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.