Forging Alliances to Defeat BDS

This entry is part 14 of 19 in the series War

From Algemeiner…

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.

Strategy and Tactics: Let’s Talk About Us

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Strategy

Over the last week, I’ve tried to lay out some observations about the size, scope and nature of the two sides of the BDS debate. A previous discussion of tactics focused on the other side’s traditional framework for advancing its cause. In this final installment, I’d like to switch to a discussion of our choices. Since specifics will vary depending on where the next battle will take place, ideas are presented as general guidelines that can be applied to a BDS fight, or some other de-legitimization campaign.

1. Understand the Nature of the Enemy and the Situation

Pro-Israel forces tend to waste a lot of cycles wrestling with the ideology of our opponents, or speculating into the origins, funding sources and alliances of those waging a BDS fight (or other anti-Israel campaign) at a particular institution. But this search for a bigger picture can often lead to missing practical matters that can be of more immediate use.

At Berkeley (to site one example), the Students for Justice in Palestine organization was co-opting members of one of the major student political parties (CALSERV) and trying to gain enough support among the other political parties to win a student government divestment vote. Thus the battle line was drawn specifically at swinging a few key non-CALSERV Senators to not override the Senate President’s veto of the bill. Other activity (lobbying the administration, attending public hearings, leafleting the student body, etc.) had its place, but all choices needed to be made in light of the one overriding goal that would lead to a win.

When two armies meet on the battlefield, the ideologies of each force are less relevant than their size, organization, morale, leadership, relevant alliances (i.e., people who will really come to their aid, rather than just pat them on the back after a win or loss), logistics (such as access to supplies/resources) and the terrain of the battlefield. For the sake of winning a BDS battle (or any similar engagement), we need to make sure our own political passions do not get in the way of understanding all of these concrete matters as we make our own battle plans.

2. We’re in it for the long haul, so let’s enjoy ourselves

It’s been said that there is nothing Israel can do to end the Middle East conflict. While it may be psychologically comforting to think that peace is something that can be brought about by Israel or its supporters, fundamentally peace will only arrive when those who have declared war on Israel for decades decide that the war is over.

The corollary for we supporters of Israel is that we have no control over when the battle over de-legitimize of the Jewish state will end. It’s the BDSers who can say when BDS is over, not us, so we have to plan to be in this fight for the foreseeable future (possibly for the rest of our lives).

This can be a depressing prospect, unless we change our own mindset to welcome battle (especially battles that we are likely to win). I’ve gotten involved with the fight against BDS for a lot of reasons, and as distasteful as I find any individual fight, I must admit that I’ve gotten a bit hooked on seeing BDS get its ass kicked again and again across the country (and even around the world).

As I’ve been documenting on this site for over a year, fundamentally BDS is a loser so if you going to find yourself a reluctant soldier in the fight against it, best to become a “happy warrior” who relishes battle, especially against a foe who can’t seem to recognize the weakness of their own tactical choices (just as they can’t recognize the moral bankruptcy of their political positions).

3. Focus only on tactics that work

There are a number of political activities that make us feel good, but may not actually have any impact. While I rail against the fantasy politics of the other side (i.e., their substitution of self-inflating grandstanding for actual practical politics), it needs to be pointed out that our side also makes choices that are more about getting something off our chest than winning a particular fight. Given how emotionally charged BDS battles can be, this is an understandable reaction, but one which should be fought since fantasy politics is fantasy politics, whichever side is engaged in it and should not be seen as a substitute for genuine action.

4. Focus only on people who work

There’s an ongoing debate over whether we’re better off trying to convince 100 people that they should take up our cause, vs. finding just ten people who are already engaged and cultivating them. My preference is the latter. As much as I’d love it if an argument or presentation I make could inspire an unengaged person to become engaged, it’s been my experience that people come to activism on their own, usually after encountering the ugly face of Israel’s haters through exposure to a BDS campaign or something similar. Better to find these newly self-energized activists and build them into your team, rather than try to convince people who haven’t caught “the bug” that it’s in their interest to become happy warriors.

5. Stop keeping our victories to ourselves

When the Davis Food Co-op unanimously rejected a boycott based on sound principles that would resonate with any similar institution in the country, news of that decision made it to a dozen Web sites and less than 100 blogs (half of which simply reposted the same story on another news site or blog). In contrast, when the Berkeley Student Senate took its meaningless, symbolic vote on divestment, the story was in a thousand different places within 24 hours.

Communicating our story (especially online) is one area where we are far, far behind our adversaries which is why Berkeley became an international story, while news of Davis (and the hundred other victories we’ve achieved in the BDS wars) rarely make it past this web site.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people comment on how a true boycott of Israel would require the boycotters to throw out their computers and cell phones. Fair enough, but it would be far preferable if our side started using those devices to spread our stories half as effectively as the other side spreads theirs.

6. It’s not just about us

The overwhelming defeats of BDS have not come about just because rank and file Presbyterians (or whoever rejects divestment next) are closet Zionists. Rather, they are people of good sense who understand that while solving the Middle East crisis may be important, it’s not required that they trash their own organization or community in order to take a stand on this issue.

What this means is that when we cast our arguments against BDS (or some other form of de-legitimization) to a third party (such as a university or church), we need to think beyond Jews, Arabs, and the Middle East conflict itself. The aforementioned Davis Co-op decision was based on the organization understanding that a boycott was bad for the Co-op, not the Jewish community. Never lose site of the fact that these battles often involve other people and organizations with their own needs and agendas. As you formulate your battle plans, taking these needs into account can determine whether these groups become your allies or your adversaries.

As the academic year winds to a close with BDS continuing its uninterrupted record of zero victories and Avogadro’s Number losses, my attention will be swinging towards the next big battle (the Presbyterian Church) over the next few weeks.

But the summer will be a time when both sides will plan for next fall’s campus wars, and as painful as it might be to have to fight the same battles all over again, never lose site of the fact that peace will come about only when those who have made war against the Jewish state the prime focus of their lives realize that no matter what they do, we will be there, sword in hand with joy in our hearts, making sure they lose once again.

Strategy and Tactics: Offense and Defense

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Strategy

Whenever I hang out with fellow activists, either officially or socially, a subject that inevitably comes up is offense and defense.

“Why are we always on the defensive?” “We can’t win if we just play defense!” “It’s time to go on the attack!” “Even if we win a particular fight, we can’t win long-term if we simply defend while the other side is allowed to always take the initiative.” are just some of the ways the same argument is brought to bear again and again.

Having watched or taken part in various BDS battles for more than half a decade, fights that require our side to turn back or reverse a divestment vote at some university or church (i.e., play defense) that the other side has initiated (offensively), I can understand the frustration behind the offense vs. defense argument in its various guises.

At the same time, the terms “offense” and “defense” only describe tactics, and tactics must be dictated by strategy which, in turn, are supposed to support specific goals. And if your ultimate goals are militant (such as destroying the Jewish state or weakening it to the point where it becomes more vulnerable to destruction), then it is easier to devise strategies to achieve these destructive ends (such as the “Apartheid strategy” designed to weaken support for Israel with its crucial US ally via a campaign of de-legitimization) which require offensive tactics such as BDS to implement.

But if your ultimate goals are NOT destructive, then it becomes more difficult to build or sustain a strategy designed around perpetual attack. For example, despite fantasies that Israel is a genocidal, expansionist power eager to kill every Arab it can reach as it expand its borders from the Nile to the Euphrates (really a description of Israel’s foes which they project onto Israel), the goal of the vast majority of Israelis and their supporters is to find a way to live in peace with not just the Palestinians but the entire Arab world.

Given this, efforts to build a strategy that will involve perpetual attack on those you ultimately want to live in peace with invariably fail to find enough support to become widely used. And even aggressive individual campaigns invariably become impossible to sustain, not because those who initiate them are lazy or lose their nerve, but because they inevitably run into the contradiction of maintaining a non-stop assault on those with whom most of us desire to live alongside without conflict.

The other issue I have with this “offense vs. defense” reasoning derives from what I know as an extremely amateur student of classical battle strategy. For prior to the age of air power, shock and awe, and asymmetrical warfare, the vocabulary of battle was as much about the garrison and the siege as it was about the clash of armies in the field engaged in offensive vs. defensive tactics.

To take one historic example, when the Byzantine army attempted to win back the Italian peninsula from the Ostragoths who had captured it after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantines managed to lay siege to several major cities, capturing some and garrisoning them in the process. These Byzantine-garrisoned cities later came under siege from Ostragothic forces attempting to win them back.

In this example, where the same army may be laying siege to one city, while defending against another siege at a different city a few miles up the road, which side is on the offense and which is playing defense? In a war that involves recapturing territory that may have been lost recently in a previous war, even being an invader does not necessarily put an army in the attacker vs. defender role.

I mention this because the metaphor that best describes Israel’s situation (and by extension the situation of its supporters abroad) is that of the siege. This was the title of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s fabulous history of Israel (the book I recommend to anyone who wants a crash course in the Middle East conflict), and it was no accident that this eloquent man of letters chose the term “siege” as the title of his one work on this subject.

For Israel’s military doctrine is based on fending off an attack from any possible combination of hostile forces that surround it. In other words, they are defending their city (really their nation) against someone else’s attack, which according to the arguments mentioned at the top of this piece would put them in the category of playing perpetual defense. Yet no one would describe the IDF, which maintains the siege walls, as lacking courage for not going on the attack more often. In fact, one of the most frequent reasons for a besieged city being lost was military leaders inside the city getting restless for a pitched battle and leaving the safety of the city walls to engage the enemy unnecessarily in the field.

I say unnecessarily because, historically speaking, the siege is just as hard (sometimes harder) on the besieger than the besieged. While it’s certainly no fun to have your city surrounded by soldiers firing arrows and building battering rams and catapults, it’s also no fun building those siege engines while defenders in the city pelt you with rocks, hot oil, dung and arrows. Besieging armies must survive in camps and forage for food (further and further from home base, the longer the siege goes on), while defenders can live in relative comfort and safety within their walls, presuming they have enough supplies to outlast the army at the gates.

Again, Middle East history bears out this siege parallel. For after 62 years, Israel behind its walls is more prosperous than ever, enjoying six decades of constitutional government. But during that same period, those who have maintained their siege against the Jewish state have watched their societies come apart at the seams with oligarchs and kings giving way to military dictatorships which are now fighting civil wars against religious fanatics, all the while sinking further and further into poverty and despair (despite God’s having planted half the world’s oil reserves under their feet).

The instability of the anti-Israel community described previously is another example where organizations dedicated to laying siege to Israel by proxy are perpetually falling apart while organizations dedicated to defending the Jewish state have gone from strength to strength.

Now fighting siege warfare does not simply involve cowering behind walls hoping your enemy will go away. Clashes at the walls are always part of the picture, as are skirmishes and even (ideally well-thought-out) battles that involve leaving the city to engage the enemy. But we should never lose site of the fact that the metaphor that describes our condition is not the standing army with its offensive and defensive strategies, but the siege which has its own logic, and its own legacy of strategy and tactics which can lead to victory.

Onto Part VI (Conclusion) – Let’s Talk About Us

Strategy and Tactics: Numbers

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Strategy

When dealing with a “movement” like BDS which thrives on anecdotes, numbers are a great way to pierce the fog and get to the real truth. After all, what tells us more about the success vs. failure of boycott and divestment: the story of a Danish retirement fund selling a few thousand dollars worth of Israeli stock for political reasons, or the numbers showing that the Israeli economy and exports have both doubled during the decade when BDS has been operating?

At the same time, casting peripheral issues in numeric terms can make them seem more central than they really are, leading to poor decisions regarding strategy and tactics. For instance, this situation may ring a bell, particularly with campus activists:

“SJP brought in an anti-Israel speaker and drew a crowd of 300 people and we had 10 protestors at their event. The next week, we had a pro-Israel event that drew 140 people and SJP showed up with 20 protestors. So it looks like we lost by 170.”

While this dialog may be fanciful, the notion is not. As activists (and as human beings) we like to be able to measure our success and failure in numerical terms, and lacking many things to count when it comes to campus activism, we tend to fall back on counting heads at one and other’s events to see if we’re gaining or losing ground.

This is one of the reasons why bringing in speakers and hosting Israel Days or Anti-Israel Days are so popular. Activist organizations (both on and off campus – on both sides) like to be able to present lists of their projects to members and funders, ideally with headcounts showing that their work is reaching people. And thus the need to generate numeric information drives a strategy based on maximizing the number of speaking events and maximizing the size of the audience at each event.

But if you look at more meaningful numbers (which I have), you’ll discover interesting insights like the fact that pro- and anti-Israel camps at most universities never tops more than 5-10% of the student population, with the other 90%+ viewing activists on both sides as mostly engaged with talking to themselves or shouting at each other. Which means that efforts both sides are using to swing this undecided vast majority one way or another might actually be turning them off to the issue entirely.

Remember also that hostility to Israel is most prominent on elite campuses, a small subset of American higher education as a whole. Now this subset is high profile and extremely influential, so should not be ignored. But we also shouldn’t lose site of the fact that on the vast majority of campuses, support for Israel looks a lot more like national trends where it outstrips hostility towards the Jewish state by 3:1.

Even if we assume that at places like Berkeley, sentiment about Israel on campus is closer to 1:1 (i.e., supporters and detractors evenly matched), suddenly the question becomes why anti-Israel activism has such a high profile at these places, even without an overwhelming (or even clear-cut) numerical advantage. In this case, sheer numbers may make less of a difference than other factors.

This should come as no surprise. After all, smaller armies have defeated much larger ones for centuries. Whether we’re talking about the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans held off a million invading Persians (or more historically likely figures of 7000 Greeks holding off 100,000+ invaders) or Israel’s numerous military victories against vastly numerically superior foes, the size of an army often takes a back seat to factors such as strategy, tactics, leadership, training, equipment, morale and the choice of terrain on which to fight.

In the case of the Spartans, the choice of a narrow pass as the battlefield meant that even a million-man army would have to enter Greece just a few hundred at a time, which meant better-trained and more disciplined troops protecting such a narrow space could hold the enemy at bay so long as the fight was taking place in one direction and the defender’s morale held firm.

In the case of Israel’s victories, technically sophisticated weapons actually made less of a difference than the training and discipline needed to integrate this hardware into creative battle strategies. The fact that Israel’s attackers could always retreat to their home countries safely while Israel knew it was fighting for its existence also dictated the level of commitment of each side’s soldiers.

Numbers provide us crucial information to make decisions, but we should beware of assessing our own strategic situation or making tactical decisions based on numeric factors (such as number of activists on each side) that might make less of a difference than strength of organization and tactical choices, each of which will be addressed in separate postings over the next two days.

Onto Part III – Organization

Strategy and Tactics: Language

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Strategy

Before the academic year comes to a close, I thought it might be useful to discuss topics regarding strategy and tactics in the fight against BDS. I’m kicking off a week-long series on the subject with some thoughts on language.

When talking about a political clash between two opposing sides, it’s inevitable that language gets drawn from a military vocabulary. Offense and defense are indispensible terms, as are words and phrases that indicate opposing sides such as the other side, opponents, or even the most challenging term of all enemy.

I acknowledge that this type of terminology makes many people feel uncomfortable, especially: (1) those whose ultimate goals are not militant; or (2) those whose ultimate goals are militant, but who seek to cover this up by using only neutral or positive terms (such as “human rights” or “international law”) to describe their motivations and actions.

While my motivations put me squarely in group (1), I also prefer to use the best words possible to describe things accurately, including terms deriving from argumentation to discuss what is essentially a political debate (albeit a heated one).

Now I could be coy and point out that a military vocabulary used to describe a legitimate debate between opposing parties to a conflict masks the fact that such argumentation can be (and often is) a cooperative enterprise. Parties to an argument, after all, have agreed to engage with each other over a matter of importance and the give-and-take between the parties (which might seem adversarial, especially if described in terms of “attack” and “defense”) can nevertheless lead to a full or partial resolution that would satisfy both parties (or at least provide insight to an audience to such a discussion).

In the case of the fight against BDS, however, claiming that both sides are engaged in an ultimately cooperative enterprise would be inaccurate. I can (and have) taken part in genuine (i.e., honest and mutually beneficial) arguments with people who support positions in the Middle East that I opposes, discussions that opened up new avenues for both of us to explore our own thinking. BDS, however, does not open dialog, but rather closes it.

BDS asks you to accept their premise of Israel’s guilt, and only seeks discussion over when and how it punishment should be administered. BDS advocates are not open to new ideas or new information. In fact, they become enraged when information is presented that challenges their truncated view of history or self-serving definitions of human rights or international law. Intimidation and even threats of violence (on display so vividly within the University of California system these last few years) are clearly in the BDS toolkit, which alone makes their claims to being participants in an honest debate suspect.

More importantly, there is a wider context into which the debate over BDS is being played out. To illustrate this by example: this weekend my son’s 5th grade Hebrew School class presented work they’ve been doing for the last several weeks to highlight various organizations in Israel trying to bring together Jews and Arabs via fields such as sports, children’s theater and medicine. Now there exists reasonable disagreement over how effective these grassroots mechanisms for building bridges can be, but I would never question the value of good faith efforts to exhaust all methods for bringing people together in the ultimate hope that this will eventually lead to peace.

BDS, however, takes an opposite view of such peace efforts, branding Israelis who participate in such activity as deceivers and Arabs who take part as collaborators or traitors. That is why they seek to shut down all cooperation between Arabs and Jews in the region. That is why they seek to end cooperation between Israelis and everyone else in the world by protesting not just Israel’s economic ties to other countries, but academic and cultural ties as well.

In other words, for the efforts of real peace activists to be successful, BDS must be exposed for what it is and, ideally, swept from the battlefield if efforts to create a real peace are ever to take root.

Thus the fight against BDS (even if is described in military-sounding language) turns out to be the true battle for peace, while BDS (which never hesitates to wrap itself in the mantle of peace-making and justice) is actually a form of unjust warfare that must lose in order for peace to win.

Funny thing language.

Onto Part II – Numbers