BDS – Where Empathy Goes to Die

My friend and ally Mike Harris (author of How to Win a Debate with an Israel Hater) forwarded me this story, with which many readers are likely familiar.

By now, it’s a commonplace for radical anti-Israel groups like Jewish Voice for Peace to try to bring their disruptive protest tactics to any event promoting support for or celebration of the Jewish state.   Yet this year, they chose a very special target for one of their “direct actions.”

That target was the LGBTQ contingent of New York’s annual Celebrate Israel parade featuring gay men and women – young and old – showing their support for the only nation in the Middle East where their sexual orientation is not a legal and religious crime.

The way JVP decided to show their displeasure with that part of the event was to infiltrate the group and, at a key moment, disrupt their program by killing the music, tearing off their outer garments to reveal “Israel = Apartheid” t-shirts beneath, and screaming their slogans from the stage someone else (New York’s gay Jewish community) built.

The fact that some of the people terrorized by the infiltrators were kids was immaterial to the protestors and – more importantly – the planners of the protest who had determined in advance that their anti-Israel agenda trumps everything, everywhere, always.

While it would be easy to analyze such behavior through the lens of JVP hypocrisy and moral degeneration, it’s more interesting to think about what must be going on in the mind of those who have decided that the best way to push their allegedly progressive agenda is to infiltrate and terrorize gay youth.

Why this is interesting is that groups like JVP don’t simply think of themselves as progressive, but insist that they and their allies get to define who deserved that label and who does not.  The slur PEP (which stands for “Progressive in Everything But Palestine”) is one that gets routinely trotted out whenever a left-leaning individual or organization tries to stray from the anti-Israel orthodoxy groups like JVP are trying to enforce – demonstrating that maintaining Left-wing credentials is just as important to them as maintaining anti-Israel ones.

This poses a problem, however.  For progressive opinion has also been highly supportive of gay rights and increasingly supports people (including young people) exploring a constellation of sexual orientations.  And, whatever you might think about those ideas and associated political goals, it’s pretty clear that gay rights has become a defining principle for those who call themselves progressive.

The problem for JVP et al arises because, as mentioned previously, Israel not only represents an oasis of toleration in a Middle East sea of murderous homophobia, but is actually the most gay-friendly nation on the face of the earth.  This makes the agenda of Israel’s enemies one which must end with the increase in territory where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death.

Israel bashers have used their usual tricks to get around this problem: highlighting and inflating the importance of incidental anti-gay violence by Israeli Jews while never mentioning the issue of systematic violation of gay rights by everyone else, for example.  When Israel’s friends ignored those taunts and began touting Israel’s progressive credentials through the lens of gay rights, JVP and its regressive allies came up with a new way around the problem: accusations of “Pinkwashing” (a fake phenomenon you can read about here).

This brings us back to that Israel Pride disruption that began this discussion.  For it is one thing to make the argument that gay support for Israel contradicts progressive values and be ready to defend that argument against those who claim the opposite.  But it’s quite another thing to jump up on someone else’s stage and start shouting your slogans that contradict the opinions of those whose space you just commandeered.

The interesting thing about JVP’s deliberate targeting of the LGBTQ contingent at the parade is that it required moving from fierce disagreement with the political opinions of segments of the gay community, to direct targeting of real human beings making up that community.  In other words, the protestors’ determination to establish themselves as True North for all progressive causes (including gay rights) required them to terrorize living, breathing gay people.

As mentioned previously, it would be simple to dismiss this whole episode as one more example of dishonest, reactionary behavior on the part of the anti-Israel fringe.  But whenever one moves from treating people as human beings to treating them as mere means to your own political ends, we are dealing with something far more dangerous than misdirected zeal.

For if Israel’s enemies are so lacking in empathy that they are ready to storm the gates to keep gay people in line (while all the while claiming and believing themselves to represent progressive thought in its purest form), what might they be willing to do next?


Predator and Prey

Continuing from last time, why is it that the twentieth state government officially denouncing the BDS movement last week created so little stir among BDS opponents and proponents, even as stories about the occasional student government passing a meaningless divestment resolution continues to cause loud public cheers from the Israel haters, and equally loud teeth-gnashing from our side?

While I mentioned a couple of political explanations for this phenomenon previously, the fact that both side’s responses to BDS news are inversely proportional to the significance of that news might boil down to the storylines into which each side fits events.

Most people cast themselves as protagonist in their own dramas.   In the case of the boycotters, their self-created story casts them as members of an all-seeing, all-knowing vanguard, an elite that – alone – understands the world as it truly is.  The fact that others do not share their vision of unquestioned Israeli wickedness and pristine Palestinian innocence is due to the villains in their tale (evil Zionists) duping the masses, creating in them a “false consciousness” which anti-Israel forces must remedy – by any means necessary.

Vanguards ready to act on behalf of “The People’s Will” (as understood by those vanguards) were behind all of the totalitarian movements that tried to overthrow democracy in the 20th century.  This places BDS squarely in the tradition of movements ready to trash democracy in the name of a self-perceived and self-declared higher good.

Understanding this storyline helps explain the BDSers readiness to go to undemocratic extremes, from stacking elected bodies with single-issue partisans, to holding secret votes late at night or on religious holidays, to pushing votes year after year after year no matter how many times BDS is rejected.  From the outside, such behavior might seem cynical and corrupt.  But for the true believer, this is the way to express “the people’s will” without the pesky intervention of actual people.

If you understand the boycotter’s storyline, their reaction to victory and defeat becomes more explicable.  A win for them, such as an unknown food coop boycotting Israel goods, demonstrates that the masses are shaking off their blinders and moving in the direction of history (even if no other coop in the nation chose to participate in similar boycotts).  At the same time a loss (like BDS being condemned by state governments across the country) are just examples of powerful elites manipulated by Zionist foes hopelessly trying to hold back the inevitable success of the BDS project.

This heads-I-win-tails-you-lose formula the boycotters trot out to turn every BDS-related event into a victory for them makes perfect sense once you realize that within their narrative everything – including successful efforts to defeat them – are part of a consistent (if fantasy-driven) world view.

Moving on to us, our storyline also has us cast in role – that of the besieged victim.  Given Jewish history, this is not an absurd lens to view ourselves through, especially since the Jews’ return to history simply turned Israel into the Jew among the nations targeted militarily, diplomatically and economically for eradication since birth.

Unlike religious or ideological vanguards that see their mission to convert the entire world to their belief system, Jews – a small people without an evangelical tradition – must always take into account the needs and opinions of others.  This is what makes us so sensitive to slights and setbacks, causing us to fly into a rage (and occasionally over-react) when the boycotters get their way.  At the same time, our suspicion that friendships might be fleeting cause us to describe our wins judiciously, rather than engage in the kind of bombast our enemies indulge in every time they score a point.

Our history also leaves us without a militant or military mindset, which makes us often equate being besieged with being powerless.  But, as described here (and in more detail in this extended essay), siege warfare has its own rules of engagement which we would do well to understand if we want to stop reacting to the provocation of our enemies and instead take effective strategic initiative against them that reflects the realities of the battlefield.

The comment section in the first part of this story included an apt metaphor for the phenomenon I’m describing: that of predator and prey.  The predator, after all, might fail to capture or kills his quarry, but does not feel under existential threat from the prey he is trying to kill.  In contrast, prey – even if able to dodge disaster again and again – understands that he only needs to lose once to lose everything.

So if the Israel-haters preying on Israelis and Jews feel invulnerable, impervious to criticism and to any fact that interferes with fantasies of ultimate victory, it is because they know the likelihood of their own destruction at the hands of those they are trying to destroy is minimal.

Victory and Defeat

It’s often useful to try to pry out premises behind the things we believe, especially in situations where reasons exist for considering those beliefs irrational.

For instance, just this months all 50 US governors denounced the BDS movement, a denunciation that has come at the end of a long string of sanctions votes in state houses against organizations participating in boycott, divestment or sanctions activity directed at Israel.

By any measure, this should be being celebrated far and wide as a great victory for our side, and a great defeat for Israel’s foes. In fact, given that the BDSniks would be celebrating with fireworks and torch-lit parades if even one governor took their phone calls, it’s even more phenomenal that our huge recent wins came from just a couple years of effort, vs. the trivialities BDSers have to show for themselves after nearly two decades of constant campaigning to inflict economic damage on the Jewish state.

Despite this objective reality, our opponents still think of themselves as being on the cusp of tremendous victory, while we still feel vulnerable and besieged – ready to panic whenever some student government passes another toothless divestment resolution (vs. our opponents who let our wins roll right off them).  So why might this be the case?

One explanation is that both sides’ beliefs are actually reasonable since the goal of the BDS movement is not to see boycotts, divestment and sanctions actually implemented, but rather to create a climate in which Israel’s alleged “crimes” are taken for granted (with only the appropriate punishment open to discussion).

Given this, the boycotters have made strides in making Israeli villainy an incessant talking point in key communities such as college campuses and Mainline progressive churches.  Under this interpretation, the problem is not the imminent success of BDS in achieving its claimed goals (seeing Israel suffer economic punishment a la Apartheid South Africa), but in achieving its real goals of colonizing the Left-end of the political spectrum and turning it permanently against the Jewish state.

I am sympathetic to this argument, although I’d be more comfortable if it rested on data that goes beyond the anecdotal.

For instance, BDS has been infecting campuses for nearly twenty years, and even before it became the preferred tactic for anti-Israel activists, anti-Israel hostility has been cultivated on those same campuses for close to half a century.  No doubt any of us can point to a string of outrages that have taken place on numerous campuses during that period.  But how much has all that effort shifted public opinion towards Israel vs. her foes during this half century of alleged “indoctrination.”

A second interpretation of why we are so sheepish about our substantial wins while our opponents remain so buoyant about their trivial ones is the level of satisfaction each of us receives based on the nature of the blows we land on our opponents.

For example, when the BDSers “win,” that usually means they just got to spend hours (if not days, weeks and months) raining insults and calumnies down on the object of their hatred; castigating Israel as racist, murderous, bloodthirsty, indeed guilty of every crime every right-thinking person should loath.  Yet when we get a dozen state house to promise punishment against companies participating in boycotts of Israel, all we tend to claim is that this implies general public agreement that boycotting Israel is unfair and BDS inappropriate (or, at most, immoral).

But wouldn’t it be more satisfying to see Mondoweiss et al reeling day after day from accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia and reactionary politics – especially given that these are crimes Israel’s foes are actually guilty of?  Many allies have told me for years that we need to start our own version of BDS with the explicit purpose of giving Israel’s enemies a taste of their own medicine.  But (as I’ve talked about ad nauseam) in order to pull this off and genuinely act like our enemies, we would need to become our enemies.

This would involve dedicating not a few nights to postering but years and decades to the non-stop smearing of Palestinians, Arabs, or Muslims (take your pick), a smearing that would continue unabated, regardless of how much damaged it causes various communities (including the communities we would have to recruit to condemn our political foes).

But given the current state of the Arab world (vs. the Jewish one) it’s not clear to me that acting more like Israel’s enemies is the greatest choice, even while I share the frustration of those driven to distraction at having to “play defense” against such immoral and hypocritical foes.

Which brings me to a third and final possibility as to why the boycotters are perpetually giddy regardless of the scale or nature of wins and losses, while we go into kanipshins every time a BDS protest takes place, even in locales we previously never knew existed.  This has to do with the storylines into which we fit our accomplishments and failures, a subject I’ll dive into next time.

A Modest Proposal

A year after violent protests shut down an event sponsored by pro-Israel students at the University of California at Irvine, another threatening protest at another pro-Israel event generates questions over whether the university is willing to do more than issue statements regarding freedom of speech on campus.

After last year’s protests – which were just the culmination of a series of discriminatory attacks on Israel-supporting Jews throughout the UC system – the Regents of that system endorsed a set of Principles Against Intolerance, the last two of which – points (h) and (i) –  declare that “Actions that physically or otherwise interfere with the ability of an individual or group to assemble, speak and share or hear the opinions of others…” and “Harassment, threats, assaults, vandalism, and destruction of property” would not be tolerated.

After last year’s incident, the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was given a written warning and required to host an educational program related to their behavior.  Apparently, this week’s decision to orchestrate the same kind of disruption they were warned about last year is their reply, and amply demonstrates what they think about the university and its rules.

Campus administrators, generally sheepish about taking on organized groups of students, are particularly cautious when confronting the violent behavior of SJP, given their understanding that once they act they can expect to hear immediately from the group’s lawyers.  Which means the only thing that can motivate them to enforce their own rules is fear of lawsuits from even better lawyers representing Jewish students on campus.

As the school year winds to a close, we can expect the administration to run out the clock with deliberations that will continue after all the students involved on both sides of this week’s fiasco have gone home.  One hopes that during this period they will develop the backbone required to enforce their own rules in the face of groups like SJP that have decided to demonstrate to the entire community who they think is in charge of the school.  But, failing that, I have a modest recommendation for a new approach that’s not been tried yet.

Under this new proposed policy, rather than reject harassment and intimidation on campus, those kinds of activities should instead be enshrined as the new norm to be embraced and encouraged by administrators and students alike.  Such a policy can be implemented by simply taking the original Chancellor’s “Principles Against Intolerance” and swapping “will not be tolerated” whenever it appears with “is both tolerated and encouraged.”

Now such a policy could discriminate against student organizations without the numbers or aggression required to put together a decent mob big enough and violent enough to shut down events put on by students with whom they disagree.  But this problem could be easily solved by allowing student organizations to use part of the campus activities budget they are allocated each year to hire professional harassers to fatten up their own mobs and ensure equitable levels of aggression targeting any speaker or event on campus.

Such a policy could have positive economic impact, creating gainful employment opportunities for thugs living at or near University of California locations who can be regularly hired as members of rent-a-mobs.  No doubt enterprising temporary employment agencies will spring up to facilitate the appropriate allocation of violent protesters at all controversial campus events (with “controversial” remaining a term that any student group is free to define and interpret based on its own preferences).

The only alternative I can think of to the current “all-talk-no-action” policy at places like UC Irvine and the simple alternative I propose is that the school provide students a list of which groups and issues are allowed to participate in the kinds of violent, harassing behavior now becoming standard at pro-Israel events on campus – essentially creating guidelines that says who is allowed to discriminate against whom.

Such a policy would represent an official imprimatur on bigotry, but at least it would be more honest than the de facto one currently in place.


BDSHoles: A Theory

Elder summarized an interesting article that talked about how societal norms change not due to decisions made by the majority, but as an accommodation to an inflexible minority.

This phenomenon can be thought of in economic terms.  For example, the fact that most commercial beverages are kosher is not because that choice was forced or imposed upon the drink industry by the Orthodox.  Rather, the fact that those who don’t keep kosher wouldn’t care (or even notice) whether the beverages they drink are kosher or not means going 100% kosher gives a beverage manufacturer access to 100% of the market without the cost of creating and maintaining separate product lines.

This idea can also be thought about in light of evolutionary theory.  For instance, which religion is likely to have more staying power in terms of natural selection: one that is indifferent to (or even encourages) members to explore alternatives, or one that exacts a high price (up to and including death) on those who leave he faith?

There are some confounding variables which prevent this idea from morphing into a theory of inevitability.  For instance, a faith that is intolerant to apostates might apply that term to people within the faith who stray from orthodoxy, leading to the kind of population-reducing religious civil wars we’ve seen throughout history.  But the theory does demonstrate the power an intransigent and even irrational minority can have over a culture – for good or for ill.

I’d like to explore the ill side by looking at the concept of the BDShole – you know who I’m talking about – in light of a book I read a while back called Assholes: A Theory by philosopher Aaron James.  Behind the amusing title is an idea of a unique type of unpleasant person – the asshole – which is distinct from the jerk, the shmuck or other types associated with rude or unpleasant behavior.  For the asshole (quoting from James) uniquely combines the following characteristics:

  1. He allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systemically.
  2. He does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.
  3. He is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

As an aside, James prefers “he” in the belief that the majority of assholes are male (which he explores from a sociological perspective), although in the case of BDSholes I think it’s safe to say this is a gender-neutral term.

If you buy into James’ descriptive list, you can see why the asshole’s behavior is particularly infuriating.  For a jerk cutting into a line in front of you because he’s in a hurry is annoying.  But when an asshole does the same thing, he (or she) is informing everyone they cut in front of that they do not matter – a message all of us react to with anger and resentment.  This might explain why we might fight with or avoid the asshole, even if we forgive a rude friend for the same misbehaviors.

Looking at the BDSholes behavior in light of James’ three characteristics, consider a phenomenon discussed frequently on this site: the fact that BDS advocates (and anti-Israel activists generally) demand we take them seriously as human rights activists and insist we respond to their accusations (usually illustrated with bloody photographs) of Israeli “atrocities” in the name of human dignity and justice.

But when confronted by the fact that the Palestinians and their Arab nation-state supporters are guilty of these same crimes a hundred fold, the BDSer becomes angry – even furious – ignoring any appeal to the same humane values they insist we use when considering their accusations.

This behavior makes sense, however, in light of James’ description of the asshole.  For the BDShole insists that title of human-rights champion as well as the vocabulary of justice and virtue belongs exclusively to them, and does so in a consistent (actually permanent) manner.  The BDShole does so out of a sense of entitlement that they, and they alone, are part of an all-seeing vanguard that understands the world in ways all others do not.  And this entitlement allows them to say and do whatever they like, whenever they want to, despite the harm their words and actions routinely cause others.

Why would the boycotters cause mayhem and misery on campus after campus, church after church, civic organization after civic organization for paltry real-world political gain?  Why would the coopt every campaign and organization genuinely dedicated to human rights, decimating those institutions’ ability to actually fight on behalf of the poor and weak, just to use them as weapons to harm their political foes?  What are they even thinking when they scream their heads off at the mere mention of the violence and misogyny and bigotry of those with whom they are allied?

It is because they systematically assign to themselves the privilege of defining both themselves and others out of a fantasy-driven sense of entitlement which immunizes them against any and all criticism.

In short, they are assholes.  And if the general tone on campus is any indication, other political groups have been taking notes about the power such assholiness has over others and are starting to act upon what they’ve written down.

On Wisconsin

Days after questioning whether we should be taking student government divestment votes seriously any longer, along came Exhibit A-Z for why we shouldn’t, direct from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (UWM).

This story has everything, folks!

First, the familiar phenomena of an endless student council meeting to debate an anti-Israel divestment motion proffered by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) who, after browbeating student leaders for hours, ended up seeing their measure tabled indefinitely.  But for SJP et al, “indefinitely” translates to “until we can sneak it back on the agenda when no one is looking.”

Sure enough, a new debate on the topic of divestment was announced and information distributed about it – you guessed it – during the Passover holiday!  And when Jewish students complained, rather than hold off debate until all interested parties could participate, student leaders changed the rules to make sure divestment could make it back on the agenda.

Fortunately, everyone was told, the original anti-Israel language would not be part of this new resolution.  Instead, student leaders were going to discuss a list of demands to be made to school administrators addressing divesting from companies involved with a wide range of controversial issues, like fossil fuels and general human rights abuses.  In other words, the vote would be about companies, not countries.

Ah, but here is where the amendment process kicks in.  For no sooner had the general (i.e., non-Israel-specific) measure gained support that SJP and their allies in student government added amendments that turned the thing back into a full-fledged BDS resolution.  “Not so!” screamed the conspirators.  Just because we accuse Israel of everything from practicing Apartheid to training cops to beat up black people, and demanding that companies on the BDS blacklist be specifically mentioned, that doesn’t mean the measure we just got passed has anything to do with BDS.

The first people who weren’t buying it were Jewish students, which is why the few of them attending the meeting marched out in disgust (along with principled non-Jewish student leaders).  And then – predictably and within hours – the school’s administration announced they would not act on any student demands generated in such an anti-democratic fashion, condemning the entire student government for good measure.

Never missing an opportunity to play victim, the BDS cru then demanded the President of the university resign for not taking them seriously with regard to the various social justice causes they were hiding behind (perhaps because they had already demonstrated their total disinterest in black lives or economic justice by insisting all such issues take a distant back seat to BDS uber alles).

Oh, and did I mention the lawsuits?

Hard to believe that in barely a month the BDSers managed to destroy campus comity by purposely driving wedges between minority groups, alienate student and school leaders at a time when both are facing the consequences of drastic state budget cuts, and turned student government into a laughingstock being condemned, mocked and targeted for dissolution when it’s not being sued.

And I haven’t even mentioned the punchline: that all of this activity was rushed to the finish line in April so that the BDSers could chalk up a “victory” before new student leadership took over on May 1st (with that new leadership likely to undo everything the boycotters just forced down everyone’s throats).  In other words, all the tears and anger and hatred and destruction the boycott brigade visited upon UWM was for nothing more than a one-day headline on Mondoweiss announcing an impotent political pose not destined to last the week.

So once again, can someone tell me why we need to treat this kind of activity as saying anything about campus opinion on Israel vs. the ludicrous and destructive behavior of those who hate the Jewish state?

Should we be Taking Student Government Divestment Votes Seriously?

While I take a back seat to no one in expressing glee when some SJP/JVP-sponsored student government divestment vote goes down in flames (not to mention burning with rage when such votes go the BDSholes’ way – especially when they cheat), it might be time to stop tracking success or failure of the BDS “movement” (or Israel’s standing among the young) based on what a handful of Student Senators say or do.

Claims that student government votes carry actual political weight can only be supported if at least one of the following conditions is true:

  • That there exists a plausible chance that such a vote will be taken seriously by those who actually make decisions regarding where a college or university invests its money (i.e., the school’s adult leadership and institutional investment managers), leading to the possibility of actual divestment; and/or
  • That such votes represent genuine anti-Israel sentiments among the wider student body that student government is supposed to represent

Regarding condition (1), given that college Presidents, Boards of Trustees and investment managers have been saying “No!” to BDS calls since the start of the Millennium, it’s pretty safe to say that the number of schools actually considering divestment from Israel continues to stand at zero.

In fact, during a BDS era that stretches back close to two decades, college and universities have been falling all over one another to build or strengthen partnerships with their Israeli counterparts (many of them investing – rather than divesting – millions into these relationships).

And keep in mind that during this same era, schools have joined divestment projects – targeting Sudan and Iran – for their genuine human rights abuses vs. the fictional ones ginned up by BDS activists against Israel.  So it’s not that colleges and universities are loath to use their investment portfolios to make political statements.  Rather, their loud condemnation of student calls for BDS – often within hours of those calls being made – represents their rejection of the political snake oil the boycotters continue to peddle.

Regarding condition (2), as recent history has shown, school administrators are loath to show disrespect for student opinion, especially if that opinion can plausibly be said to represent the actual will of the majority of the student body (or at least a large minority).  So the fact that those same administrators are ready to tell Student Senates to shove their BDS resolutions where the sun doesn’t shine (or something to that effect) means they know what the boycotters also know: that student governments pass divestment votes in spite of the fact that those votes do not represent wider student opinion.

Much has been made of recent last-minute divestment votes announced or taken during the Jewish holidays.  Beyond the underhanded nature of sneaking such votes in while political enemies are celebrating religious holidays, this sort of behavior also represents an admission by cynical BDS activists that they could never win a fair fight for the simple reason that student opinion is not on their side.

If it were, you’d see student pols running on BDS platforms, informing voters that this would be their top priority if elected.  Instead, you only see pro-divestment votes being cast by ignorant Senators brow beaten by the boycotters throughout grueling all-nighters, or stealth BDSers who run for office with the sole purpose of passing divestment measures (who then leave office if they get – or don’t get – their way on this one issue).  In fact, on one of the few occasions when Israel has played a role in a campus election, the result was a rout for divestment supporters.

So if pandering administrators and normally indifferent students are all comfortable telling the boycotters to take a hike, why should any of us be still getting bent out of shape when a gaggle of Students for Justice in Palestine types manage to squeak through a “victory” by getting an impotent divestment resolution passed that is guaranteed to be ignored?

Even if you believe (as I do) that BDS campaigns are just the means to inject a steady drip of anti-Israel venom into the minds of impressionable students, we can fight against that campaign more effectively if we don’t treat such votes as stunning victories, harrowing near misses, or terrible blows.  Rather, we should see them for what they are: the boobie prize the boycotters are forced to content themselves with in an era when boycotts are nowhere to be seen, investment in the Jewish state continues to skyrocket, and the only sanctions being enacted are by dozens of state legislatures and the US government to condemn the aptly named BDS “movement.”

Human Nature and the Fight Against BDS

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Existentialism

Americans — including American Jews — tend to be a practical lot. Given that, could ideas derived from Existentialist philosophy (that French import discussed in this series) be useful in our fight against the global anti-Israel propaganda campaign known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)?

To start with, the redefinition of Israel as a “light unto nations” that ended an earlier column provides a new way of thinking about the “offense vs. defense” arguments pro-Israel activists often have among ourselves. In these debates, “offense” is defined as going on the attack against Israel’s defamers, smearing them with the truth as forcefully as they smear the Jewish state with lies.

A previous analysis of strategy and tactics discussed the difficulty we have sustaining such an attack strategy long enough to bite. But when contrasted with the limitations of what currently constitutes “positive campaigning” — such as highlighting Israel’s contributions to technology, health, and the environment, or celebrating the nation’s liberality, culture, and cuisine — it’s easy to see why going negative retains its appeal.

These limitations arise from the fact that touting Israeli falafel recipes, microchips, and gay pride parades all appeal to surface-level elements of human identity (appetite, love of gadgetry, or how we want others to perceive us politically). Touting these also reflects a messaging strategy that we Jews perfected during our diaspora of appealing to the majority culture based on the practical benefits our existence confers on others.

In contrast, using the Israeli story to demonstrate the impact of authentic commitment — in Israel’s case, to a nation worth building and fighting for — allows us to offer up Zionism as the supreme example of the rewards available to individuals who chose to live a meaningful life. Such a story also allows us to build our case around powerful words like “freedom,” “meaning,” and “purpose,” while generously holding out Israel’s example as something anyone can follow by abandoning causes offering only slavery, meaninglessness, and failure.

If those last three nouns sound familiar, that’s because that’s the only thing that Israel’s enemies, in their existential inauthenticity, actually offer the world, as we saw previously. Their insistence that progressive thinkers abandon both progressive values and genuine thinking in order to join the BDS cause is actually a demand that others enslave themselves to the BDSers in the name of “right thinking.” And the shrill (often violent) response the boycotters demonstrate when actually confronted by truth or resolve should be a lesson to would-be BDS supporters — that the only thing on offer is emptiness that no amount of screaming can fill.

Returning to the example offered by Martin Luther King Jr., that started this series, remember that the confrontations he triggered were not designed to promote guilt or self-disgust among the people he was appealing to (white Americans). Rather, he took it as given that most people — even those wielding batons and water cannons against him — thought of themselves as “good.” So the situations he manufactured (violent responses to his marches, broadcast on national television) was part of a well thought-out strategy to create precisely such situations that forced people to choose between changing their perception of their own goodness (a nearly impossible task) or changing the world in ways King wanted.

Might there be some equivalent strategy we can tap into as we think through how to appeal to those who are not necessarily committed to either side of the Arab-Israeli dispute? Currently, both sides in that dispute consider the uncommitted as empty vessels who can be won over by logical arguments (reasoned or fallacious) or emotional appeals (genuine or manipulative). But what choices might we make if we begin by considering these individuals, like all individuals, as hungry for purpose, and desiring to do things aligned with their own self-perception of goodness?

The boycotters’ habit of shoving photos of bloody babies under people’s noses can generate a sense of revulsion and a temporary passion for activism, but is unlikely to tap into an individual’s deeper existential need for authentic purpose — which might explain why support for BDS arguments in fact is so transitory among the public at large. In theory, the boycotters’ incessant invocation of “human rights” and “justice” provides others affirmation of their own self-perceived virtues. But the sheer amount of truth one has to ignore in order to embrace that BDS narrative conflicts with that self-perception, leading to even more internal anxiety that no amount of denial or shouting can eliminate.

It is our mission, then, is to build into our campaigns and communication an appeal to the foundational sense of self of those we are trying to persuade. When communicating with academics, for example, we should create arguments that make support for Israel (or at least rejection of academic boycotts) fundamental to what it means to be a scholar. Similarly, Christians and progressives being courted by Israel’s opponents need to be placed into situations that require them to choose between what the BDSers are demanding of them and their own self-perception of virtue.

The virtue(s) we appeal to and the way these appeals get made will vary from audience to audience. But one thing that should never vary is the first question we ask ourselves before deciding how to convince others, namely: “How can we offer others meaning, purpose, and confirmation of their own sense of the good and authentic self by joining our cause?”

The De-Evolution of Jewish Voice for Peace

While manic, radical energy tends to give individual Israel haters the zeal they need to continue their harassment and propaganda campaigns year after year, decade after decade, the drive towards ever-increasing radicalism tends to be a weakness of anti-Israel organizations, which explains why such groups have relatively short lifespans.

The Palestinians Solidarity Movement (PSM), which was responsible for much of the petition-driven divestment activity on college campuses in the early 2000s (years before the BDS movement was alleged to have been born, BTW), fell apart when their success led to ever-escalating attempts at infiltration by factions driven by different ideological agendas.  In the end, it became easier to dissolve the organization, rather than spend all their time fighting off hostile takeover attempts.

During this same period, I saw a similar drama play out during an early municipal divestment campaign between 2004-2006 in Somerville, MA.  You can read about the first two years of that battle here, but for purposes of this discussion the salient point was that each year the campaign continued the group behind those divestment efforts (called the Somerville Divestment Project, or SDP) imported more radical activists into their ranks, shoring up the leadership but horrifying and alienating less extreme members who were driven out.

We can see something similar happening to the organization Jewish Voice for Peace.  While ostensibly founded in 1996 (their own documentation of organizational birthdates needs to be taken with as large a grain of salt as the BDS movement’s claim to have emerged from “Palestinian civil society” in 2005 – despite the rage of divestment campaigns years earlier), JVP really came on the scene over the last decade as BDS campaigners realized the importance of appearing to have Jewish support.

Claims that JVP members wearing t-shirts saying “Another Jew for Divestment” demonstrate genuine (vs. fringe) Jewish support for BDS have proven most convincing to the corrupt (such as the leadership of the dying Presbyterian Church) or the gullible (rank and file members of that same church).  But as JVP grew from a small West Coast/Internet presence to a well-healed organization with dozens of staff, able to fly scores of members to events like Presbyterian national assemblies, it also had to struggle with the same forces that have roiled similar war groups masquerading as peace warriors.

First off, while I and others have joked in the past about joining JVP in order to pretend to speak in the organization’s name, the scruples that prevent us from behaving in such a manner are not present among JVP’s “allies.”  The organization claims over “200,000 supporters and 10,000 donors,” and while those numbers are wildly exaggerated, there has clearly been growth in their ranks in recent years – enough to support JVP branches on many college campuses which work in accord with groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on projects like student government divestment measures and Israel Apartheid Weeks.

But as those ranks grew, there came an increasing readiness to embrace excess. To take one simple example, in 2012 the group published its first JVP Passover Hagaddah – a ludicrous (and easily parodied) text that made the group seem more delusional than dangerous.  But this year’s Next-Year-in-Al-Quds edition demonstrates much more readiness to admit to the end game the organization is aiming for.

The roiling of the radical firmament, first with Black Lives Matter and then with “The Resistance” to the Trump presidency, created a new frenzy among single-issue groups to make sure their cause takes pride-of-place among emerging “intersectional” alliances.  And, as history has shown, no cause is willing to play rougher than BDS to get other political “movements” to submit to its will.

One of the reasons extreme political groups are so unstable is that the radical cred of the leadership is forever being challenged by internal and external “allies” pushing leaders to embrace more and more extreme positions.  Faced with such challenges, those leaders can stare down their friends (a nearly impossible task for ideologues), disband (as happened to PSM), or succumb.  And this year’s JVP conference, where a convicted terrorist and immigrated fraud was wildly cheered, demonstrates which choice the organization has made.

On the plus side, this kind of behavior makes it even more obvious why the vast Jewish majority should continue to shun the group – all but destroying JVP’s ability to infiltrate the mainstream and derailing its hope of one day presenting itself as just one more voice within the “Big Tent” of Jewish America.

With that hope shattered, JVP will continue to become to become indistinguishable from the mobs shouting down Israeli speakers, harassing Jewish students and celebrating murder and mayhem – behavior that has currency among fellow activists, but little impact (beyond revulsion and rejection) among those JVP would ultimately have to reach to have any influence beyond its own increasingly narrow and isolated constituency.


Anyone know who BDS Clip-Art Guys Is?

You’ve all seen him: on Wikipedia, on blogs, and at the top of almost every mainstream news story that needs an image about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement” (i.e., BDS).

In our lazy journalistic age when an illustration to your story is just a right click away, I’ve always wondered why this guy seems to have become Mr. Clip Art when it comes to BDS.

The one clue to his identity (or at least affiliation) is the name “FAMSY” which appears on the sign behind Mr. BDS’s Israeli flag one (the sign that beings “Gaza Children” and seems to end with “What have you done?” – presumably something terrible that must be laid at the feet of Israel alone).

FAMSY stands for the Federation of Australian Muslim Students and Youth (their web site seems to be under construction, although their Facebook page is available).  As far as I can tell, this is a national youth group in Australia for Muslim youngsters whose agenda seems to cover more than holding signs about Israel bombing babies.

It’s not clear whether the fellow up front, who looks a bit old to be either a student or a youth, is a member of FAMSY, or just happens to be standing next to one at one of the many anti-Israel rallies that break out around the world (including in Australia) the moment Israel decides to shoot back.

Anyway, if there are some Aussie readers out there who can help me solve this mystery, I would deeply appreciate it.  If not, the image above seems ripe for meme-ifying if anyone out there has some Photoshop (or even Microsoft paint) skills and a sense of humor.

Barghouti’s Bucks

If you scour through the comment section of any pro-Israeli blog, you’ll invariably run into accusations that those of us writing and doing anything on behalf of the Jewish state (or lambasting BDS and other anti-Israel propaganda activities) are paid agents of the Mossad, Netenyahu, AIPAC or the latest fantasized cabal of super-wealthy Jewish fat-cats.

I’ve always assumed these accusations were just simple-minded attempts by the BDS brigade to portray their enemies as vast, powerful and wealthy in order to assuage the egos of those who have seen their argument smashed and their campaigns defeated time and time again.  After all, if this blog were a corporation filing taxes, those forms would – at best – indicate two- to three-figure annual losses (with tip-jar donations eaten up by design and production of works like this, or the pine-appley Polynesian cocktails I prefer to sip while writing).

But last week’s arrest of Omar Barghouti for tax evasion flagged the fact that there are some people in the BDS game (both pro- and anti-) making a decent enough profit off the gig to earn some attention from Internal Revenue.

Most of the commentary on the scandal has understandably focused on the rank hypocrisy of Barghouti himself who travels the globe calling for the economic ruin of the nation he has and continues to benefit from, whether through subsidized tuition at an Israeli university or security services ensuring that the planes he takes from Ben Gurion to various Israel-bashing gigs don’t blow up in the sky.

While that reaction is warranted, I’m more intrigued by the sources of money the dear leader of the global BDS “movement” has managed to squirrel away and the hubris required to assume he could just sock his earnings into bank accounts on the West Bank or United States and never be called to account for not declaring what he’s actually earned on his national tax forms.

The only specific number mentioned in news reports is $700,000 Barghouti deposited in West Bank accounts earned from his business installing ATMs in Palestinian-controlled territories.  At first glance, this number seems pretty high.  But upon second glance, that amounts to a mere $70,000 per year (given that this $700K total represents a decade worth of earnings).  A third glance, however, requires us to think how much one has to earn annually in order to sock away $70,000 out of that total in a rainy day fund.

Stories did not identify how much Barghouti makes in speakers fees and book royalties, although they did indicate that this is the money he’s kept in US banks (i.e., in banks held in the country he seems to despise only slightly less than he loathes Israel).  I have read that the speaker/writer supposedly donates his fees to “the cause,” which I suppose might be true (even if so much of everything else Barghouti spouts is a lie).  If that’s the case, however, what’s sitting in those US bank accounts?  Chanukah gelt?

Comparisons with Al Capone (who was finally put away for tax evasion, rather than his more violent crimes) were rife on the Net.  But I don’t recall the US Treasury Department letting Capone out on bail to travel the world denouncing the US.  Apparently, Israeli tax authorities are a bit more lenient in this regard, providing Omar leave to go abroad and give even more speeches proving Palestinians like himself live in the equivalent of the Warsaw Ghetto (before going out to dinner and relaxing in a comfortable hotel).

As I’ve said in the past, I begrudge no one who has found a way to get someone else to foot the bills (and even pay honorariums) at events in interesting and exotic locales.  And if Omar has managed to build a business flogging his book at speaking events, more power to him.  But if you want to keep such a scam going, there are a few business details worth staying on top of.  Paying your taxes is one of them.

A narrative is already emerging that the dread Israeli empire has found yet another way to suppress those stifled still voices of the BDS movement, turning their Mandelaesque leader into one more martyr to free speech who, for some reason, never stops talking (and never stops being given opportunities to be paid to talk).

To which I say “posh.”  But if the BDS “movement” wants to stake its reputation on an ATM salesman/tax cheat who remains unwilling to give up the privileges of the Israeli society he is dedicated to destroying, then I wish them a happy third decade of watching Israel go from strength to strength as their own project continues to burn.

Zionism and Authenticity

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Existentialism

To continue our discussion of existentialismthe Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Zionism: While sometimes philosophers can stretch sentence-length discoveries into whole books and careers, the simple existentialist credo of “Existence precedes essence” in fact packs many vital ideas into just three words.

Arguments for a God-given immortal soul often claim there is a human essence (the soul) that precedes our coming into physical existence and subsequently outlives us. As an “essence,” this entity defines who or what we are: it remains fixed and unchanging, even as certain of our features (our size, our shape, our hair, etc.) change.

A brief visit to a college campus today will also introduce you to many secular alternatives for pre-existing essences that allegedly define us, such as race, gender, or the culture and society into which we were born. In calling these “essences,” again, one is suggesting that these traits fix and determine who or what we are.

The existentialist credo, to the contrary, rejects such fixed essences. It holds instead that we have full freedom to choose who or what we are, regardless of any of our predetermined traits (mystical, genetic, or societal). Our existence comes first; we subsequently are free to define ourselves after. So when Martin Luther King asked that a man be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, he was actually making an existentialist statement — insisting we treat each human being as an existing agent defined by freely-made individual choices (which make up his character), rather than by essences he was born with (such as skin color).

You can see what a powerful argument this idea offers against bigotry, since defining human beings by essences such as race and gender is not just morally wrong, but robs people of their most important freedom — the freedom ultimately to choose the meaning of their own existence.

Insisting that pre-existing essences do not define us does not mean doing away with all distinctions and backgrounds. You can, for example, take pride in your ethnic, cultural or religious heritage and even choose to define many elements of your character around such factors. In fact, building on tradition offers a powerful platform for existential transformation, far better than tearing down the world and starting from scratch.

The most successful recent example of this phenomenon is Zionism, a movement which led to not just the establishment of a homeland but the (re-)creation of a people. Clearly there are historical precedents and religious arguments for Jews living in their own nation. But the ultimate success of Zionism came from its ability to create meaning for living Jews, rather than relying on the history and faith of dead ones.

If you want to see the staggering power that derives from choosing lives of meaning and purpose, you need only look at the miracle of a people who were at death’s door in 1945 establishing and defending their own state just three years later. And in the seven decades since, the small state that these people created has taken in millions of exiles, made the desert bloom, defeated powerful enemies again and again, and built a world-class economy from the brains and determination of citizens who are free not just externally (politically), but internally (existentially).

Stories that Israelis are among the happiest people on earth can be confusing for those living in more peaceful lands, who wonder how anyone could be happy living under constant threat of annihilation. What they miss is that the need to defend one’s homeland — while also building it — provides meaning to many Israelis, sweeping away existential angst (anxiety), leading to happiness. In contrast, those who inherited the societies in which they dwell (rather than created them) might not live in fear of physical destruction, but still live in terror that they (or we!) are living inauthentic lives, lives devoid of self-created meaning (which most of us do, at least by existentialist standards).

Claims that Israel would be a “light unto nations” is often derided by foes, but also questioned by friends who wonder if it set the Jewish state up to live by impossible moral standards demanded of no one else. But in an age when so many are blaming their failure on factors outside personal control (such as accidents of birth, economic forces, or faceless political actors) and turning to religious or political dogma to avoid responsibility for their own decisions and lives (leading to chaos, and even genocide), Israel does provide the world a shining example of an alternative way to live.

That example is not of a morally perfect people or state, nor of a utopia that allows one to live life without sorrow or compromise. Rather, it is a demonstration of what all people can achieve once they embrace their freedom and accept the frightening but awesome responsibility of using that freedom to take full responsibility for their own lives.