Last night, the members of the Park Slope Feed Coop voted 1,005 against and 653 in favor of a [referendum on] boycott of five Israeli products, soundly voting the measure down. Both sides claim victory, of course. The pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) side claims increased awareness for Israel’s occupation; the anti-BDS activists claim a 2:1 ratio of defeat for veiled calls against Israel’s existence. Both, of course, are right. But now they must both do what neither side — pro-Israel nor pro-Palestinian — typically does: deescalate the charged polarization they worked so hard to create.
Advocacy and dialogue do not coexist well — their effects are diametrically opposing. Advocacy involves the deliberate polarizing of public discourse, so as to motivate the middle ground to take sides. This is the thirteenth rule of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, “Pick a target, freeze it, personalize it, polarize it.” BDSers claim Israel is an apartheid state and all its agents war criminals; opposition activists claim BDS is aligned with anti-Semites and destroyers of Israel. Neither, of course, is true, and both know it. Aim for 100% victory, Alinsky teaches, knowing that a 30% victory is what you’ll get.
Dialogue, on the other hand, is about creating a space where everyone regardless of views can ask nuanced questions. The Jewish Dialogue Group’s handbook (an organization of which I am a trainee) describes common patterns of divisive conversations: Conversation is dominated by people who are certain, while those with mixed or uncertain views remain silent for fear of appearing ignorant or unprincipled; interruptions, angry outbursts and personal attacks are common; people on both sides pay selective attention to evidence and listen to opponents only to find evidence of ill intent or ignorance; silence prevails among the majority. It destroys community. Creating safe, open and most importantly non-persuasive dialogue is necessary for communities to lead healthy, normal lives despite any disagreement.
Smart, capable and educated organizers of advocacy know this. Saul Alinsky knew this. And so that is why professional community organizers incorporate into every campaign cycle a concluding depolarization phase. Communities are multidimensional and interdependent; members must not allow lurking resentment over defeat or haughty pride over victory regarding any one issue to hurt the many daily interactions they have on other matters. The issue is over, the world still stands, it’s time to work together and buy some groceries.
But the responsibility for depolarization is something that most activists don’t know. (I certainly didn’t until recently.) And in Israel activism, both for and against, most campaigns I’ve ever seen omit it. Perhaps it is because the organizers are hard-boiled partisans who perceive their struggle in cosmic terms. Perhaps, as I mostly suspect, they are activists without any formal training, self-made in every admirable way. I fear that their amateur qualities are reflected in their willingness to (metaphorically) crap where they (non-metaphorically) eat — or worse, come from the outside and crap in somebody else’s community.
The anti-BDS More Hummus, Please and the pro-BDS Park Slope Food Coop Members for BDS bear the responsibility for overcoming the bitterness they (perhaps inadvertently) sowed. It behooves them to do it together and united, to demonstrate that Israel-Palestine is neither the most important nor sole issue in the world. There are many others on which they will be required to work together. This is an election year and I doubt they will find each other in opposite parties. The campaign organizers, core activists and avid cheerleaders must demonstrate — loudly, vocally, sincerely — that both care for each other as human beings and for the Coop as a home, not just a convenient tool. We live in dynamic, diverse communities — justiceseekers are burdened with safekeeping right relationships. To not do so is detrimental, unprofessional, and unworthy of our vocation. Do not tarnish the cause of justice by giving us all a bad name through scorched earth.
If they do not, they will fail to halt the declining public opinion against this issue. Recent studies show that despite heightened action on Middle East peace, more Americans are more ambivalent than ever before. Outside the 2% of America that is Jewish, the pro-Palestinian side hasn’t grown in 10 years despite self-described symbolic victories; the pro-Israel side has actually lost a few percentage points to ambivalence. More and more Americans are convinced both sides are wrong, unyielding, and unreasonable. It is a truth that all of us Israel-Palestine activists, right or left, must address. This is partly to blame, I sincerely believe, because campaigners are not healing the divisiveness they create once they are done.
And so I call on all those who’ve participated and opined in this issue — most of us not members of the Park Slope Food Coop at all — to assert the common humanity we share with both. Readers should note that I too have taken sides in this rancorous debate. Thus, this post is my contribution to healthy, sustainable activism on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Especially within the left, our disagreements over tactics and symbols should not divide us from our shared goal of equality, fairness and justice for Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East. As a leftist, I say to my colleagues on the right that I recognize you too are seeking justice in the world, and for that I salute you. To both those to the right and left of me, if I hurt your feelings, then I am genuinely sorry. I hope that I will soon have the honor of listening to your perspective, which I offer with an open heart. And God willing, I will have the honor of working with you on the same side of another issue of justice in our communities.
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For more on dialogue:
You can download the Jewish Dialogue Group’s handbook [co-authored with the Public Conversations Project] Constructive Conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in its 200-page entirety for free. JDG is a grassroots organization that works to foster constructive dialogue within Jewish communities across the world about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other challenging issues. For advice on opening a dialogue to your community, Jewish or non-Jewish, contact Mitchell Chanin at [email protected] or 215-266-1218.