The Role of Money in the Fight Against BDS

The second anti-BDS story I mentioned last time involves a major fundraising effort designed to battle BDS efforts domestically.

Despite breathless reports describing a recent meeting in Las Vegas between Jewish organizations and high-level funders as “secret” (vs. merely private or unpublicized), it’s been known for a while that some major philanthropists were interested in prioritizing the fight against anti-Israel agitation on campus and elsewhere.  The only surprising thing (for this thing writer, anyway) was the level of seriousness of deep-pocketed machers like Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban (reflected in the sums being discussed) and the desire these funders have for pro-Israel groups to work more closely together, rather than at cross purposes.

Before discussing my own hopes and concerns over the effort, I should begin by stating what we should not waste our time fretting about.

To begin with, worrying that BDS activists will use investments made in the fight against them as proof of their potency is just another example of everything (including opposition and defeat) being seen as examples of victory in the fantasy world inhabited by the boycotters.  And given that their own mythology already casts them as small, still voices in the wilderness fighting for peace (rather war partisans fighting on behalf of some of the most wealthy, powerful – and brutal – nations on the face of the earth) it’s not clear why Jewish activists should push away financial support just to avoid a storyline the BDSers will promulgate regardless of who donates what to whom.

Secondly, the fear that our efforts will be branded as “right wing” due to the involvement of casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson (a major backer of Republican candidates and causes) in the new effort ignores the fact that major Democratic funders (notably Haim Saban) are also part of the project, demonstrating once again how the fight for Israel and against BDS can unite rather than divide Left and Right in this country.

More to the point, given that a key goal of the BDS “movement” is to colonize and occupy the left end of the political spectrum (and drive out all those who do not bow to their hegemony), it’s axiomatic that anyone standing against them will be condemned as fanatical rightists.  So given that our side is going to be hit with this label with or without money from those who convened the Vegas meeting, learning to live with such self-serving accusations and funding seems infinitely preferable to living with that accusation with nothing in the bank to show for it.

Behind such issues of “optics,” however, there are a few things about the Vegas initiative that urge caution (or at least careful thought) that relate not to the donors (whose generosity should be celebrated) but to the very nature of philanthropy.

By their nature philanthropic enterprises drive specific kinds of change.  For example, the expansion of high-stakes testing in public education (and the use of that data to evaluate not just students but teachers and schools) was an agenda item that originated not within academia or government, but from major philanthropic donors pushing their vision of what constituted “accountability.”

The good news is that word from Vegas indicated that donors were more interested in hearing about how they could help existing organizations with their work and get these organizations to coordinate more effectively, rather than pushing an agenda onto them.

But at least one source (albeit the none-too-friendly-sounding one linked above) seemed to indicate a clear desire by those with their hands on the purse strings to pursue a strategy of attack vs. defense.  And while I’m all for attacking the forces of BDS whenever and wherever they rear their ugly noggins (having done so from the perch of this blog for over five years), the way “attack” and “defend” get defined, and how those ideas translate into specific political action, means the difference between effective and ineffective (or even counter-production) strategies and tactics.

One other money-related issue has to do with understanding the effectiveness of cash in the kinds of BDS battles which occur domestically.

Last time, I talked about how the bulk of de-legitimization efforts take place at the level of nation states pushing boycotts and other anti-Israel propaganda campaigns at the government-to-government level or through NGO’s like the United Nations.  And given the involvement of wealthy and powerful states driving that agenda, Israel’s treating de-legitimization as a national priority makes perfect sense.

But even if huge investments in anti-Israel propaganda provide local BDSers their talking points regarding “illegal” Israel policies or “global condemnation” (without mentioning how these represent a perversion, rather than a representation of global law and opinion) – as well as a megaphone which drowns out talk of every other human rights issue on the planet – when BDS arrives on a college campus or grocery store it tends to be driven more by individual initiative than by money.

Having worked a number of BDS battles over the years (and covered many more), I can only think of a few instances where money played any role in what amounted to a grassroots campaign (and, even then, it ended up less important to the final results than the nature of the individuals leading and fighting on both sides).

Now the nature of those two sides will be different from the get-go.  The BDSers are driven by their fanaticism, their inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge any world view other than their own, and their readiness to subvert or otherwise harm a community in order to drag it under the BDS tent “by any means necessary.”  And all of these characteristics pack a political punch, even if they also tend to create organizational instability within the BDS “movement.”

Since our side is not trying to smear Israel’s enemies in order to make harming them seem morally sanctioned (if not virtuous), we go into these battles armed not with a fanatical agenda, but with other important assets including: (1) the need (and preference) to tell the truth, which frees us from the cognitive burden that weighs down liars (like the boycotters); (2) support from the wider community, outside the pockets targeted by the BDSers; and (3) allies within those pockets that do not want to see the Arab-Israeli conflict imported into their communities, just because the boycotters declare it their only option.

You’ll notice that the word “money” is not in this list, and even at ground level I’ve discovered that who wins and who loses in any BDS battle is much more about the talent, energy level, and ability to organize than it is about the kind of campaign assets that money tends to get spent on (such as professional organization and advertising).

This is a long way of saying that if new money being invested in the fight against BDS is going to be effective, it should target those programs that are trying to find and train strong leaders at ground level before crises break out, programs run by people experienced in the ups-and-downs of real-world grassroots politicking.

At a distance, and without such context and experience, problems like the pro-BDS votes at UC campuses this spring can seem like disasters and the students who fought against them failures.  But if the fight against BDS proceeds with leadership and perspective, then investments can find a place where they are likely to do the most good in a war that must be seen as a series of battles.  And like every war that has preceded this one, the ultimate winner need not win every fight (just the important ones – and the last one).