Bigger Picture – Argumentation and Facts

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series Big Picture (9 parts)

One of the things Israel’s supporters rely on to try to get our message across are arguments supported by facts.

Our reliance on fact and argument is not a function of our being Israel supporters, nor does it derive from our ethnicity, religion, or nationality (any more than it derives from our race, class, age or gender). Rather, facts and arguments form the basis of our case for the simple reason that we live in a society where persuasion is a reasonable alternative to coercion.

I choose the word “reason” with great care, since our belief that differences can be settled through discussion, argumentation and debate can only be sustained if, through repeated personal experiences, we come to see that people routinely get their way by virtue of having the strongest arguments (vs. the biggest gun).

I’ll be getting back to what an extraordinary thing it is to live in a society where reasoned discourse stands even the slightest chance over raw power.  But for now I’d like to highlight one of the downsides of living in such a society: the assumption that those we engage with politically must share our devotion to reason.

The trap this leads to is a belief that if we can just construct the perfect argument, one which builds unchallengeable, objective facts into a framework of air-tight logic, presented with the most compelling rhetoric, we can win the day.  You can see this phenomenon right here on the site (where both I and commentors try to present our recommendations through reasoned arguments).  In fact, you can see it a hundred times a day by just turning to the countless newspapers, magazines and web sites offering editorial opinion (i.e., persuasive arguments) in support of the Jewish state.

But as we have seen again and again, Israel’s opponents are not even interested in objective facts, much less strong arguments built on such facts.

To cite just a few examples, while we are fond of describing the Middle East conflict as complex (because it is) there are some facts that are just too powerfully supported to wish, deny or shout away.

The Jewish historic connection to the land of Israel is one such fact (a fact which does not deny other people’s parallel historic connections to the same land, by the way). Similarly, the fact that Israel’s neighbors attacked the newly born Jewish state in 1948 is as apparent as the marching of thousands of Arab troops into the territory can be.

More recently, it is an objective fact that Israel made substantial offers of land to the Palestinians at various negotiating tables in order to settle the conflict.  One can argue from our side as to whether such offers were wise or foolish, just as the other side can argue whether such offers were worth giving up other things (such as the so-called “Right of Return”) in exchange.  But pretending that such offers were never made (or were not significant – never mind generous) requires just that: pretending, not refutation.

I could continue on through the various “genocides” Israel has been accused of (from Jenin to Gaza) where the low ratio of civilian to combatant casualties was unprecedented in the history of warfare.  But by now you should be getting the idea that facts do exist – even in a place where the environment in which such facts play out might be extraordinarily complex.

But it is just at this level of fact that supporters of BDS et al stake so much on their own refusal to acknowledge objective truth.  Palestinian denial of Jewish history is as long documented as it is absurd and obscene.  But just take a look at what lengths supporters of the Palestinians go to deny facts such as military invasions, peace offers and the cause and result of wars.  Books are published demonstrating that black is white.  Conferences are held where panels discuss how night is day.  Journals run for decades publishing article after article proving that up is down.  All in an effort to destroy any basis of fact upon which argumentation can proceed.

When I and others point out that our arguments are directed not at the Israel haters themselves but to a broader, uncommitted public, we acknowledge an understanding that Israel’s opponents play by a different set of rules.  And it’s all well and good that we don’t waste our time trying to argue with people who insist they get to rewrite the rules of reality to suit their purposes.

But even if we are trying to convince a different audience by following our rulebook, our opponents are trying to convince that same audience by using theirs.  Which makes it all the more important that we understand where they are coming from since – as I mentioned previously – simply dismissing them as hypocrites and liars may not give us the information we need to achieve genuine understanding of what we’re up against.


Strategy and Tactics: Language

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Strategy

Before the academic year comes to a close, I thought it might be useful to discuss topics regarding strategy and tactics in the fight against BDS. I’m kicking off a week-long series on the subject with some thoughts on language.

When talking about a political clash between two opposing sides, it’s inevitable that language gets drawn from a military vocabulary. Offense and defense are indispensible terms, as are words and phrases that indicate opposing sides such as the other side, opponents, or even the most challenging term of all enemy.

I acknowledge that this type of terminology makes many people feel uncomfortable, especially: (1) those whose ultimate goals are not militant; or (2) those whose ultimate goals are militant, but who seek to cover this up by using only neutral or positive terms (such as “human rights” or “international law”) to describe their motivations and actions.

While my motivations put me squarely in group (1), I also prefer to use the best words possible to describe things accurately, including terms deriving from argumentation to discuss what is essentially a political debate (albeit a heated one).

Now I could be coy and point out that a military vocabulary used to describe a legitimate debate between opposing parties to a conflict masks the fact that such argumentation can be (and often is) a cooperative enterprise. Parties to an argument, after all, have agreed to engage with each other over a matter of importance and the give-and-take between the parties (which might seem adversarial, especially if described in terms of “attack” and “defense”) can nevertheless lead to a full or partial resolution that would satisfy both parties (or at least provide insight to an audience to such a discussion).

In the case of the fight against BDS, however, claiming that both sides are engaged in an ultimately cooperative enterprise would be inaccurate. I can (and have) taken part in genuine (i.e., honest and mutually beneficial) arguments with people who support positions in the Middle East that I opposes, discussions that opened up new avenues for both of us to explore our own thinking. BDS, however, does not open dialog, but rather closes it.

BDS asks you to accept their premise of Israel’s guilt, and only seeks discussion over when and how it punishment should be administered. BDS advocates are not open to new ideas or new information. In fact, they become enraged when information is presented that challenges their truncated view of history or self-serving definitions of human rights or international law. Intimidation and even threats of violence (on display so vividly within the University of California system these last few years) are clearly in the BDS toolkit, which alone makes their claims to being participants in an honest debate suspect.

More importantly, there is a wider context into which the debate over BDS is being played out. To illustrate this by example: this weekend my son’s 5th grade Hebrew School class presented work they’ve been doing for the last several weeks to highlight various organizations in Israel trying to bring together Jews and Arabs via fields such as sports, children’s theater and medicine. Now there exists reasonable disagreement over how effective these grassroots mechanisms for building bridges can be, but I would never question the value of good faith efforts to exhaust all methods for bringing people together in the ultimate hope that this will eventually lead to peace.

BDS, however, takes an opposite view of such peace efforts, branding Israelis who participate in such activity as deceivers and Arabs who take part as collaborators or traitors. That is why they seek to shut down all cooperation between Arabs and Jews in the region. That is why they seek to end cooperation between Israelis and everyone else in the world by protesting not just Israel’s economic ties to other countries, but academic and cultural ties as well.

In other words, for the efforts of real peace activists to be successful, BDS must be exposed for what it is and, ideally, swept from the battlefield if efforts to create a real peace are ever to take root.

Thus the fight against BDS (even if is described in military-sounding language) turns out to be the true battle for peace, while BDS (which never hesitates to wrap itself in the mantle of peace-making and justice) is actually a form of unjust warfare that must lose in order for peace to win.

Funny thing language.

Onto Part II – Numbers