Monday, September 20th | 14 Tishri 5782

June 14, 2016 3:23 am

The Neverending Siege

avatar by Jon Haber

Conor Cruise O'Brien, whose history of Israel is called "The Siege." Photo: Wikipedia

Conor Cruise O’Brien, whose history of Israel is called “The Siege.” Photo: Wikipedia

In almost any discussion of how to deal with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, a subject that inevitably comes up is offense vs. 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!” are just some of the ways the same argument is brought up again and again.

Given that most BDS battles require our side to turn back or reverse boycott or divestment votes (i.e. play defense) that the other side has initiated (offensively), the frustration behind the offense vs. defense dynamic is understandable.

At the same time, the terms “offense” and “defense” only describe tactics, and tactics must be dictated by strategy which, in turn, is 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.

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But if your ultimate goals are not destructive (which, as I have noted previously, ours are not), then it becomes more difficult to build or sustain a strategy designed around perpetual attack since it would require this perpetual attack to be directed at those with whom we ultimately want to live at peace. This – not cowardice or lack of nerve – is why aggressive tactics used by our side turn out to be impossible to sustain long enough to be effective.

While the offense vs. defense vocabulary might sound military, it actually ignores the fact that prior to the age of air power 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 we should all be using to describe Israel’s situation (and by extension the situation of its supporters abroad) is that of the siege.

It was no accident that when the Irish novelist and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote his history of Israel, he chose as its title The Siege. For, as this remarkable man of letters recognized, Israel’s national doctrine is based on fending off an attack from any possible combination of hostile forces that surround it. In other words, Israelis are defending their city (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 Israel Defense Force, 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 conquered was military leaders inside the city getting restless for a pitched battle and leaving the safety of their walls to engage the enemy unnecessarily in the field.

Unnecessary because, historically speaking, the siege is just as hard (sometimes harder) on the besieger than it is on the besieged. While having your city surrounded by soldiers firing arrows and building battering rams and catapults is no picnic, it’s also not much fun building those siege engines while defenders in the city shower you with rocks, hot oil, dung and missiles. Besieging armies must also 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 68 years, Israel behind its walls is more prosperous than ever, enjoying close to seven 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 that 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).

Instability within the anti-Israel community abroad 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 go on and on (occasionally becoming sclerotic in the process – the topic for another time).

As we consider our options for dealing with the BDS propaganda war, keep in mind that 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 that can lead to victory.

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