Using the Language of War Makes Battling BDS Clearer
Complex and contradictory language surrounds our conversations regarding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and how to stop it. “Delegitimization,” “antisemitism,” “hypocrisy” and “misguided” are all words used repeatedly by BDS critics, just as “human rights,” “international law” and “free speech” are phrases we can count on hearing from proponents of boycott and divestment activity.
Having dealt with BDS campaigns targeting Israel since 2004, when the movement (simply called “divestment” back then) hit my hometown of Somerville, MA, I’d like to propose a different vocabulary – one derived from warfare – that can help us better understand what we’re dealing with when battling BDS, and how to most effectively win those battles.
All but the most ardent foes of the Jewish state would agree that Israel has been a nation at war since before its birth, with the years 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 marking specific hot clashes between conventional armies, with other forms of warfare (pogroms, terror, economic blockade) beginning years before the state was founded and continuing ever since.
Propaganda has played a role in warfare since conflict moved beyond grunting pre-humans throwing rocks at one another. And the military purposes of campaigns like BDS are the same we’ve seen in other propaganda efforts mounted throughout recorded history, including:
- Maximizing the military options of your allies while minimizing those of your adversary
- Making your opponent seem so vile that any action taken against it is justified
There is always a lot of teeth-gnashing regarding the hypocrisy of Israel’s critics who remain silent while Hamas rearms and digs terror tunnels in preparation for their next promised conflict, yet roar to life the minute the rulers of Gaza trigger that fight and Israel is forced to shoot back. But when we accuse such “End-the-War” marchers of hypocrisy, we are implicitly accepting their self-characterization as otherwise noble “peace activists”— and merely accusing them of betraying it.
The truth, in fact, is much darker.
If you recognize that those “peace marches” are actually designed to limit the military options of one side in the conflict (by raising the political price of Israel taking decisive military action), then you will realize participants in those marches are, in fact, not hypocrites at all — but sincerely fulfilling their actually military function.
The fact that they try to disguise their military role behind a vocabulary of peace, justice and human rights is certainly worthy of attack, since they are no more “peace-makers” than would be a crate of hand grenades. But shaking one’s fist at Israel’s opponents for using these sorts of tactics makes as much sense as criticizing an enemy’s cavalry for using horses, or damning the other side’s tank brigade for not firing on its own troops.
While the world has undergone stupendous technological change over the centuries, the fundamentals of warfare – especially the human nature that drives and propels it – remain stunningly constant. War is also always fought between one side and an opponent. Either side might consist of multiple parts, each with their own goals (and thus their own preferred strategies and tactics). But an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of two opposing sides is the starting point for the kind of analysis that should precede any engagement.
Conflicts also have to take place somewhere, which is why victory tends to go to the side that best understands the terrain of battle, whether that terrain be physical, political or psychological. Those uncomfortable with the use of words such as “enemy” and “conflict” are free to treat my use of this language as a metaphor to help make that which might seem confusing clearer. But nothing forces one to embrace concrete reality vs. murky abstraction better than seeing the world through the lens of war.
And the first step towards winning any conflict is understanding the conflict itself precisely.