Reconsideration II – See You in Court?

As my regular reader knows, I’ve always been skeptical about turning to the law (either in the form of the courts or legislatures) in order to solve BDS-related problems.

Part of this skepticism is purely pragmatic.  After all, in the few cases where organizations were dragged into court for either implementing or not implementing a boycott or divestment program the organization that did the dragging not only lost but lost big.

True, the number of cases where BDS came before a judge is small.  In Somerville, the city was sued for not allowing divestment onto the ballot (the judge dismissed the BDSers’ suit from the bench).  In Sacramento the Israel haters sued the local food coop for not allowing a member vote on a boycott (a suit which was dismissed with prejudice).  And in the one case where anti-boycotters sued (at the Olympia Food Coop), the result was again a loss for those that initiated legal action.

Putting aside politics for a moment, from a legal perspective these cases seem to have established (or demonstrated) a precedent that says courts of law are ready to give wide latitude to civic institutions to police their own affairs.  And, if the recent decision by a court in the UK to uphold a university’s choice to cancel a conference on “Why Israel Deserved to be Destroyed” (or something along those lines) is any indication, it seems as though the deference judges show to civic groups transcends national judicial systems.

Moving back to politics, suits and government-backed punishments also tend to provoke a backlash – giving those who should suffer for their boycotting behavior the opportunity to present themselves as martyrs.  The best example of this is the American Studies Association (ASA) that took real heat as fellow academics, college presidents and much larger academic associations all lined up to condemn their anti-Israel boycott.  But once state legislators got into the act – proposing cutting off funding to schools that maintained institutional membership in ASA – suddenly the debate shifted to whether or not ASA (not the Israelis they proposed boycotting) were having their academic freedom squelched.

All that said, a panel on legal matters at the StandWithUs conference I participated in a few weeks back got me re-thinking a number of issues.  And, unlike my “BDS is a loser” theme which – despite self-questioning and discussion – I still think is important and useful, on the subject of law it’s clear that my dislike of substituting legal for political action has given me too narrow a view of legal challenges and options.

Most importantly, it’s clear that the other side has no problem “lawyering up” as they go into battle.  Many have wondered, for example, how Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) can get away with the atrocious behavior they routinely demonstrate on campus.

One answer has to do with our old friend ruthlessness.  For in a society, such as a college community, that values discourse and assumes people will resolve problems reasonably and amicably, how do you deal with an organization ready to trash the entire enterprise in order to torture and smear their political enemies?

But, as has been demonstrated at schools where administrators were roused to take action against SJP chapters that behaved particularly egregiously, once punishments were announced, in marched Lawyer’s Guild and ACLU lawyers (usually working for SJP pro bono) to threaten school leaders with legal action if they didn’t reverse their decision.  And, as anyone who has ever interacted with such leaders will tell you, avoiding bad PR and lawsuits is a top priority.  So if SJP misbehavior must be tolerated to avoid landing in court or appearing in headlines, so be it.

But, as I discovered in LA, this same dynamic works both ways.  For example, when Jewish students decided to exercise their free speech rights by protesting against Megan “Blood Bucket Challenge” Marzec at Ohio University, Ms. Marzec (President of the Student Senate) had them arrested.  And the only reason the school dropped every charge was that pro-Israel students were provided legal counsel which meant Ohio University did the right thing in order to avoid having to defend their choices in court.

This is the most obvious example of situations where our side clearly needs both legal advice and legal advocacy.  And in a world of “lawfare” where Israel’s enemies are constantly devising ways to pervert the rule of law for their own political advantage, it would be a case of political malpractice to not “lawyer up” ourselves in order to fight these battles with the right expertise on our side.

How then to distinguish when “going legal” makes good sense vs. being the wrong choice?

Like most challenging decisions, there is no right or wrong answer to this question.  But I think some things we can ask ourselves as we navigate decisions should include:

  • Is a legal or legislative option our only choice, or are we looking to judges and legislators to solve a problem that would be time consuming and difficult to tackle politically? If it’s the latter, we should express requisite annoyance, but then do the heavy lifting needed to fight a political fight, rather than take a legal shortcut that can have negative consequences if we lose (such as setting legal precedent that cannot be easily undone).
  • Is this really a legal issue? In our hyper-litigious age, every problem can be posed in terms of legal rights, and every challenge is one where legislators are eager to pander to a constituency.  But before we accept the notion that our problems are legal (rather than political) or say yes to offers to punish our enemies by friendly politicians, we should again determine if we are really dealing with a legal problem that requires a legal solution (as well as think about whether such a route might have unintended negative consequences)
  • In situations (such as those involving harassment of students on college campuses) we should ensure parity (if not overwhelming superiority) between our side and theirs regarding legal representation. As mentioned earlier, school administrators are likely to cave to whoever sends them a legal notice, and while this knowledge must be used judiciously, when we decide to take action we should do so with full force.
  • As with any strategy we pick, we need to minimize damage to “civilians.” Which means that if a legal option (or any option) stands the chance or harming people who are not directly involved in the conflict, that option should either be rejected or scrupulously analyzed with an eye towards finding less harmful alternatives, lest we end up turning real people into “mere means” towards our ends.

After thinking it through, an increased comfort level with legal tactics represents less a turnaround than an expansion of what constitutes activity needing a political or legal response.  As already mentioned, I still think suing the BDSers or the people and organizations they drag under their tent or calling upon state houses to rain punishment down on our foes leads to bad legal precedent and bad politics (even if we win).  But that does not mean other situations are not entirely appropriate for a legal response.

But at the end of the day, we are in a political battle with a foe whose resources dwarf our own.  But just as the IDF has kept much bigger armies at bay for generation through training, discipline, creative tactics and a willingness to learn from mistakes, so too should those of us defending the Jewish state must be ready to engage in political warfare, even if a legal shortcut looks appealing at any given moment.

The StandWithUs BDS Conference

So a bear walks into a Dunkin Donuts and says: “I’d like a cup of coffee…” and 45 seconds later… “and a chocolate cruller.”

The guy behind the register looks at him for a moment and then asks: “Why the long paws?”

That opener (which, like most gags is better spoken than written) is meant to distract you from a two-week pause in writing, one that’s especially egregious since between my last posting and today, I was able to attend one of the most important events in the last several years dealing with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”

This was the StandWithUs anti-BDS conference that was held in Los Angles weekend before last.  And now that two harrowing un-political work weeks have come and gone, I’d like to post-mortem on one of the liveliest and most enjoyable pro-Israel events I’ve ever attended.

To start with, nearly all the people I’ve been reading, corresponding with, and working alongside in BDS battle after BDS battle were either on the stage or in the audience at the SWU confab.  Contributors to this terrific book on academic boycotts, including Sam Edelman, Tammi Rossman-Bejamin, Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, Dr. Roberta Seid, and Dr. Richard Cravatts were on a panel talking about academic boycotts.  Professor Gerald Steinberg from NGO Monitor and the unstoppable investigative journalist Edwin Black followed the BDS money trail.  My old pal Dexter Van Zile headed a panel on church divestment.  And I was honored to share the stage with my friends and allies Mike Harris and Rob Jacobs from SWU to talk about community organizing against BDS.

In addition to this (partial) list of people on the stage, the audience was filled with folks I’ve known, known of, or worked with for years, including the Hillel Director who played such an important role in the recent Northeastern BDS defeat, someone I had corresponded with during a recent academic union boycott brouhaha, and fellow bloggers and activists – including students who have been successfully fighting the good fight on campus after campus.

While I’ve not gone to that many big Jewish events, impressive and articulate students telling their stories always seem to be a staple at conferences and fundraisers hosted by major Jewish organizations.  But the kids who participated at the SWU event were not just there to impress us, but to teach us how on-the-ground organization mixed with verve has beaten BDS bullying time and time again.

The student who got divestment overturned in the Davis student judiciary?  He was there, telling us his tale over breakfast.  And that girl who was arrested by the BDSer/Student Senate President behind the now infamous “Blood Bucket Challenge?”  She was there too, and spoiling to continue to take the fight to the enemy once she graduates from college.

The celebrity headlining the three day program was – surprise, surprise – Alan Dershowitz.  But having watched the famous attorney give his standard Israel talk many times over the years, it was a total treat to see him in action over the course of several days spent conversing with others who already knew the basics, allowing Alan to talk more informally and expansively about a topic we had all gathered to not just discuss but do something about.

It was in the realm of action that SWU CEO and Co-Founder Roz Rothstein and her team created a real breakthrough event.  For while much of the conference was given over to listening to experts talking from the stage, an even larger portion of time was set aside to allow people to gather in smaller groups and discuss areas of interest (BDS on campus, BDS and the Law, etc.).

In the community-organizing panel facilitated by Mike, Rob and myself, we hunkered down with folks who had been working at ground level for years who in aggregate had much more to teach us (and each other) than did the facilitators.  Which meant that successful strategies and tactics were unearthed, articulated, and spread across a community of activists ready to be put into action.

At programs that spill out over several days, some of the most important interactions take place in the off hours.  And my favorite surprise involved post-event beers with two folks from Calgary who I had never met before, but whom I will never forget.

One was a young woman whose family had gotten beaten up during an anti-Israel rally last summer when the streets of Calgary resembled those of Paris.  Apparently, a huge Muslim immigrant community meant that when the crap hit the fan in Gaza, pro-Israel Jews were outnumbered in the streets by a factor of more than a hundred to one.  But rather than let those odds cow her, my fellow conference attendee and her kin have only become more bold, more brazen and more determined to let the world know that Jews can fight (and win).

She had traveled to the event with another remarkable fellow, a native Calgarian Métis who has not only been fighting with the BDSholes for decades (having single-handedly dismantled an Apartheid Wall placed in his way while an undergraduate), but has also used the Jewish and Israel experience to bring comfort and confidence to fellow members of his (first) nation.

I’ll confess to knowing very little about the suffering of this particular tribe at the hands of Europeans who made it a point to strip them of their heritage during the process of “civilizing” the West.  But stories of abuse and a culture and language denied certainly jibe with what I know of how natives suffered over the centuries down here in the lower 48.

But for my new-found-friend, the Jewish tale of cultural survival in the face of all odds was an inspiration he was bringing to young Cree still suffering the wounds of the past.  And the Jewish people’s resurrection of their own nation (with the associated rebirth of an ancient tongue) also meant that even those who had endured unimaginable suffering did not need to see themselves as victims of history.

Of course, others are trying to teach these same kids to embrace their victimhood and make that the centerpiece of their lives.  And while everyone has a choice on what to make of their own suffering, the contrast between Israel and the victim cultures that surround it should give pause to anyone thinking that an embrace of victimhood brings either happiness or triumph.

More than anything else, this chance meeting with my new found Canadian friends taught me how much the Jewish story – especially its most recent chapter of near death and redemption from rebirth – has to offer.

And so the fight must continue against those who are trying to not just snuff out the Jewish state, but to silence a story which contains within it the power to redeem the world (if only enough people would listen).

Comings and Snowings

Well a pair of Snowmageddons (which kept the kids home for four school days out of the last seven) has left little time for blogging.  More annoyingly, it also prevented me from making it to a talk by Matti Friedman that was moved from a snowy Monday to a conflict-ridden Tuesday.

For those in the know, Freidman wrote the most talked about story on Israel and the media last year entitled An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.  And, in addition to writing a defense of that piece against lame attempts to discredit it/him, he has also been on the speaking circuit, providing all-important context to understand the media phenomenon he writes about so well.

Fortunately, this transcript from a recent talk in the UK probably includes most of what he said last night here in Boston.   And since the BDS brigade has chosen to ignore rather than smear this former AP journalist/whistleblower, you can assume his is writing about and saying truths that they do not want others to know about.

Moving onto events I actually plan to get to, any and all West Coast BDS fighters are invited to the StandWithUs 2015 Anti-BDS Conference where yours truly will be speaking alongside the best in the business with regard to battling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions “movement.”  The list of my fellow speakers represents a who’s who of thoughtful pro-Israel thinker and activists, and I’ll leave it to readers to guess which one of them got into a legendary fight with my mother more than 25 years ago.

The event takes place March 21-23 in Los Angeles and while it is not free, it is certainly worth it, so I hope to see some of you there.

Closer to home, I’m also doing a gig in Providence Rhode Island the evening of February 25.  I’m not sure about attendance policies, but if you are interested in going (or just meeting up), drop me a note and I’ll let you know the details.

Finally, a friend of the family recently forwarded me (via my wife) a note from Hillel in California regarding the mayhem currently underway in a UC system where the BDSers recently cracked the code of how to get BDS resolutions passed by student governments, regardless of the fact that their opinion remains nothing more than the bigoted beliefs of a ruthless minority that refuses to take no for an answer.

I’ve written about the topic so many times, it’s hard to know where to start on this subject (although this piece is as good a place as any).  But as the sun (and the children) rise for the first day of school since last Friday, I must defer writing anything new on this topic for another 24-48  hours.  So tune in towards the end of the week for some further thoughts on whether the sky is actually falling over on the Left Coast, or if we are just seeing another example of impotent fantasy politics turning another institution (student government) into a laughingstock.

I’ll Be There!

Well now they’ve gone and done it.

In their excesses and their deception, in their over-reach and harassment, in their hectoring and their lies, the forces of BDS have summoned from the pages of history and the scrolls of our heritage, the one, the only… Captain Israel!

May the diety have mercy on them.

Buy Israeli Goods (BIG) Day – Nov. 30

A dual alert has woken me from my turkey-and-headcold-induced stupor to help spread the word about Buy Israeli Goods (BIG) Day, this Tuesday November 30. The brainchild of the ever-creative StandWithUs organization and the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, BIG Day is designed to bring the successful Canadian Buycott concept to counter the umpteenth attempted boycott of Ahava cosmetics, also scheduled for the 30th.

While not normally a big advocate for holiday consumption (or a big fan of matter, generally), on this one occasion I urge folks to buy, Buy, BUY! Spend money! Purchase stuff! As long as it’s Israeli and please don’t hesitate to continue the habit after November 30.

The success of Buycott and other anti-BDS activities over the last year got me thinking about the role of creativity in the fight against those who have decided to make the defamation of Israel their life’s work, a theme I’ll be writing about over the course of the next week. In the meantime, take a look at this impressive list of general Hasbara over the last year to get yourself in the mood.

With a schedule that involves two kids, summer camps, deadlines and a wife out of town, I didn’t have time to look at the video I posted about a few days back or find out about its origins.

As it turns out, the video was produced by StandWithUs (as a courtesy to my friends at Olympia: boggah, Boggah, BOOGAH!!!!!!).

Watching it through with nothing else going on in the background, I found that the video focuses on an area of BDS I’ve gotten short shrift to in all my writings on the subject: the emphasis “the movement” places on targeting those who truly seek and are working for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews.

The video highlights several stories of such peace-seeking individuals and organizations who’ve been threatened by BDSers in the one location where they have the ability to enforce their will: the Palestinian controlled territories.

In due course, I’m hoping to explore this area more thoroughly, especially since the targeting of those who truly seek peace for retribution is a pretty good indicator of the distance between the BDS-brigades “peacy-y” rhetoric and reality.