The Worthy Life – II

Last time, I talked about what it means to live a worthy life and how Israelis’ existential condition – in which each of them is responsible for defending and building a nation – has made them some of the happiest people on the face of the earth.

For those of us who do not live under similar conditions, which includes most of Israel’s friends and supporters, her enemies and detractors, and huge swaths of humanity both friends and foes are trying to reach, might there be something about human nature we all ignore as we settle on strategies to communicate our messages, persuade others, and build alliances?

The list of things mentioned last time which add up to a worthy life (meaningful work, a loving relationship, genuine friends, and a life committed to truth and beauty) was informed by the ancient philosopher Aristotle whose writing on ethics identified happiness as the ultimate goal all our efforts drive towards.  Why do we want money?  To live in comfort.  Why do we want comfort?  Because comfort makes us happy.  Why do we want happiness?  No answer is needed to this question because happiness is the “final cause,” the end point where all other efforts and ambitions lead.

But by “happiness,” Aristotle wasn’t talking about simple giddy joy.  Rather, he was using a Greek term better translated as “flourishing.”  And if you build into your life the components needed to call it worthy, you can live a happy (in all senses of the word) flourishing life.

Getting back to Israel advocacy, as we argue our cause are we offering listeners anything that might help them achieve the ultimate human desire to be happy and flourish?

Within the pro-Israel community, discussions of strategy and tactics still tend to boil down to a debate over offense vs. defense (or “going on the attack” vs. “positive messaging”).

Advocates for “going on the attack” argue that we cannot perpetually take punches from Israel haters who relentlessly assault and malign the Jewish state and its friends with the most outrageous calumnies, accompanied by outrageous behavior no one should have to tolerate.  This strategy can be boiled down to: Let’s tell the truth about Israel’s enemies (including their bigotry, misogyny and violent intolerance) as aggressively as they tell their lies about us.

In contrast, calls for “positive messaging” highlight how little impact shouts and insults have on crucial undecideds who can be swayed by getting to know Israel and its people, culture, food, and marvelous gifts to the world (in the form of cures for illness and high-tech wonders as well as progressive values).

I’ve written a number of times about pragmatic reasons why each of these approaches is flawed.  A complete treatment of the subject can be found here, but the key problem with an attack strategy is that we as a Jewish pro-Israel community lack the militant goals needed to sustain what would need to be a decades-long, non-stop smearing of our foes.  And if we were really playing by BDS rules, we would have to drag innocent third parties into our fight, without any concern over what harm that might cause others. For better or worse (better, in my opinion) our community lacks the ruthlessness needed to give our opponents a full taste of their own medicine.

Positive campaigning seems to be a way out of this dilemma, but the things that tend to be highlighted in such campaigns (whether it’s High-Tech Nation, Gay Pride parades, hummus recipes or Eurovision Song Contest victories) aren’t much of a shield against an enemy arguing on behalf of freedom, justice and international law (regardless of how much they have drained all three terms of any meaning).

Beyond these practical considerations, the big problem with both the “Offense” and “Positive” positions is that neither offers listeners anything that talks to the human need for meaning and purpose.  I’ll admit to a certain glee when I see Israel haters forced to flee when faced with an argument they can’t counter or their latest BDS failure.  But such emotional satisfaction on the part of the activist is not the same as providing others the satisfaction derived from striving for a flourishing life (meaningful work, loving relationships, etc.).

Similarly, while I’m in awe of the technological prowess of the Israel people and the openness of their society, a strategy based entirely on telling these stories strikes me as a continuation of the Diaspora tradition of endlessly having to prove to the majority culture our worthiness as a minority.

But there is another story the remarkable achievement of Israel taps into, one that can spill over from giving Israelis a life full of purpose to providing the same satisfaction to all who support or just befriend the Jewish state.

Few would argue that the nadir of the last century (if not all centuries) was the Holocaust which exterminated six million men, women and children for the crime of being Jews.  But too few follow this up by seeing the rebirth of the Jewish state just three years after that disaster as one of the most monumental achievements in human history.

Ingathering exiles, making the desert bloom, defeating larger and more powerful enemies again and again and – yes – building a tolerant nation with a growing population and economy are all part of this magnificent story, the story of that much maligned word “Zionism.”

And, with all due respect to those who see us as a “Chosen People,” Israel’s accomplishments have nothing to do with Jews being special in any way.  For if a people at death’s door can achieve such wonders, anyone can do it.  And many have (think about South Korea that built a flourishing state by investing in their own people after national ruin in war).

This dynamic tale, the Zionist story of what a society can achieve if its citizens have purpose and are ready to live for the future as well as the present, is what stirs many of us to genuine love for (not just appreciation of) the Jewish state – more so than the defeat of enemies or the latest Israeli-built microchip or app.

And why shouldn’t it?  For this move turns our pro-Israel advocacy into meaningful work, creates bonds of true friendship between fellow Jews (including happy Israelis) and other Jewish and non-Jewish activists.  It dedicates us to fighting for the truth and enjoying the beauty of one of history’s most inspiring tales.  In short, it provides us many (although by no means all) of the things necessary to live a worthy, flourishing life.

In contrast, the demented behavior of our foes is a testament to where a life dedicated to destruction and ugliness leads.  And for those our opponents demand follow their lead (such as intersectional allies in minority communities, biased journalists and partisan scholars) the price of abandoning reason, ethics and professional standards to join the cause are sources of suffering.  For deep down, even the most corrupt journalist writing about “peaceful marchers” on the Gaza border know they are communicating a lie, just as academics committed to spreading ignorance and bigotry understand they have not just abandoned the quest for truth or beauty but are actively fighting against it.

This explains why Israel’s foes spend so much mental effort blocking out and shouting down reality they want to avoid.  For their lives are dedicated to things that are the opposite of what brings happiness, which is why they are so damned miserable.  In a way, the contrast between flourishing Israel and the basket cases that represent the rest of the Middle East is a macrocosm of what can be achieved at the societal level by embracing the quest for a worthy live vs. battling to live an unworthy one.

So we friends of the Jewish state should offer not slams against our enemies or hummus parties, but steps towards living a meaningful life – a sharp contrast to the slavery and self-loathing on offer from our enemies.   Put in such terms, is there really a contest?

A Worthy Life

I’m reading a book that again reminds me how much we’re leaving unused our most potent argument for creating attachment to Israel among not just Jews but everyone else in the world.

Leading a Worthy Life by Leon Kass is not about Judaism, Israel or the Middle East (although the author is the child of Jewish immigrants).  Rather, it distills decades of thinking and writing by its remarkable author into a set of essays that tries to establish what it means to live, truly live, rather than just exist in modern times.

Kass is most well known as a bio-ethicist who warns about promises made by bio-tech utopians offering brave new worlds of human advancement, oblivious to what Aldous Huxley had to say on the matter of Brave New Worlds.  But Kass is also a self-educated humanist who “pivoted” later in his career to teaching literature and philosophy at the University of Chicago and the “great-books” centered Saint John’s College.

Like others intimate with his own cultural legacy, Kass understands that the components of time on earth worthy to be called a life are unchanging: work that allows you practice and experience excellence; a meaningful and loving relationship (preferably leading to children); genuine friendship; commitment to something greater than yourself (a community, nation; and/ or higher power); and life of the mind dedicated to seeking out truth and beauty.

In our present age, the choices leading to a worthy life are under assault by the wider culture.  Work has become a means to an end (usually involving making enough money to live in comfort).  Commitment to marriage is diminishing, even as the right to marry has expanded, with many couples not bothering to seal a life-long bond or breaking that bond once made.  In such a world, Eros has been separated from love through emotionless “flings” or steady diets of pornography.

Regarding life of the mind, an abandonment of the very texts that inspired Kass in favor of not just trendy multicultural replacements, but pragmatic subjects like business and computer programming, means most students today are not striving to understand what it means to be human, but are rather lost in a sea of ever-expanding life choices all leading nowhere.  It is this “lostness” that creates openings for snake-oil salesmen offering politics in the classroom as a replacement to genuine thinking and reflection, or radical experiments in lifestyle that further deteriorate the culture while bringing participants no closer to living vs. merely existing.

Despite what he’s seen happen to our culture over the last half century, Kass is actually an optimist.  For in teaching young people over the decades, he has not seen any diminishment in their hunger for all the things he sees as adding up to a worthy life.  Despite easy availability of one-night-stands and Internet porn, they want a life where their intellectual, emotional and erotic selves are tied to those of someone else.  They understand that Facebook friends are not the same as real ones.  And they are ready to ask (and attempt to answer) tough questions such as “What is true?”, “What is beautiful?” and “Who am I?”

This list of components of the worthy life helps unravel mysteries surrounding the topic near and dear to readers of this blog.  Why, for example, are Israelis so damn happy despite living under existential threat few of us in the comfortable West even understand, much less experience?  They are happy because their life has purpose, for each one of them is responsible for building and defending a nation, rather than just living off unearned inheritance.   Such purposefulness equates to happiness that no level of threat or insult from Israel’s enemies seems able to shake.

Existence defined by worthy purpose might also explain why Israel’s high-tech nation (with its focus on life-saving technologies) seems so much more serious than even our own robust start-up culture which tends towards giving consumers ever more choices and pastimes.  The fact that Israel is the only westernized nation where parents are committed to having children beyond replacement level also demonstrates an ongoing dedication to something more than the self and the now.

That’s good news for our Israeli cousins.  But what do these observations provide to those of us who fight on the behalf of the Jewish state who may not live under similar existential conditions?

Some thoughts on that next time…

The Price

The price even a non-intentional embrace of anti-Israel propaganda places on the believer was brought home to me during a recent conversation with a good friend, whose opinion I respect on all matters, who was aghast at the bloodletting at the Gaza border over the last month.

Interestingly, she was willing to accept that the thousands of rockets shot from Gaza into Israel over the last decade constitutes acts of war, and was even willing to believe that Hamas was responsible for civilian casualties on its own side if it placed its rockets in civilian locations.  And, with a little cross-examination, she was ready to give up her original assertion that the tunnels Hamas has been digging incessantly into Israel were not a means of civilian resupply, but rather tools of war.

But neither of these understandings could budge her from the opinion that Israel’s use of live fire to protect its border with Gaza was appropriate or legitimate.  “You don’t shoot people,” she kept coming back to.  In other words, she believes that the IDF has the right and responsibility to arrest, detain and do whatever other non-lethal things it could to protect the people it defends from harm, but that shooting should be a last resort to be applied only when actual lives are in danger.

Now keep in mind that my interlocutor is a decent and moral person, as well as being highly intelligent.  But as we went through a series of logic-based arguments regarding the difference between war and crime fighting, the fact that a majority of those killed were jihadi fighters, or nature of the Hamas regime and its primary role in creating Gaza’s misery, I was clearly unable to shake her of the belief that undergirded her primary response to current events: that you shouldn’t shoot people if you don’t have to.

And you know what?  She’s right!  In the ordinary course of life, and even in policing and warfare, you shouldn’t shoot people if other effective choices are available.  But given that non-shooting options, like the construction of a separation barrier in the West Bank (which all but eliminated casualties from both terror and the fight against it) has become Exhibit A for the Israel = Apartheid propaganda slur, it’s not at all clear that promises to judge Israel less harshly if it does something to defend itself other than what it’s doing right now will ever be kept.

Getting back to Gaza, it continues to surprise me just how many false things one must believe to accept the anti-Israel narrative.  For instance, images and video that uncontestably show the violent nature of the Hamas-inspired marches is on display for all to see.  But this must be put aside in order to declare the marches and the marchers “peaceful,” or non-violence must be redefined to make room for Molotov cocktails, incendiaries, swastikas, and the occasional live ammunition.

One must also believe that even if rocket fire and the digging of infiltration tunnels – the primary activity of those who govern Gaza – might be warlike, this new tactic (charging the border week after week) is peaceful.

And I won’t even mention the things that didn’t come up in our conversation, such as Hamas’ attitude and behavior towards women, gays and religious minorities (never mind its medieval beliefs about Jews), things that should appall anyone who believes in the rights of such groups to not suffer humiliation, torture and death – not to mention the rights of the individual to live as he or she likes.

In trying to understand how good and smart people can believe bad and stupid things, I keep coming back to the concept of ruthlessness.  While you can see a description of the phenomena here, and a much longer one in this series, it is easiest to sum up the concept with its most vivid example.

After World War I, the loss of a generation left the nations of Europe exhausted, demoralized and ready to consider any alternative superior to war.  In theory, this laid the groundwork for finding new ways to settle disputes other than armed conflict.  But, in one of history’s typical ironies, it also meant anyone ready to trigger another war would have enormous leverage over those who wanted to avoid war at all cost.

Thus, Adolf Hitler’s choice to threaten to reignite the continent if his territorial demands were not meant was not the act of a crazy monster, but rather the rational calculation of a ruthless actor who was ready to do every day what others could not even contemplate.

Today, when war is even more destructive and attitudes towards it even more hostile, most people can’t contemplate that this beast called ruthlessness still drives the decision making of political actors.  Accepting that Israel’s enemies deliberately put their own civilians at risk in order to either kill or malign Jews and maintain power means accepting that ruthless actors are still doing things that decent people have trouble even imagining.

And one way of not thinking about something that puts your whole world view in jeopardy (especially a world view which hopes for an end to armed conflict altogether) is to strip away the dark corners of reality, replacing difficult moral choices – especially those that arise when faced with a ruthless foe – with comforting bromides, like “shooting people is bad.”


A Disproportional Response

The boycotters have been wetting themselves over last month’s “victory” getting 50 student groups at New York University (NYU) to jointly pledge a boycott of not just Israel, but campus groups (i.e., organizations created and run by other NYU students) and off-campus groups (such as Birthright, StandWithUs and the ADL) that support the Jewish state.

While the effort to get student organizations to join together to ostracize Israel supporters was one major goal of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) who drove the NYU measures, the pledge also helped SJP achieve another vital goal: rulership over left-leaning politics within a university.

As I’ve noted before, the intersectional pecking order tends to lead to domination by the ruthless.  Allegedly, the intersectional construct assumes every injustice is linked with every other, requiring all oppressed groups to join together in solidarity.  Such solidarity tends to be a one-way street, however, which is why alleged Israel “oppression” is on the intersectional-left’s agenda while the murder of woman and gays throughout the rest of the Middle East will never be.

The initial response to the NYU outrage has been the usual supportive (if tepid) criticism of the boycott by school administrators, coupled with sorrow-and-regret statements by local students and Jewish leaders on and off campus.  What is missing is outrage, and an agenda fueled by the outrage that should accompany this level of injustice.

As long-time readers know, I tend to council caution in turning to authority figures (especially government) when dealing with BDS-related issues that could be solved by on-the-ground activists, including student activists.  But the organization of dozens of campus groups to attack their Jewish schoolmates reeks of such overreach that it demands a response beyond what even the most capable campus groups can generate.

With that in mind, here are a few steps that would have a high impact on the situation at NYU:

  1. Alumni donors who care about Israel or just care about the toxic atmosphere at their alma mater should contact the school and alert them that their donations are on hold until the school gets its house in order.  Efforts to stem the flow of donor dollars to the school should extend to campaigns within the donor community to get others to pledge to not give to NYU while the campus is ruled by mobs engaging in illegal discrimination.
  2. Speaking of illegal discrimination, legal support groups should immediately contact city, state and national bodies mandated to battle discrimination and provide whatever is needed for them to open investigations into whether anti-discrimination law is being violated at NYU.
  3. Such investigations – which can be supplemented by private civil and criminal lawsuits – should target not just the school, but the campus groups and individual members of those groups to make sure everyone who might be involved with illegal discrimination is required to live with the consequences of their choices (rather than force others – like school administrators – to take the brunt of consequences for irresponsible student behavior).
  4. While I’m not sure how student groups are funded at NYU, on most campuses this is done through a mandated student fee that bodies within student government get to distribute.  But if it turns out that funds are being used to support student groups actively discriminating against other students, that means fees students are forced to pay are being used to fund potentially illegal activity.  Given this, there may be legal grounds to halting such funding immediately (or during the next academic year), or replacing mandated fees with a voluntary opt-in (vs. opt-out) alternative.
  5. During the outrage that would ensure if any or all of these suggestions are put into place, our side should refrain from talking about (or even mentioning) the Middle East.  Rather, all of our talking points should focus on “illegal discrimination,” using the phrase as incessantly as our opponents use “Apartheid.”

These are certainly harsh measures likely to make the atmosphere on campus even more toxic.  But right now, the only people being targeted are Jewish students leaving the Israel haters free to spew their poisons without consequence.

School administrators tend to make decisions based on who will cause them the most vs. the least trouble, which is why they are not likely to come down hard on 50 campus groups who could take over their offices, especially if the countervailing threat comes from a Jewish community writing them tearful letters about feeling unsafe.  But visits by civil rights lawyers from the city and state of New York, as well as the Federal Department of Education (especially one run by Ken Marcus) would definitely change leadership calculus, hopefully causing them to take the reins of the school they allegedly lead.

As noted before, legal responses should be limited to just those situations where political options have been blocked or are impossible.  But if one chooses to go down the legal route, such a response should be overwhelming, even (dare I say it) disproportionate, in order to let the world know that an assault on Jews is no longer cost free.


The Seige – Gaza Version

I remember getting a lot of pushback once I started using the siege metaphor to describe Israel’s situation, both historically and as part of a wider discussion of how to look at our battle with Israel’s enemies through the lens of military conflict.

That criticism largely stemmed from a misunderstanding of siege warfare, with advocates for “going on offense” against Israel’s foes perceiving being on the receiving end of an enemy’s siege as a passive example of what is often criticized as being stuck “playing defense.”

But the siege, like the pitched battle where armies face off in direct combat, are simply types of activities that take place in a war, each of which come with a full set of offensive and defensive tactics.  And many an army has been defeated when they got tired or bored with fighting off a besieging army from within protected walls and decided instead to leave their fortress to needlessly clash with the enemy.

Recent attacks from Gaza are a perfect illustration of siege strategy in action.  For, from the perspective of Israel, the nation’s borders are its defensive walls which the military inside those walls cannot allow to be breached.  Outside the Gaza portion of those walls is a Hamas army, made up of fighters and the civilians they have recruited to protect them, trying to crash through the border/barrier in order to sack the city/nation within.

In this case, the besiegers tactics do not involve battering rams or catapults (if you don’t count flaming kites), although past (and likely future) siege attempts have involved a different age-old tactic of tunneling beneath enemy walls.  But, in the case of this month’s attacks, the prime weapon is “the feint,” in this case the creation of distractions (large numbers of marchers mixing civilians and military men, huge plumes of smoke generated by enormous tire fires) that will allow militants to sneak into Israel to wreak havoc.

One advantage of Hamas’ tactics is that they work alongside a propaganda strategy that originated during Israel’s 2006 clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon, one that has been perfected during fights between Israel and Hamas ever since.  This strategy involves triggering a war and then counting on allies (such as the UN and anti-Israel activists abroad) and a pliant media to turn the violence created by Hamas into a morality tale of Israel’s cruel targeting of civilians.

Such propaganda has had a bit more trouble getting off the ground this time around, possibly because it’s been overused (allowing Israel and its friends to blunt it using counter-tactics created during this same decade-long period), possibly because parts of the media – which are being asked to swallow ever greater lies – have grown tired of playing the role of Hamas stooges.

Getting back to the siege itself, success or failure can be judged based on how well the IDF has managed to keep the enemy on its side of the walls.  And, so far at least, that enemy has failed at even the modest goal of slipping killers through the gates, making the actual dream of Israel’s enemies (thousands breaking out of Gaza to march on Jerusalem) no more than fantasy bombast.

A key feature of siege warfare is that it is as hard, or harder, on the besieger than the besieged, especially when siege tactics are deployed against a stronger party that is ready to fight patiently to hold the line.

Casualty figures routinely trotted out to condemn the Jewish state (which is criticized for asymmetrical body counts) actually demonstrates success on the part of the IDF since any successful war involves maximizing enemy losses while minimizing your own. So, putting aside the humanitarian question surrounding one side fighting behind civilians while the other side fights to protect them, simple military arithmetic shows that treating the current Gaza conflict as siege warfare has been a wise move on the part of Israeli military planners.

It remains to be seen if other forms of suffering will visit those who chose siege warfare as a tactic. Smaller crowds showing up to act as cannon fodder for Hamas’ current campaign would be one indication of that organization paying the cost of poor choice of tactics, as are reports of internal fighting within the organization over choices the leadership is making.

It’s ironic that Israel’s foes use the language of the siege to describe the situation within Gaza, given that Israel has no interest in using siege tactics (or any other tactics) to conquer territory it left behind over a decade ago.  This is best demonstrated by the Jewish state’s refusal to engage in traditional siege activities (such as starving out your foe) during not just this conflict but every conflict where Israel continued to supply food and electricity to enemy territory while fighting was taking place.

Those who might still consider defending against a siege as an exercise in passivity should look at results, which are still unfolding, to decide who might be playing the right cards in the high-stakes game of war.


It’s only natural that we humans make sense of the world by placing things into categories.  Action movies vs. comedies.  The “Fruits and Vegetables food group vs. “Breads and Cereals.”  Conservative vs.  liberal.

Mental shortcuts that help us streamline our thinking are called “heuristics,” and while they can be an asset when trying to figure out the new and unexpected, they can also be a source of vulnerability, creating openings for those who understand heuristics to manipulate us.

Often such manipulation is innocent.  For example, the “Four Food Groups” of my youth referenced in the first paragraph has been replaced by different structures over time, such as the “Food Pyramid” or “My Plate.” All of these were designed to accomplish a public good (getting Americans to eat a healthy, balanced diet) by tapping into the general human desire to make complex information simple through easy-to-grasp categorization.

More sinister manipulation takes place when communication, particularly political communication, takes advantage of heuristics-driven vulnerabilities in our mental makeup.

For example, the common practice of defining your opponent in a political campaign (by endlessly repeating he or she is a plutocrat or elitist – regardless of the subject allegedly being discussed) is an effort to get the public to make the quick and permanent association between the opposing candidate and the adjective chosen to define them (plutocrat, elitist, etc.). For once such an association is in place, appeals to understand the defined candidate as a complex human being become nearly impossible.

Similarly, an accusation that aligns with intuition (ideally delivered via a catchy slogan) is an easy way to get people to believe a crisis or problem exists, without having to do any research (or thinking) on their own.  What is the scope and nature of America’s current problems vis-à-vis immigration, race relations and sexual harassment, for example?  No need to think about the details if we simply embrace the #MAGA, #BlackLivesMatter or #MeToo hashtags thoughtfully provided to us by people we have never met.

In the realm of BDS, the most well-known example of manipulative, heuristics-based politics is the “Apartheid” slur which anti-Israel activists pepper spray at audiences, regardless of what topic is being debated.  Some have even gone so far as to replace “Israel” (already in scare quotes) with “Apartheid Israel” in written communication.  The point of such efforts is clear: to cement the idea that Israel is the successor to Apartheid South Africa in people’s minds to the point where no amount of factual information can shake that notion loose.

While there is always a certain contempt for the audience built into political activism based on simplification and manipulation, the communication accompanying recent clashes at the Gaza border raises this contempt to the level of a dare.

There has always been a certain amount of objective reality Israel-haters insist their allies reject, from the Jenin “massacre” that never was, to the notion that Israel deliberately targets civilians whenever Hamas or Hezbollah decide to heat up a border.  But the storyline that poured forth from Hamas’ news sources, amplified by that organization’s Amen Corner in the West (that the clash was a peaceful protest fired upon indiscriminately by brutal Israeli soldiers), is so divorced from the information and images before our eyes that it can only be seen as testimony to the contempt Hamas has for not just the public, but for their own supporters.

For example, what would make an organization scream that everyone killed at the border was an innocent civilian, while also proudly announcing the death of martyrs associated with terrorist groups (along with photos of those martyrs clad in camo)?

To a certain extent, such behavior assumes propaganda storylines developed during previous clashes (ones featuring Israeli brutality visited exclusively upon Palestinian innocents) will take hold immediately once new violence breaks out.  But it also assumes the public to be made up of unbelievably ignorant suckers, as well as assuming full ownership over the minds of friends and allies who are being asked to scream at the top of their lungs that 2 + 2 = 5.

Bad Math


Continuing from yesterday’s discussion of how to tell if we are winning or losing the fight against BDS, you might think the best way to answer that question would be to draw from numerical information.  Numbers don’t lie, after all.  But do they always tell the truth?

I thought about this several years ago when I read the exciting subhead to this story which explained we don’t need to worry so much about campus anti-Semitism since BDS is absent from 97% of colleges and universities in America.

Great news! one would first think in knowing that your cause is aligned with a big number (97%) vs. a small one (3%) until you realize that this entire analysis is an inadvertent, but still misleading, example of Proofiness.

That word comes from a 2010 book of the same name which is subtitled “The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception.”  The term derives from Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” a word the comic invented to describe “facts” that sound so good, they must be true (especially if they confirm what you already want to believe).

Proofiness plays with the human tendency to treat quantitative data more respectfully than we treat other types of information, which is why we (for example) lap up the latest poll results, regardless of how wildly divergent they are from one another, and despite the fact that their predictive power has been shown to be minimal.  (Exhibit A-Z: Polls associated with the last US election.)

Because most people’s desire to believe numerical data is coupled with a lack of understanding of mathematical concepts (for instance, does that “margin of error” reported in the last set of polls you read about include potential systemic error – such as poorly worded survey questions – or just statistical variance?), people can easily be deceived by different types of mathematical deception.

My favorite of these is the unit fallacy which you’ll see frequently in discussions involving rates or percentages.  This is the one where a CEO of a company whose profits have risen from 10% to 12% will express this growth as “our profits have grown 20%,” which is technically accurate (if that 20% is applied to the original percentage, rather than the whole), but misleading since most people think of “growing 20%” as implying addition (which would make such a description more suitable for profits growing from 10% to 30%).

Proofiness is a staple of election politics where candidates play all kinds of fruity tactics, from cherry picking data to comparing apples to oranges.  But in the case of the Times of Israel headline, we are faced with inadvertent Proofiness based on the seemingly remarkable statistic of only 3% of colleges dealing with anti-Israel incidents.

On the surface, this certainly seems like a wonderfully positive trend.  After all, 97% is much, much bigger than 3%, and if I wanted to think of myself as being on the winning side, I’d far prefer to ally myself with that very large number vs. the very small one (which explains the Occupy Movement’s “We are the 99%” slogan – another “proofy” assertion).

But remember that there are over 4000 colleges in the US, which means that 3% comes out to over 100 schools.  And if you heard a headline that said anti-Israel activity was prevalent in more than 100 US college campuses, you’d probably react differently than you would to that 97% vs. 3% figure.  Further, if you looked at a list of those colleges (which would go on for 2-4 pages, depending on font size), you might not feel victorious at all, especially since such a list would include some of the biggest and best known schools in the country, including most of the Ivy League and the vast University of California system.

But before panicking at a different packaging of the same data, a look at the original report the Times story was covering provides a more reasonable description of the situation, one that will be familiar to most Divest This readers.

For, as that report analyzes (and the Times headline does actually confirm correctly), US campuses are not aflame.  Anti-Israel activity is not constant, even on the 100+ campuses where it is regular.  BDS, while not a complete wash out, is hardly on the march (and has yet to trigger even a dollar of actual divestment from the Jewish state).  Most schools where loud protests, ongoing anti-Israel lectures and film series, or hectoring professors are a problem, these anti-Israel partisans have to compete with increasing numbers of pro-Israel students who long ago decided they had every right to use their own free speech rights to counter Israel’s defamers.

Still, anti-Israel hate campaigns at 100+ schools is a problem (especially if who is in that 100 changes each year, meaning we could be seeing seeds planted at 200, 300 or more schools over the course of the decade).  But figuring out what to do at a hundred high-profile campuses is a much smaller (or at least a different) challenge than having to deal with thousands of flaming campuses, which is why a dose of reality can actually help our side make more effective decisions on where to put time and resources.

So rather than panic that the campuses are turning against us, or take the equally fallacious path of deciding the problem is solved (since it “only” impacts 3% of schools), we should focus our attention on ensuring that students on each of the campuses where anti-Israel activity predominates have the knowledge, the tools and the arguments they need to ensure the BDSers and other Israel haters continue to be defeated and ignored.

We must also realize that since the war against Israel is not something we started, that we have no control over when it ends.  And so we need to brace for campus (and other) fights that will go on year after year after year, showing the same level of persistence and resolve as Israel’s foes, but bolstered by better tactics and the fact that we are in the right.

Fighting the Wrong Fight

Every year or so, I’ll notice a fight breaking out in the Jewish press regarding whether or not we are winning or losing the fight against BDS.

Most recently, the UK’s columnist Liron Velleman and US Commentary contributor Jonathan Tobin talked about the decrease in Israel Apartheid Week activities in the US and abroad, as well as the lack of success BDS has had in slowing Israel’s rapidly expanding economy and growing diplomatic ties across the world (including the Arab world).  This was met with harsh rebuke by Jack Saltzberg, founder of The Israel Group, who pointed out that BDS is unconcerned with causing Israel actual economic harm, but is instead embarked on a project to turn the next generation against the Jewish state through propaganda facilitated by boycott and divestment campaigns.

Both sides in this debate rely mostly on anecdotal information, although the accumulation of anecdotes (such as number of Apartheid Week activities or student government divestment votes – or votes won or lost) can indicate trends.

Given how much of my earlier work was based on embedding the BDSFail meme into discussion of this topic, I have seen these same arguments again and again (with this piece contrasting various measures of Israel’s success with the failures of BDS tending to draw the most criticism from Israel supporters fearful that a “BDS is a failure” storyline might cause us to miss what the boycotters are actually up to).

While I have tremendous respect for all of these writers and the arguments they are making, they are similar to previous sides taken in similar debates in that they focus too narrowly on a tactic (BDS) without analyzing the wider framework into which that tactic fits.

Before BDS (a brand that came into vogue in the mid-2000s), there was simply “divestment” (the name of campaigns that started with the 2001 “anti-racism” conference in Durban).  And before divestment there were campaigns to get the US to end its financial support for the Jewish state.  Before those, there were calls to get schools, churches and governments to pass motions condemning Israel for this or that alleged crime.  Woven into all these projects was the strategic goal of branding Israel as the successor to Apartheid South Africa.

This strategic goal was and is part of a wider project.  For if Israel = Apartheid in the minds of enough people, then its demise would be considered not sad and evil, but wonderful and good.  And if the ultimate goal of those pushing this propaganda campaign is to see the Jewish state destroyed (which it is), then BDS can be seen as the propaganda arm of a wider military strategy, with militaries and terror groups allied with Israel’s national enemies assigned the role of carrying out the actual violence for which anti-Israel propaganda provides cover.

What this means is that we cannot judge the success or failure of anti-Israel movements by looking at just this student council vote or that state anti-BDS legislation (or even the number of them increasing or decreasing over time).  For anti-Israel agitation has been with us since before the BDS acronym was invented, and will continue – organized around different tactics – if the Israel haters drop boycott and divestment tactics altogether.

While part of the reason behind a slow-down in BDS activity can be chalked up to our side’s successful efforts to organize resistance to it, there are also geopolitical reasons for why we find ourselves where we are today.  Most notably, the chaos in the Arab world and growing understanding by Sunni nations of the threat of Iran means traditional supporters of every aspect of the global anti-Israel crusade (such as Saudi Arabia) are losing interest in both the Palestinians and those that support them.

Also, whatever you think about chaotic US politics, there is clearly a difference in how the current administration treats Israel and the Middle East vs. the last occupant of the White House.

As outlined here, one has to understand the field of battle before understanding whether one is winning or losing on the ground.  And, despite where conflicts are taking place, the actual battlefield is not the chambers of student or municipal government.  Rather, those skirmishes are part of a wider plan to damage or destroy the walls (physical, military, economic, diplomatic and emotional) that protect the Jewish state from harm

This means we need to determine if the siege warfare Israel’s strategy for survival is based on is working or not.  If it is, then we should continue to support anything that makes Israel’s position stronger while weakening her enemies.  If it’s not, then we should find out where the cracks are in the Jewish nation’s defenses and put our effort into patching them and shoring up protective barriers in hope that those who began this war (Israel’s enemies – the only ones that can end it) eventually come to their senses.


BDS, Fail, Repeat


It recently dawned on me that those behind the aptly named BDS “movement” must have gotten their hands on that computer Wile E Coyote used in To Hare is Human.

Fellow Bugs Bunny fans will remember that episode as the one in which the aforementioned villain decides to supplement his “super genius” with a build-it-yourself, cave-sized, UNIVAC electronic brain, complete with my favorite cartoon interface of all time: a mammoth keyboard in which each key features one word in the English language (including contractions), allowing him to give commands such as:


Given the consequences of following the machine’s suggestions, it occurred to me that our buddies in BDS-land might be falling victim to the same technology.

For example, they could have typed the following command into UNIVAC earlier this year to hatch their latest self-detonating scheme:


One would think that the failure of the BDSers to gin up any enthusiasm for municipal divestment since Somerville kicked them down the stairs in 2004 might have sent them the message that cities and towns are not interested in participating in their poisonous, propaganda project.  But perhaps this long drought just gave the boycotters time to let a new generation of representatives come to power with no memory of the tricks that had been played on municipal leaders over a decade ago.

The BDS playbook has been put into practice so often and so routinely that I was recently able to boil it down to a simple set of endlessly repeated steps, but the New Orleans version can be summed up as: (1) find a progressive organization concerned over, but not hugely informed about, international affairs; (2) ask the group to pass a generic divestment proposal that claims to support general human rights, without mentioning BDS (or even Israel) specifically; and (3) once said generic proposal passes, take to the airwaves declaring that the institution is now fully aboard the BDS “Israel = Apartheid” bandwagon.

This is exactly what happened in New Orleans in early January and, as with similar debates in the past, local leaders who had been duped were not amused that anti-Israel activists were blanketing the world with anti-Israel propaganda, claiming support of city leaders.  So, within days of being passed, New Orleans’ divestment declaration was rescinded – leaving the boycotters with soot-covered punims as their latest self-made roadrunner trap detonated in their collective face.

Or how about Ohio State University, a school where divestment has been rejected by both student government and the student body in the past?

But by plugging the following into UNIVAC, a new scheme emerged:


You may have seen dueling stories regarding the latest vote at Ohio State, one which claims victory for BDS the other declaring that anti-Israel divestment was defeated.  The reason for this confusion is that the boycotters agreed to a measure that said nothing specific about Israel; leaving them to peddle the generic human rights initiative they had just helped to pass as actually a successful BDS vote they knew had never taken place.

But if the boycotters are free to spin this non-BDS vote as a victory for them, what is to prevent someone else from spinning it as the boycotters’ latest humiliating defeat?  In fact, what’s to prevent anyone from declaring that the vote was really Students for Justice in Palestine finally showing concern for non-Palestinian human rights, including the rights of those suffering under the racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary dictatorships that represent every government in the Middle East, save Israel?  After all, if they can pretend a vote means whatever they want it to mean, why can’t the rest of us?

In general, I am in agreement with Ben Cohen that defeat of BDS is best left to folks at ground level, rather than making humiliating the boycotters a priority for national governments.  And if it turns out they are falling prey to the same mischievous “one working part” that powered Wile E.’s UNIVAC electronic brain, why should we stand in the way of their racking up the next set of self-inflicted fiascos?

Naming and Shaming


I’ve recently read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by British journalist Jon Ronson which looks at a reemergence of public shaming, one where it is the Internet serves as the judge sentencing others to the stocks, the stocks themselves, and the mob throwing rotten fruit at the stocked defendant.

One of the reasons such shaming has snuck up on us in today’s culture is that we’ve relegated shame to a collection of second-tier emotions whose burdens modernity is supposed to be freeing us from.  But, far from being trivial, shame is the mechanism by which cultures are formed and perpetuated.

Philosopher Lee Harris, in his 2007 book The Suicide of Reason, points that that shame is the tool one generation uses to acculturate the next into a society by training children from a young age to feel shameful for believing certain things and acting in certain ways.  Religious communities that raise their kids to feel the hot rush of sweat and queasiness (both shaming symptoms) at sin or disbelief is an example of this phenomenon.  But, as Harris points out, even moderns raising our kids in a culture of reason do not use reason to get them accept cultural norms such as tolerance of minorities.  Rather, we work hard to ensure that our children will feel shame at the gut level for engaging in bigoted behavior, or even having intolerant thoughts.

Given the number of people recommending “naming and shaming” as a strategy within our own community of activists, it’s worth looking at the shame phenomenon and when it has proven effective (or not) a bit more closely.

One pro-Israel organization that has utilizing shaming tactics with some success is NGO Monitor which has managed to get a number of European governments and organizations to stop funding Palestinian “human rights” NGOs that are actually involved with glorifying terror or spreading propaganda (often as part of BDS campaigns).

While exposure of those organizations spending cash to celebrate violence is the tool NGO Monitor uses in its shaming strategy, their success derives from the fact that the entity being shamed (such as European governments) are provided the opportunity to claim that they have not misbehaved themselves but have instead been duped by the Palestinian groups they have funded.  This provides them the opening to take the right action (cut off funding) in order to preserve their self-image as tolerant and supportive of human rights, which helps them avoid the shame of knowing (and being seen) to have abandoned those principles.

In contrast, campaigns designed to directly shame individuals for their political activity (such as the profiles created by Canary Mission, or postering campaigns on campuses that expose Israel haters by name) are not designed to elicit self-reflection.  Rather, they are supposed to create a “price tag” for misbehavior, creating a mechanism whereby future employers, graduate school admissions officers or family members will have full access to an individual’s sordid behavior (often created from background material created by the shamed activist him or herself).

The nature of this form of “naming and shaming” explains the mixed response to and level of effectiveness of such campaigns.  True believers, for example (those who refuse to accept any self-characterization save unvarnished virtue) see inclusion in Canary Mission as a badge of honor.  And those whose inclusion might make them think twice about continuing their activity are making a practical choice based on their own self-interest, rather than engaging in moral reflection. (As an aside, this helps explain why those aforementioned postering campaigns have proven so ineffective, since their narrow audience means they do not create a price tag high enough to trigger a change in behavior).

So that’s shaming our enemies.  But what about shaming our allies?

Such a tactic is not as strange or unusual as you might think.  For, within the divided Jewish community, there are many times one group of activists might think another is not doing enough to deal with a particular outbreak of anti-Israel activity.  And one way to get others to do what you think they should is to try to shame them into doing so by alerting the world that supposed friends of Israel are either not living by their stated principles or – in some cases – actually doing wrong.

In some cases, the shamer can get what they want from the shamee using such tactics.  But while the personal shame we feel when we stray from our principles or self-image is made up of emotions like regret and a desire to do better, public shaming usually drives those constructive feelings out in favor of the resentment we all feel at being humiliated.

Like shame itself, humiliation (or, more particularly, the need to avoid it) is a major driver of human activity since we will all go to great lengths to make it stop.  This can include doing what we’re told will make such humiliation go away.  But, more often than not, we respond to shaming with resentment which can lead to anything from passive aggressive “acceptance” to do the right thing once (but never again) to lashing out at those who have chosen to humiliate us (drowning out discussion of whatever issue triggered the original bout of shaming).

When supposed allies don’t step up (or worse, do the wrong thing) about an issue we feel passionately about, it’s easy to believe that shaming them serves a strategy purpose (or at least avoid considering the negative impact of a tactic that tends to breed more resentment than repentance).

But if we want to utilize powerful but potentially destructive human emotions as political weapons, it might be worth considering what options we have for making friends, neutrals or even wavering enemies feel good about themselves for supporting our cause, rather than hoping self-disgust will motivate others to do the right thing.

Halo Effect


[Note: This was originally published at Elder of Ziyon around Martin Luther King Day.]

Every now and then, it’s nice to pull back from the combat zone to take a look at some of the tools and weapons used in our battles with Israel’s enemies.  And, given that we’re primarily fighting against a propaganda war, Martin Luther King Day gives us the chance to learn about an important verbal jousting technique known as the “Halo Effect.”

Like many persuasive tools, the Halo Effect takes advantage of the fact that the human mind is extremely gifted at making associations, but that many of those associations are formed in the absence of full knowledge.  Some uninformed associations (like associating a rustle in the bushes with danger, even if it’s just the wind) have obvious evolutionary benefit.  But uninformed associations can have a dark side (prejudice, for example, falls into this category), and the mind’s tendency to associate first and ask questions later (if ever) leaves us vulnerable to manipulation.

It is the propagandist’s job to create uniformed associations to the benefit of their cause.  For example, the BDSers’ incessant incantation of “Israel=Apartheid” is meant to cement an association in the mind of an audience that Israel represents the kind of racist society associated with the “Apartheid” term.  The boycotters must pitch this message to those who have no idea what Israel is like, since such factual knowledge would instantly expose the Apartheid accusation as a lie.  But they also prefer their audience to know nothing (or next to nothing) about South Africa’s actual experience with the Apartheid system, which leaves the term serving simply as a marker for a bigoted society worthy of dismantlement.

In general, the Halo Effect is used to associate your own cause with a person, image or movement with positive connotations.  Invocation of Gandhi, for example, gives your cause a halo of spirit-driven, non-violent resistance to power, just as invoking Reagan or Kennedy associates you with the perception of uncompromised conservative or liberal principles (regardless of the complex lives and political beliefs of all of these icons).

In the Arab-Israeli propaganda, no icon is the subject of more dispute than Martin Luther King, which is why quotes of his support of Zionism show up on so many pro-Israel web sites every Martin Luther King Day.  Anti-Israel propagandists, desperate to claim the mantle of the Civil Rights movement for themselves, ignore, deny or dispute King’s support for the Jewish state, and thus the ongoing war over King’s legacy.

Keep in mind that the Halo Effect does not require in-depth education of the public on the facts of the matter.  In fact, diving deeply into the complex real lives and beliefs of any icon (the ones already mentioned, or additional ones like Nelson Mandela or Albert Einstein) are as likely to lead to confusion over where they ultimately stood.  And for purposes of generating a halo to stand inside, a simple story will always trump a complex one.

So how to best use this technique, both to cement our own causes to worthy individuals and messages and prevent our enemies from doing the same?

I’ve already mentioned the importance of keeping your story simple.  But while simplification of complex stories is acceptable in political argumentation, such simplicity should never stray into inaccuracy.  For example, it’s fair to highlight that Nelson Mandela never advocated for BDS or point out his positive experiences with the Jewish state.  But using that to claim Mandela as an ardent Zionist would be a stretch into self-delusion or deception that could damage the credibility of anyone making such statements.

Identifying the line between telling an easily digestible tale and telling fibs is the key to using the Halo Effect to maximum advantage, as well as limiting its effectiveness for opponents.  For example, years ago a memo in which Nelson Mandela condemned Israel as an Apartheid state was exposed as a fraud, a hoax that has limited the BDSers ability to invoke his name ever since.  And while similarly inaccurate quotes from Martin Luther King condemning anti-Zionism were also exposed as incorrect, our side benefited from exposing this inaccuracy ourselves, rather than waiting for our opponents to do so.

So what’s the bottom line for activists whose main weapon is language?  First off, understand human psychology and the tools of persuasive communication (like the Halo Effect) well enough to put them to use for a worthy cause, and (2) always hitch these techniques to the truth (which is not that hard, given that the truth is on our side).


I’ve gotten a bit lazy in keeping this site updated with postings originally shared at Elder of Ziyon over the last few months.

I’m planning to rectify that situation by synching things up over the next couple of weeks, so expect some daily postings this week and next.  (Loyal subscribes – Don’t be shocked if you receive a bunch of new/old stuff in your Inbox over the next several days.)