Telling Our Positive Story Against BDS
Anyone involved with organized pro-Israel politics has likely gotten caught up in heated discussions over how to set a narrative and get activists to stick with it during the course of a campaign. Themes, messaging calendars and lists of talking points are several of the devices that have been proposed, and sometimes implemented, to get our side to settle on and consistently tell the same story.
This desire to control a narrative is the perfectly reasonable response to the fact that our opponents, while devious and deceitful, are also quite disciplined with regard to staying on message. The false or truncated information they produce might vary from campaign to campaign, and their message might be fine-tuned to play on the vulnerabilities of a particular audience. But their central “Israel = Apartheid” message stays consistent, speaker after speaker, article after article, event after event.
For a variety of institutional and cultural reasons, our side struggles to maintain similar message discipline. The organizational structure of the Jewish community leads to many independent groups creating their own strategies — including messaging strategies — which they prefer to “sell” to other groups, rather than abandon their own creation to pick up someone else’s theme.
Culturally, while anthropology is beyond the scope of this series, one need only watch a campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) debate, at which people line up to give one-minute comments at the microphone, to see the difference between our side and the enemy’s. As noted before, the BDSers will never stray from message, repeating and reinforcing one another’s points ad nauseam. In contrast, each pro-Israel student seems to feel the need to come up with a totally original formulation, or at least say something that’s not been said by a previous speaker.
This long lead-in is meant to serve as notice that while the narrative suggested below can solve a number of the political and rhetorical problems with which our side struggles, there is no expectation that we are lost unless everyone adopts it moving forward.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of borrowing vs. creating from scratch, the core of this story derives from the work of the remarkable and prophetic Ruth Wisse. Any additions are meant to highlight how this story can be deployed in the context of fighting the BDS propaganda wars.
Getting started (finally):
What event represents the nadir of the 20th century (if not all of human history)? Obviously, the Holocaust – the attempted murder of an entire people that gave rise to the term “genocide.”
And what represents the most glorious achievement of that same century? The ability of the remnant of that murdered people to return to their homeland, create, defend and build their state, and ingather the exiles. In a word: “Zionism.”
Far from representing egotistical chauvinism, the stunning success of the Jewish state since its founding does not say anything special about the Jewish people. For any people ready to make the kind of self-sacrifice made by the Jews can achieve (and have achieved) the same results. In fact, if a people that recently lost a third of their members can accomplish what Israel has accomplished, then anyone can do it.
This story (which can obviously be embellished and built upon) has a number of rhetorical strengths.
To begin with, it’s a positive message. But unlike positive messaging built around Israel’s gifts to the world in the realm of technology, medicine and cuisine, this story does not harken back to a diaspora weakness where Jews had to prove their worth to host societies. Rather, it harkens backwards and forwards to the most powerful story in Jewish history: the one we tell each year at Passover.
In addition to holding the Jewish people together for millennia, the Passover narrative of freedom and redemption has inspired the greatest human rights achievements in history, including the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movement and de-colonialization (spearheaded, it should be noted, by Zionism). So while opponents of Israel can easily parry positive messages regarding Israeli drip irrigation and microchips by invoking words like “freedom” and “justice,” highlighting Israel’s creation as the modern-day retelling of history’s most powerful tale of redemption allow us to take full possession of those powerful words.
Speaking of Israel’s enemies, the narrative formulation noted above also provides a way to hit back at them without being perceived as “going negative.” For by expressing humility and casting Israel’s success as something any other people can achieve, we can present the most caustic of critiques in the form of an outstretched hand. For instance:
You don’t have to raise another generation to hate Jews through lies and propaganda. No child should be brought up celebrating the stabber and bomber [hold up photo – briefly]. Israel demonstrates what you can achieve if you commit to building your own society vs. tearing down someone else’s. You have the choice: you can bequeath the people of the Middle East that future, or a future of ISIS, Hamas and endless suffering.
Without question, the boycotters will squeal like stuck pigs at the mere mention of Zionism as synonymous with freedom, justice and liberation for all, vs. their preferred characterization of racism and Apartheid. But given that they’ll squeal equally loudly at any story we tell, why not tell the most powerful story imaginable, one which has a response to every negative counter-attack? For example:
We understand that BDS talking points require you to mention racism and Apartheid in every sentence. And we are not going to respond by pointing out the racism, the sexism, the homophobia and other forms of Apartheid that riddle every region of the Middle East outside of Israel. Instead, we just want to offer the Jewish redemption story, the same story that ended slavery, inspired Martin Luther King, and created the state of Israel, which can be your story once lies, propaganda and war give way to commitment to build a better future.
As noted earlier, there is no expectation that this become the standardized narrative strategy for everyone fighting the BDS propaganda wars. But just as some foundational knowledge of persuasive technique can make any message more powerful, hopefully this message can inspire others to craft their next speech, letter to the editor or editorial more strategically.
Next time: Final Lessons