Playing Defense vs. Going on the Attack Against BDS
One of the longest-running and least productive conversations we have as a pro-Israel community is over the efficacy of positive campaigning vs. “going on the offensive.”
Both sides in these debates actually begin from perfectly reasonable foundations. For example, advocates for positive campaigning (sometimes referred to as “Israel 21c campaigns,” named after a website that “goes beyond the conflict” by presenting inspiring news from the Jewish state in areas such as technology, medicine and the environment) point out that these sorts of stories “move the needle” with regard to the opinions of crucial “undecideds” (such as students who have no stake in either side of the Arab-Israeli conflict).
By “move the needle,” they usually mean that hard data – often in the form of survey- or focus-group-based research – provide scientific evidence supporting the argument that negative messages (such as those playing up faults in Palestinian and Arab society) turn off undecideds while positive, 21c-style messaging (especially that highlighting Israel’s desire for peace) moves opinion in the right direction.
“So what!” claim advocates of “going on the attack” (or words to that effect). Our enemy is on the assault, always attacking, constantly smearing the Jewish state using a social-justice vocabulary that easily negates 21c-style rhetoric. When fighting such an opponent, stories of Israeli drip-irrigation don’t cut it. And pretending otherwise, they sometimes argue, is just another example of the Jewish community (especially its leaders) burying their heads in the sand to resist unpleasant reality and avoid doing what has to be done.
If that critique of positive campaigning stings, it’s because some of it is probably ringing true. Rhetoric-wise, the vocabulary used to describe Israeli contributions to the environment and technology can’t compete against a campaign built around far more powerful words like “freedom” and “justice.” And while data generated from test-marketing might tell us something about immediate reactions to this or that message, it doesn’t provide answers to more important questions, such as whether a steady drip of anti-Israel venom poisons the body politic over the long term (even if this or that anti-Israel campaign turns off audiences).
On the other hand, while advocates for an attack-based strategy have a template to work from (turning the tables on Israel’s foes by telling the truth about them as forcefully as they lie about Israel), it’s not entirely clear our side can (or should) replicate the enemy’s tactics. Do we really want to start shouting their speakers off the stage, for example, or dragging civil society groups into the Middle East conflict by insisting they have no moral choice but to denounce our opponents?
The only thing that could motivate us to not just start but build and sustain such a negative campaign for the years (possibly decades) needed to make it effective would be sincerely held militant goals. In other words, just as the BDSers are ultimately motivated by a desire to see the Jewish state destroyed, we would have to harbor comparable goals in order to gin up the kind of raw energy needed to keep a truly effective negative campaign going long enough to bite.
The problem is that we as a community do not harbor militant goals. In fact, I doubt even the most aggressive pro-Israel campaigner would claim their ultimate desire is to see Palestinians, the Arab world, or Islam destroyed. Absent such goals, however, it’s not clear how “going on the attack” can scale past the occasional hit and run, a tactic often used not to harm the enemy but to demonstrate to fellow Jews that we’re able to throw a punch.
The reason the two choices we seem to be stuck fighting over aren’t satisfying is that they are largely based on the needs – especially the emotional needs – of the activist, rather than being built into a strategy that thinks first about the nature of the battlefield. Going on the offensive, even in small ways, frees us from feelings of helplessness as the BDSers launch their next lie-tinged assault on everything we hold dear. Similarly, it is much easier to get groups like college students comfortable with telling tales of microchips or holding hummus parties than asking them to deal with the ugly reality of the Middle East and campus hostility to Jews and Israel.
As I have noted previously, a good test of whether a tactic is strategic vs. emotional is asking an advocate of that tactic to explain how it fits into a series of steps required to meet our strategic goals. If those steps seem implausible or contrived, or are unmoored from ultimate goals (making them ends in themselves), then it’s likely that the tactic represents an emotional vs. a strategic response.
Perhaps it’s possible that a series of aggressive anti-Palestinian campaigns will put our enemies on the defensive and shame our allies into uniting around a strategy based on escalating such campaigning for years or decades. But isn’t it just as likely (possibly more so) that such tactics will stain our reputation, help our enemies justify their own escalation, and divide rather than unite the pro-Israel community? Similarly, it might be that with enough technology fairs and hummus cook-offs we can overwhelm the “Israel=Apartheid” messaging of our adversaries. As we’ve already seen on college campuses, however, it’s child’s play for our foes to undercut all our positive campaigning with the simple message of “thanks for the cell phone and pita bread, but I’d prefer my freedom.”
Fortunately, the military mindset this entire series is meant to inspire provides options for getting beyond frustrating and seemingly fruitless debates over defense vs. offense, options which leave plenty of room for both positive (and effective) messaging and harsh (and, again, effective) attacks. And it is to that approach we shall turn as this series begins to wrap up next time.