PennBDS: Palestine in International Law

This is part of a series of articles based on the program of the upcoming PennBDS conference.  Check out this landing page to find out more.

I’ve been trying to write something new for each session on the PennBDS agenda, but with regard to “Palestine in International Law,” I’ve pretty much already said all I need to here.

The only thing I’d add is an observation from a few brief days as a Twitterer (mostly a lurking Twitterer) where talk of “illegal this” and “illegal that” fall like rain in any conversation regarding the Middle East.

Why does Hamas do what it does?  “Blame the illegal Occupation.”  Why BDS?  “To make Israel stop acting illegally.”  Why protest Israel vs. other human rights abusers?  “Because Israel is breaking international law.”  Honestly (if such a word can be used in the same paragraph as BDS), is “illegal” actually a word to these types, or some kind of sacred talisman which (like the word “Occupation”) cleanses those who are allied with the BDS “movement” of all sin?

Since this ended up a referring blog entry, I’ve got a little room to spare that I’d like to use to ask why no one involved with the PennBDS project has honored us with a visit since this series began?  After all, the organizers of this event have publicly stated that they welcome criticism, and a member of their group did honor us with his presence before I started using their program schedule as an editorial calendar.  In fact, one of their participants (Jewish Voice for Peace) has also stated that it plans to spend the Spring on college campuses (at an event called Go and Learn) where, again, they claim to crave debate with their critics.

Yet now that someone is spending a fair amount of time talking about each and every topic that they find important enough to put onto their conference agenda, no one is willing to show up to defend the BDS position.

Perhaps I need to come up with some options that will make them feel safe and welcome.  At the very least, I promise to not require them to accede to any demands before they can participate in a decent conversation (in contrast to the entrance requirements of certain political movements I could name).





One brief note to start this piece: My invitation to debate BDS published here and on Jewish Voice for Peace/Young Jewish and Proud’s new Go and Learn site was recently released from moderation. I eagerly await their first response, which will give them the chance to participate in that discussions the rest of the Go and Learn site indicates JVP desires above all else. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, my mind recently began wandering to the subject of veterans.

In our modern age, we tend to think of the outcome of warfare being decided primarily by technology and logistics, with armies able to deploy and utilize complex weapons systems in the land, sea and air being superior to those who cannot. And even when you look at asymmetrical warfare, which tends to utilize roadside bombs, terror tactics and propaganda instead of aircraft carriers and robot drones, success in this field requires mastery of technical and political skill, rather than fighting experience.

But if you look back throughout the thousands of years of history when war was conducted primarily with the same hardware (swords, spears, bows, shields, armor and the like), the factor marking the difference between a successful and unsuccessful army was the experience of the soldiery.

Troops loyal to Julius Caesar, for example, were not referred to as “Caesar’s Soldiers” or “Caeser’s Legions,” but “Caesar’s Veterans,” highlighting the fact that soldiers who spend decades fighting side by side provided the edge in battle even against far larger armies.

Even the strategic genius of a commander is frequently the result of a general himself being the veteran of numerous campaigns, providing him the chance to try different things at different times and experience both victory and defeat.

I bring this up since another strength BDS warriors bring to battle (along with Web 2.0 communication skill and complete indifference to the needs of others) is their experience waging their propaganda campaigns over many years and even decades. For most of us, the thought of engaging in a divestment debate in our student union or town hall is appalling not just because of the nature of the subject matter, but because few of us have experience engaging with (in this case) aggressive political warfare that is likely to create tension and conflict (the very things many of us spend our lives trying to avoid).

But years of experience battling against the boycotters eventually provides us the veteran’s perspective, helping turn what might have originally felt like distasteful conflict into a battle we eagerly anticipate for the thrill it provides (especially in victory – the familiar result for pro-Israel activists engaged in a BDS fight).

I can attest to this personally as someone addicted to the rush of watching a BDS vote (even on Twitter– which I still barely know how to use) go down to defeat. And my eagerness to mix it up with folks like Young, Jewish and Proud derives from longing to engage in arguments I’ve been writing about for years with no interlocutors ready to engage in some serious intellectual jousting.

But the veteran’s experience can also be seen in the wider Jewish community, best exemplified by this report from the Reut Institute on how 2011 was the year Israel’s supporters fought back (successfully and unapologetically) against the still-more-experienced defamers of the Jewish state. As time goes on, more experience should drive more success and success will drive our desire to obtain more experience, creating new generations of vets capable of continuing to stare down the BDS threat, regardless of the ruthlessness of our adversaries.

As a final note, I’d like to pay a brief tribute to a veteran of many wars who finally lost out to the one enemy none of us can avoid forever. Christopher Hitchens may have never been a great friend to the Jewish state. But he was a great friend to others who earned his sympathy (such as the people of Iraq) and Hitchens fought for their cause, regardless of what previous friends and allies had to say on the matter. While I am sad that this iconoclast of great wit and letters passed away without embracing the justice of Israel’s cause (or the Jewish world of which he was a part), I shall miss him and his words, even (or especially) the ones with which I disagreed.

Go and Learn

As regular (and even irregular) readers may know, I have been a harsh critic of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), one of the main proponents of BDS (at least in certain parts of the US). And I have been particularly harsh on them for their insistence on having access to other people’s public forums while simultaneously controlling or eliminating discussion in thier own civic spaces where debate over BDS and other issues could occur in public.

Well good news! It looks like the youth wing of JVP (named Young, Jewish and Proud) has decided to engage with critics (and supporters) of BDS in a new program they entitle Go and Learn. Now this program is scheduled to begin in March, but given the clear importance JVP/YJP put on this issue, I have invited them to begin the debate immediately on their new Web site and just posted the following invitation in this comments section:

Why Wait?

I’m thrilled to learn that you are interested in an open discussion and education project surrounding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) project.

As some of you may know, I represent one of those people “actively opposed to [BDS]” your invitation above is asking to engage with you. As the creator of the web site, I have been eager to discuss and debate with people like yourselves who are supportive of BDS. Until now, however, there have been very few supporters of BDS ready to engage directly on this subject in a sustained and constructive manner.

I’m glad to discover that JVP is interested in remedying this situation and recommend that we begin this debate right now on the Internet (where the world has access to our exchanges), rather than wait until March to discuss what the Young, Jewish and Proud organization obviously considers to be such a pressing topic.

I will post information on your invitation and my own at Divest This (along with any follow ups), but I recommend we have this public discussion right here since, unlike the forums you claim to not have access to, your organization is in full control of this online space. And using it to provide a globally public forum for our conversation would not just provide everyone with the discussion you clearly crave, but would also demonstrate JVP’s openness (in contrast with those places you feel you have been excluded from).

I look forward to hearing back from you and let the conversation begin!

This invite is awaiting moderation, but given the eagerness they are showing to have an open conversation on the subject we will no doubt hear from them soon.

I’ll keep you posted.