PennBDS: Delegitimization

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

“Deligitimization” is an ungainly word, one which even Israel’s defenders don’t much enjoy using.

Descriptively, the term does the job in summing up a set of activities designed to deny to the Jewish state the rights to perform the same legitimate activities that are automatically granted to any other nation (including the right to its very existence).  But to get a better understanding of what this word means, it’s best to look at the role of each player in the delegitmization hierarchy.

At the top of that hierarchy are the 20+ states of the Arab League, nearly all of which have refused to politically recognize Israel since its birth, nations that have also enacted economic blockades and boycotts of the Jewish state they surround for even longer.  In fact, with a few exceptions, the only political relationship they maintain with their Israeli neighbor is a formal state of war which many of these nations have acted upon more than once in the last 60+ years.

These Arab League states are further aligned with over 50 countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), giving Islamic states with an anti-Israel agenda a 50:1 advantage over the one Jewish nation they have targeted politically, diplomatically, economically and (in some cases) militarily.

This ratio is important because of the role played by international organizations such as the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations (NGO) in furthering this delegitimization agenda.  For while there exist a large number of trans-national organizations (the most prominent being the UN), the independent nation state is still the primary actor on the world stage.  And if you don’t believe me, just stop and think about how much easier it is for Saudi Arabia to get the United Nations to do what it wants rather than vice versa.

And what these 50 nation states (which between them control most of the world’s oil wealth) and their allies (notably members of the former “non-aligned” bloc) want is for these international organizations to rain condemnation on their political enemy, all in the name of noble principles such as “international law,” and “human rights.”

The fact that the nations who use organizations like the UN to target the Jewish state are themselves the worst human rights abusers on the planet is actually an important component of the equation.  For in focusing the attention of these global agencies (agencies originally developed to keep the peace and protect the weak) on their political enemy, the Arab League states and their friends both benefit from a propaganda victory while also taking the human rights spotlight off their own abhorrent behavior.

Specific anti-Israel groups like those who will be represented at the PennBDS conference are the beneficiaries activity that originates above them, using the condemnations that come out of institutions like the ghastly UN Human Rights Council to launder their own choices and activities through what NGO Monitor cleverly (if depressingly) illustrated as the BDS Sewer System.

This laundering allows anti-Israel groups (whether they prioritize the BDS tactic or not) to claim that they are fighting for noble causes  like human rights, or targeting Israel (and only Israel) because it is in violation of “international law,” which avoids having to admit that they are simply partisan advocates in one side of a political and military conflict.

And it is when the conflict turns military that these “Friends of the Palestinian People” show their true colors.  For during the months or years when groups like Hezbollah and Hamas are making war all but inevitable (by kidnapping Israelis or firing hundreds or thousands of rockets into Israeli territory, an act of war by any possible definition of the term), these groups are completely somnambulant.

Yes, if you back them into a corner, they will make a grudging condemnation of Hamas rocket fire and the like (usually with a “big but” as in “Yes, rocket fire is inexcusable, BUT it wouldn’t occur if not for “The Occupation”).  But once Israel does the inevitable and returns fire, these once silent organizations roar to life and take to the streets demanding an immediate ceasefire coupled with more political condemnation of a Jewish state that has dared do what any other nation in the world would do if hit with endless volleys of munitions for weeks and months on end.

As I’ve discussed before, the inevitability of massive street protests (coupled with demands for international intervention) when (and only when) shooting goes in two directions in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere becomes a component of the conflict itself.  In addition to providing a platform for the creation and propagation of propaganda (the primary role of third parties such as PennBDS in the Middle East Conflict), it’s also a factor that any military leader (in Gaza, Lebanon or elsewhere) must take into consideration when they decide how far they can push before triggering Israeli reprisals, or how long they have to hold on before international pressure forces Israel to cease military operations.

So in many ways, the term “delegitimization” really describes what the BDSers and their friends and allies do to themselves.  For while they would like to portray themselves as pure-hearted, human-rights champions fighting for what’s right against overwhelming odds, the truth is that they are simply partisan players allied with one side in a political (and sometimes military) campaign, a cog in militant machinery whose role is to provide crucial propaganda support for allies who represent many of the most wealthy, powerful and nasty political regimes on the face of planet earth.

Don’t Panic…Don’t Be Complacent

I’ve been presented with two challenging questions in the last 48 hours, one in the comments section, one via e-mail. As it turns out, these two correspondents are both friends and allies (their challenges standing in sharp contrast to the deception- and pathos-laden arguments made by BDS proponents – a subject for another time).

Both questions pretty much amount to the same thing: could my characterization of BDS as a “loser” lead to supporters of Israel letting down their guard (why target time, energy and resources fighting against something that may not be such a big deal after all?).

This is an excellent point, one which requires more than just a stock answer (such as “I’m just telling them like I see ‘em!”). Not that describing the actual success and failures (mostly the latter) of BDS does not serve a purpose. For whenever one is confronted with an opponent (be it in sports, war or political debate), it is important to first gauge that opponent’s actual (vs. perceived) strengths and weaknesses. There are many things one can do with that information once it’s been accurately obtained and assessed, but there are few situations when believing a potential fiction (such as BDS being “on the march”) does much good with regard to thinking and planning strategically.

There are also tactical benefits to characterizing BDS (accurately) as a loser. After all, boycott and divestment proponents have a ready store of responses if they are charged with (for example) anti-Semitism. In fact, they will often mischaracterize any criticism of their position as an insincere accusation of anti-Semitism in order to tap into this bag of automatic responses (usually consisting of striking an indigent pose and accusing their accuser of “muzzling”).

But how does one respond to the charges, backed up by facts and figures, that BDS is indeed a loser? Only by claiming that “we’re not losers!” (a response only a loser would make). And so anyone looking to get off the defensive when challenged by boycotters seeking to play prosecutor and judge with Israel in the dock could do worse than pointing out how little success or support BDS has ever achieved despite a decade of tireless effort.

As for tamping down fears and possibly causing Israel supporters to lose interest or momentum in fighting against BDS, this is a legitimate problem but one which says more about the lack of militant thinking within the Jewish community (a blessing in most instances, but one which does not necessarily lead to good decisions when faced with a militant challenge, such as the propaganda campaign of BDS).

For in traditional military situations, when you’ve got your opponent on the run that is exactly the time to redouble your efforts and hit them again and again, making sure they lose as much momentum as possible and limiting (or, at least delaying) their ability to regroup. Now it may be that overstating the BDS threat is just the thing to keep supporters of Israel on campuses and elsewhere perpetually sharp and on the lookout for divestment threats to put down. But even if one is convinced that BDS is not an imminent threat, the best way to keep it from becoming one is to smack it down wherever it rears its ugly head (especially since there are so many resources – notably precedent of BDS being rejected over ten years – to tap into).

Then you’ve got the fact that divestment, while not a threat now, can become one very quickly if given even a small toe hold. After all, the “I hate Israel” crowd managed to leverage their brief support by the Presbyterians into two years of turmoil that Israel supporters had to deal with between 2004 (when the church passed its divestment resolution) and 2006 (when it overwhelmingly rejected it). Which is why my message has always been “Don’t panic, but don’t become complacent.”

Finally, it needs to be repeated that BDS is simply one part of a broader strategy of de-legitimization of Israel as a whole and any steps Israel takes to behave like a normal country (by defending itself from military attack, for example). And this broader de-legitimization strategy is not driven by a few goons shutting down an Ahava store in London. Rather, it is pushed by wealthy and powerful states that use their influence at forums such as the United Nations to fund and launch attacks on Israel (in the form of, among other things, the now-discredited Goldstone Report).

As I’ve noted earlier, within this panoply of de-legitimization efforts, BDS is actually the weak link, a program so loathed and unpopular that it has the power to turn neutrals (i.e., those with no dog in the fight of the Middle East conflict) into active allies of Israel supporters.

This being the case, the need to put the pedal to the floor when fighting against boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns serves two purposes. Firstly, it helps ensure these efforts are defeated and never find fertile ground to grow. But secondly (and more importantly) it helps expose the cynical and dishonest nature of all efforts to de-legitimize Israel and its actions. In fact, the embrace of a loser tactic like BDS by Israel’s opponents should be treated for what it is: manna from heaven in the form of a discredited project that supporters of the Jewish state can wrap around the neck of the entire de-legitimization effort.

Winners and Losers

My friend CitizenWald sent me a couple of interesting pieces which, between them, debate who is winning and losing in the effort to de-legitimize Israel (a broad campaign, of which BDS is just one component).

In this JTA Op Ed, Gary Wexler is emphatic about who is losing: Israel. In fact, as a marketing professional, he marvels at the PR prowess that has led Israel, a perfectly reasonable if imperfect country, to be transformed into the embodiment of all evil in the modern world.

Wexler attributes this propaganda success to the creative genius of those behind the de-legitimization/Apartheid-Strategy/BDS “movement” whom he sees as having succeeded, after decades of effort, in “branding” Israel is such a dark light. While appalled at their mission and goals, the writer is still highly impressed with their effectiveness in marketing Israel as the black hats and the Arabs the white hats in a morality play that has achieved global acceptance.

Having dabbled a bit in marketing myself, I can understand the author’s point of view, especially with regard to comparing the systematic and consistent efforts of Israel’s opponents vs. the on-again, off-again, sometimes-this, sometimes-that nature of the response by Israel and its supporters.

At the same time, I tend to be skeptical of any thesis that involves organization (including an in-the-shadows organization of marketing geniuses) among Israel’s detractors. I’ve simply been exposed to these groups – with all of their fractiousness and fissures – far too often to believe in the existence of some form of central command.

This is especially true in this day and age when new communication technology minimizes the need for centralized coordination. Via blogs, newsfeeds, social networks, Twitter and a host of other communication tools, Israel’s critics (and its supports) have an endless feedback loop in which new ideas can be tried, failures rejected and successes built upon, providing activists access to a “wisdom of crowds” which at times can be just as effective as a central command.

I also take issue with Wexler’s use of anecdotes to measure success. As I’ve noted here, if anti-Israel branding has been so successful, then why has Israel’s allegedly boycotted economy doubled in size over the last decade? Why do Europeans (who decry Israel in their newspapers) invest more venture capital into the Jewish state than in any country on their own continent? And, most importantly, why has Israel’s popularity among the general US population soared twenty percentage points during the very decade where this de-legitimization campaign has allegedly been so successful?

A significant critique of the “Israel is Losing the Propaganda War” thesis can be found in this article by Barry Rubin. In Rubin’s piece, he broadens the canvas to suggest that the entire de-legitimization project is testament to the fact that it is Israel’s foes, not Israel, that are the losers.

After all, suggests Rubin, trying to defeat Israel on the battlefield requires creating and maintaining trained and skilled armies, and being able to successful deploy them and lead them in the field. And truly isolating Israel economically would require Israel’s Arab foes to create economies that could successfully compete with the Israeli one, something they have not been able to do despite trillions in oil revenue placed cost-free beneath their feet. Without the ability to defeat or compete with Israel on the two stages that really matter (war and economics), Israel’s enemies turn to propaganda as a low-rent way to create the illusion that they are actually achieving something of substance.

As with Wexler, there are parts of Rubin’s argument I find compelling. Taking BDS as one example, all it takes to start a campaign is to sign up for some free petitioning software, get 200-300 friends to sign it, send out a few press releases and – BANG – a new front in the de-legitimization wars is opened up! And given that the BDS “movement” measures it success not in actually achieving anything, but only in the publicity it manages to create (most of it generated by their own press releases), the who can argue with the notion that propaganda is what you resort to when everything else you’ve done has been a failure?

But I think Rubin also misses an important point, as do I when I highlight Israel’s growth in popularity during the BDS decade of the ‘00s. For the de-legitimization campaign is first and foremost targeted at elites: academics, the media, government leaders, etc., and there are not many countries where the popularity of a particular cause (such as Israel in the US) drives foreign policy.

Both arguments also fail to highlight the fact that de-legitimization campaigns are primarily driven not by local activists, but by Israel’s primary political adversaries: neighboring Arab states. These are the entities that fuel (and, yes, fund) anti-Israel (and anti-Western) propaganda worldwide. They provide the bulk of votes at organizations like the UN designed to ensure all human rights eyes are focused on Israel and nowhere else. And while they’ve not been successful in depressing the Israeli economy, they also have the wealth and power to make individuals, companies and nations choose between operating in the larger Arab market or the much smaller Israeli one.

Now most of the BDS activists I have met think I am speaking Klingnon when I inform them that the only reason their faux “human rights” attacks against Israel gets more airplay than all of the other human rights work taking place on the planet put together is that the BDSers are allied with wealthy and powerful states, which includes all of the friends wealth and power can buy. But it’s no news that divestniks can delude themselves into thinking they are Gandhi while they rush to embrace Goliath. Nor does their refusal to believe in their obvious alliance with wealth and power negate this reality.

Both arguments also miss the fact that those with militant goals will always have the advantage when it comes to taking the offensive initiative. As I describe here, the reason Israel’s supporters cannot maintain a counter de-legitimization campaign targeting its opponents is simply because our ultimate goal is to live in peace with those who are waging war against us. That being the case, we must come up with new metaphors to drive our strategies (like the siege), and not simply hope that Israel’s opponents, in their effort to de-legitimize the Jewish state, will continue to do what they’ve done up until now: only de-legitimize themselves.

The Bigger Picture

I’m attending my first AIPAC Policy Conference this week and, seeing the organization in action, I can understand why it’s the subject of so much demonology by Israel’s enemies. While I’ll have more to say about the experience in the coming days, suffice to say that this is one American Jewish organization that has its SH*T together. While many of us struggle to find our mission or our audience, AIPAC combines the professionalism, discipline and long-term thinking that one rarely sees in any institution public or private.

Switching back to the subject of demonology, I was pretty disappointed at the number of protestors who turned out to this event. Even the AIPAC New England dinner (which I’ve attended twice) seems to bring out bigger numbers of people who at least have a semblance of a coherent message. But with 7500 AIPAC supporters gathering in DC, the best the Israel haters could manage was a contingent of black hats from the Norman Klitorus sect, a gaggle of people waving anti-Israel and anti-Obama signs with the delightful message of “God Hates Fags,” and a small group who, for some reason, decided to dress up as pieces of Swiss cheese.

Word has it that a few Code Pinkers paid the $500 registration fee to get into the final dinner so that they could heckle Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu before realizing that using this same tactic for a second year in a row meant the dreaded Zionists were ready for them (drowning out their shouts in a burst of applause before ejecting them from the room). In fact, those of us in the cheap seats only found out the “edgy” “transgressive” Pinkians did their thing when we were walking out of the dinner to fetch dessert. Thus is the fate of people whose entire political movement consists of posting pictures of themselves acting naughty on their own Facebook pages.

I was curious as to whether the subject of BDS would be featured at the event and, in typical AIPAC fashion, this subject was fit into a broader, well thought-out context that falls under the heading of “Delegitimizing of Israel.” While BDS was an example of this type of de-legitimization, speakers correctly pointed out that the de-legit program originates with the Arab states working through their domination of organizations like the UN to create ugly bits of nastiness like the Goldstone Report which they can then use to whitewash their propaganda program.

Within this framework, BDS is just a hanger on, a barnacle clinging to a bigger De-legitimization ship created and manned by some of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest states. No doubt this is not the reality the BDSers (who see themselves as brave, righteous lonely souls battling against powerful enemies) want themselves or others to comprehend, but it is a useful way to understand what we’re really dealing with when confronted by those advocating for boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Now it would be fair to point out that if BDS is simply a parasite gaining sustenance from the actions of the wealthy and powerful, then this site is simply attaching itself for a ride on that parasite, having fun at the expense of a “movement” that is really just a third-removed threat from the real action. To which I would say “guilty as charged!” But in a world where groups like AIPAC (with support from the 7500 people in that room last night) are dealing with big stuff (like securing the US-Israel relationship and trying to stop Iran from going nuclear), it’s nice that BDS provides people like me with a hobby.