Response

Decided to stick with the new theme for now. In the meantime, here’s a story from earlier this year…

I had an interesting experience recently that gave me direct exposure to many of the dynamics you’ve read about on this site regarding the behavior of anti-Israel activists on college campuses and the reaction they generate.

Without naming names or places, I was asked to present “the other side” at a college-level class in response to a student’s previous two-day class-time harangue directed against the Jewish state.

Apparently, students in this psych class were given the opportunity to lead class discussion on one of the themes of the course, which gave one person the opportunity to present on “discrimination” with you-know-who presented as the Apartheid-level discriminator (with intersectionality-laden accusations against the US thrown in for good measure).  Since the teacher was out at a conference for the period this student presented, as well as the following class, this gave our local advocate the chance to spend two days inveighing against Israel.

The experience was disconcerting enough for one student that she reached out for help and advice and, long-and-short, this led to me coming to class to present an alternative point of view.

Presenting “the other side” implies that responding to someone else’s allegations was what was expected, although an alternative would have been to spend the class period telling the truth about Israel’s enemies as aggressively as the original presenter shared her lies.  But taking into account the audience (in this case, older undergrads and graduate students at a prestigious university), I thought it better to actually provide them a lesson in social psychology with the war against Israel used as an example of toxic behavior that can infect entire societies (including Israel’s enemies). 

Now I did include a number of important truths in the discussion, including humanizing both sides in the conflict while also pointing out facts that confound “the narrative,” such as the Palestinian alliance with Hitler in World War II, the support the British Empire provided Israel’s foes – including splitting Jordan off from “Palestine” and leading Jordanian troops in 1948 – and the expulsion of Jews from the Arab world.  Each one of these facts was unknown to the students in the room, which allowed me to challenge the credibility of the original presenter without attacking anyone directly.

Such behavior was not a two-way street, however.  For almost from the start the student who had been given the floor previously began to insert more of her accusations into the discussion, in the form of “innocent” questions.  But when I responded sternly, but politely, that such questions could wait until the end of my talk (the same rules she insisted on when she had the floor) and did not let her dominate Q&A at the expense of her classmates, she resorted to the old fallback of getting upset and breaking into tears over the fact that any side other than hers was allowed in her presence. 

This tactic is called “Argumentation from Outrage” and is an old staple of BDS “dialog,” although in this age of “coddling,” it has been used to increasing effect to shut down debate through what has been termed “crybullying.” 

One thing that became apparently pretty quickly is how discombobulated Israel’s accusers become when they don’t have complete control of the microphone.  It may just be that this particular person was not an effective partisan, at least with regard to challenging someone who knew what they were talking about and was ready to stand his ground.  But it may also represent the sort of atrophying of argumentation skill among those who insist that no dialog can take place with anyone not ready to agree with everything they say in advance.

Did my presentation sway anyone?  Hard to tell.  While I was surprised how little these older college students knew about the Middle East beyond what they were told in this class, I remembered someone once pointing out how little many pro-Israel advocates know about other hotspots (how much do you really know about the situation in Burma, for example?), which suggested we should approach educating others on topics of importance to us with humility.

I’d like to think that exposure to truth presented respectfully, coupled with watching the rude behavior of a classmate who fell apart when she could not dominate the discussion to spread her false narratives got them thinking that maybe the world was not as black and white as they’d been told.

Time will tell…

Yipes!

Looks like a couple of automatic updates messed up the site. I’ve switched to a new bare-bones theme which seems to make the problem go away so you can still find stuff while I look for a longer-term solution.

While that’s going on, I’m going to finally get around to keeping the promise I made months ago to update the site with new material that has been appearing all year at Elder of Ziyyon that is still relevant.

Apologies but stay tuned…

BDS Newsbytes

Apologies for not keeping this site up to date with new things published over at Elder of Ziyon.  Will be catching up over the next few days.

Another BDSer Runs Amok

By now, many of you have probably seen this video of a “prominent” human-right BDS activist Simone O’Broin going nuts on an Air India flight when the flight attendants refused to give her more alcohol than the huge amount she had already clearly consumed.

Her tirade, including expletives and racial slurs directed at those denying her booze, was also wrapped in a drunken version of the sort of self-righteous outrage O’Broin and her ilk tend to serve up to anyone who challenges their demand to be given the moral high ground immediately and unconditionally.

This is just the latest example of boycotter misbehavior we have seen in recent years.  Just a couple of years ago, for example, Husam El-Qoulaq (who played a central role in organizing student government divestment votes as an undergraduate) won Internet fame as the Harvard Law School student who told Israeli political leader Tzipi Livni that she smelled.  Despite best efforts by El-Qoulaq and the school to erase this misbehavior from personal and public records, and best efforts by apologists to put his infantile comments “into context,” El-Qoulaq now stands alongside O’Broin as exemplars of what is really going on in the mind of the BDSer.

Keep that in mind the next time they try to feign reasonableness before an audience they are trying to sucker.

AirBnB

Speaking of suckers, the decision by the online travel firm AirBnB to delist properties in the disputed territories (but only the ones owned by Jews) can be seen as the latest attempt by political activists to go around the political process by targeting the Internet firms that control access to goods, services, news and interpersonal communication.

Given how much time I and others have spent debunking BDS hoaxes, it is in our interest to admit when the BDSers score a rare win, if only as a point of contrast.  But it should also be acknowledged that this win, which came at the end of a two-year bullying campaign supported by wealthy and high-profile organizations like the increasingly contaminated Human Rights Watch, ended not with the crippling of the Jewish state’s economy but rather with a few dozen houses no longer being included in one of many online travel sites.

This story can also be seen in light of the traditional BDS tactic of demanding someone else take action with no concern for the consequences that someone else will have to bear.  Already, AirBnB has faced stiff criticism for their hypocrisy, given how many human rights abusers – including genuine occupiers of other people’s territory – they continue to include in their listings.  The inevitable lawsuits are beginning to kick in, and it’s just a matter of time before the company is asked to explain why their decision should not trigger action by the many, many US states that have anti-boycott legislation on the books.

As those consequences gel, I suspect that the many compliments AirBnB received for caving to BDS pressure will not translate to a scintilla of support for a company that must now bear the brunt of a choice forced on them by others.  Freiers.

University of Leeds

Having just mentioned a BDS win, it’s worth noting that the boycotters are still trying to pull fast ones on the public when they announce their latest “victory” on a BDS web sites or in some breathless press releases.

Most recently, we’ve seen the Hampshire Strategy play out in the UK where the decision by the University of Leeds to change its investment strategy based on issues related to climate change was transformed into their joining the BDS “movement.”

How did this come about?  Well, as at Hampshire, Leeds has been targeted for years by anti-Israel activists demanding investments in several large and prominent companies pulled from the school’s portfolio.  And, like every other similarly targeted university on the planet, they have refused to do so.  But given the scale and diversity activity of their portfolio, it was just a matter of time before some of those investments got moved in and out, either for purely financial reasons (like the stock not doing well) or for political reasons having nothing to do with the Middle East.

As I’ve noted before, divestment is a political act which means taking a financial step without announcing publicly that you are doing so for a clearly stated reason means political divestment has not occurred. In the case of Leeds, as at Hampshire, the school has actually stated explicitly that they did not do what the BDSers say they did, making it even more clear that divestment has not occurred.

Given that Hampshire is still trotted out as a BDS “win” nearly ten years after this ur-BDS hoax was exposed, don’t expect Leeds to get dropped from Omar Barghouti’s slide deck anytime soon.

Coddling of the American Mind – Part 2

As I mentioned at the end of the first part of this review of Lukianoff and Haidt’s 2018 Coddling of the American Mind, the book does not specifically deal with the how the conflict over Israel is playing out on campuses, apart from some examples of pro-Israel speakers being disrupted at talks given at certain colleges.

While their choice to provide a general analysis, rather than diving into one particular controversial issue, is perfectly reasonable, I suspect the role anti-Israel forces have played on campus over the last few decades helped catalyze what we’re now seeing in many places today.

New forms of behavior rarely spring from nothing, nor are they the result of careful analysis then translated into action.  Rather, they tend to rely on precedent.  For when someone behaves in ways no one else would have ever considered previously, that makes something once unthinkable thinkable.  It is only after people start doing things that criticisms as well as justifications of what they are doing get formed, leading to misbehavior either getting shunned or establishing new norms.

Precedent can provide an explanation for many phenomena, such as mass shootings like the horror show in Pittsburg last month. If places like schools, synagogues and other places of worship have been outgunned since the invention of the gun, where did the idea of shooting up lots of innocents in such places originate?  This response provides some potential answers based on individual psychology and societal change.  But another factor is that it only became possible for an unstable individual to consider opening fire on a schoolyard when someone else had already set the precedent.

If you look across the increasingly radicalized campus landscape, featuring intersectional mobs making demands on administrators, faculty and fellow students based on allegations of systematic racism and other crimes, an eerie familiarity kicks in the more attention you have been paying to how the assault on Israel has proceeded on campuses over the last several decades.

The aggressiveness of the campus campaigns covered in Coddling is one source of such déjà vu.  I’ve lost count of the number of incidents of violence that accompanied pro-Israel events, especially during the era of BDS.  Where did this form of behavior spring from?  At some point (maybe Michael Oren at UC Irvine), a group of anti-Israel activists got it into their heads to try a new innovative tactic of shouting down a speaker they didn’t want anyone else to hear.

Once that precedent was set, justification followed in the form of claims that the protestors were simply taking advantage of their free speech rights, ignoring the fact that those “rights” were being used entirely to shut down the free speech of everyone else.  When those responsible for preventing such travesties decided to sit out making hard choices  (i.e., when school administrators soft peddled responses to the behavior of SJP and similar groups), a precedent was fully established that said disrupting others through tactics that dance right at (and occasionally over) the line of criminality was justified and would go unpunished.

Today, the mobs are falling on many more than Jews and non-Jewish supporters of Israel.  But if precedent had not been set beforehand it is not clear where they might have gotten the idea to do so.

The language, and psychology behind the language, used to explain modern radical politics also owes a debt to the Palestiniaization of campus political discourse.

To begin with, there is the unwillingness to entertain (or even listen to) any fact or opinion that falls afoul of “the narrative.”  This reaches extremes in anti-Israel politics, up to and including the need to invent pretend phenomena (like Pinkwashing) to avoid and prevent any thought about the chasm between Israel and her foes regarding treatment of homosexuals.  But whole swarths of history, countless demonstrable facts and one of history’s most enormous paper trails detailing Palestinian responsibility for their own fate must also be dumped down the memory hole, or buried beneath mountains of propaganda (some of it written by PhDs) that says black is white, and anyone who disagrees is a bigot.

Does America have a lot to answer for regarding it racist pass?  You bet it does.  But is racism and white supremacy more prevalent today than ever before?  There are fact of the matter and arguments to be made that could be brought in to answer that question.  But those touting the narrative underlying today’s campus protests are unable to listen to facts or engage in arguments that conflict with their beliefs, and are ready to stop anyone else from doing so.

Then there is our old friend ruthlessness that needs to be brought into the equation.  When the concept of intersectionality (which says all oppressed people are fighting a common struggle and thus should unite) first came on the scene, questions came up regarding who gets to join the struggle (can Jews who support Israel partake, for example?) and what standards will be used to determine a hierarchy of more vs. less oppressed groups.

Today’s campus coalitions provide answers to those questions by establishing which oppressed people and issues can and cannot be discussed.  As I’ve noted a number of times before, feminist groups joining such coalitions must fully embrace the Palestinian cause, while the treatment of women throughout the Middle East (including “Palestine”) seems to be permanently off the table.

In discourse I once heard used about the topic of intersectional priorities, the phenomena I just described was boiled down to “Palestine trumps woman,” an especially ironic twist, given that the ruthless actors from SJP and elsewhere who women activists must submit to are mostly men.

I was completely convinced that the psychological and social phenomena Lukianoff and Haidt describe in Coddling are real, and the mechanism they lay out to describe changes they observed is compelling.  But remember that there are always ruthless actors ready to take advantage of developing trends, including unhealthy ones, to magnify their own power.

The Palestine Uber Alles cru has managed to establish themselves as the arbiters of what constitutes true belief within this new order, and they have every reason to want damaging trends to continue and spread, regardless of the cost to the rest of the world.

The Coddling of the American Mind – Part 1

One of the best books of 2018 provides some answers to those bewildered by the crazy happenings on college campuses, Israel-related and not, over the last few years.

I’ve been doing most of my posting over at Elder of Ziyon these days, but thought I’d catch anyone stopping by the site on new posts from time to time.  So, here goes:

The Coddling of the American Mind, written by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expands on an article the authors wrote for The Atlantic in 2015, proposing an explanation for anti-free-speech phenomena they then saw metastasizing on college campuses.

Lukianoff is the President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization created to fight attempts to stifle free speech at colleges and universities.  Historically, the group supported students dealing with campus speech codes being imposed by college administrators. But starting in the early 2010s, Lukianoff began to notice that many demands to limit what people could say or think were coming not from those attending, rather than running, schools.

Such attacks on free speech have taken on many forms, from attempts to label impolite or insensitive behavior as “microagressions” that required redress (and sometimes punishment), to “trigger warnings” alerting students that dangerous ideas were about to be read or discussed, to “de-platforming” speakers with controversial things to say.

Lukianoff also noticed how explanations students provided in their demands for controls of (and over) what could be uttered were couched in the language of safety.  “Safe spaces” where students could protect themselves against ideas they didn’t like is one example of what he observed, but he also noticed how controversial ideas were being branded as a form of violence, against which students needed protection.

In addition to his professional work, Lukianoff spent years working through depression with the help of a technique called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Part of CBT involves identifying “cognitive distortions” that adversely impact reasoning.  These include “catastrophizing,” magnifying the significance of small setbacks in ways that maximize personal psychological damage, or “jumping to conclusions” interpreting other people’s behavior in the worst possible light. As anti-speech activists on campus talked about words as a form of violence, or interpreted simple rudeness as punishable bigotry, Lukianoff and his co-author began to see destructive cognitive distortions playing out within whole communities, rather than individuals.

That co-author was Jonathan Haidt, best-selling author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis, who was just the person to elaborate on the broader meanings behind the kind of misbehavior we have seen unfold at school after school during the last decade.  A thoughtful social-science researcher struggling to help society move past the “we vs. they” mentality that is destroying individuals and institutions, Haidt shares his co-author’s goal of containing and, ideally, turning back the tide of horribles currently infecting centers of learning.

“Why now?” the authors ask as they searched to discover the source of behavior not seen before the start of this decade.  What happened that might explain not just student actions but the language of danger, violence and safety ascribed not to acts but to ideas?

The generation of students who entered college during this period were not Millennials, but a post-Millennial generation that had grown up with different historical touchpoints than most of you reading this.  Infants and toddlers at the time of 9/11, this generation understood the War on Terror as a slogan that seemed to have gotten American into intractable, inexplicable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Cold War was history, not a living memory, much like World War II is to my generation.  If political identity begins to form during adolescence, this generation’s identity evolved during an era of increasingly heated rhetoric and uncompromising ideology Haight warns could destroy democracy.

This generation also grew up when parenting practices were changing to embrace what the authors call a culture of “Safety-ism” in which keeping children safe at all cost spread from protecting them from physical harm (such as being kidnapped or hurt in a fight) to protecting them from psychological dangers (like poor grades or the fallout from interpersonal disputes between peers).  Previous generations had to suffer the consequences of their actions, but in an age of Safety-ism, adults and authority figures were there to smooth the way if anything went wrong in a young person’s life.

Changes in parenting behavior led to changes in what this generation experienced during childhood as free, self-organized play was replaced by “playdates” scheduled between parents, and activities where children got together to engage in sports, arts or other fun planned and supervised by adults.

The Internet fits into the story as well.  As careful researchers, Haidt and Lukianoff are not ready to propose theories beyond what early research shows about the impact smartphones and social media are having on the young.  But it’s hard to not notice how many stories they tell involving “thought-crimes” originating in Facebook postings and mobs being organized on Twitter.

Moving from this background, the authors tap a number of ideas I’ve written about previously, such as a Culture of Victimization trying to supplant a Culture of Dignity.  For in a victimhood culture, people are fighting for as high a position in the hierarchy of victimhood as possible, while also being ready to turn to authority figures (such as college administrators) to provide them the protection other adults have afforded this generation their entire lives.

In addition to providing cogent analysis, the authors also include a detailed appendix of recommendations for parents, universities and the wider society to help kids develop the kind of anti-fragility that should be the nature of all young people hoping to become genuine adults.

Fights over Israel and the Middle East that have roiled campuses for several decades are not addressed specifically in the book, but the insights of Coddling can be combined with other analysis to help better flesh out what’s happening on campuses and, ideally, what can be done to solve this problem.  And it is to this analysis that I shall turn to next.

 

The Network

The Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy just published research that describes the links between various BDS-promoting entities and terrorist organizations such as the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Hamas.   The report confirms (as if more confirmation was necessary) that – far from being the grassroots human rights movement it poses as – BDS is in fact an operational asset in the ongoing war against the Jewish state.

The infographic that accompanied the report, which has been making the rounds over the last week, reminded me of other illustrations of how propaganda and “direct action” (i.e., terrorism) fit together into an integrated militant strategy.

This work represents two strands of public diplomacy being carried out by the Israeli government that demonstrate their seriousness with the propaganda as well as kinetic battlefield: high-profile exposing of war organizations posing as peace groups, and keen use of communication methods (in this case infographics) that cut through the word clutter often characterizing pro-Israel commentary.

Given how well organizations much less resourced than government agencies have made use of such tools (I’m thinking especially about NGO Monitor and its BDS Sewer System animated graphic that eloquently communicates the way politicized NGOs launder accusations against Israel to fuel BDS and other propaganda campaigns), it’s nice to see Israeli political leaders leveraging modern communication techniques to spread the truth as well as our opponents use them to spread lies.

While specifics are always vital when planning strategy and tactics, it is equally important to keep in mind the big picture into which these specifics fit.

For instance, the prime movers in the war against the Jewish nation state are the other nations who declared war on that state at its birth, a war that continues to this day.  As I noted when describing the odds Israel faces in her military situation:

A majority of countries that make up the Arab League are in a formal declared state of war against Israel and, taken together, these states have a combined population of close to 350 million and combined armies of over a hundred million soldiers.  This number does not include irregular forces like the terrorist armies of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.  If we also want to take economics into consideration, Israel’s economy (with a GDP of approximately $300 billion) is one twentieth the size of the economies of her combined enemies.

The years 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 (and possibly 1982) are often invoked to mark times when this long-term war erupted into actual shooting between national armies, but every year in between these dates can also be characterized as periods when formal military clashes were replaced by irregular action (referred to as guerilla warfare and terrorism, depending on who you talk to and when).  This supports the notion that 1948, 1967 et al should not be considered distinct wars, but rather as battles in a long-war that stretches back almost a century.

Alongside kinetic actions involving people actually shooting at one another, there has also been a parallel propaganda effort that again begin with Israel’s nation-state enemies (i.e., the countries making up the Arab League).  Coupled with allies, including another 20+ non-Arab Muslim states and states who once described themselves as “non-aligned,” this “automatic majority” exercises power inherent in numbers to corrupt organizations like the United Nations, turning them into a propaganda arm for war against a member state.

The purpose of the propaganda branch of the war against Israel is to (1) make Israel’s destruction seem virtuous vs. horrifying; and (2) provide support to military actors by limiting Israel’s options with regard to allowable military responses.  Again quoting previous analysis of this situation, current activity by BDS and similar anti-Israel propaganda campaigns can be characterized as follows:

  • When there is not a shooting war going on, BDS advocates run Israel Apartheid Week events and other similar programs designed to paint Israel as so hideous that any action taken against it should be considered moral.
  • During “quiet” periods when groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are readying for the next war (by collecting weapons, building rockets or digging terror tunnels) these “peace advocates” say and do nothing to limit that war preparation.
  • Once a shooting war breaks out, they take to the streets condemning Israel’s counterattack and demanding a ceasefire as soon as the aggression of Israel’s enemies start bearing a price.

Taken together, these actions demonstrate not just a political movement playing a military role (by justifying attacks against Israel and then trying to limit the Jewish state’s military options once those attacks begin) but a foe with clear-cut and militant goals: to see Israel destroyed or weakened to the point where someone else can handles the trigger pulling.

If we keep these fundamentals in mind, details regarding the actual makeup of the network providing this propaganda support to the ongoing war against the Jewish state put vital flesh on the skeleton outlined above.  And such knowledge can help us better understand what we’re dealing with when we deal with BDS and make sensible decisions regarding what to do about it.

SMART Goals

Last time, I listed the genuine goals of anti-Israel activists which include (1) poisoning the minds of the young against Israel while (2) colonizing and completely controlling the Left end of the political spectrum.

An obvious description of our own goals would include seeing our opponents’ efforts defeated.  But this is simply a surface-level tactical choice (one often dictated for us).  And if we want to be guided by anything other than the goal-driven decisions of our enemies, we need to have well-understood goals of our own to help define our decisions and actions.

Goals were a frequent topic of discussion when I ran a business years ago, with a variety of techniques pushed by a variety of gurus promising to help organizations articulate the right sort of goals they should pursue.

“SMART Goals” is a popular method still in use is with “SMART” sanding for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.  While a few too many conversations about EBITDA and similar ungainly abbreviations left me cool to strategy-by-acronym, SMART Goals stuck with me, given how well they apply to organizations with limited resources – which includes the tiny minority of Jews/Israelis and their activist supporters.

If you look at the list of adjectives making up the SMART acronym (Specific, Relevant, etc.), they all point to goals that are realistic and concrete.  For example, the desire to dominate an industry in five years might be inspiring and energizing, but could also be a flight of fancy.  At the very least, it does not provide a roadmap for how to achieve such an ambition.  In contrast, the goal to win eight new clients of a certain size by the end of the year is SMART, rather than just aspirational.

Similarly, many of us long for a world in which the Israeli (and Jewish) condition are “normalized,” by which I mean the hatred and attacks that have been visited on the Jewish state for decades and the Jewish people for centuries goes away as the form of insanity known as anti-Semitism fades from history.  But having such an aspirational goal provides nothing specific to work from.

Turning the tables on our foes by “giving them a taste of their own medicine” is a popular goal often discussed by activists disgusted by the Israel haters seeming to always have the initiative.  Unlike ridding the world of Jew hatred, this goal is concrete and achievable.  But it does not explain what such table-turning is meant to accomplish (other than embarrassing hypocrites) which makes it more of a tactical choice than a goal in its own right.

The metaphor of the siege I’ve discussed before can be used to frame some SMART goals we have already achieved and can continue to work towards.

That siege metaphor sees Israel as the equivalent of a walled city being attacked by besiegers (in this case, the nation states at war with Israel – including their terrorist surrogate and proxies and supporters and apologists abroad).  Since a strong and disciplined besieged city often wins out over those trying to penetrate its walls, we can have as a goal the continued strengthening of the city (Israel) and weakening of those besieging it.

Maintaining an edge against opponents through military commitment and training is the investment Israelis make in their own defense.  But maintaining the vital relationship between Israel and the US is probably one of the most important goals for both Israelis and non-Israelis alike.

These goals are specific and measurable (for example, US military aid and votes in support of the Jewish state in Congress or US vetoes in the UN can be detailed and quantified).

Such goals are obviously achievable since they have been achieved (even if the work of maintaining them is ongoing). While ambitious and challenging, they are also realistic, given that they involve decisions over which Israel and her supporters have the most control.  And while it’s difficult to time-bound efforts that are continuous, this overarching goal provides organizations (such as the IDF or AIPAC) the ability to plan what they want to achieve each year.

Speaking of time, long-term sieges often end with the besieger not just going away but being destroyed (or destroying themselves) which means time might be on our side, rather than on our opponents’.

For example, as the Arab siege of Israel enters its second century, look at the difference between the besieged Jewish state – now growing stronger in every way year by year – and her enemies which are either imploding or, sensing ruin, starting to come to their senses.

While it would be folly to assign ourselves the goal of curing the world of its longest hatred, a common commitment to “protecting the city” might also have the pleasant side effect of diminishing that hatred by demonstrating the price it exacts on those who embrace it.

Nasty Goals

One of the things that makes debate over whether BDS is winning or losing so confusing is lack of common agreement regarding what constitutes success and failure.

For example, this year we saw more BDS votes in student government than in previous years, and more of those votes go in favor of the BDSers.  Needless to say, a movement like BDS which demands we treat everything (including defeat) as wins for them insists that more student government votes going their way constitutes unstoppable momentum for their cause.  And, from our side, it’s difficult to totally dismiss more student votes against Israel as irrelevant.

Yes, school administrations have held the line by condemning and insisting they will never act on the non-binding requests made by this year’s Student Senate.  And after two decades of effort, it is relevant to point out that all BDS has to show for itself are some toothless measures passed by transient student leaders through votes often taken behind the backs of constituents (meaning they cannot be said to represent campus opinion).

But this assumes that the goal of the BDS “movement” is to actually cause financial harm to the Jewish state.  While that may be an ultimate desire or dream, their main or current goals might be different, requiring us to tease these out before measuring success or failure (or selecting our own strategies and tactics to fight them).

The most obvious goal the boycotters are trying to achieve is to brand Israel as a racist, repressive state akin to South Africa (which, it should be noted, ended its Apartheid system years before most of today’s college students were born).   Given this, anything they can do to poison the minds of the young against the Jewish state represents furthering their actual goal.  So even if a student government vote does not go their way, the speeches they make and letters in school papers condemning Israel in harsh and unfair terms represent the actual political activity they are engaged in designed to further their real goal of making Israel seem so loathsome that its elimination should be seen as virtuous rather than horrifying.

Another goal was best labeled by William Jacobson at Legal insurrection who described BDS as a “Settler Colonial Ideology” which strives to colonize and dominate the entire Left end of the political spectrum and make anyone who considers themselves left of center subservient to their will.

This goal has received a boost over the last year as anti-Trump “resistance,” coupled with the emergence of the ideology of intersectionality (which insists all progressive causes be linked), provided the most aggressive activists (which tend to be anti-Israel partisans) the opportunity to make demands on those with whom they join in “common cause.”

The scare quotes I just used around “common cause” was meant to illustrate that for a Settler Colonial Ideology like BDS, finding common cause is a one-way street.  This is why women and gay groups must sign onto the anti-Israel agenda to be considered intersectional partners in good standing, while those pushing the intersectional agenda will never mention – much less fight for – women and gays repressed throughout the Middle East (including in “Palestine”).

In many ways, ground-level successes – such as the aforementioned student government votes – are a result of the success the BDS colonial project over the last year.   And, as we have seen in the UK, the fully colonized anti-Israel/anti-Semitic Left can end up just one election away from obtaining genuine power.

So now that we know what the most important goals of the BDS project really are, how best to fight it?  Having our own goals clearly articulated is a first step, a subject I’ll discuss next.

 

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.