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.)


Universalism vs. Particularism

When we joined our first temple a decade ago, my wife and I were primarily looking to give our kids the Jewish education we never had.  But it was clear during new-member orientation that the community we were entering offered many ways to explore being a Jewish adult, with strongly hinted encouragement that those who get the most out of the place are on some sort of spiritual journey.

Given how, up until then, my Jewish identity was so bound up in pro-Israel politics, it was a gift to be able to explore my relationship with God through study, discussion and argument that still had much to say about the Zionism I still so strongly identify with.

Not that Israel and politics are ignored within the Temple.  While they must compete with other events and activities, a steady flow of diverse Israeli and Israel-related speakers make pilgrimages to our halls each year, many invited by the temple’s Israel Action Committee (which I led for a while).

Our Chief Rabbi’s own journey has included yearly participation in summer programming at Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute (including the summer of ‘14 when he had to dodge Hamas rocket fire to get to class).  Lessons from those experiences have made their way into more than one service, and Hartman’s iEngage programming – introduced a few years ago (co-sponsored by our town’s Reform and Conservative temples) – recently made a return with a series of lunchtime discussions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

At a kickoff event, we began by exploring the different arguments regarding what might make Zionism unique among different forms of nationalism.  But by the end of the session (which could have gone on for weeks), I sensed one of those potentially fruitful areas of discomfort regarding how much Jewish nationalism might represent a form of particularism that stands in contrast (possibly even in conflict) with more universal values.

Notions of the universal vs. the particular have been of particular interest since reading the works of that gay, conservative, philosopher/iconoclast Lee Harris, especially his second book The Suicide of Reason.

The subtitle of that book “Radical Islam’s Threat to the West” – along with earlier writing that established him as the philosopher king of 9/11 – put Harris squarely on one side of the culture war that has emerged over the last two decades.  But Suicide of Reason is much more about our own Western culture vs. contemporary events related to Islam.

At the heart of his argument is a rejection of the dichotomy between universalism and particularism, whether related to Jews or anyone else.  To take one example, Christianity could be seen as a “universal” faith since it, unlike “particularist” Judaism, has a mission to create a universal culture.  But the nature of the individual who will inhabit that universal culture (i.e., a Christian) is highly particular.

Perhaps this confusion arises from mixing together two different interpretations of the word “universal” that should be kept separate.  One of them would include things that are truly universal for all members of the human race such as our mortality or need to interact with others to survive (at least as a species).  But “universalism” also implies the desire to see all people live in a particular way, with candidates for that particular culture being both religious (Christianity, Islam) and secular (Communism or plain old modernity).

That last example: the modern identity that arose from Europe’s Enlightenment, is what Harris dwells on in Suicide of Reason.  For those of us who live in this age and this world (including everyone participating at our Temple’s iEngage session) are so surrounded by the modern world view that it takes on the air of the universal truth, just as “Christendom” was the world for those who lived in Medieval Europe.

But, as Harris points out, the notion that all people are (or can become) rational actors (the heart of the Enlightenment’s appeal to reason as a ruling virtue) was the product of unique cultural evolution, no different (and no less iconoclastic) than other man-made creations such as the culture of ancient Greeks or Chinese.

One way to deal with this issue is to eliminate terms like “universal” and “universalist” from our vocabularies and say, rather, that all cultures (including modernity) are particularlist through and through, but that some of these particular cultures are more expansive (like Christianity or Enlightenment modernity) than others (like Judaism).

Discussing the role of Jews and Zionism in the context of expansive vs. non-expansive particularist cultures certainly changes the nature of the debate regarding Israel and the world, but might do so in a way that increases insight – even as it increases discomfort among those of us (including me) who would prefer a world made up of rational actors ready to solve our problems via discussion and debate vs. appeals to God and the sword.


During my semi-monthly foray into Twitter, I noticed an activist friend discussing a familiar dilemma that arose (again) in the context of the recent New School outrage where anti-Semites like Linda Sarsour took it upon themselves to publically define anti-Semitism to exclude all of the bigoted things they say and do to make Israelis (but just the Jewish ones) seem like monsters.

The discussion was not over the event itself, but how to react to it since going after the panelists or the New School faculty that decided such an event was a great idea would inevitably trigger accusations against Israel’s supporters of censorship.

This situation is yet another example of the strategy Israel’s defamers use to put their opponents in lose-lose situations where we are faced with either protesting their latest outrages – making us vulnerable to accusations that we are attacking free speech – or doing nothing and letting our foes get away with whatever they want.

There is a simple and a complicated answer to how to respond to provocations knowing that accusations of censorship are inevitable if we use our free speech rights to speak the truth or defend against BDS BS.

Starting with the simple, years ago a grizzled veteran of professional politics taught me that you’re going to get whacked just as hard for “buying the election” if you raise and spend $5 or $500,000 to defeat an opponent.  Given that, why not live with accusations and a half-a-million-dollar war chest vs. the same accusations and a pittance?

Over my decade and a half in the BDS game, I’ve learned that our side will always be characterized as enemies of free speech, whether we organize a massive protest or simply write a subdued letter to the editor.  So there is really nothing to be gained from shying away from trying to bury the other side. In fact, strategies that might seem like overkill (such as passing state and national legislation against a BDS program that has yet to gain any purchase in the US) communicate to opponents that (1) we take their accusations of censorship as seriously as they take our accusations of hypocrisy and bigotry; and (2) we are willing to do what it takes (and then some) to defeat them.

A different issue the New School event brought up has to do with who has the initiative.  Are we destined to have to wait until our opponents commit the next outrage, and then be left with no options other than to respond?

This gets us to the more complex answer to the original question of what to do when the next anti-Israel grotesque shows up in our face, a question that boils down to the whole “offense vs. defense” debate that tends to paralyze the Jewish community when dealing with BDS and similar issues.

As I’ve discussed a number of times, the pro-Israel community is subject to regular fights over whether or how we can “go on the attack” and force our opponents to respond to us, rather than “playing defense” by responding to their provocations and campaigns time and time again.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it presumes our only options are to respond to our enemy’s vicious assaults or become our enemies by launching our own assaults that force Israel’s enemies to respond to our (true) accusations (such as accusations of bigotry, sexism, homophobia and totalitarianism directed at the Arab world), or shaming opponents by pointing out their ties to terrorism or hypocrisy vis-à-vis human rights.

While there is enormous satisfaction in “turning the tables” on your foes, there are a number of reasons why this never tends to work for us, all of which boil down to issues of asymmetry.  Specifically, while Israel’s enemies are at war with the Jewish state and its supporters, we are not at war with them.  We do not, for example, want to see our opponents destroyed, and thus will never be able to build and sustain decades-long campaigns to vilify Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in the way those groups have sustained their decades-long attack on the nation they want eradicated.

So are we left with no options then to get into a defensive crouch and hope those that hate us will eventually see the error of their ways and leave us alone?

The answer to that question is too long to include in a pair of summarizing paragraphs (although my complete response can be read here).  But to sum these arguments up in a few quick sentences: the whole offense-vs-defense argument demonstrates a lack of historical understanding of the nature of warfare which leaves us unfamiliar with the kind of war – a siege war – we are actually fighting.

For a siege (like the one we find ourselves in) is a form of warfare, regardless of which side of the siege line your find yourself on.  And fighting a siege war involves all the martial values of courage, cleverness, steadfastness and creativity since both the besieger and besieged have strengths and weaknesses that can be capitalized on or exploited.  Understand this and you are well on your way to understanding our options when the next outrage hits.


Powers that Be

I’m guessing that many people reading this are dedicated activists with experience battling Israel haters in the endless physical and virtual communities where those battles take place.

People who do Jewish or pro-Israel politics for a living tend to refer to ground-level activists like many of us as “the grassroots,” indicating a separate source of people, resources, strength, wisdom, pressure, or criticism they need to take into consideration as they make their own decisions about which battles to fight.

Historically, these two groups (professionals and the grassroots) spend a great deal of time analyzing or second-guessing each other’s priorities.  But as a couple of news stories over the last few weeks point out, as much as all of us want to think otherwise, there are people in positions of power who get to make the decisions that ultimately set our activist agendas.

For example, the only people who got to decide that the United Nations would put dozens of international companies on a blacklist for doing business in territories disputed between Israel and Palestinian Arabs were the leaders of nation states who dominate that organization’s Orwellian “Human Rights Council.”

Given that the countries driving this decision are dictatorships at war with the democracy they want destroyed, there was little outnumbered democracies like the United States and Israel could do to prevent the blacklist from happening.  And so, once again, our activist agenda was driven by actors well beyond our control.

Now once such an agenda has been triggered, there are things we can do about it.  For instance, the raft of anti-BDS legislation at the state level in the US gave friends of Israel the opportunity to show what they think of the BDS “movement.”  But meaningful and substantial changes to federal anti-boycott regulations passed in the 1970s was required to deal specifically with non-government organizations like the UN stepping into a boycott space previously occupied by the nation states behind the original Arab boycott of Israel.

As this dynamic plays out, the role for we activists is to frame such legislation as (1) an example of sanctions (the holy grail of the BDS movement) being applied to the boycotters and not to Israel; and (2) a direct response to UN misbehavior (thus assigning responsibility for new US law where it belongs: to the UNHCR).

A second story-in-the-making will demonstrate what can be accomplished when an activist makes the transition to powerful decision-maker.  I’m speaking, of course, about Kenneth Marcus, one of the most successful and well-known legal activists on behalf of Jewish rights, being named to the senior civil rights post within the US Department of Education.

If you wanted to prioritize dealing with the harassment Jews and pro-Israel supporters face on campus, there is no more effective path for action than to put into a position of power a thoughtful and strategic thinker like Marcus who is ready to give Jewish students the same civil rights consideration given automatically to every other minority group.

For years we’ve seen college administrators ignore complaints by Jewish students who have seen their events shut down and members harassed, at the same time those administrators take long lists of demands by mobs representing other minority groups with the utmost seriousness.  Such sheepish leaders tend to select who to ignore and who to focus on based on how much damage the complainers can cause.  And with someone finely attuned to this issue deciding who gets sued for discrimination, expect attitudes of those administrators to change sharply and quickly.

In the final analysis, every war, every terror attack, every boycott motion or propaganda campaign directed at the Jewish state has the same origin: the dozens of wealthy and powerful states who have decided to bring their war with Israel to every forum on the planet.

As the conflagration that is the Middle East makes clear, such political cynicism can be lethal to those who practice it.  Which means the best way we protect against these toxins is to do whatever we can to help create and support an Israel that is militarily powerful, economically vibrant and allied with nations not coming apart at the seams.

In short, we must make up in quality what we lack in quantity (once again).


Rising to the Bait

We Jews have been branded (or self-branded) with a number of names.  “People of the Book,” and “The Chosen People” are two of the most popular, although I’ve also heard us described as a “stiff-necked people,” a “people of memory,” as well as a “people that dwells alone.”

But when it comes to verbal jousting with political opponents, I’d like to propose a different title for our side: A people that rise to the bait.

To show you what I’m talking about, look at the comment section of last week’s Divest This bit on Elder (which discussed tactical options for fighting the campus wars in an era of intersectionality).  On the surface, I should have been thrilled that the piece triggered over 60 discussion comments.  But if you look those comments over, you’ll see that what triggered them was not my original argument but one of those run-of-the-mill accusations Israel haters routinely throw into other people’s comment sections, regardless of the original topic covered.

In this case, our visitor reached for the old “Israel as US-aid welfare queen” chestnut, and no sooner had he posted than dozens of supporters of the Jewish state rushed to debunk the accusation, presenting facts and arguments that explained the true nature of American aid to the Jewish state, while also trying to turn the slur back on the original accuser.

While this defense was both able and passionate, no one involved in it seemed to realize that (1) they were fighting on terrain chosen entirely by our enemies; and (2) no matter what facts and arguments were presented, the original accuser simply ignored them and continued on with the pointing finger.

It’s no accident that a culture, like ours, which values disputation and argument births defenders eager to mix it up with opponents.  But when we rise to someone else’s bait (which we do time and time again), it never seems to occur to us that this gives our foes the power to decide what we get to talk about.

Even as we man the barricades to show our accusers how wrong and misguided they are, notice that they will never budge an inch from their original position.  And if (usually when) their original attack has been smashed, they will either (1) bring up a new accusation, ignoring everything that’s been said before; or (2) slip away and start the whole shtick over again in the next venue they hijack for their own purposes.

Given this dynamic, why should we bother making new and fresh arguments in the first place if we’re willing to let any bozo dedicated to ignoring them dictate to us the terms of debate?

By endlessly accusing opponents and demanding a response while never responding to the points of those opponents, Israel’s foes want to place us in the lose-lose position of either rising to their bait (and thus handing them control over debate) or saying nothing and letting the opposition’s accusations stand unchallenged.

I wish I could offer a no-fail way of handling such situations (which have arisen dozens of times during my many years of blogging).  One useful technique is to promise an opponent an immediate answer to their challenge once they either respond to the original blog post or admit (either directly or through silence) they are in full agreement with my original points.  Another is to point out the dynamic described above and insist that the accuser’s days of acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and hangman are over.

Whatever you choose to do, always keep in mind that once you’ve moved the discussion to a topic of your opponent’s choosing, you have already limited the best-case scenario to not losing, rather than winning the argument.