining factor in the city’s ultimate rejection of divestment, in truth the jig was up for SDP the minute officials realized that City Hall had become the latest front in the Arab-Israel conflict.  Once the aldermen understood that they had been misled on the nature of this conflict and the significance of their vote, these leaders rejected divestment and have been the sharpest critics of SDP ever since.

In 2005, the year SDP (for all intents and purposes) had become a wholly-owned subsidiary of a group called One Palestine, their plans to get divestment onto the citywide ballot were known well in advance.  To meet this challenge, Somerville veterans from the 2004 battle joined with members from a variety of community groups to launch an organized “decline-to-sign” campaign to educate Somerville citizens in hope that they would not sign the petition required to give SDP access to the November 2005 ballot.

Was that campaign successful?  We will never know for sure.  SDP claimed to have gotten more than the 4200 signatures required to get onto the ballot (which, if true, means we failed), yet no one has ever seen these documents or verified that they are legitimate (which means we might have succeeded).   For the sake of argument, and putting aside the dubiousness of their claims (see 4400), if our campaign was not successful, that means SDP was denied access to the ballot purely because of the political incompetence of its leadership which from the start of their 2005 campaign refused to play by the rules (and, as the courts verified, to obey the law).

This latest election [Note: In 2006] was the first time that either side in this debate faced the voters, requiring each of us to field a formal political campaign.  Unlike 2004, we were not taken by surprise.  But unlike 2005, we did not have six months to organize a counter-effort.  In fact, there was a serious debate as to whether we should engage divestment/right of return advocates this year, or simply ignore them.  It was only after a last-minute successful push to get volunteers to the polling places on Primary Day that we decided to use the next six weeks to organize a proper campaign urging a No vote on questions #5 and #6.

This relatively tight timeframe actually worked to our advantage.  For within the confines of six weeks, there was only time to get a specific set of tasks accomplished, with little time left over to create an organizational infrastructure or define a hierarchy of decision-makers.  Finite time and resources required us to prioritize: create strategies that involved doing some things and not others.  Most notably, the task-based nature of the campaign meant that everyone involved with the project performed tasks that they were uniquely qualified to accomplish.  My writing ability was put to the task of developing campaign materials.  People who lived in the area (and were comfortable with public politicking) took care of visibility before Election Day.  Organizations with political contacts got our message out to candidates and to critical audiences inside Somerville.  Political and religious groups (as well as individuals) put out the call for Election Day volunteers, a call which gave us over 100 people to send to polling places throughout the day.

In short, the campaign was not run by an organization but rather functioned as a team.  This is an important distinction that I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks since this strategy proved to be so effective on Election Day.

If you will indulge an analogy: in my work life, I run a small IT business, part of a larger organization providing services to institutions such as corporations and schools.  Historically, large institutions looking for major IT solutions would turn to a “white knight” company or consulting group such as IBM or Accenture to solve a major business problem or implement a complex technology system.

In recent years, however, these same clients are asking vendors (such as us) to work in partnership with other companies (sometimes even competitors) to create a solution that incorporates the best features or capabilities of each company’s product or service.  This project-based teaming has been discussed in industry literature for over a decade, but in the last few years it has become part of everyday life, particularly for those in the technology biz.  Where once market dominance was a sign of business health, today the ability to partner and integrate is defining industry leadership.

So what the hell does that have to do with the price of Guinness Stout in Somerville?

Within this business analogy, the central unit is not the organization (or company), but the project-based team.  Never mind that I might be slitting my competitors throat in the proposal going out on Tuesday.  On Monday, this same competitor is my partner and we are both contributing our best work for the sake of a successful project for a common client.

If you look at the world of Jewish political and social activism, there is an alphabet soup of major organizations: CJP, JCRC, ADL, JCPA, AIPAC and many others who have historically represented the institutional leadership of the Jewish community, supporting the diverse needs of the Jewish people in the US and beyond.  At the same time, a large number of new organizations have sprung up over the last decade (CAMERA, David Project, StandWithUs, JCUI, etc.).  These smaller groups are often focused on specific issues (such as pro-Israel activism) and have been a reaction to (1) the world situation vis-à-vis Israel hatred, terrorism and anti-Semitism and (2) a perception that the mainstream “alphabet soup” Jewish organizations have missions too broad to allow them to focus on key issues of concern.

To a certain extent, the emergence of smaller organizations with highly focused missions parallels changes in the last century’s economy when the number of small businesses exploded, providing innovation and energy to industries and ultimately changing the dynamics of much large business entities as well as the economy generally.  Naturally, there is a rivalry (often even antagonism) between bigger, well-funded institutions with broad missions (including the mission to sustain themselves) and more flexible, action-oriented organizations that can devote a majority of energy to activism on what they consider to be the most important issues of the day.

While many (possibly most) people see this rivalry as unchanging and unchangeable, a different way of approaching this challenge was recently demonstrated in Somerville.   Rather than asking any one institution to take the reigns of the campaign, instead the aforementioned team emerged consisting of local veterans from previous divestment campaigns and activisms from a variety of groups.  Never mind that in other contexts these individuals or groups might be bitterly divided politically and even religiously.  Never mind that some of the institutions involved with the campaign may compete for the same donor dollars.  For the purposes of winning the election in Somerville, each of us focused on what our particular skill set allows us to contribute to the team effort.  There was no need for us to agree on this aspect of the Middle East peace process or that aspect of American partisan politics.  We were not creating a permanent organization that would eventually have bylaws and positions on critical issues that would have to be carefully worded and agreed to.  Rather, we had a goal (victory in a local election), a timeframe (six weeks), specific (and limited) human and financial resources and a willingness to focus exclusively on the tasks at hand, not on the political identity of the person standing next to us at the polling place.

Now it may be that Somerville was a unique situation: a political campaign with a specific beginning, middle and end whose dynamic does not lend itself to replication in other political circumstances.  That said, even issues that seem daunting (like the international divestment movement), challenges that seem so large that they can only be assigned to a major institution can frequently be broken into smaller pieces, each manageable by a team.

Using divestment as a case in point, a team (populated both individuals and members of small and large organizations) proved very effective in derailing divest-from-Israel campaigns in US municipalities.  Within the mainline Protestant churches, major Jewish institutions played an important role in communicating to the Presbyterians and others the displeasure of the Jewish community with divestment decisions they had taken in recent years.  However, the actual work of overturning these measures was the effort of small teams, most notably groups of Presbyterians united to take back their church from divestment forces.  The accumulated, uncoordinated work of these many teams has led to the effective death of divestment, at least in the US, to the point where even the Somerville Divestment Project seemed afraid to use the “d-word” during their campaign for fear of being tainted by a loser issue.

I wish I could say how this team dynamic can be packaged and utilized in this or that political situation.  In truth, it probably can’t be used in everywhere and all the time.  There will be occasions when the influence of a major institution is called for, just as there will be times when a nimble, activist group needs to take to the streets to get something accomplished.  But in those situations where it one longs for the resources and reach of “the majors” combined with the flexibility and speed of smaller more focused organizations (or individuals), it would be wonderful to see the dynamic of the goal-oriented team replace rivalry and conflict as a central dynamic in Jewish politics.

Despite what our detractors think and say, the Jewish community has too few resources to waste any part of them: human, financial and otherwise, in intramural conflicts that could at least be temporarily put aside to accomplish a focused goal.  The team does not require us to agree.  It does not require us to love each other or even like each other (although members of successful goal-oriented teams often show better social dynamics than people organized around specific political beliefs or principles).  It just requires us to temporarily put what each of us does best into a common pot, and put aside any other matters just long enough to win.

Does War Make All Things Clear? – The Savior Generals

31 Jul

Victor Davis Hanson, one of the most insightful military historians writing today, had an interesting piece the other day analyzing the current Gaza campaign and its fallout.

While his piece is primarily political (Hanson is also a commentator for National Review), words that readers of his military histories will find familiar are contained in what might seem like a throwaway line on page 2: “human nature remains constant,” a sentiment that sums up the beliefs of those ancient Greeks whose stories serve as the foundation for his understanding of military (and human) history.

In this case, the part of human nature he sees on display among Western critics of Israel’s recent actions – those parts that are “opportunistic, fearful and fickle” – are likely to lead those critics to give a final tut-tut and move on if Israel successfully deals Hamas a crippling blow.  But if Israel retreats in the face of international “anti-war” pressure those critics are working so hard to generate, that is likely to push anti-Israel hysteria into new and unprecedented heights.

In a way, this is the “strong horse/weak horse” argument that we have heard since Osama bin Laden used that line to describe why the Arab masses would flock to his banner if he could demonstrate strength and power by, for example, flying planes into skyscrapers in New York City.  Which they did until this strong horse ended up demonstrating his own weakness by going to ground for close to a decade before being taken out by an allegedly weak horse who turned out to have some fight in him still.

But as the post “Arab Spring” world detonated, we have returned to the unchanging human condition understood by the ancients – not a world where the “law of the jungle” rules, but one where actors make decisions regarding war and peace based on a careful calculation of who is strong (and should be avoided) and who is weak (and should be conquered).

But the Greeks had more than opportunism and fear in mind when they talked about the constancy of human nature.  For while technology and tactics might have changed astonishingly over the centuries, the nature of those who start wars and those who fight them has remained remarkably consistent.

Those with the power to trigger a conflict, whether they are named Xerxes, Caesar, Napoleon or Hitler, make rational calculations regarding whether they have the forces, resources, morale and leadership to gain more than they lose by letting slip the dogs of war.  But these same leaders tend to make the same errors of overreach when they are winning and panic when they are losing that makes them vulnerable to those who defend against them.

By coincidence, I was reading Hanson’s latest book, The Savior Generals, when the Gaza war broke out.  This book is a follow up to another book he wrote called The Soul of Battle which highlighted three generals (Epaminondas of Thebes who defeated Sparta, Sherman who broke the Confederacy, and Patton who smashed the allegedly invincible Nazis) who demonstrated the stupendous power of democratic armies led by the right type of general.

Sherman also appears in Savior Generals alongside Themistocles (who routed the Persians at Holy Salamis), Matthew Ridgeway (who ended the Korean War), David Petraeus (who figured out how to win against an insurgency in Iraq), and my personal favorite general of all time: Flavius Belisarius (who nearly re-conquered the Roman Empire in real life as well as defeating aliens allied with Indians in a series of bad but delicious sci-fi novels).

What makes these four military leaders saviors is the fact that they were able to win wars that everyone but they knew were lost.  And whether you’re talking about Themistocles determining that the Persians were vulnerable at sea or Ridgeway who understood that a million-man Chinese army relied on vulnerable supply lines when the front extended well down the Korean peninsula, all the Savior Generals had a grasp of on-the-ground reality that many of their superiors (military and political) lacked.

Most of them were also soldier’s generals who lead from the front (rather than issuing orders from luxury hotels), exposed themselves to the same hardships their men faced, and routinely made decisions that would minimize casualties on their own side.

This grasp of reality and concern for the troops lead to a type of informed conservativism on the battlefield.  So while other generals desperately sought pitched battles where the clash of thousands might lead to a decisive victory (or a glory-filled defeat), the Savior Generals focused on strategies and tactics that maximized their own advantages, refusing to be goaded into battle where and when territory and timing was not to their liking.  And they had a keen understanding of war as an extension of politics, best exemplified by Sherman’s thrust into Georgia timed in a way to ensure the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

Since human nature is unchanging, the nihilism of Hamas is no more undefeatable than the fanatical Communist zeal that motivated North Koreans and Chinese in the Korean War or the Bushido cult that supposedly made the WWII Japanese warrior unstoppable.  Such fanaticism can certainly be a factor in maintaining morale among the troops, but it also tends to put into power leaders who can be counted on to make predictable errors (notably fighting beyond their resources).

And, at least for now, Israel’s political and military leaders seem to be making decisions designed to not allow the enemy to define the battlefield.  This includes not retaking territory that Israelis have no desire to control.  But it also involves finally taking the propaganda component of the century old “War against the Jews” seriously.

As I’ve noted before, those marching in the streets insisting that everyone treat them as part of a peace movement are no less instrumental in someone else’s war plans than munitions and troops.  The reason they stay home when Hamas fires rockets (or Syria butchers thousands) but roar to life once Israel shoots back is not simply hypocrisy (although they are loaded to the gills with that).  Rather, their role is to minimize Israel’s military options (by demanding an immediate ceasefire only when shooting is two-way) while maximizing the options (or ensuring the survival and continued military potential) of her opponents.

So condemning a BDSer for his or her hypocrisy makes about as much sense as screaming at a tank for only shooting at the enemy.  But accepting their self-characterization as fighters for peace is even more ludicrous.  Which is why our job is to keep up the battle on this front by continually exposing their lies and pretensions, while those who fight make decisions (hopefully informed by the history of the savior generals) in order to win on the ground.