Post War Catch Up

Nothing like a summer-long, 19-part series to chase away an audience.

Kidding aside, thanks to everyone who hung in there as I worked through some ideas on strategy and tactics both here and at Algemeiner, and special thanks to my editor and ally Andrew Pessin for getting me off my butt to write more regularly for an audience beyond this site.

That series is ultimately targeted towards a focused audience: those activists who make decisions and set the pro-Israel strategy for much of the community.  After years of watching this thoughtful and dedicated community work day in and day out on issues of concern to Israel’s friends (Jewish and non-Jewish alike), I wanted to contribute something that I hope can make all our work more efficient, harmonious and effective.

Since this is also one of the busiest groups of people I know, I suspect that clicking through nineteen essay-length blog postings is not the most efficient way of absorbing this kind of information.  So once the holidays are over, I’m planning to make this same material available in more easily digestible formats.  More news on that once the Book of Life is closed.

Meanwhile, it’s time to start catching up around here.

First off, it’s good to know that some of the themes you’ve read about in that war series represent not original thinking but what might represent an emerging consensus.  For example, author and former Ambassador Michael Oren was recently appointed head of public diplomacy for the Israeli government.  And in an early interview in Algemeiner, he talked about how we need to “strengthen the emotional aspect” of our communication – not just rely on facts to win over audiences (especially young audiences).

In this case, when Oren talks about emotion he is referring to the pathos component of persuasive communication which (as this War series post outlines) is crucial when trying to convince.  But emotion is also a powerful and frequently underestimated component of everyone’s decision-making process, including ours and our enemy’s.  As this piece that focuses just on emotion points out, both sides of the BDS wars frequently make errors that help their foes when we let emotion get the better of us.  So as Oren and others try to navigate difficult strategic choices, better to be in control of our emotion so we can think about tactics that will make our opponents fall victim to theirs.

I also wanted to give a shout out to a brilliant formulation created by William Jacobson over at Legal Insurrection.  LI has become the go-to site for what’s going on day-to-day in the world of BDS, especially on college campuses and among faculty and academic associations.  But Jacobson also frequently takes time to delve into deeper issues, especially around legal and political matters related to the BDS “movement.”

For years, I’ve been using obscure metaphors to describe the phenomenon of anti-Israel groups infiltrating other political organizations and bending them towards their will.  You saw this during the period Occupy was squatting in various cities, including Boston where the only political “consensus” the loose-knit movement was able to reach was to march on the Israeli consulate.

Of course, this was no “consensus” but yet another example of the BDSers ruthlessly demanding that others do what they say, lest they be cast out of the Left end of the political spectrum.  You’ve seen the same phenomenon on steroids over the last twelve months as “intersectionality” has grown to mean everyone embracing the anti-Israel consensus while never questioning its dogmas.  This is why you’re far more likely to see women and gay-rights groups on campuses come out in support of divestment resolutions, while never making demands on groups with ties to the Middle East (like BDS) to take a position on the horrific situation faced by women and sexual minorities of the region.

Jacobson gets right to the point on what this behavior represents: BDS as a “settler, colonial ideology,” a kind of cultural and intellectual imperialism that demands everyone submit before being considered a genuine radical or human-rights activist.

I don’t know how much this formulation will catch on as a catch phrase.  But like most important changes in perception, an idea needs to be put into words.  And I can’t think of a better phrase than “settler, colonial ideology” to describe this important dynamic.

Anyway, time to prepare for some non-eating and reflecting for the next few days.  But stay tuned for more on BDS and War and other matters of interest here at Divest This.

Rhetoric – Abnormal Politics

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Language

I’ve been meaning for some time to write about the rhetoric used by the BDS “movement” (which reflects the rhetoric of anti-Israel political activity generally).  But before getting into the mechanics of this subject, it’s important to understand some of the psychological motivation behind why people make certain choices when engaging in political debate.

More than a year ago, I wrote about the BDSers over-reliance on pathos (emotional persuasion), a subject particularly relevant to this discussion (which is why I’ll pause as you re-read that original piece).

Are you back?  OK, as noted in that entry, nearly every compelling argument contains some amount of emotional content, so the appeal to emotion is not in and of itself illegitimate.  But an over-reliance on emotional words and images (especially the use of emotionally evocative words and images to short circuit reason) definitely crosses the line into manipulativeness.  And when chosen emotional content is aimed not at the heart (which responds to appeals to positive emotions such as love and concern), but the gut (which responds to negative emotions like anger and fear), you quickly find yourself in situations where rhetoric is used to avoid reasonable argumentation rather than drive it.

I bring this up because the BDS bag of tricks consists almost entirely of pathos-based arguments.  Oh sure, the BDSers can occasionally rouse themselves to present arguments that ape the form of logic (usually consisting of false or self-serving interpretations of history leading to foregone conclusions).  But once those arguments are challenged, out come the photos of babies with crushed bodies alongside insistence that anyone challenging BDS dogma is responsible for the horrendous suffering being thrown in our faces.

Keep in mind that the assumption built into the use of such pathos-based manipulation is that the audience will respond to this approach.  And if you look at the audiences where these types of presentations have been successful (kindhearted Mainline Protestants who feel compelled to do something about the suffering of others, energetic student activists committed to human rights, etc.), you can see why this arrow tends to get drawn so quickly from the BDS quiver of available arguments.

Even supporters of Israel can find themselves questioning their own beliefs when confronted by provocative imagery, such as a photo of a dead or suffering child.  “Did the Israeli army actually do all it could to prevent such tragedies?” we may ask ourselves (even if we understand full well the difference between Israel trying to prevent civilian casualties while fighting a defensive war vs. Hamas trying to maximize civilian causalities – their own and Israel’s – in the course of waging an offensive one).

Under normal circumstances, an overreliance on pathos by one side in a debate has a corrective: the equivalent use of pathos by the other side.  After all, if we’re meant to respond to words or imagery of suffering Palestinian children in the way the BDSers insist we must, why can’t we show them photos of dead Israeli children, or their suffering families, or dead Syrians, or dead Palestinians killed by Hamas for that matter (with all the requisite blood and surviving family members with faces contorted in pain) and insist the BDSers must respond to our accusations and challenges?

If you’ve ever tried such an approach (or watched someone else attempt this tactic), it immediately becomes clear that “pathos jui jitsu” simply does not work on the Israel haters.  Which makes sense once you realize that much of the anti-Israel activism we experience exists outside the realm of what could be called “normal politics.”

For the first reaction of a BDSer to stories or photos of dead Israelis (or dead Palestinians they cannot blame directly on Israel), is to ignore them.  And if that doesn’t work, they create an elaborate fallacy-laden argument to explain why those deaths are also Israel’s fault (“they wouldn’t have died if it wasn’t for ‘The Occupation!’).  And if that doesn’t work, they fly into a rage and drag out 100 more pictures of dead Arabs to trump whatever you present to them.  And if none of that works, they simply walk away, only to return to make the same pathos-laced arguments that didn’t work on you to another audience two days later.

In other words, their arguments leverage the empathy of their target audience, but their imperviousness to the same type of arguments directed towards them relies on their own total lack of empathy for others.

I’ve recently been reading a book entitled The Science of Evil written by Simon Baron Cohen (brother of Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat and The Dictator fame, as it turns out) which tries to explain all human evil in the context of empathy (or lack thereof).  And while I’m not that convinced by his overall argument, he does bring up an important reminder of where we can find the combination of emotional manipulative behavior coupled with the lack of susceptibility to emotional manipulation I describe above with regard to BDS behavior: in the psychological makeup of the sociopath.

Which brings us back to why anti-Israel politics seems so abnormal compared to more routine politics (even heated politics) we see in other realms.  For with BDS (and Israel hatred generally), we are dealing with a phenomena far scarier and more dangerous than a sociopathic individual: a sociopathic political movement, one that either provides a home for people with this disposition, or helps normalize sociopathic behavior so that it is encouraged within people who join “the movement.”

We need to keep this reality in mind as we think about both the rhetoric such a movement uses to present its case, and the rhetoric and strategies we use to counter it.Next up… Outrage!!!


Given how much more there is to learn from being wrong than right, I must send my thanks to one of our usual Anonymous commenters whose recent contribution caused me to make a major blunder.

As is frequently the case with Anons, this person chose not to respond to a point I had made, but rather to post a link to a site unrelated to the topic at hand, followed by a demand that we respond to her comment. In this case, it was a link to this site documenting house demolitions in Gaza and elsewhere. But in my haste to respond (and after looking at stuff like this for the last few days), I assumed the linked site featured horrific images of Palestinian suffering to make its case, rather than the nice clean maps and statistics which in fact are there. And so I lashed out at those who make emotional arguments at the expense of facts and reason, and was properly chastised for doing so.

To understand the lesson learned from this experience, I need to refer back to the three modes of persuasion mentioned a few posts ago that derive from the principles of rhetoric (in this case, rhetoric defined as means of persuasive political speech).

For those few of you still in the room, these three modes are logos (an appeal to logic and reason), pathos (an appeal to emotion) and ethos (a slightly more complicated notion of appeal to the moral authority of the person making the argument).

In a perfect world, all political debate would focus on logos, with everyone arguing on the basis of sound logical reasoning backed up by empirical fact. But since the only political debates worth having are ones involving competing reasonable alternatives, we must frequently mix into the discussion appeals to things other than the head, including human emotion. But for such an argument to have integrity, logos and pathos need to be mixed in just the right proportion. And any contribution of pathos must appeal to good emotion (such as compassion, courage and sense of moral duty) as opposed to bad emotion (such as fear, anger or irrational hatred.)

Since writing about this matter a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about how the BDS movement (and all its antecedents) consist primarily (if not entirely) of pathos-based arguments which is why so much of their literature and media looks like this and this. So when I saw a link to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICHAD) web site, I presumed it contained this typical content.

But of course it does not. Instead, it is filled with the aforementioned maps and tables, as well as testimonials, statistics and other elements documenting the many times Israeli authorities allegedly knocked down the home of a Palestinian family. Presumed in the argument based on this supposedly logos-based evidence is the fact that anyone who would do something as awful as knocking down a family’s house must be pretty awful altogether.

Thinking about this over the last few hours, however, it occurred to me that even with all those maps and figures, perhaps I was still looking at a pathos-based argument. After all, the image of a family house being demolished is at its core an emotional one (certainly for anyone who owns a home and raises a family in it). As such, it is similar to the statistics BDSers throw around regarding the number of children killed in conflicts like the recent Gaza campaign. Actually, the latter is even more emotionally evocative since what can be more gut wrenching (especially to a parent) than the thought of an innocent child losing his or her life?

But when these examples of house demolitions or children’s deaths are presented in isolation (absent every piece of the story that led to these horrible images or stats such as weapons tunnels under or Hamas rockets fired from those homes containing those children), then we are being asked to draw conclusions based on those images and carefully chosen statistics alone. In other words, the emotional power of a destroyed home or broken child (whether a photo or a body count) is meant to elicit in us an emotional response that leapfrogs reason to the desired conclusion.

As I’ve stated before, the arguments boycotters make in their presentations, their literature, their videos and their speeches amounts to nothing more than pure pathos aimed directly at not the heart (kindness, courage, etc.) but the gut (fear, anger, disgust). Which is why they tend to focus their messages directly at those who consider themselves to be compassionate and caring.

These pathos-laden appeals actually represent a compliment the BDSers are making to their chosen audience, assuming them to be empathetic enough to be manipulated in such a manner. In fact, if you want to see how ineffective such a technique is against someone who lacks such empathy, watch what happens when you ask a BDSer about Jews killed by terrorism, Palestinians murdered by each other, or the plight of women and gays in the Middle East. Presuming they don’t simply ignore you (their usual first choice), within seconds you will hear a “that’s terrible, BUT…” follows by their next round of accusations against you-know-who.

In one sense, pure pathos has significant rhetoric power, although only as a means of shutting down debate, rather than winning it. Which is why this is the tool the boycotters always reach for first, last and always since they know they can never win an argument fought on level ground.

Pathos is also useful for drawing those who have a visceral reaction to conflict and war who may lack the knowledge to put information like that provided by ICAHD into context, or who may not have enough experience thinking critically about matters where even raw emotional reality must be tempered by reason and judgment. Uber activists (like our Israel-disliking community) refer to such people (i.e., those who feel they must “do something” when bad things are occurring) as “loose change,” i.e., the folks who make up the bulk of bodies who march in the streets after a Middle East war breaks out (at least ones in which Israel is involved).

I’d like to think that for all its ability to short circuit reason and manipulate the inexperienced and empathetic, that pathos will always fail to win the debate and thus will never lead to political victory. And given BDS’s ten year losing streak, there is room for this type of optimism. But if we ever enter a world in which pathos rules the day, I suspect the fate that will befall Israel is only a tiny slice of the horror the rest of us can expect to descend on our lives.