Arguing with Mike – Is that all you got? ;-)

Continuing on with my back-and-forth with Mike Lumish of Israel Thrives/Times of Israel/Elder of Ziyon fame, in my last contribution I hedged a bit in my challenge to Mike’s critique of Left-wing anti-Zionism, given that his original critique was more implicit than direct.  But now that he has made that critique explicit in his most recent reply, I shall make my challenge to it more explicit as well.

His argument rests on three linked observations/premises, the first being what Mike (and many others) consider to be one of the most prominent of President Obama’s foreign policy failures: his choice to support the short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt coupled with the President’s choice to wrap his hopes for a democratic Arab spring in Egypt and elsewhere in the language of America’s two most sacred struggles (the War of Independence and the Civil Rights Movement).

With this charge in place, an accusation can then be directed at “The Left” (or least the US Left) based on an objective fact: that it voted overwhelmingly for someone (twice!) who pretended the Muslim Brotherhood (which all of us know as the Ur-Jihad, out of which so much of today’s Islamist mayhem sprung) was the inheritor of Thomas Jefferson and Rosa Parks.

With those two facts in place, the indictment which follows simply points out that a US Left which chose to vote for this President two times cannot possibly be considered friendly to Jewish peoplehood, especially given the role Israel plays in Jewish identity in the 21st century.

And given the overlap between left-leaning Americans and American Jews (78% of whom voted for Obama in 2008 and 69% in 2012), Mike’s third observation is that these huge numbers were clearly voting against their most important interests – a choice which I suspect fuels his frequent condemnation that many Progressive Jews (and those who do not condemn them) suffer from having their heads “buried in the sand” (probably the nicest way of putting a sentiment that lends itself to a more scatological version).

I will agree that each of these observations has merit and the logic linking them together is likely to be convincing – even compelling – to some.  But I would like to challenge each observation/premise and the logic linking them, not to fly to the defense of the Obama administration, but to highlight how this argument actually weakens the case Mike is trying to make against Left-leaning opponents of the Jewish state.

To begin with, as much as I agree that each of us is entitled to focus on aspects of an issue (like Mike’s choice to focus on Obama’s behavior when the Brotherhood was in power in Egypt), genuine understanding can only come from focusing on more than one fact – no matter how revealing  that single fact might seem.

For even in the case of Egypt, the Obama administration provided aid to the Mubarak government before it fell, the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood government that replaced it, and the el-Sisi government that overthrew Morsi.  So in terms of action, Obama has simply been part of a continuity that goes back to the 1970s in which both Republican and Democratic administrations made the wise choice to pay Egypt to keep it out of direct military participation in the Arab war against Israel.

Now while I can split hairs regarding whether Obama was directly praising the Brotherhood when he used civil rights language to express his hopes for the Arab Spring, I think it’s safer to say that Obama’s Middle East policies in general (which included supporting Muslim Brothers Egypt wing while dropping bombs on its ISIS wing) reflect a complex reaction to a complex world.  And while one can praise those decisions, or condemn them as naïve or dangerous (I’d tend to fall between those last two), resting one’s case on just one aspect of administration policy (as Mike does) actually makes your case vulnerable to a wide variety of counter-examples (like the ones you just read).

Regarding “The Left” voting overwhelmingly for Obama in two elections, putting aside what we mean by “The Left,” there is a perfectly valid reason why such a group would vote for the Democratic candidate in 2008 and 2012: because that’s what left-leaning voters do.

In fact, most of those who voted for (or against) Obama were destined to do so even before the current President was born based entirely on partisan preferences (either inherited or chosen) that tend to overwhelm any particular issue.  And given that this same “Left” is just as likely to vote for a Democratic candidate who is not hostile to Israel over any Republican in the next election, focusing a critique on the Left for supporting a Democratic presidential candidate seems like condemning the tide for coming in and getting your beach towel wet.

I’m more sympathetic to the argument regarding Jewish voters (and Jewish organizations) that ran interference for the current President, rather than pressuring or lobbying him to stop his needless fight-picking with Israel’s government and appeasement of Middle East dictators.  But even here I make a distinction between Jewish Voice for Peace (which is the enemy of the Jewish state and its supporters) and Jewish community and defense organizations that have lost their way.

The former must be fought at all cost, but the latter have the potential of doing the right thing or, in the case of defense groups like ADL, of coming back to their roots.  And even if this is an uphill (and potentially fruitless) battle, I prefer it be waged in the context of trying to convince friends to get their priorities straight, rather than treating potential allies in the same way I treat enemies (like JVP).

Getting back to more general voting patterns, this 70-80% of Jewish voters was part of more than half the electorate that voted for the current President in two separate elections.  Which leaves us with the choice of treating the majority of Americans as foes of the Jewish state vs. treating them as what they are: a complex group with differing preferences and priorities, most of whom didn’t give Israel a second of thought when they made their choice for President.

Now keep in mind that I have picked at Mike’s argument not because we disagree that the Left is a vital battlefield over which the Middle East conflict will be fought, but because I feel that his major indictment – anchored as it is in a partisan moment that is going to change one way or another over the next few years – is both fragile and time-bound.

This is the reason I gravitate towards historic arguments (like Wistrich’s) or prophetic philosophical ones (like Wisse’s) since they are much too strong to challenge without serious engagement (which is why Israel’s foes ignore them) and are as relevant today as when these authors first started making them decades ago.

Yes, they take a little more work than does a contemporary partisan fight.  But if we are to make the right choices in the war over (not against) the Left – especially given the power and ruthlessness of our foes – we need to be armed with ideas that are as powerful as they are timeless.

BDS Lessons Learned – Paradoxes

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Lessons Learned

The final major lesson I learned from this four-year research and writing exercise related to BDS is easily the most paradoxical one.

It starts with an understanding of just how massively the deck has been stacked against the Jewish state in its struggle for survival.

As Ruth Wisse has pointed out, the current war against the Jews has got to be the most lopsided conflict in human history with one Jewish state (in which twelve million people are jammed into one nation controlling 8000 square miles of territory) facing off against 400 million Arabs controlling 22 nations whose title to millions of square miles in land is not open to the slightest questioning.

Add to the mix the trillions of dollars in oil wealth controlled by many of those Arab nations, the alliance between Middle East states belligerent to Israel and an additional 30+ countries making up the Islamic Conference, and the fact that Israel’s enemies are more than willing to marshal their wealth and power to ruthlessly bully other nations to their cause (as well as corrupt international institutions to serve their partisan needs) and you can begin to see the vastness of the challenge facing tiny Israel and its friends.

As Wisse has also pointed out, using the fact that Israel has been able to defeat those who have waged war against her as proof of the balance in power between the two sides (never mind claiming that Israel is a superpower in comparison to a poor and weak Arab and Muslim world) is ludicrous.  For the only reason we can have any conversation at all about an existing Israel is that the Jewish state has been forced to marshal its resources to survive for six and a half decades against a foe that refuses to end their war, no matter how many battles they lose.  Had Israel not developed this power to defend itself, we would have been talking about it in the past tense years ago.

The paradox comes in when you compare the vast resources Israel’s enemies bring to the table with the ultimate feebleness of those in charge of the propaganda arm of that war: the organized Israel-defamation community currently travelling under the banner of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement” (probably the nakedest in a long line of naked emperors).

Just think of the advantages BDS and other propaganda groups have on their side before they begin a single campaign.

First, all that wealth, power and ruthlessness noted above provides the Israel haters with a massive megaphone that ensures that their pet peeves will receive all of the attention in the battle for “justice,” leaving Kurds, Tibetans and other victims lucky to get a few bumper stickers in support of their causes.

And because Israel’s foes have been willing to corrupt every institution dedicated to universal values like human rights and international law for their own purposes, anti-Israel propagandists have been handed a manufactured list of charges with the imprimatur of once-noble names like the United Nations and World Court (institutions that scrupulously ignore genuine human rights catastrophes in favor of doing their master’s bidding of endlessly denouncing the Jewish state).

And yet even with their alliance to wealth and power, even with their willingness to replicate the ruthlessness of the nations they have aligned themselves with, what do the BDSers have to show for themselves after close to a decade and a half of unceasing effort trying to isolate and stigmatize their sworn enemy (beyond Elvis Costello blowing off his Israeli fans, an unknown food coop refusing to sell Israeli bouillon cubes, and a handful of student councils passing impotent divestment resolutions in the dead of night behind the backs of their constituents)?

During a week when all of America’s leaders are lining up to show their support for the US-Israel alliance, BDS “triumphs” (like another secret vote at the University of Toronto in Mississauga– where?), not to mention the increasingly tattered cardboard walls and stale slogans of Israel-Apartheid Week start to fall into perspective.

I’ve long struggled to figure out what could explain the weakness of a “movement” that has been handed so many enormous advantages.  And I’ve managed to come up with a few working theories that have been pretty useful in guiding my decision-making.

First, because the “movement” is powered by fanaticism, it attracts and promotes people based not on intelligence and skill, but on intensity of feeling and willingness to act in the most ruthless, uncompromising manner.  And BDS in particular seems to have a penchant for selecting ludicrous conmen as their standard bearers and selecting tactics that alienate not just the public but, ultimately, their own less-fanatical members

Second, the anti-Israel community’s choice of BDS as a tactic ultimately requires support by third parties (schools, churches, unions, and other civic-society groups.) who do not automatically subscribe to an anti-Israel agenda (which explains why they must be tricked or morally blackmailed into signing onto this or that BDS project).

But unlike nations (or transnational organizations like the UN) which have demonstrated over and over again their willingness to embrace cynicism in support of their own interests, civic society groups seems to be resistant to similar corruption (possibly because they recognize that their own interests do not require them to hand their reputation over to a third party that has no concern for them beyond their usefulness).

Third, because BDS (like all anti-Israel propaganda) is based on so many lies, its practitioners need to dedicate a fair amount of effort to remembering what they said last (lest they get caught spreading falsehoods – again) or finding new groups of people who are not yet onto them.

And finally (and most importantly), BDS proponents find themselves up against people who do not have to lie, people within or connected to the civic organizations the boycotters are trying to hoodwink or corrupt, people ready to stand up to the bullies and say NO.

It’s been these people who have been so successfully shining sunlight into the dank and dusty cellars that are the Israel haters’ real dwelling places.  It’s been these men and women who have held the line and kept BDS from polluting our discourse and controlling the debate.

I know many of the wonderful people falling into this category are reading these words right now.  And in my final (500th) posting to Divest This, I would like to thank you all for your truly stunning accomplishments, the true scope of which you may not yet fully appreciate.

Bigger Picture – Keeping Ruthlessness at Bay

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

When Pandora’s box was opened, allowing to escape all the ills and evils of the world, the only thing that remained behind was hope.

This is an important image since, while hope itself has very little power against forces of darkness (or, more specifically, the ruthlessness I’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks) hope has the power to rally all of the virtues (compassion, reason, loyalty, courage, etc.) to win out against this common and unending enemy of civilization.

Keep this image in mind as we consider the possibility that the war against the Jews might not be solved next week, or next year, or next century, or ever, a thought that can easily lead to despair.   Although it doesn’t have to – especially if we can get our hands around what we should be hoping for.

Hoping for a “final end to conflict,” for example, implies that the forces of ruthlessness ranged against civilization in general and the Jews in particular can be finally and ultimately vanquished, a “victory” that could only be achieved through a transformation of the species.  But, as we learned last century (in one of those dialectical switcheroos that litter history) attempts to re-create the species to eliminate ruthlessness inevitably lead to supreme rule by the ruthless.

In contrast, hoping to win just this battle, to hold the enemy at bay while we inch civilization forward (or, more specifically, counteract a two inch retreat with a two-and-a-half inch advance), is not just possible but the only way we have ever achieved success (or at least progress) in the aforementioned endless war.

Of all peoples, Jews should have learned this lesson by now.  For every time we have tried to hasten history to a final conclusion (i.e, tried to create heaven on earth through religious or secular Messianism), things have not turned out so well for us.  But when we instead muddled through (particularly with regard to changing what can be changed and accepting what can’t), we have succeeded.

Not just succeeded here and there, but succeeded to such a degree that our example should be providing endless hope to those also battling mankind’s oldest enemy.  For we have remained a people for thousands of years, even as the ruthless kings and emperors and dictators that tormented and enslaved us came and went (along with the kingdoms, empires and nations they ruled).  We have built a new nation out of sand, and by basing this nation on principles of trust and compromise (via choosing the route of democracy, coupled with a willingness to accept half a loaf), our tiny, impossible state has not just survived, but thrived.

In contrast, our enemies who could have built their own thriving societies (especially given the unearned wealth they’ve been blessed with) have instead chosen to side with ruthlessness and everything that comes with that package (rule through force, intolerance of descent, unwillingness to compromise ever), decisions that leave them (ironically) in an endless state of conflict, weakness and decay.

This should give us some encouragement since it demonstrates that ruthlessness is NOT all-powerful, but carries within it the seeds of its own destruction.  For what better describes the degeneration of Arab society over the last century than one group of ruthless actors replacing by another (and violently smashing all societal underpinnings of once-great societies along the way)?  And while ruthlessness itself may never leave us, when it hits a wall of resolve, it’s always a contest to see what will crumble first: civilization’s readiness to defend itself vs. the glue of hatred and fear that holds the ruthless society together.

The continuing incremental advance of civilization is not guaranteed, nor is it in any way cost free.  To cite the most obvious example, the elimination of last century’s ruthless political ideologies (Fascism and Marxism) came at a cost of 100,000,000 lives each.  But in the end, they were defeated – despite being a hundred times more powerful than the ruthless actors we face today.

This points out that hideous things can happen in the battle of civilization against the ruthless (such as the aforementioned 200,000,000 casualties of World Wars II and III).  And the Jews, who have been on the frontlines of all of the major conflicts between these two forces (either as a people or as a nation) understand the cost of incremental victory (such as survival).

So turning back to hope, we can’t let fear of even a major setback (like an Iranian atom bomb or an Israeli defeat on the battlefield) prevent us from maintaining the hope that Israel (like civilization itself) can ultimately hold out against its enemies (at least this time around).  It may come at a cost that can seem too high to bear.  But Jews have paid far higher costs for survival within living memory.  And civilization as a whole has been paying the cost to win such a battle since the beginning of time.

Which means we should not just learn to live with an ongoing conflict, but embrace it – even enjoy putting our armor on and going into battle when we know our cause is just.  For as one of ruthlessness’s champions aptly distilled their strategy last century: “Probe with bayonets.  When you encounter mush, advance.  When you encounter steel, retreat.”

Thus, it is not just our responsibility, but our sacred duty to ensure that steel is the only thing humanity’s oldest foe ever encounters.

Bigger Picture – What the Big Ugly Teaches Us

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Big Picture (9 parts)

Having identified “The Big Ugly,” as that phenomenon in which the ruthless are driven to organize their politics (and often their lives) around opposition to the Jews and their state, the next question is what to do with this understanding?

After all, this Big Ugly is our real enemy (even if it appears to us in different guises at different times). So is there any practical value to be gained by knowing what we’re actually up against?

Well to start with, this definition can provide us the framework to understand the various flavors of Israel-hatred we encounter (the subject of some discussion in the comments section of the last post).

To cite two examples: It can sometimes feel disorienting when seemingly kind, thoughtful people seem to display automatic contempt for the Jewish state.  And the behavior of the BDSers, notably their diamond-hard imperviousness to facts and arguments that counter their worldview, can seem positively bizarre to those of us who still consider ourselves rational actors.

But if you consider the framework provided by “The Big Ugly,” all of these categories of Israel-dislikers fall neatly into place.

Starting with the naïf (the person who has strong opinions about the Middle East based on very little knowledge or understanding), they can be broken into two categories: (1) those who have simply not learned enough, but are open to new information and engagement with those holding different views, and (2) those who will grip tightly to their “blame Israel” narrative, no matter how much new information is provided.

The former is outside the grip of “The Big Ugly” (although they always stand the chance of falling into its clutches).  The latter, however, can be easily understood in light of Ruth Wisse’s explanation of how, when faced with a real-world situation (like the Arab War Against the Jews) that contradicts an Enlightenment-driven world view (that everyone really thinks like us, peace is always possible, and the world can only progress, never regress), it’s easier to ignore the real world in order to preserve our beliefs.

This is especially true if you take Lee Harris’ forgetfulness into account, notably the ability to forget that the civilization we enjoy is an artificial construct protecting us from a jungle teeming with ruthless actors.  Those living in such civilizations naturally start taking this protection (as well as their own comforts) for granted, which means that accepting the Israeli and Jewish condition as it truly is requires remembering what the world is really like.

This is why that class of naives characterized by hardened opinion and self-imposed ignorance, while not Harrisian ruthless actors themselves, are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and control by genuine ruthless men and women, like our friends from the land of BDS.

For the BDSer, like most full-time (or, at least full-throated) Israel haters can’t be bothered with facts or arguments since their goal is to drive home a propaganda message (that Israel is the new “Apartheid State” worthy of the fate that befell the last one), no matter what any opponent says and no matter what audience they address.

This is why they can so easily ignore any facts or arguments that counter their message since their mission is to get their propaganda message out, regardless of how indefensible it might be (which is why they never bother putting any effort into defending it, preferring instead to simply shout it louder).  And this is why they will drag the Middle East conflict into every civic organization in the land since, for the ruthless actor, these organizations exist for but one purpose: to serve their will.

Again, our “Big Ugly” definition (particularly Lee Harris’ theories on ruthlessness and fantasy politics) makes this behavior perfectly understandable (if no less deplorable) since – for the ruthless propagandist – all of us (Israel supporters, members of civic organizations, Israelis and even the Palestinians they claim to love so dearly) are all just props in the propagandists fantasy-driven information war designed to achieve victory, regardless of the cost (especially to others).

As we move up the food chain to Israel’s direct foes we reach those nation states whose wealth and power ensures that Israel will be forever in the dock while her enemy’s crimes go unchallenged.  With this group, we are looking at the pure distillation of “The Big Ugly,” actors driven by a desire to achieve dominance through a combination of absolutely ruthless behavior and an understanding that organizing their ruthless politics around opposition to the Jews and their state pays endless dividends.

But while understanding who we’re dealing with is useful, action is what ultimately counts.  And knowing that we are up against a foe (ruthlessness) that precedes Israel, precedes Left-Right politics, precedes even Jews and civilization itself, we must come to grips with the fact that our fight is ongoing, and possibly eternal.

This means that we cannot come up with that one perfect argument, that one switch of vocabulary, that terrific pro-Israel marketing campaign, that stupendous victory against BDSers here or there, or that one groundbreaking election win and assume the battle has turned.  For even if we vanquish or transform our current tormentors, The Big Ugly will simply migrate somewhere else.  And once a new vulnerable host has been found, we’ll need to start the battle all over again.

The endlessness of our struggle can easily lead to defeatism or despair (which explains why many Jews either leave the fight or join the other side).  But it doesn’t have to.

Why not?  Tune in next time to find out in what I hope will end up the final installment of this series.

Concluded…

Bigger Picture – The Big Ugly Defined

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Big Picture (9 parts)

In my last piece, I introduced some of Ruth Wisse’s ideas that explain why so many people avert their gaze from the true nature of the Middle East conflict (the very popularity of that generic, even-handed term, vs. Wisse’s more accurate “Arab War Against the Jews” demonstrating the phenomenon she talks about).  And in a previous posting, I discussed her concept of anti-Semitism as a full-blown political ideology, vs. just another form of bigotry.

But for purposes of this series, we need to take a look at why the ruthless (as described by Lee Harris) seem to find organizing in opposition to the Jew (either as a religion, a people or a nation) such an irresistible choice.

To explain why so many ruthless tyrants either begin their careers steeped in hostility towards the Jews, or pick up the meme during their reigns, we need to take a look at the notion of power, specifically the gap between the imagined vs. genuine power of the Jews and their state.

For in the mind of the anti-Semite, the Jew is all-powerful.  To the religious among them, Jews are allied with dark and arcane forces (including the devil himself), providing them a mystical strength which they use for self-serving and evil ends.  To the racial anti-Semite, instincts for covetousness and manipulation have been bred into the Jew, to the point where entire societies are threatened by the sinister plots the Jews are genetically driven to scheme and execute.

For today’s Israel haters, descriptions of the Israelis control of world events quickly degenerate into condemnations of “The Jewish Lobby” for manipulating the US to act against its own interests.  And from there, it’s a quick hop, step and jump to claims that “The Jews” control the media, the banks and Hollywood, through which they manipulate and control finance and public opinion.

An anthology edited by Robert Wistrich introduced me to the term “fictive Judaism” which describes the type of fantasies that have leapt from the mind of individual anti-Semites into broad public belief systems among certain societies.  For whether the Jews get their power and scheming nature from Satan, from their genes, or from their devotion to a murkily-defined “Zionism,” it is this fictional all-powerful Jew that the ruthless organize against, creating tools of repression (an oversized military, secret police forces and torture chambers) strong enough to battle this fictive threat which are ultimately used to put the ruthless into power and keep them there.

But as Wisse demonstrates in her book If I am Not for Myself (a theme she continues to develop in Jews and Power), the actual power of real-world Jews is not just limited, but what little power they have achieved is ephemeral.

For without denying the remarkable financial, cultural and academic achievements Jews have had in certain places at certain times (notably Europe in the first half of the 20th century, the US and Israel in the second half), these achievements have not translated to substantial or fixed political power (as the fate of Europe’s Jews in the 30s and 40s aptly demonstrates).

Even today when Jews have gained a comfort level organizing politically in support of their own causes (vs. hoping their contributions to society will encourage others to protect them – which Wisse refers to as “The Politics of Accommodation”), the political power of Jews remain highly limited, centered in just a few places (notably the US) and focused in just a few areas (notably the fight against anti-Semitism and support for Israel).  And even in the US, Jews continue to put more time and resources into supporting other people’s causes than their own, with a not-insignificant minority putting their energies into fighting against those who fight for the Jews and their state.

It is in this gap between the boundless power of the fictive Jew and the limited power of the real one that the ruthless spot opportunity.  For if you are organizing the violent force needed to battle the all-powerful enemy (even if only imaginary), there is no limit to how much power the ruthless must demand to win out against such a foe.  And, as noted previously, once the tyrant has run out of Jews to use this force against (presuming they were even around to begin with), there exists a whole society of non-Jews to be repressed using these same forces.

On a smaller scale, we see this gap exploited continually by anti-Israel activists in the BDS “movement” and beyond, who continually portray themselves as weak and helpless victims of vast and powerful Jewish/pro-Israel/Zionist (take your pick) forces ranged against them.

Which is why they feel comfortable with the wild language, accusations and behavior that they and no one else would tolerate if used against any other minority group.  For the sly mind of the BDSer understands full that – despite claims to be repressed by an all-powerful and vengeful “Jewish establishment” – Jews are least likely to hit back when punched in the face (just as the Jewish state is least likely to do what any other state would do when attacked and unleash unlimited force to destroy the attacker).

Lacking the tools the tyrant has at his disposal (for now, anyway), the local ruthless Israel hater must make do with bullying masquerading as courage, even though the gap between the fictive Jews they imagine and the real ones they actually fight just demonstrates their cowardice.  For the BDS bully knows full well that the consequences of “standing up to the Zionists” are minimal since, for whatever reason, we Jews have not developed the ruthlessness to treat them like they treat us.

I began this series promising to explain what “The Big Ugly” (the actual source of our challenges and troubles) constitutes, and Harris’ conception of ruthlessness coupled with Wisse’s notion of an exploitable gap between fictional and real Jewish power constitutes that explanation.  This is the problem we face today for the simple reason that it is the same problem we have faced for centuries, regardless of what language it uses and what it calls itself.

And so the question remains, what are we to do about it?

Continued…

Bigger Picture – Ruth Wisse and the War Against the Jews

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Big Picture (9 parts)

Unlike evil, ruthlessness is not some metaphysical abstraction we can ponder and dissect, but never fully understand.

For ruthlessness is concrete and, in its own self-centered way, completely rational.

After all, none of us would claim that we don’t want something from life (money, respect, love, authority), nor is it controversial to say that some people want more (sometimes much more) of these things than others.  And the notion that a subset of people will go to any length to get what they want is not speculation, but historical and observable fact.

In fact, behaving ruthlessly is more intuitive than acting in some of the “civilized” ways we now take for granted (think for a minute about that example I used previously of a society where the people with guns unquestionably follow the orders of those without them).

But because ruthlessness exists in all times and places, we run the risk of missing some of the particulars related to the current situation of the Jews and their state if we simply chalk the behavior of our foes up to such an all-encompassing phenomenon.

For there seems to be a special something that makes ruthless men (and women) organize their politics around opposition to “The Jews,” with various rationalizations only coming into play after the fact to justify this opposition (i.e., The Jews are too religious/the Jews are Godless, the Jews are clannish/the Jews are assimilated, the Jews are stateless/the Jews have a monstrous state).

It’s tempting to blame this behavior on plain old bigotry, similar to the racism that has driven murderous rampages between people for millennia (as well as injustices such as slavery, Apartheid and Jim Crow).  But all of these other forms of bigotry require the object of that bigotry (i.e., members of the despised minority) to actually exist.  Only Jew hatred seems to spring up and become an organizing force for politics and society whether or not any actual Jews are nearby to hate, murder or enslave.

You can see this in Eastern Europe where self-declared anti-Semitic political parties are re-emerging, regardless of the fact that Jews have all but disappeared in those lands.  And you see it throughout the Arab world which has become a Vesuvius of classic anti-Semitic words and imagery permeating the media, the school curricula, and the minds of a disturbing percentage of the population.

To understand why this might be, and why anti-Jewish politics is different from other forms of politicized racism, we must turn to another prophetic writer: Harvard University’s Ruth Wisse.

I promised myself to give the whole Left-Right thing a rest, but not before pointing out how much our tendency to evaluate every thinker along one of these axes impoverishes understanding.  For these two dimensions just don’t make room for genuine iconoclasts like Lee Harris (a gay, Democrat voting, Southerner who left his Baptist Church behind for Philosophy and now writes for conservative think tanks and publications).

Regarding Wisse (a truly original thinker who is also an outspoken conservative), the temptation is to just lump her in with every other Right-thinking person in order to unquestionably embrace or ignore her (depending on your own political persuasion).

But Wisse’s work (particularly her two books If I am not for Myself and Jews and Power) challenges us, regardless of where we might fall on any spectrum of political or religious belief.

Certainly the subtitle of If I am not for Myself (“The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews“) is a direct attack on liberal belief.  But her description of that liberal belief system (one which assumes the world and mankind is in the process of continuous improvement, that problems can and should be settled via reason and debate, and that conflict often arises from misunderstanding vs. malice) applies not just to those who might vote Democrat, but to anyone touched by Enlightenment values (which includes just about all of us).

According to Wisse, the Arab-Israeli conflict (or, as she more aptly terms it: “The Arab War Against the Jews”) challenges every part of this liberal belief system since it opens up the possibility that societies can devolve (not just improve), and that some problems cannot be solved through reasoned debate since they do not well up from misunderstanding but rather from deliberate malice (or what Lee Harris might call deliberate ruthless enmity).

Faced with the possibility that one group of people might hold a grudge for a century, and force their children and their children’s children to live in squalor for another century in order to have revenge over an enemy is more than many a good Enlightenment thinker can bear.

And so we draw back or avert our gaze (so that the world as it is does not interfere with what we would like it to be). Or (as we have seen again and again) we blame the Jews for the war waged against them in order to find some explanation that allows us to maintain our world view.

Wisse’s theory explains so many things I’ve encountered in the fight against BDS over the years, including my own political trajectory.  It explains the retreat of those tired of what seems to be a never-ending fight into communities where they might not have to deal with the whole ugly mess (a group I belonged to after my kids were born around 2000).  And it also explains the extreme hostility to forces (such as BDS) which try to drag the Middle East conflict into these supposed safe havens (which explains my behavior after BDS came knocking at my door in Somerville, MA in 2004).

Sadly, it also explains why so many people are desperate for an explanation of the Arab War Against the Jews that might make it seem rational, or at least within our ability to solve (such as believing it to be “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” which Israel could resolve if it wanted to).  And it explains why the ruthless actors waging this war will gladly offer to provide this alternative to reality to anyone ready to buy it.

But this theory, important as it is, does not explain the role “The Jews” play for Lee Harris’ ruthless actors.  To understand that, we need to look at another remarkable set of ideas in Wisse’s books, ideas that will be the subject of my next post.

Continued…

Israel Left and Right

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Left vs. Right
There are a number of reasons why I tend to avoid trying to force-fit the whole Arab-Israeli conflict into a Left-Right continuum.

First off, the terms “Left” and “Right” have become so all-encompassing, which (if you include all those who insist they represent each end of the political spectrum) means everyone from the Stalin and the BDS brigade through Senator Robert Byrd must be considered “The Left” and everyone from Bill Weld through Hitler the “Right.”

Needless to say, this makes self-serving category errors along the lines of “since the Nazis were rightists, only the Left can defend the Jews” or “no liberal can be trusted with regard to support for Israel, just look at the BDSers!” inevitable.

Secondly, our political dialog actually becomes diminished when we boil every issue down to figuring out where our tribe should fall on any political matter.  And in the manner of the “where to put your finger” argument, this usually translates to figuring out how the other tribe feels about an issue, and then choosing the opposite position out of contrariness or the need to define ourselves against our political enemies.

The Middle East is a perfect example of how our debate becomes diminished by this attitude.  For example, the most salient feature of the US-Israel relationship is that support for the Jewish state transcends partisanship like no other foreign policy issue (or domestic issue for that matter).  Not that genuine partisan issues regarding this relationship do not exist (we’ve certainly seen them with Presidents Obama, Bush I and Carter).  But by not recognizing these excesses as exceptions to the general rule of bi-partisan support, we risk creating the very partisan divide over Israel that we should be trying to avoid.

Finally, on too many occasions aspects of the Arab-Israel dispute have become surrogates for general domestic Left-Right politics (especially in the US and in Israel) which have caused leaders to make decisions based on factors other than wisdom and facts on the ground.  One could look at the entire Oslo experiment as an attempt for political parties in Israel to do end-runs around each other (and the electorate), meaning political decisions that have defined the last two decades were made based on short-term partisan intrigue.

With all that said, I think there are some interesting points worth reflecting on, especially if you are convinced that BDS and the general language of anti-Israel politics (which is mostly drawn from a progressive vocabulary) warrants a response.

Firstly, one of the great ironies of anti-Israel politics is that the two groups most interested in branding all liberals (including mainstream Democrats) as anti-Israel (or, most generously, as creating a hostile environment in which efforts like BDS can thrive) are the BDSers themselves and political conservatives.

For the boycotters, claiming to represent not a rejected fringe movement but the heart and soul of all progressive politics, helps them to punch well above their limited political weight.  You can see this in accusations that progressives who do not toe the BDS line are “PEPs” (i.e., Progressives in Everything but Palestine”), implying that every “true” progressive must adhere to the BDS message (whatever that happens to be this week) or risk being accused of betraying all of their principles.  Interestingly, the BDSers avoid the obvious counter argument that it is they who have betrayed liberal principle by supporting a reactionary Palestinian political movement (one which includes clan politics, corrupt economic monopolies, repression of women and gays and religious fanaticism) by ignoring such counter-accusations completely (regardless of their accuracy).

Naturally, this allies them with conservatives who would also like to brand liberals of any stripe as falling into the BDS camp, helping to cement their sought-after position of being the only true friends of the Jewish state.

Since both BDSers and conservatives might object loudly to this analysis, I might as well go for broke and point out something likely to make progressives uncomfortable (meaning genuine progressives, not the Israel haters trying to exploit them).  For the fact that BDS travels under a wholly liberal banner and expresses itself almost entirely with a progressive vocabulary cannot be dismissed by just accusing the boycotters of cynically exploiting language.

For, as Ruth Wisse has pointed out (yes, I know she is both conservative and controversial, but she is also quite brilliant), the liberal world view of an unstoppable march towards progress slams into a mile-thick brick wall when confronted by an Arab-Israeli conflict where the former seems more than willing to work against its own economic interests and personal interests in order to achieve victory over the latter.  In other words, the Middle East is not just a trouble spot but exists in open defiance of the progressive world view.

When confronted by such a situation, liberals have two choices: to modify their world view (while not jettisoning their principles) or blaming the Jews for a situation that would otherwise require them to re-think their ideological assumptions.

A heroic group of liberals faced a similar conundrum when another reactionary movement (Marxism) insisted that their political cause represented the culmination of every progressive hope and dream.  And, to their credit, political conservatives (at least in the US) have put a fair amount of intellectual energy (and took some risks) by pushing religious bigots masquerading as anti-Zionists (such as Pat Buchannan) out of their “mainstream.”

Today’s progressives still have work to do creating a vocabulary that will allow them to similarly kick BDS and other practitioners of anti-Israel “disease politics” out of the tent without feeling guilty over a lack of “inclusiveness.”

We have been fortunate that genuine progressive institutions have almost universally rejected the blandishments of the boycotters.  But there is some intellectual heavy lifting to be done to explain in ideological terms that are commonly accepted across the left-end of the political spectrum as to why BDS and liberalism have nothing in common and should have nothing to do with one another.

Anti-Semitism

Given how often the topic is brought up in the comments section of this blog, readers might be surprised to know that in the hundreds of articles and blog entries I’ve written over the years on the subject of BDS, I have yet to accuse those involved with the so-called Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment “movement” of being motivated by anti-Semitism.

Part of the reason for this is metaphysical. After all, to truly know the motivation of those I oppose politically would require the ability to look into someone else’s soul, a gift I have been denied along with the rest of humanity. How much easier it is to simply point out the dishonest, selfish and bullying actions of BDS practitioners and allow readers to draw their own conclusions (or, if they prefer, guess at the boycotter’s internal motivations).

Another reason is practical. For in the last few decades, the Israel-disliking community has developed and honed a narrative that says every criticism leveled against them (regardless of its content or accuracy) is really nothing more than direct or masked accusations of anti-Semitism, designed to shut them up and smear their noble cause. The fact that this is simply another projection (since BDSers routinely accuse their opponent of bigotry at the tiniest provocation, such as using the word “Arab” in a sentence) does not change the fact that accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism (in addition to being un-provable) runs the risk of triggering this well-rehearsed martyrdom defense.

But the biggest reason I avoid such accusations is philosophical and to describe it I must again draw from that unending font of wisdom on this and other subjects, Harvard’s Ruth Wisse.

In Wisse’s groundbreaking work “If I am not for Myself” (the controversy around its subtitle subject: “The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” put aside for purposes of this discussion), Wisse posits two different phenomenon traveling under the name of “anti-Semitism.”

The first is a garden variety personal hatred of Jews, comparable to other forms of bigotry directed at blacks or similar minorities, a loathing (like all bigotries) formed of ignorance and insecurity, either at an individual or cultural level.

But “anti-Semitism,” according to Wisse, also describes a fully-formed ideology, comparable not to other types of racism, but to the nastiest ideologies of the past, notably the Twentieth Century’s totalitarian movements such as Fascism and Communism.

Like these movements, ideological anti-Semitism provides its adherents with a full-fledged world view, one in which all of history can be boiled down to a struggle between those in whom all virtue is held (normally the groups adhering to anti-Semitic ideology) and the shadowy evil – the Jews – standing behind everything wrong on the planet.

As an ideology, anti-Semitism is a call to action, not simply a paranoid delusion. And this action involves organizing, empowering and (frequently) arming oneself to fight this hideous evil that threatens all mankind.

While cultural factors clearly play a role in this dynamic, a much more critical motivation behind anti-Semitic ideology is the huge gap between the power of the mystical Jews in the anti-Semites imagination and the actual highly limited power of real Jews. This disparity allows the anti-Semite to arm him or herself for a struggle against a foe whose actual power to resist is highly limited in real-world (vs. imaginary) terms. And thus, anti-Semitic ideology allows the anti-Semite to play the hero, while actually living as a bully. And once forces have been gathered far in excess of what is needed to keep down real-world (vs. fictional) Jews, it’s a simple matter of using that force to seize wider, even ultimate, power.

This is why the last century’s totalitarian movements, whether Nazi or Marxist, were either born or died steeped in anti-Semitic word and deed. And this is why this century’s remnants of those movements (in the form of Arab dictatorships struggling for survival over the last month) and the Islamist totalitarians who hope to unseat them all compete with one another as to who can brand their opponents as tools of the all-powerful Jews.

The classical Jew-hating vitriol spewing from the Middle East like a modern day Vesuvius (including widespread publication and belief of classic anti-Semitic text such as Mein Kampf and the Protocols of Zion) is not simply a throwback to 20th century or even Medieval hatreds. Rather, they are practical means of uniting people in opposition to (and arming against) “The Jew,” then turning those gathered weapons against any and all opponents who (as it always turns out) are secretly in league with Hebraic evil.

As I join the rest of you watching the melt-down in the Middle East, bewildered by what might come next, the most critical metric to watch is whether the parties that come to power do so based on a platform of opposition to Zionism (the latest metaphor for Jewish wickedness). For this will truly dictate whether the millions who dwell in the Middle East are on a pathway towards positive change, or another violent and bloody Dark Age.

Given this profound reality, one more reason to avoid accusing BDSers of anti-Semitism is that they are such small beer in a much more profound struggle. That being the case, why give these self-centered losers credit for ideology that may very well be beyond their ability to comprehend?

Not by Might

I was recently reminded about what an unfair fight we face when battling against BDS and the other manifestations of the propaganda attack on Israel when my temple held a service in celebration of Scouting (Boy and Girl) and alumni of Jewish summer camps.

At a mock campfire after the service (complete with s’mores), a folk singer led the kids in the room through the cannon of Jewish camp tunes, including one I remember when my boy was involved with the temple singing group: “Not by Might and Not by Power” based on a passage in the Book of Zechariah. (The song was written by Debbie Friedman, a pioneer who helped transform the music of the Reform and Progressive Jewish movements, who sadly passed away just a few days ago.)

Now I have some friends and allies who dismiss the sentiments in songs such as “Not by Might,” with its chorus of: “Not by might and not by power, But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace” as one more example of “kumbaya thinking,” the tendency of many Jews to try to find common ground and avoid conflict at all costs, even when faced with situations when conflict is unavoidable or a foe who is teaching their children to fight until victory over those hoping to prevail by spirit, rather than might.

Like so many situations in the real world, the duality of compromisers vs. militants misses some critical points, starting with the experience of Jewish history. Once again, I am in the debt of Professor Ruth Wisse who summarizes and reflects on the challenging relationship between Jews and Power in her masterful short book of the same name.

Jews, after all, were once citizens and rulers of a political entity, the original Jewish state, and (like all small powers in antiquity) had to contend with the continual encroachment of numerous imperial neighbors such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks and Romans. The lessons of most of these conflicts were mixed, with the fall of the first Hebrew kingdoms to Babylon by a failure of Jewish arms, followed by a restoration of that nation due to the act of generosity by a Persian king (which many thought acted as an agent of God).

The Greek conquerors both captured the land and tried to force Hellenized culture onto the monotheistic Jews, only to repelled (again, by arms) by the Brothers Maccabee. But it was the experience with Rome which provided a unique historical lesson to the Jews, setting up a struggle between compromise and force that informs us millennia later.

For in various revolts against Rome in the First and Second centuries AD, the Jews faced off against the superpower of the day, a foe whose legions had made Rome the undisputed ruler of the Western world. And despite the hopelessness of their cause, the Jews fought on and rekindled their revolt again and again, each time deciding that the imbalance of power would be rectified by having their own one true God on their side.

The failure of this quasi-religious, but ultimately political conflict was total, with the Jews first defeated, then defeated again and disbursed throughout the empire, their political homeland erased from the map (until the last century). Now some Jews still take heart in the courage and steadfastness of their ancestors in the face of odds that should have informed them that defeat was certain. But many more internalized another more significant lesson that might (in the form of armed Jewish revolt) led to near destruction, while spirit (in the form of Judaism recast in the new Diaspora in religious rather than political terms) kept the Jewish nation alive for centuries after Rome was just a memory.

Given this background, who can blame Jews for their peculiar relationship with any sort of power (political, military or especially state)? If recent history demonstrates that spirit alone will not save Jews from the ovens or give birth to a state, older history shows that might and power do not provide all of the answers and, indeed, might create the very problems (such as lack of Jewish independence) they tried to solve.

This debate between might and spirit has been going on so long with sides so hardened that little light is shed when proponents of each side argue their positions, which today use the terms (or, more often, accusatory labels) of “Left” and “Right” as the foundation for sterile debate.

Lost in all of this history, however, is an example worth thinking about: that of Rome. While it might seem odd to look at our historic enemy and destroyer for lessons, keep in mind that Rome was not an empire like the Mongols who simply pillaged and enslaved, enjoying war for its own sake and caring little for anything but spoils. Rather, Rome’s success (especially its military successes during the Republican era) came from the careful deliberation it took before entering a conflict (bordering on hesitancy) coupled with a resolution to never back down once conflict began.

Today, Jewish might (while nowhere near as huge as in our enemy’s imaginations) is not inconsiderable. Yet part of that might derives from the hesitancy with which it is applied. As needs to be pointed out again and again, the people who sing “Not by Might and Not by Power” have created for themselves a pretty decent homeland. Precarious certainly, but a state with which those who built it (and those of us who look on from the sidelines) can be justly proud.

At the same time, the people who have been teaching their children for decades to fight on until their enemy is vanquished either live in squalid holes, in or states on the verge of civil war between totalitarians and fanatics, each claiming to be able deliver victory by the sword more quickly than the other.

Food for thought as some of us dig out from 12-18 inches of heavenly visitation.

Tactics – Metaphors

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Tactics

For the first time, I’m stacked up with two promised essays. This one closes off the discussion of tactics from last week. And Sandy – I promise some thoughts before the holidays on your situation regarding what to do when you feel you must do something about problems in the Middle East.

So wrapping up a discussion of tactics, one thing that makes tactical decisions easier is when there is a model or metaphor within which to envision your choices.

In the case of BDS, their metaphor is clearly “Apartheid,” or more specifically the struggle against Apartheid in the 1980s. While Israel’s defenders would strongly object to this characterization for a variety of legitimate reasons, this does not diminish the Apartheid metaphor’s power to frame debate. Such a metaphor also simplifies the selection of language (use terminology from previous Apartheid campaigns) and tactics (do similar things to what was done in the 1980s). As an aside, the Apartheid metaphor also provides BDS activist a framework for social bonding (a topic for another time).

I’ve talked about the metaphor of the siege, largely as a way to help Israel’s defenders (Jew and non-Jew alike) think past the stale debate of “offense vs. defense” which frequently adds up to nothing more than the argument between compromise and zealotry that has characterized Jewish politics for centuries. I won’t repeat the significance of the siege metaphor except to point out that while it gives Israel’s defenders a useful framework to select effective strategies and tactics, it does not supply the content needed to counter the Apartheid metaphor that is the basis of BDS.

For an additional metaphor, I am indebted to Charles Jacobs whose recent thoughts on Jewish susceptibility to any sort of accusation can be found here. But I am particularly purloining from Professor Ruth Wisse whose recent work brings up an image that has been stuck with me since hearing her speak some months ago: the metaphor of The Trial.

I capitalize those words not just to highlight the Kafkaesque nature of Israel’s experience in the dock over the last several decades, but to also point out that “The Trial” like “Apartheid” are both real and metaphorical concepts. Apartheid, as noted above, has been at the heart of the BDS project for its entire existence, but so has the nature of the trial, with Israel as the defendant and her accusers acting as both prosecutor and judge.

But in a real trial, one side does not get to hog the stage for day after day, year after year, decade after decade with the other side limited simply to object here and there until a decision is ultimately made. In any trial, eventually, the other side gets to take center stage and present its case while the first side is forced to sit and listen. (You’ll see in a minute why I’m avoiding the terms “prosecution” and “defense.”)

Now Israel’s accusers have had the floor for over six decades now, and have certainly refused to yield the stage during the BDS decade. And thus it is more than fair to say that the time has finally come for them to grab a chair, sit down and let someone else make their case.

In other words, it is now our turn to turn from defendant to prosecutor and force Israel’s foes to answer our questions for once, not simply dismiss any issues we bring up with a scoffing laugh or an insistence that they are a distraction from “the real issues” which consist solely of the accusations they want taken at face value. These critics have had years, decades, to make their case stick and if they have not succeeded in doing so yet (testified by the failure of BDS over the last ten years), that does not entitle them to continue their case for another six decades until they finally have their way.

So now, finally, it is our turn as prosecutor and someone else’s turn to be in the dock. Fairness, the underpinning behind both real court justice and the trial as a metaphor, demands nothing less.

As exchanges in my last posting’s comments section will attest, Israel’s critics will fight tooth and nail to resist relinquishing the prosecutor/judge role they demand for themselves, but this is their problem not ours. For after 60+ years, the time has finally come us to say: “Good point, Mr. BDSer, but you’ve been making the same point for decades. We’re all familiar with it, you’ve made yourself clear, we get it. And now is the time for you to answer our questions for a change.”