On Jewish Activism. Part II: Uncertainty and Chaos

This is part two in a three-part series on activism within the Jewish/Pro-Israel world. I should say that I do not attempt to conflate these two terms or the groups represented therein, but I do acknowledge a significant overlap between the two, and that informs part of the discussion here.

Read part one here

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“We choose the order and certainty of petty despots over the uncertainty and chaos of developing democracy…”

When Martin Sheen uttered those scripted words as President Josiah Bartlett on the West Wing, he was referring directly to a fictional plotline involving the assassination of a foreign terrorist cum diplomat, and the not so fictional tendency of the United States to prop up otherwise hostile governments when it suits them politically or militarily (read or watch Charlie Wilson’s War and then you might begin to understand the current war in Afghanistan).

Bartlett’s words (thank you Aaron Sorkin) are the stories of governments, of organizations, and of basic human propensity. In many ways they are more of a sociological critique than a political one. It’s always easier to yell back to your enemy than it is to stand up, put yourself on the line, and shout out your own beliefs. We’re human, and we’re scared of uncertainty and chaos.

In the past year, and again this past week, I’ve commented numerous times on a troubling narrative within the Jewish pro-Israel community, drawing attention to a noticeable pattern of largely reactionary responses when dealing with issues related to Israel. Aaron Sorkin’s words are particularly useful here, as they highlight some of the dangers of this reactionary position.

The Canada Israel Committee, B’nai Brith, UJA Federation of Toronto, the WZO and Hagshama, and others who I’ve criticized of late for resorting to a largely reactionary stance when it comes to advocacy, are not the petty despots Bartlett speaks of. But they are the ones who choose the “order and certainty” of the despots. As I noted in my previous post, I try to believe that the CIC and Federation have a vested interest in the economic stability of Israel. But the content of their Buycott – devoid of any proactive, didactic, sustainable content – indicates a greater interest in silencing their enemies than in strengthening their allies. It indicates a greater interest in the order and stability of the despots (here, the boycott) than in the uncertainty and chaos of democracy (here, a proactive agenda on a Canadian partnership with Israel’s economy).

One must acknowledge that the Buycott is entirely dependent on there being a boycott to react to. If and when the attempts at a boycott end (which surely the CIC and Federation must want), then the buycott ends as well, and along with it the accompanying (though short-lived) economic benefits. This is the danger of being reactionary. This is the danger of choosing order and certainty. This is the danger of letting the despots define your mission.

We can always count on Israel’s detractors to do and say things that we can react to. But if we count on them, we’re letting them define our mission. This is what the CIC and Federation are doing now with the Buycott. If the CIC and Federation want the benefits of the Buycott to be sustained, they need to adopt an ethos of proactivity. They need to provide opportunities for people to remain continually engaged with their issues of concern. It might not be a bad idea to start with the questions I proposed in my previous post.

It takes guts and koyach to dive into the uncertainty and chaos involved in developing a proactive agenda. Are the CIC and Federation willing to embrace this? Are they willing to make the change from a reactionary agenda to a proactive one? Are the willing to do what is necessary to maintain a sustainable engagement with Israel when most current research indicates connections, particularly among youth, are dwindling?

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In part three of this series, I’ll introduce the (not so new) paradigm that I mentioned yesterday, illuminating a model I believe should be adopted by all organizations (Jewish, pro-Israel, or otherwise) with an activist element.

On Jewish Activism. Part I: Backburner Zionism

This was originally going to be one long post, but I’ve decided to split it in two for sake of ease. Today, in part one, I’ll identify a specific issue of great importance to Jewish activism, parse it out, and propose a few solutions. Tomorrow, in part two, I’ll take a look at the theoretical underpinnings of this issue and propose a new (though not that new) paradigm for Jewish activism of all kinds.

12.05.2009 UPDATE:I’ve changed the title of this post to reflect the direction my thoughts are moving in. It now looks like this will be a three-part series. You can read part two here.

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About a year ago, in a series of posts, I commented on the trend for pro-Israel (what does that mean, anyways?) rallies to go around masquerading as a form political/social activism, while ultimately being nothing more than glorified (and in some cases, undignified) cheer-leading.

The gist of my argument was that while 10,000 people at a rally or boycott makes a nice, loud statement for the press, the trade-off is that you lose the ability to ensure that those 10,000 people stay intimately invested and active with the cause; most of them will go home with a false sense of accomplishment. The flip-side is that a small, grassroots political or social movement may maintain more personal involvement, but it can lack the punch of a 10,000 strong rally.

Case in point: recent attempts by anti-Israel folks to boycott Canadian companies that deal directly with Israel (specifically Mountain Equipment Co-Op and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) have prompted the Canada-Israel-Committee and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to launch www.buycottisrael.ca – a campaign to get people to purchase the Israeli goods in question. A nice idea. Israel’s economy could certainly use help.

But if the overarching issue at hand as viewed by the CIC is that Israel’s economy does not deserve to be boycotted and that it should be supported by those in the international community, then why is there not a continually active “Buy Israel” movement sponsored by the CIC and Federation? (During the height of the intifada when tourism waned and Israel’s economy took a serious hit, there was such a movement in cities with large Jewish populations, though that has fizzled out as the intifada ended and there’s been less for people to react to). Why be reactive when you can be proactive?

I’m led to believe that the issue is less about an ingrained belief in the importance of economic support for Israel and more that the CIC and Federation don’t like it when other people speak out or organize against Israel. It’s easier to react to others than it is to stand up and maintain a proactive stance for something you believe in. Which is not to say that the boycott shouldn’t be responded to. It should. I don’t believe that Israel’s economy deserves to be singled out in this way, but that’s a separate topic of discussion. Do I believe that the CIC, Federation, and those who went out to buy underwear from Mountain Equipment Co-Op truly care about Israel and it’s financial stability? Absolutely. But do they care enough to make these actions a part of their ethos? Aye, there’s the rub.

If the goal of the counter-boycott was just to raise money for Israel and Israeli companies, then it was a success. But if there’s a greater goal, as one might assume from reading the Canada Israel Committee’s mission statement, then it is not entirely a success. The CIC’s mission seeks “the promotion of increased understanding between the peoples of Canada and Israel,” and seeks to “enhance Canada-Israel friendship.” Noble goals. Does the BUYcott lead to the achievement of these goals? Not so much.

This counter-boycott just balances the equation set in motion by the boycott, it doesn’t rise above it. It’s reactionary, and worst of all – like rallies – promotes a false sense of activism. Unless buying Israeli products is part of a larger movement by the purchaser to be actively and intimately involved in strengthening the Israeli economy, or in carrying on substantial discussions with the anti-Israel group, it remains a passive project wearing the mask of activism.

Yes, a tangible result is attained from the counter-boycott: Israel’s economy is supported (good) and the boycott is counteracted (which it turns out didn’t enjoy that much public support to begin with). And none of this is bad on its own. But it’s a closed project, it ends when people bring their clothes home from Mountain Equipment Co-Op. It’s just a step above chequebook Zionism.

To meet the stated goals of the CIC and Federation, and to take this BUYcott from a passive display to a proactive, sustainable, educational, and meaningful initiative, I propose the CIC and Federation use these questions as a guide:

– Where are the educational materials on Israel’s economy?

– Where is the list of Canadian vendors that carry Israel products?

– Where are the talking points for productive discussions with the boycotters?

– Where are the resources on Canadian economic and business partnerships with Israeli companies and organizations?

– Where are the resources on ethical sourcing?

– Where are the calls for further and sustained action?

– And most importantly, where are the communication tools and resources to form a peer-to-peer network? That would truly promote understanding between people and increase friendship. (To be fair, there are facebook and twitter links on the buycottisrael.ca website, but they are in the footer, and aren’t framed as an integral part of the campaign).

If organizations – both Jewish and non-Jewish – want to enjoy popular support that is sustainable, lasting, and intimate, they need to foster that attachment. It must be a central part of the framing of all messaging. It won’t come from just reacting every time a person or group says something they don’t like.

Rallies (or group shopping trips) are exciting and they create noise and attention, but at the end of the day, the day ends. What comes afterwards? Keep a pot of water on the back-burner, and it will just simmer there until the water boils off. Want that pot to be a smorgasbord of activism? You’ve got to keep it in the front and stir it up, and keep feeding it ingredients.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I’ll look at moving the pot from the backburner to the front.