Denormalizing Denormalization

23 Sep

With the Gaza war behind us (for now), things seem to be unfurling on campuses about as expected.

While anti-Israel activity is usually more of a second-semester phenomenon, the BDSers have been trying to leverage momentum from last summer’s war (and associated anti-Israel hysteria) to get their propaganda program rolling early at colleges and universities, even as chapters of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) are just raising recruits and getting off the ground.

Given the thuggish tactics these groups were trying on for size at the end of the last academic year, it’s no surprise that early tales of SJP on campus involve violence and intimidation as tactics of choice.  And given the amount of information coming out of Gaza that they need to suppress, we can expect the usual tactic of ignoring anything others have to say to be accompanied by ever-louder shout-downs of those who choose to mention little details like 4000+ rockets fired at Israeli civilians from behind Palestinian ones.

But a decade of manufactured anti-Israel hostility has also generated counter-measures in the form of bigger and better-organized pro-Israel campus groups that have proven their skill (and patience) again and again.  And following a dynamic I described nearly a decade ago, these groups have been given the leeway to take the lead on their own campuses, pulling in resources from the wider Jewish if and when they are needed.

Within this battlefield, Israel’s foes have some decided advantages.  To begin with, as the propaganda arm of a war movement, the BDSers – by definition – have militant goals which means they can be perpetually on the attack.  In contrast, Israel’s supporters are not interested in destroying anyone and thus do not have the incentive to spend semester after semester smearing Palestinians (or other Arabs) or even telling stark truths about what the Palestinians have done to bring so much misery upon themselves over the decades.

Similarly, the sociopathic nature of the boycotters mean they are free to pick the battlefield unhindered by worries over the damage they may cause to others.  Again, in contrast, pro-Israel groups are hesitant to drag the Middle East conflict into every civic space in the land and thus must wait until the Israel haters act before they can react to any situation (such as a BDS vote) that requires a fight.

Those advantages are somewhat mitigated by the fact that most college populations consist of roughly 5% of students hostile and 5% of students supportive of the Jewish state with the other 90% indifferent (above and beyond wondering why this particular political conflict must be in their face 24/7).  In theory, this vast majority can be swayed, possibly by propaganda (the BDSers preferred choice), possibly by reasoned argument.  But, in general, this large group tends to support dialog and are looking to see which groups seems most sincerely dedicated to working things out via genuine communication vs. screaming matches.

This makes the over-the-top nature of groups like SJP a liability, which makes an aspect of this year’s campaign – one having to do with “denormalization” all the more surprising.

If you recall, “normalization” means treating Israel like a normal country whose citizens have the right to participate in all of the activities allowed by citizens of any nation in the world.  Which means that “denormalization,” making normal life impossible for Israelis (and their friends), is at the heart and soul of the BDS project.

For instance, any scholar in the world is allowed to be part of the community of academic discourse – even if they come from nations rules by monstrous, murderous regimes that suppress academic freedom at home.  But an academic “denormalization” campaign seeks to make just one exception to this rule through attempts to bar Israelis (although just the Jewish ones) from the scholarly community.

Similarly, product boycotts and divestment campaigns are designed to make buying Israeli goods or investment in Israeli companies seem extraordinary, just as last year’s marches in Europe and elsewhere want to “normalize” the notion that just one country (the Jewish one) has no right to defend itself when enemies shower its cities with rocket fire.

But among anti-Israel campus groups, “normalization” would require treating interaction between pro- and anti-Israel student groups as a normal form of human discourse.  Which is why they reject it, insisting that any dialog can only begin once those that disagree with them accept every BDSer fact and opinion in advance.

While the term “de-normalization” tries to smooth over some rough edges, the proper description of this position would be “anti-dialog” and “anti-peace” which pretty much sums up the alpha and omega of the BDS “movement.”

Which means that it is worth it for pro-Israel groups on campus to continue extending a hand to their opponents and then communicate out every time it is slapped away, thus demonstrating that the only thing abnormal going on is what takes place in the minds and meetings of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine.

Are the Presbyterians Really Peacemakers?

16 Sep

During this summer’s Gaza conflict, two organizations that made news earlier in the year when they passed boycott or divestment resolutions – the American Studies Association (ASA) and Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) – issued statements on the conflict.

Of the two, ASA’s call to immediately terminate all aid to Israel (taken this time without any pesky interference from the rank and file) simply demonstrated the organization’s true nature: as a membership group made up of scholars largely indifferent to ASA’s political posturing led by a cadre that is nevertheless happy to make politically charged statements in the name of those they purport to represent.

The inability of ASA leaders to argue their positions or explain their behavior outside of like-minded audiences has exposed them as charlatans and cowards long ago, which may explain why their summer Gaza statement made no news beyond the usual BDS fever swamps.  But PCUSA’s public rhetoric that claims their various statements and motions (up to and including a decade of divestment votes) represent a desperate craving for peace makes their behavior regarding the Gaza war more worthy of scrutiny.

As I noted previously, a statement made early in the conflict by PCUSA’s Stated Clerk followed a familiar pattern of making Palestinian victims concrete and visceral while retreating to the passive voice when it came time to “condemn” violence directed towards Israelis.  And while there is no question who PCUSA considers to be the victimizer when it comes to Palestinian casualties, it’s not at all clear that they are ready to place responsibility for missile fire and tunnel terrorism (successful and thwarted) where it belongs.

But another statement, made in late July (in the name of the entire church membership), one which calls on President Obama to “press for an immediate ceasefire,” is far more telling when looked at in the context of the many ceasefires declared and then broken between July and the final cessation of hostilities in August.

If you recall, this round fighting in Gaza was marked by countless calls for a ceasefire (made by, among others, the US President to whom the Presbyterians appealed).  But, each and every time, those truces ended when Hamas finished using them as occasions to reload and redeploy, allowing them to start firing once again.

The second to last ceasefire (in August) was the most bizarre since everyone (including Israel) thought the fighting was over, only to see it start again when Hamas decided that rocket fire would continue until their demands were met.

During each of these ceasefires (especially the last one), the leadership of PCUSA never managed to deliver some of the “tough love” they routinely deliver to their Jewish “friends” to the Palestinians they have spent the last several decades cultivating by embracing their narrative and joining in their divestment calls.  In fact, the relationship they have built (at the cost of their relationship to the Jewish community) placed them in the ideal position to have their voices heard.  Yet, as far as I know, no such “tough love” emanated from Louisville explaining that PCUSA’s continued support was contingent on Palestinians doing what everyone else was begging them to do: stop firing rockets and thus restarting the war.

Remember that PCUSA could have made such a call without compromising its all-but-official positions on who is right and who is wrong in the Arab-Israeli conflict in any way.  For placing blame on Hamas for causing this particular war to continue when it could have stopped much earlier in the summer does not necessarily require condemning Hamas for the many other things you or I could list (diverting development supplies into tunnel and weapons manufacture, hiding and firing among civilians, etc.).  It just requires you to ask the party that seems to be doing things that are prolonging the war PCUSA claims to desperately want to end to stop doing those things.

Just imagine the headlines you would have seen if the church had put its divestment position on hold unless and until Hamas agreed to the same truce everyone else had.  And think about the impact such a bold move would have had in demonstrating to the world (including the Palestinians) that PCUSA’s commitment to peace took precedent over their seeming pro-Palestinian or anti-Israel partisanship.

No doubt there are hundreds of bureaucratic reasons that might make it difficult for the organization to move in such a direction (although such bureaucracy never seems to keep PCUSA from taking all kinds of actions directed at Israel, up to and including Zionism Unsettled).  But one would think that an organization that is truly dedicated to peace, one which really wanted a particular conflict (the Gaza war) to stop, would do anything in its power to turn that desire into reality – even if it meant temporarily condemning someone other than their usual target of criticism.

Given that the church remained silent when their voice might have helped, it seems that there is something more important than peace on PCUSA’s agenda.  Which means we should take their demands that we treat them as peacemakers with the same grain of salt we treat their claims of love and friendship.

SodaStream Re-Lo?

11 Sep

During the dog-days of August, when stories of the latest Hamas war in Gaza understandably dominated the news, a BDS story began to effervesce involving another piece of disputed territory: one claiming that SodaStream was planning to close their Mishor Adumin plant – a facility that has been used to anchor worldwide boycott activity targeting the Israeli soda-machine manufacturer.

Now we can guess what the press release from the Omar Barghouti’s brigade might look like if a decision to close the Mishor Adumin plant gets made: a claim of total victory that makes it clear any move made by SodaStream was entirely due to BDS efforts.

At least one Israeli supporter (my favorite Italian brand of Chicken Little) has beaten Barghouti to the punch, using the potential move to anchor another call that people wake up to the BDS threat and stop it at all cost.  But even less hyperventilating friends of the Jewish state used the possible SodaStream re-lo to demonstrate the utter indifference on the part of BDS activists to the fate of hundreds of Palestinians who would find themselves unemployed if a campaign against their employer “succeeded.” But while pointing out the BDSers total lack of concern for actual living, breathing Palestinians is worth doing, such an argument takes as given that BDS plays much of a role in SodaStream’s thinking.

The best candidate for an alternative explanation is, as usual for a publically traded business, economics.  And if you look over this story covering Soda Stream from an investment angle, it’s clear that there are many reasonable factors that can explain the company’s choices that have nothing to do with politics. These factors include the need to consolidate manufacturing, availability of government subsidies for employing people in the Negev, consumer challenges the company faces in the critical US market, and the possibility of having Coke as a competitor – requiring the need to redirect spending towards product development and marketing. With such multi-million-dollar considerations on the table, it’s easy to see why small bands of dopes invading hardware stores a few times a year might not factor into corporate risk analysis.

But all this analysis does not take into account the human factor, notably the personality of SodaStream’s CEO Daniel Birnbaum.  For in addition to creating a company that has taken on the world’s largest beverage manufacturers, Birnbaum has also been trying to almost single handedly keep Shimon Peres’ notion of a New Middle East – where economic cooperation would supplant political enmity – alive.

A heartless plutocrat might keep the Mishor Adumin factory open just to take advantage of government grants or low wage workers (as SodaStream’s critics accuse).  But would such a plutocrat subject himself to a strip search in solidarity with the Palestinian workers he brought to an Israeli event celebrating the company’s achievements?  This type of behavior, coupled with his insistence that Jewish and Arab workers be treated equally in any factory his company runs, indicates that there was a political element to his decision-making, one which tried desperately to keep the original Oslo spirit alive by demonstrating that Jews and Arabs can work together to replace hostility with prosperity.

Now if you’re nothing more than a money-grubbing businessperson, accusations of being a greedy, exploitive scumbag are easy to take since that’s what you, in fact, are.  And part of that profile includes indifference to the criticism of others (or the ability to rationalize your misbehavior as part of some nebulous higher good).

But if you, like Birnbaum are actually altruistic as well as capitalistic, if you’ve made sacrifices – financial and personal – over the years to create a successful, growing company and use that success to improve the lives of Israelis and Arabs that other Israelis and Arabs say can never be reconciled, how are you supposed to respond to accusations by unproductive cretins like Omar Barghouti that you are actually running a slave labor camp and that all the good you’ve tried to do amounts to little more than Apartheid?

I obviously can’t read the mind of Birnbaum (or anyone else), but I do suspect there exists a combination of risk-reward calculus and plain old hostility to being lied about (not to mention being used as part of someone else’s political game) that would make any person – no matter how generous – say “f**k it” at some point and move on.  So while I don’t believe decisions to close the plant were made in reaction to BDSer exploits, I could imagine such insults playing a role with regard to whether or not management would fight to keep that factory open if it didn’t make economic sense to do so.

While such speculations about SodaStream’s CEO amount to little more than armchair psychologizing, no such guesswork is needed to understand the belief system behind a political movement ready to lie and see Palestinians suffer in order generate headlines and propaganda.  For if the Oslo Accords were meant to foster an environment where cooperation was an alternative to conflict, the BDS movement is fighting to close off any and all options other than war.

The Blood Bucket Challenge

8 Sep

Both of my kids took time over the summer to be filmed while a friend dumped cold water over their heads from a great height. Nothing terribly unusual about that, I thought, except that their soaking was apparently part of a widespread charitable project that went viral earlier this year called the Ice Bucket Challenge.

As far as I can tell, the challenge part of the program involves naming others (friends, neighbors, celebrities) who should also post videos of themselves being soaked via the Interwebs.  Alternatively, those challengees can skip the soaking part and just make a donation to charities involved with fighting against the degenerative illness ALS.

Some people have complained that the Ice Bucket Challenge involves more water dumping and web chortling than actual giving, although such criticisms seem easily countered by the millions in new dollars that have apparently flowed to ALS-related charities in 2014.  And while I am sympathetic to criticisms offered by fellow old fogeys that the goofiness of soaking yourself with H20 kind of collides with the seriousness of the cause, I’m also old enough to remember the era of the Jerry Lewis Telethon, an annual event that involved jugglers, acrobats and stale stand-up comics putting on a Vaudeville every Labor Day in support of the equally serious illness Muscular Dystrophy.

Given how much the Web tends to award dopey things like frowning cats and expletive-spewing oranges with that sacred gift of virality, I am left offering two-and-a-half cheers to an Ice Bucket Challenge that seems to have combined fun and generosity in the right combination (that half cheer withheld in slight sympathy with my curmudgeony cohort who grew up before the age of the Net).

Those limited kvetches aside, leave it to the BDSers to figure out a way to turn an act of fun and kindness into something horrifying.

I’m speaking, of course, of the “Blood Bucket Challenge” that took place on the Ohio University campus where Megan Marzec, president of the student senate, decided to film herself doing a Carrie impersonation by dousing herself with fake blood (rather than ice water) while announcing her own challenge: that the school should divest from and boycott the Jewish state (rather than make a donation to a worthy cause).

No word yet if this warped mutation of someone else’s idea is going to catch on in the land of BDS over the coming months.  The fact that Marzec’s bizarre behavior appalled her fellow senators (who issued an apology) and triggered condemnation across the campus might mitigate against her stunt being replicated elsewhere.  But given the BDSers track record of trying to subvert other people’s virtuous ideas in order to drive their own virality, I wouldn’t put it past them.

We’ve seen this before with flash mobs, those unexpected bursts of music, dance and merriment that surprise people with never-anticipated joy, shaking them from their daily stupor with the brief gift of happiness.  For the boycotters, however, flash mobs were just one more popular concept they could plagiarize and vulgarize, replacing gleeful performances given as a present to the public with shrewish warbling in department stores in support of pulling Israeli cosmetics off the shelf.

The “Blood Bucket Challenge” takes this process one step further, replacing an act of silliness and generosity with one chosen specifically to generate horror and disgust.  Fortunately, that disgust has only been directed so far at the person who performed this bit of blood-drenched grandstanding.  But given the BDSers crazed desire to never have their cause off the front pages for even a minute, it would not surprise me in the least if more SJP types across the country started filming themselves doing something similar in the weeks and months to come.

Last week, I talked about some of the tactics we can use this year to counter the surge in BDS activity that inevitably follows violence breaking out in the region.  But one I left out was the technique of defining and “freezing” an opponent (a la Alinsky).

In this case, it is SJP and the like whose out-of-control behavior earlier this year coupled with recent choices to start throwing punches and dousing themselves with gore that should be frozen in place – by highlighting their excesses at every opportunity and ignoring their insistence that we talk about anything else.

And if we add these recent spasms of violence and ugliness to the BDSers multi-year track record of lying about victories and sneaking around in the dark to achieve their ends, we are in a position to define Israel opponents (accurately) as a bunch of dishonest, manipulative, nasty, brutish and short-tempered losers.

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).