Pushing back for its own sake

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-25-10

In late October, amid much self-promotional hype, leaders of the Canadian BDS movement met in Montreal to celebrate their campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
By all reports, the BDS movement once again proved to be more virtual than real, puffing itself up on the Internet while failing to stir much excitement. The movement’s broad call to mobilize “civil society” was met with awkward silence. Apparently, barely 100 people attended the conference’s final session. It’s clear that this fall will be remembered for the glowing depictions of Israel as a profitable, thriving “startup nation,” in La Presse and other French media outlets rather than for the glowering denunciations of Israel by angry misanthropes.

With the BDS momentum proving to be more bark than bite, much of the organized Jewish community ignored the conference. Believing that you should never disturb your enemy if he or she is in the process of self-destructing, there were no major counter-demonstrations, few clarion calls to mobilize. The strategy seemed to be that shining a spotlight on the BDS movement’s flaws would give the boycotters attention they don’t deserve.

While I understand that logic, the strategy ignored the great distress that the simple fact of the conference convening in Montreal caused among many pro-Israel Montrealers. Even if the conference failed to live up to its own hype, we in the pro-Israel community needed to push back for our own sake. In fact, the conference, even if minor, provided an opportunity for a classic ju jitsu move:  taking an opponent’s energy and redirecting it for your own purpose.

Just before the conference, dismayed by the Jewish communal silence, I met with one student who was willing to stand up for Israel publicly and proudly. Following the successful “buycott” strategy in Toronto, when BDS calls backfired and a call to boycott Israeli wine led to a run on Israeli wine, and calls to boycott a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit and the Toronto film festival’s celebration of Tel Aviv’s centennial led to waves of sold-out shows, a few students sent out a call to buy Israeli products that weekend. I forwarded the call around, and echoed it in a Montreal Gazette opinion piece that ran during the conference, while blasting the boycott movement for endangering the peace process.

We didn’t have the time or resources to trigger a mass movement. That was never our intention. But the feedback we received was extraordinary. As people e-mailed to detail their purchases of Elite chocolate here or 10 israeli bottles of wine there, they also thanked us. Most moving were the thanks – from Jews and non-Jews – that celebrated the opportunity to do something personal, positive, and constructive for Israel. “What a wonderful idea,” one woman wrote. “Finally a logical way to respond to all the madness around us.”

Group responsibility and individual empowerment are essential to effective grassroots action. It’s the logic of the firing squad put to good use. Firing squads demand full participation from all assigned, while one of the shooters unknowingly fires blanks. This allows everyone to take responsibility as a group while indulging the calming and exculpating hope that their gun was the one firing blanks.

In the Torah, every Jewish citizen took responsibility for the community by paying a half-shekel. Today, the federation campaign tries to enlist as many participants as possible, even if many make token donations and most funds are raised from big givers – often in one big splashy event.

If we understand the importance of spreading communal responsibility and maximizing individual feelings of involvement when it comes to fundraising, shouldn’t we apply that same principle to supporting Israel? I’m proud of what we did to push back against the BDSers, yet I feel we missed an opportunity. The weekend could have been a chance for even more Montrealers to embrace the plucky democracy in the Middle East by acting out the Zionist and Jewish imperative to act constructively – not just believe abstractly, or even hide delightedly when your adversaries stumble.

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