Tuesday, January 25th | 23 Shevat 5782

October 2, 2016 6:15 am

Final Thoughts on Waging War Against BDS

avatar by Jon Haber

BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikipedia

BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikipedia

A few final thoughts as the year – and this series on how to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement using the language and tools of warfare – comes to an end.

First, a mantra that can help us navigate the battle we are in and the battles to come should be: Don’t Panic; Don’t be Complacent.

When I first used that phrase, it was in response to reasonable concerns that years of writing fact and fiction that depicted BDS as a loser (captured today in the Internet meme #BDSFail) might be downplaying a genuine threat, potentially causing us to drop our guard (thus the “Don’t be Complacent” part).

Around that same time, a story I wrote that generated the most hostility among allies was this one, which attempted to quantify the failure of BDS by showing the explosive growth of the Israeli economy and exports, as well as a surge of support for the Jewish state in the US, during the first decade of BDS activism. The anger such a story generated seemed to be coming from people who felt that with the Middle East exploding, campuses ablaze and violent antisemitism breaking out around the world, we need to fight rather than spend time dwelling on graphs that seemed to be saying everything was OK.

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Such sentiments, while understandable, tend to well up from emotion – including the very reasonable anger over BDS’s lies and calumnies and our fear of violent and unpredictable global events. But, as noted previously, emotion is a terrible place to start when deciding how to fight a war. For victory in war tends to go to those with the firmest grasp of objective reality (including the genuine strengths and weaknesses of both our enemies and ourselves), especially those who can keep their cool when making strategic decisions. Thus the advice: “Don’t Panic.”

Additional thoughtful criticism from friends in our mutual fight against BDS focused on my recent use of the siege metaphor (described here and here), with critics equating being besieged with being perpetually on the defensive. This highlights a second closing point: that military history can help us get past some of the heated, and ultimately sterile, arguments that tend to suck up a lot of our energy.

Ongoing fights over “offense vs. defense” are perfect examples of arguments that can be answered by looking at wars past. For 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.

To see this same dynamic playing out today, one need only look at that nation we are all supposed to be fighting for: Israel. For the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not an army of conquest, but rather a military force trained to defend the nation from generations of besiegers. Strategies chosen to protect the land have involved keeping enemies out, but also taking the fight to foes and eliminating threats before they emerge, a set of varied and creative defensive and offensive tactics that have always been part of siege warfare.

I suspect few reading this would condemn the IDF as being stuck in a defensive crouch for not initiating battles beyond Israel’s borders more often. Rather, the IDF is taking advantage of the military mindset I have been writing about in order to make realistic choices based on an objective assessment of both sides in a fight, as well the landscape on which the war is being fought.

Our own fight against the enemy’s BDS propaganda arm, while far less dangerous than what the IDF faces, is no less important than wars being waged and battles being fought on the kinetic battlefield. So, if we’re looking at models for how to think about engaging in that war strategically (rather than emotionally), the IDF – one of the most successful militaries in human history – provides the perfect template.

Having just made mention of Rome and Jerusalem, the third and final point I’d like to close with is why we need to overcome general Jewish squeamishness with regard to embracing the vocabulary and mindset of warfare.

As Ruth Wisse points out in her book Jews and Power, devastating military defeats at the hands of Babylon and Rome followed by the miraculous survival of the Jewish people during millennia of military powerlessness has created in us an ambivalence regarding the efficacy of military strength (vs. other virtues like piety, wisdom and ability to accommodate as a minority culture).

In general, caution regarding military (or any violent) solutions to human problems is a sign of societal strength and health. One need only witness what has befallen Israel’s enemies, who have been too eager to make violence a first choice, to see the cost of eagerness vs. reticence vis-à-vis war. But there is one time when trying to avoid thinking like a warrior is unhealthy: when someone is waging war against you.

By no choice of our own, we find ourselves on the battlefield against soldiers in the propaganda arm of a shooting war who travel under the name of BDS. It’s unfortunate, but now that history has assigned us the task of fighting such an enemy, it behooves us to stop thinking like Jews and start thinking like Romans.

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