Somerville Divestment Revisited – Ruthlessness

26 Aug

Closing in on the finish to a series of postings from many years ago regarding my first encounter with the BDS “Movement” in Somerville, MA, here was my first invocation of Lee Harris and his theories regarding ruthlessness (with a nod towards the kind of fantasy politics that defined the BDS movement that was resurrected in 2009).

In previous essays, I have described the tactics of the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) as “ruthless.”  Yet what does this term mean, beyond highlighting the aggressive, “by-any-means-necessary” nature of this group’s behavior?

For most of the ideas in this article, I am indebted to Lee Harris, author of “Civilization and It’s Enemies: The Next Stage of History,” whose remarkable book defines ruthlessness not simply as a way of engaging in activities involving power politics.  Rather, he sees ruthlessness as one of the great foes of civilization, indeed its oldest, original enemy.

Primitive man thought nothing of stealing food from his fellow pre-human, but only the ruthless were willing to murder others for food they could otherwise obtain through honest means or simple theft.  As mankind clawed its way to some kind of order, with civilization advancing, halting, reversing and advancing again, the ruthless were always there to threaten any progress towards establishing some kind of peaceful living space where trust and cooperation replaced bullying and butchery as the organizing principles of society.

The power of the ruthless comes from their willingness to engage in activities that the rest of us would never even imagine.  In a world traumatized by the global conflagration of World War I, Europe’s nations were willing to do anything to avoid another conflict of that scale or worse.  While a worthy sentiment, it provided ruthless actors, like Nazified Germany, the ability to have their way by simply threatening to trigger another World War if their demands were not met.

In a previous essay, I discuss the suicide bomber as a creative innovation, exported from Israel to the rest of the world complete with technology, tactics and ready-made apologies and explanations for their brutal behavior.  Yet the willingness to blow up school busses and nightclubs, or fly airliners into skyscrapers is not simply an example of de-civilization or nihilism.  Behind those that push the button or steer the aircraft are national and factional political leaders who understand that their willingness to detonate their followers at a Passover Seder or subway stop gives them a ruthless power over those who want nothing more than to help the world steer a course of ongoing progress via cooperation and the rule of law.

Contrary to their own self-image, highly radicalized groups like the Somerville Divestment Project have come close to meeting their goals not through imaginative political tactics or devotion to a cause, but through simple ruthlessness.

It does not require much creativity or organizational skill to bring a campaign like divestment into an open-minded, caring city like Somerville.  If, for example, I was committed to scoring points against Israel’s Arab foes, I could begin a drive tomorrow to have Somerville take an official position against the brutal discrimination against homosexuals in Islamic lands.  I could blanket the city with images of gays being hung in Iran or thrown off high buildings in Egypt and demand that progressives take a stand on the issue.  I could set gay rights groups against Arab citizens, liberal churches against mosques, demand that the Mayor who was so supportive of gay marriage publicly condemn anti-gay violence in the Middle East or be accused of hypocrisy, or of having the blood of murdered homosexuals on his hands for not supporting my position.

It would not be difficult to take these steps, except for the fact that I (and everyone else who forcefully battle anti-Israel divestment) would never inflict the pain and conflict such a campaign would cause on the city just to publicly embarrass Israel’s critics.  Indeed, not only would I never do such a thing, I would never even have imagined this kind of behavior before the SDP provided us all a template from which to work.

And there lies the difference.  What most of us, until recently, could not even imagine, ruthless players like the SDP wake up every morning and do.  Subverting the language of human rights for short-term political gain, forcing religious and political organizations to take a stand or risk possibly permanent schisms, dragging the bitterness of the Middle East into a struggling, multiethnic city, these are all acts with potentially long-term damaging effects.  Yet the ruthless do not care about the consequences of their actions.  To them, the leaders and citizens of Somerville are mere props to be manipulated so that leaders (and a few followers) of the divestment movement can feel part of some great, global, revolutionary struggle.

Even the Palestinians, in whose name hate groups like the SDP profess to speak, are simply props in a vulgar, political game.  As anyone with eyes can see, the only path the Palestinians have from their present misery is through peaceful negotiations.  Yet by holding out the prospect of victory through war, supported by propaganda efforts like divestment, these “friends of the Palestinian people” are leading them towards an even darker blind ally than the one into which they want to drag the city of Somerville.

While divestment proponents might be able to convince themselves that the ends justify the means as part of some fantasized higher, noble calling, in truth their means have become their ends.  For what defines such movements outside of their willingness to say anything, do anything, hurt anyone, sew conflict, corrupt democracy, abuse the language of human rights and free speech, i.e., to behave in a manner that defines ruthlessness?

While some may wish for a day when mankind has evolved to a point where ruthlessness has been eradicated from the human species, there is nothing more dangerous than imagining that such a day has already arrived when it so clearly has not.  Ruthlessness has been with us since humans first interacted, and wishing it away or blaming its victims for keeping us from an imagined utopia has been a recipe for the 20th (and now the 21st) century’s most unimaginable disasters.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Pantograph

25 Aug

Closing in on the finish to a series of postings from many years ago regarding my first encounter with the BDS “Movement” in Somerville, MA, here was an attempt to draw broader conclusions of what the fight for Israel means to the rest of the world.

The pantograph is a centuries old mechanical device used to create enlarged images.  When an artist uses a pen attached to one end of the pantograph to draw a sketch or illustration, the device automatically draws a larger version of the same image on another piece of paper.

A friend once noted how this ancient gadget reminded him of Israel’s relationship to the rest of the world.  A curious observation, I thought, which he fleshed out by noticing that many of the tragedies we are dealing with today, including the recent mass murder of scores of civilians whose only “crime” was riding on the London Underground, were first enacted (albeit on a slightly smaller scale) within the Jewish state.

This export of innovative methods of cruelty such as the suicide bomber from Israel to the rest of the planet is no accident.  As noted in a previous essay, tyrants or tyrannical wannabees have a habit of singling out the Jew (or, in today’s world, the Jewish State) in order to determine just how far humanity can be pushed to abandon its humane principles.

The threat of Europe’s fascists WAS ignored when their repression was limited to “merely” putting the full force of the state behind the suppression and eventual murder of its Jewish minority.  It was only after the Nazis had sharpened their claws on the Jews that the world realized a nation steeped in such brutality was a threat to the entire planet and dealt with the problem at a cost of fifty million lives.

Today’s dictators have similarly used Israel as a staging area to determine just how far they can push a brutal agenda, hoping that the non-Jewish powers (i.e., the other 6+ billion people in the world) will avert their gaze until it is too late.

The suicide bomber, whether in London, Tel Aviv or Thailand, needs more than explosives to do his or her job.  They also need a culture that glorifies death (so long as it accompanies mass murder) to create the people willing to strap on the belt and push the button.

Most importantly, they need the intricate web of explanation, toleration and apologia that always manage to justify mass murder with that critical “but” (“Of course the attacks in London were a crime, BUT shouldn’t they be expected given British actions in Iraq?”  “9/11 was certainly awful, BUT didn’t America’s support for Israel make it a target?” “I condemn the ninety-ninth blowing up of an Israeli bus, BUT what else can the Palestinians do to “defend” themselves in the face of Israeli might?).

Such apologists have been on full display since the bombs started going off in London (and as of today, show no signs of ending), trying to find “root causes” for turning commuters into ash in the treatment of Muslim minorities in the UK or in Britain’s foreign policy.  Yet if Britain contributed anything to its current suffering, it was in trying to put as much distance as it could between Israel’s plague of terror and the terror that afflicts the rest of the world.  Not only are the two linked, but the former is the proving ground for the latter, the small pen on the pantograph.

Today in Somerville, a small group of hate-filled fanatics is hoping that they can twist the language of human rights and confuse the uninformed enough to get the city to join their crusade in condemning the Jewish state for the “crime” of defending itself against this onslaught.  Yet in trying to get the city to condemn a victim for not allowing himself to meekly be killed, they are trying to justify the notion that no person, no group, no nation has the right to defend itself against indiscriminate terror.  If that is the new rule written on tiny Israel by the small end of the pantograph, one does need to think hard to guess to whom the magnified version of such a rule will apply.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Links

24 Aug

Note: This is the last week where I’ll be republishing pieces written in the 2000s regarding my first encounter with the BDS “Movement” in Somerville, MA.  The web site for the Somerville Divestment Project mentioned below still exists as a cobweb, with many of the items referenced in this piece departed, but not forgotten.

Well it looks as though the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) Web site ( has gone through a substantial clean up recently.  Gone without a trace are their original links to the bigoted race-rantings of Joachim Martillo and the work of Israel Shamir.

One wonders if it is their upcoming petition campaign, or pressure from donors that has caused them to bury their previous showcasing of the outlandish bigotry of Mertillo and Shamir with the innocence of those who have never heard of an Internet “cache” (or Internet Explorer’s File -> Save As command) which means previous versions of their Web site remain available for all to see and appreciate.

Note to the SDP Webmaster: You missed one!  Your Thinkpiece section contains Lasse Wilhelmson’s delightful essay “Anti-semitism as a Political Weapon,” available from the Marwen Media Web site.  This is what one commentator had to say about Marwen:

“I have now had a chance to take a closer look at this site and consult Jewish friends on their views of it. There was nothing anti-semitic on the home page, which was all I was linking to; but buried in other pages on this site is some pretty nasty stuff which borders on Holocaust denial and further nasty stuff which crosses the border from anti-Zionism into anti-semitism. I’m happy to pull the plug on it.”

Lest anyone think this criticism of Marwen comes from a member of the Zionist Cabal ™ or associated sympathizers, this quote comes from Sue Blackwell, one of Europe’s most deranged Israel-hating fanatics who earlier this year dragged her academic organization, the UK Association of University Teachers (AUT), down the same divestment black hole where her American equivalents want to yank Somerville.  Apparently, hate-filled ravings too extreme for one of Britain’s most extreme extremists (which, given British attitudes towards the Jewish state, is saying a lot) are still just fine for the Somerville Divestment Project.

Even with its recent disinfection, the SDP Web site is still quite a piece of work.  Looking over it’s many pages and links, you would never have the slightest idea that over 1000 Jews have been murdered in the Middle East in recent years, and that the actions they decry in page after page, commentary after commentary, might have something to do with Israel choosing not to allow another thousand citizens to perish under the relentless attack of the suicide bomb.

I understand that militant activists are not required to present both sides of any argument, but for a movement which claims its mission is one of “educating the public,” their Web site, indeed their entire campaign, is predicated on finding a population ignorant of the fact that the Middle East consists of anyone other than Israeli brutes and pristine, innocents Arab victims.  Given that Somerville’s aldermen almost bought the SDP’s unbelievably lopsided view of the world last year, it’s entirely possible that their strategy to dump every piece of information that counters their propaganda down the memory hole will bear fruit.  However, I continue to maintain confidence that the citizens of Somerville at least know enough to know when they are being played for fools.

The Web site’s links page provides a particularly hilarious example of the level of concern the SDP has for “the other side.”  Buried at the end of a long list of links to dozens of organizations that share their agenda (what was that about divestment proponents being tiny, unsupported “voices in the wilderness?”) is a link to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI – link to which provides unedited translations of the Arabic press to the public.  Just to make sure this one dissenting opinion (which just provides access to the Arab media in their own words) does not “infect” their visitors, SDP lists it under “Curiosities” with the following description:

“News organization run by former (?) Israeli intelligence officers with a Zionist agenda.”

As my mom might say: “Why do they even bother?”

As a final note, when the aforementioned Sue Blackwell removed the work of Marwen, Israel Shamir and others from her own Web site, she announced their removal on her site’s Home page and in a special section called “Nazi Alert,” informing her readers that those she removed, while posing as simply Israel haters were actually right-wing bigots.  In quietly eradicating embarrassing views they previously championed, and hoping they left no footprints, the SC-SDP fails to show even Blackwell’s shred of integrity, not to mention shame.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Reputation

23 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

Few outside of British academic circles had ever heard of the Association of University Teachers (AUT), a UK-based union of university level instructors and professionals, until earlier this year when the organization voted to boycott two Israeli universities on a series of trumped up charges.

For veterans of divestment debates in the US and abroad, the details of the AUT debate will sound familiar.  An organization whose primary mission is support of its members through collective bargaining and other union services, the AUT also had a “social justice” constituency that was hijacked by a group of anti-Israel activists, led by Birmingham lecturer Sue Blackwell (an declared anti-fascist with a preference for Palestinian Flagwear who nevertheless links her Web site to various Nazi organizations).

Through relentless parliamentary maneuvering within a bureaucratic organization, Blackwell and her allies managed to pass a resolution calling for British academics to break all ties with Bar-Ilan and Haifa Universities.  World reaction to the move was swift.  Jewish groups scorned the decision while anti-Israel activists hailed it as another “victory.”  More importantly, academics worldwide condemned the AUT’s assault on intellectual freedom, and AUT members revolted against the usurpation of their name by a small group of fanatics, overturning the decision in an overwhelming vote that reversed the short-lived AUT boycott policy.

By then, the damage was done.  If AUT is known outside of UK and teaching circles today, it is known as an organization that was willing to sacrifice the one virtue upon which its reputation rested, the value of unimpeded academic freedom, upon the alter of anti-Israel activism.

Seen through the AUT prism, the Somerville divestment debate represents a similar attempt to “leverage” the reputation of an institution, in this case the city of Somerville, towards a narrow political end.  All of their talk of “fairness” and “evening the playing field” is simply a ruse to appeal to the better nature of Somerville’s leaders and citizens, the better nature that is the basis of the city’s reputation as a friend of human rights.  The goal (as boasted on various anti-Israel Web sites during last year’s divestment debate) is to “sign on” Somerville to their cause so that the city’s name, a name built on its reputation, can be used to maneuver other cities and towns to also join the boycott-Israel bandwagon.

I’ve thought a lot about reputation recently as more and more “mainline” Protestant churches have followed the lead of the Presbyterian Church which last year started the machinery that would lead to divestment of church assets in companies doing business with the Jewish state.  As bragged on the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project’s (SC-SDP’s) Web site, the New England Methodist Church and Anglican Church in the UK are ready to follow the Presbyterian’s down divestment’s blind alley.

As with the AUT, these churches have convinced themselves that an economic attack on a tiny Jewish state is a demonstration of the highest virtues of their faith: fairness, peace, human rights.  Yet one only need look at the spurious charges, the faux history, the absolute unwillingness to consider the other side that underlay each church’s resolution to understand that divestment is a gross example of little more than institutional bullying.

As we were all taught in Saturday morning cartoons from the 1970s, most bullies are actually cowards.  And these “mainline” churches certainly have a lot to fear.  Their flocks are diminishing rapidly, even as competing faiths like evangelical Christianity and Islam are expanding rapidly.  It’s been years since these churches had a major voice in a political or moral debate and when they have tried (as in their stand on the Iraq War or last year’s presidential election), they have found themselves on the losing side.

As their relevance declines as rapidly as their numbers, the leadership of the churches pushing divestment have found they can do something: they can bully one of the smallest states in the world, even as they fail to put their assets where their mouths are when confronting the rich and powerful.

Yet in taking these actions, these churches are mortgaging more than their own reputations.  Just as the AUT that was willing to wreak havoc on academic freedom under the guise of protecting it, these bullying mainline churches are using the voice of religious moral authority in general, the same voice that proved so important during the desegregation, anti-Vietnam War and anti-Apartheid movements (movements supported in partnership with American Jews) to support narrow and partisan ends pushed by a small but highly vocal minority.

If it’s been hard to take the voice of the Church of England or the Presbyterians seriously during serious moral and political debates in recent years, how much harder will it be to listen to any religious authority in the future when the public realizes that this authority is susceptible to hijacking and moral blackmail by the rich and powerful against the small and vulnerable?

Even worse, these churches are also mortgaging assets they do not own: the ethical power of social investment, the economic power of the boycott, responsibly wielded as it was during the anti-Apartheid era, in order to float a morally bankrupt Israel divestment policy.  One can imagine a time in the near future when a corporation or nation that truly deserves censure can point to the actions of the churches as a demonstration of how legitimate boycotts directed at them are just another example of partisan politics wrapped in ill-fitting moral garments.

Just as Somerville’s aldermen (and, one hopes, its citizens) realize that the reputation of the city was not theirs to give away, one hopes that leaders and followers in cities, churches, schools around the world will reject the cynical lures of divestment, refusing to sell their reputations, and the reputations of what they represent, to those most willing to ruthlessly exploit the language of virtue.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Rachels

22 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

“A combined fundrasing event for BostontoPalestine and the BootCAT campaign against Caterpillar will be held on Friday, May 27, at the Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church,” read the announcement.    “The event will feature the premiere showing in Boston of the new film: ‘Rachel Corrie – An American Conscience.’”

For those of you who missed this event, or the many other attempts to put Rachel Corrie on the cultural and political landscape (including a London play and a lawsuit by Rachel’s parents against the state of Israel), a bit of background:

Ms. Corrie was a young student from Washington State who joined one of the more virulent anti-Israel organizations, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which (among other activities) has attempted to block the Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes with their bodies.  Rachel was engaged in such a “human shield” operation in the Gaza Strip when she was allegedly crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer.  Her death sparked numerous political campaigns, including a political movement against Caterpillar Tractor that formed part of the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project’s (SC-SDP) divestment agenda in Somerville.

ISM supporters are fond of using this picture, the vision of a fresh-faced, smiling young Rachel, to present their case.   They have had less use for this picture or similar ones that show that once-smiling face twisted in rage as she torches the American flag, surrounded by like-minded supporters.  They also never quite explain why ISM “anti-demolition” activities are focused on protecting Palestinian homes that have been used as cover for tunnels for smuggling weapons from Egypt to groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Israel (as opposed to houses, say, on the West Bank).

As a parent, the death of Rachel Corrie is meant to illicit my sympathies for a girl who perished so young under the treads of a piece of industrial equipment in a faraway land.  But as a parent, I must also reflect on what adults must have filled this young girl’s head with to turn her from a happy child to a furious flag burner, and what kind of people would put such a girl in harm’s way, then capitalize on her death by turning her into a martyr.

Let’s focus on those weapons tunnels for a moment, for the explosives and munitions that came into Israel via the those tunnels may have intersected with the lives of six other Rachels who have never received the media attention given to Rachel Corrie.

These include:


Rachel Levy was 19 when a Palestinian rammed a bus into a crowded Israel bus stop, killing Rachel and five others on February 14, 2001.   She left behind her parents and two younger sisters.


Rachel Thaler, 16, the daughter of US-and UK-born Israelis, was enjoying dinner with her 14-year old brothers and friends at an Israeli pizzeria when a suicide bomber detonated himself at the restaurant.  While her brother survived, Rachel was less fortunate, leaving behind a family of four.


Rachel Gavish was 50 when a Palestinian terrorist infiltrated her home in Israel, shooting dead Rachel, her husband David, her son and Rachel’s father.  This triple-generational murder left Rachel’s six other children orphaned.


This second Rachel Levy, 16, was a high-school student who was killed when a Palestinian suicide bomber detonated herself at an Israeli supermarket.  Her death came on the heels of the death of Rachel’s cousin once month earlier in a terrorist shooting attack.


Rachel Charhi, 36, was critically wounded in a suicide bombing attack in Israel on April 4, 2002.  Her husband, survived the assault to care for Rachel’s three orphaned children Kinneret (14), Ariel (13) and Barak (7).


Rachel Shabo, 40, (top right) and three of her sons were murdered on June 20, 2002 when a Palestinian terrorist entered the family home and opened fire.

So many Rachels, all mourned in sad silence by surviving friends and relatives who have chosen respectful grieving, rather than turning their murdered love ones into cause celebes to further a political agenda.

What a sharp contrast to those who continue to brandish the “martyrdom” of Rachel Corrie to further their political agenda without ever stopping to consider their own responsibility for Corrie’s death.

Somerville Divestment Revisited – Confession

21 Aug

This next set of essays were written during the second year of campaigning against BDS in Somerville, MA (2005) when divestment proponents tried to get a divestment measure they failed to get past the legislature onto the city-wide ballot.

A description of how that issue played out can be found here.

Well this is the last Somerville Middle East Justice essay written from Boston Street on Prospect Hill.  Yes, I must fess up, I’m one of those: a long-time Somervillian (16 years) who is moving to the burbs.  (The name of the town shall be withheld, except to say that I expect to be running into the Divestment Project’s favorite, unassailable MIT linguistics professor at the post office this summer.)

The reasons for leaving are many and mundane.  A half-hour cut off from everyone’s commute means an extra hour with the kids each day.  We’re also moving closer to my parents, whose help we’ve come to rely on as we raise our young boys, just as they will likely come to rely on us in the years after that.

Given how often this site has tweaked the So-Called Somerville Divestment Project (SC-SDP) for flooding our Alderman’s chambers and streets with citizens and students from Cambridge and the suburbs in order to recruit Somerville as the poster-child for anti-Israel propaganda, I suppose my continued involvement in seeing divestment defeated permanently could be judged as a form of hypocrisy.

But is it really?  After all, I’ve lived in this remarkable city for over a decade and a half, and possess feelings about who’s right and who’s wrong in the Arab-Israeli conflict every bit as strong (if a bit more informed) as those pushing divestment in Somerville.  And yet never, in 16 years of living here have I ever considered, much less acted upon, trying to get the city to enshrine my political opinions on international affairs into law.

Even if those of us who battle against divestment possessed the arcane powers attributed to us by our opponents, I would never march into Brighton to demand that the city condemn the Saudi practice of stoning “adulterous” women (hear that Marty?) or into Medford to ask the city council to pour vitriol on the nation of Egypt for persecuting homosexuals (got that Hilda?), just to score points in a propaganda war.

If I had a dollar for every time an ally in this struggle suggested we turn the tables on our opponents by adopting their tactics, I’d probably have 50-60 bucks by now.  Yet the unlikelihood that this would ever happens demonstrates the key weapon divestment supporters bring to this issue: a ruthlessness that does not know shame.

Yes, many of us firmly believe that Israel’s most vocal critics on the world stage represent some of the planet’s most brutal dictatorships.  Yet are we willing to sacrifice the needs of our communities, turn neighbor against neighbor, put religious and ethnic groups at each other’s throats by importing the Middle East conflict into our city, school or church just to point that out?  The answer divestment’s supporters give to this question vs. the one you would get from divestment’s opponents represent the yawning chasm between the two sides of the debate.

“The personal is political,” was once a common slogan in political circles.  Yet divestment goes one step further, demanding that institutions: cities, towns, universities, churches, charities and professional organizations put aside their needs, goals and missions to take a stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict (always on one side, of course), regardless of the opinions and needs of the members of these communities.  Regardless of the fact that divestment is a slap in the face to individuals who have committed their lives to these institutions, never dreaming that they would be recruited to smear a fellow democracy, based on bogus arguments regarding “fairness” and “human rights.”

In the interest of full honesty, I will stop using “we” when describing Somervillians who need divestment on the November ballot like we (whoops!, I mean “they”) need more dirty needles in the playground.  That said, this city where I have lived a third of my life will always be a big part of me, not least of all because of the wonderful people I’ve met during the political battles of the last year.

So enjoy the neighborhood celebrations when Brazil kicks the planet’s butt in World Cup soccer next year, hopefully with peace on the ballot in the Middle East and divestment off the agenda in Somerville.