In warfare, few things represent a double-edge sword more than an alliance (except, perhaps, an actual double-edged sword).
On the positive side, if you want to double the size of your army without having to recruit, train or equip a single solider, all you need to do is sign an alliance deal with someone with an equally large military force and voila! Instant scale!
But if the soldiers in that army you just allied with carry different weapons, fire different caliber ammunition, or speak a different language than the fighters in your ranks, suddenly this alliance comes at a cost in terms of logistics you didn’t have to previously bear. Even without those organizational challenges, if your allies fight using unfamiliar tactics, or are led by people whose goals overlap but are not identical to your own, suddenly ensuring everyone in that alliance fights in common cause becomes a job you didn’t have to do when you fought alone.
Alliances travel under different names in different areas of human endeavor. Businesspeople forge partnership while political actors put together coalitions. But the nature, including the positives and negatives of establishing and maintaining alliances, remain the same regardless of what they are called.
The virtue of alliances, or coalitions, in democratic politics is obvious given that victory tends to go to those who can muster the most votes. This is why we often bemoan the fact that our opponents in the BDS propaganda wars seem to be more effective than we are in building bridges to other campus groups, especially minority groups who come out to support divestment initiatives pitched by organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
But to understand why this might be a misguided concern, you have to get past the numbers and look into the nature of the groups that are forming coalitions against Israel on campus.
For the most part, these groups are united by something other than Middle East politics, namely a radical agenda to control campus discourse. And within these coalitions, power flows to those who can demonstrate the highest levels of radicalism and most ruthlessly make demands on others. This is why you are likely to see feminist and gay-rights groups join BDS-endorsing coalitions while no one within those coalitions will even bring up the plight of women or gays in the Middle East, lest they be driven from the fold under a cloud of being right-wing Pinkwashers.
Such coalitions, while potent, are also unstable, prone to excess and vulnerable to (accurate) charges that they do not represent those in whose name they claim to speak (which explains why so many similar “movements” from years past are now forgotten). Pro-Israel students courting entrance into such organizations also face the more immediate problem that the price of admission is likely to include giving up decision-making authority to the larger group, all in the name of unreciprocated consensus politics (given that BDS supporters will continue to do as they please, even as they veto their opponents’ efforts to fight against them).
Winston Churchill, while no military genius, was probably the most gifted strategist of alliance formation in history. Similarly, Eisenhower’s greatest gift was not in battle tactics but in keeping the disparate elements of the unlikely alliance Churchill helped create shooting Nazis (rather than each other) until World War II was won.
While long-lasting alliances require enormous political skill and patience to pull off and sustain, there are simpler strategies appropriate for environments where turnover is high and political experience limited (such as college campuses, food cooperatives and other entities that tend to get targeted by BDS).
Such environments require pro-Israel activists to operate with a two-tier alliance structure. The first tier, which we can call an Alliance of Affinity, involves Jewish and pro-Israel groups working with as many organizations as possible that are not actively hostile to their interests. These can be political organizations, ethnic and religious communities, or groups focusing on issues like social justice, entrepreneurship or the environment.
Within such an Alliance of Affinity, Jewish students can fight for common causes while working to educate members on issues importance to us. But such an alliance should not be counted on, and cannot be part of the decision-making process, when it comes time to deal with a specific controversy such as divestment vote within student government.
For those decisions must fall to a smaller Alliance of Action made up only of those united around a common goal (whether that be countering an enemy’s move, or initiating our own moves against them). Such an alliance might form around an existing nucleus (such as a pro-Israel Hillel or active pro-Israel organization on campus), or come into being ad hoc. But wherever it originates, within this Alliance of Action there can be debate over tactics, but no doubts that a threat is real and no urging that the best course consists of doing nothing.
This dual alliance structure provides solutions to many problems we often see on places like college campuses.
For example, at many schools Alliances of Action are already in place and centered on a campus Hillel with strong, pro-Israel leadership. When strong adult leadership is lacking or counter-productive, students generally have to acquiesce to established Jewish community leaders or try to shame those leaders into doing things they’d rather not do (and thus will not do).
The two-tier alliance structure provides a better alternative: including anyone not ready to push necessary, immediate work forward into the Alliance of Affinity where they can be politely and respectively cultivated, even as they are kept separated from the decision-making that needs to take place within the Alliance of Action.
Alliances of Action can be thought of as the equivalent of the focused project-based team that large organizations put together when they actually want to get something done. In general, size can limit the effectiveness of such teams, so bigger should not necessarily be considered better. And if surprise is going to be part of your tactical toolkit, fewer mouths mean fewer secrets potentially reaching a foe.
Alliance formation, which requires managing the needs of complex human beings, is the most difficult component of political action which is why people – especially young people – need to be exceptionally patient with themselves and everyone else since no decisions are ever going to make everyone happy.
Fortunately, an Alliance of Action does not need to become a permanent institution with its own name, admission policies and rules of engagement. Rather, it just needs to be ready to pull together and stay in existence long enough to do the work required to win.