BDS – A Power Psychology

BDS – A Power Psychology

This article is from The Jerusalem Post. To read the full article, click here.

A well-researched Israeli government report has documented that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has its basic roots in terror, and not civil rights. No surprise here. Yet the movement continues to draw support among many well-meaning and truly decent folks in the United States and elsewhere.

So, what gives?

Clearly, not everyone supporting the BDS program or the Palestinian cause is antisemitic, nor is questioning Israel in itself problematic. Yet at its core, BDS is something else: it is a story about how radicalized players found a way to influence sincere people – academics, students, politicians and social justice advocates – by co-opting civil rights activism as a self-serving method to undermine the existence of a sovereign country.

The boycott movement’s will to fight Israel is political, but its means is psychological.

Co-opting civil rights

When speaking of civil rights and justice, there is critique galore for Russia, China, the Europeans, for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and just condemnation toward those who have oppressed people of color, women and the LGBTQ community – the list goes on. 

In the face of so much injustice, in so many spaces, one has to admire BDS’s singular focus and powerful social currency in mobilizing a widespread attack on the Jewish state. Case in point: consider the Women’s March, a cause shared by many which conflated an urgent cause with a bias against Jews – and Israel – to its own detriment.

As a co-founder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), and a psychiatrist, I’ve witnessed the psychological savvy of BDS and its allies up front, and sadly, I’m impressed. While antisemitism certainly plays a role for some, BDS is ultimately politically effective because it’s psychologically effective.

In this piece, we’ll leave the influence of funding, politics and antisemitism to others, and look at one powerful psychological tool employed by BDS advocates: the need for certainty, which has a chilling effect on Israel’s supporters.

The need for certainty

People crave certainty. Certainty is an actual biological need. Living in uncertainty drains our mental resources, demanding from us to be in a constant state of awareness. It’s a hard experience – just think of anxiously waiting for the results of a medical test, college applications, or a job interview.

One of the great books of my youth was The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer. Writing at the time of the 20th century’s struggle with ideology, including fanatical religion, Stalinism and Fascism, Hoffer believed the real power of destructive mass movements could be found in the psychology of the True Believer, people who require certainty, and with certainty, a sense of power.

True Believers have a lot in common, even if their ideologies may be completely different. Sacrificed in this need for a one-sided narrative is coming to terms with the reality of life’s complexities. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense. Knowing allows one to prepare for the future and relax in the present, while not knowing demands vigilance. This is true for perceived physical and social threats.

Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski described it as “Cognitive Closure” – the individuals’ desire for a firm answer to a question and an aversion toward ambiguity. Or simply put: people need an answer, and preferably a quick and easily digestible one. They need certainty, and as Dewey once said “. . . in the absence of actual certainty in the midst of a precarious and hazardous world, men cultivate all sorts of things that would give them the feeling of certainty.”

Jonathan Haidt’s wonderful book, The Righteous Mind, puts it all together. He writes that when groups share definitive narratives, they bond in powerful ways. The righteous mind enlarges the natural bonds of family into the larger self-protective group of the clan, bonded not by DNA, but by a shared narrative, often characterized by rigidity and an awareness of insider and outsider status.

Certainty fuels an “us versus them” psychology that, while primitive, is successful.

Narratives – a psychology

From a psychological point of view, one-sided narratives are powerful, providing a simplistic worldview that makes sense, creating certainty in the face of complexity. Many would argue that some on the right and the left live in this space.

One-sided thinkers abide in all communities, so it’s important to remember that our tradition teaches us differently. For centuries, the Jewish tradition has taken pride in having 70 different, and even conflicting, interpretations to each verse; giving a place to thoughts that in other cultures would have been erased as heresy.

For example, consider Rabbi Hillel saying (Sanhedrin 99a) that there is no Messiah for Israel, as we already ate (took) from him in the times of Hezekiah. This ability to give place to conflicting ideas is a source of strength in Jewish thought – and a contribution to humanity. It is enough to open a random page of the Mikraot Gedolot to see the richness that comes from allowing opposing views, enabling facile minds and adaptability over the centuries.

Today, BDS and its allies present a different challenge. They do not attempt to confront ideas through debate, but rather deem debate unnecessary. An adversary, who identifies as a victim being tormented by the Jewish/Israeli villain, and essentially believes that “right” lives in his or her camp and only there, can dominate in the space of ideas.

Identity and ideas

What happens next is an important psychological truth. For many BDS’ers, identity and ideas are one and the same.

When folks become preoccupied with certainty, like the BDS narrative of victimhood, the distinction between one’s self and one’s ideas can disappear. The same, by the way, is true if you turn Zionism into a messianic idea that is fused with who you are, a phenomenon described by Micah Goodman in his recent book, Catch ’67.

When identity is fused with ideology, those with whom you disagree are demonized, and you, in turn, feel self-righteous and elevated. Don’t underestimate how attractive this can feel to an idealistic professor or student, who sees injustice in our broken world. The BDS position can make someone feel like a wholesome social crusader, despite the fact that it’s a psychological trap based on ideology, and not rigorous examination.

Critiquing your opponents (Zionists in the case of BDS propaganda) is not simply based on their political or ideological beliefs – Zionists are to be rejected as bad people. Good people cannot hold evil beliefs. Acknowledging that folks who love Israel (despite its flaws) simply have a different opinion opens the door to the possibility that there are two sides to this story, and this notion is a threat to a True Believer.

To prevent this, they position the other side as radioactive, perhaps even evil. This accomplishes two destructive things. One, it reinforces the “us versus them” meme, the certainty that we are the good people with the right ideas, the certainty that our opponents are bad people who have bad ideas.

Two, by making your opponent radioactive (labeling him or her racist, colonialist, and the like), you don’t have to deal with examining your own beliefs, which is a must for a thinking person. Sadly, this may be the real threat.

While I’m not a starry-eyed liberal, one tenet of liberalism I believe to be correct is that when one engages with an opponent in a human way, it creates healthy daylight between who you are and what you believe. When human beings are not simply their beliefs, there is opportunity for growth and change. One sees this in the therapy office regularly. And when you relegate folks to a category, it allows demonization to occur, which diminishes the fullness of our humanity.

This is why the university as a force for healthy dialogue and change is so critical. The Academy was conceived as an open forum, embracing the notion of two sides – and even more – to every story. Unfortunately, today’s Academy can just as easily provide the opposite: a one-sided platform for rigidity and hatefulness.

BDS and its allies are working very hard to push the Academy into this latter direction. 

Radioactivity and amoral behavior

In summary, if a group consciously or unconsciously fears for its certainty, a protective strategy is to label challenging information as dangerous. And if your identity is wrapped up in, say, a victim narrative, then the opposing side is not just wrong, but radioactive.

This is what BDS and its allied organizations, Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) do so well. A policy of non-engagement and intersectionality on the surface is linked to giving the “oppressor” no legitimacy. But, on a deeper level, it’s about protecting one’s narrative by making the pro-Israel student, professor or speaker so abhorrent that there’s no opportunity for internal challenge.

That is also why BDS activists encourage otherwise fair-minded people to act amorally, while at the same time, claiming the moral high ground. You can slander speakers, schedule votes in the student senate on Jewish holidays and vilify your opponent with words like privileged, colonialist and racist, without the painful self-examination of what this might do to an innocent person.
On campus, this amoral approach, while appealing in a self-righteous sort of way, stops real conversation. It allows BDS supporters to shut down opposing views – or at least try to. By making nuanced discussion of Israel radioactive, they are able to avoid threats to their sense of certainty. And by using violence or intimidation clothed in moral righteousness, BDS activists are able to avoid consequences for their bad behaviors.

The impact on campuses

Radioactivity works wonders on campus – no one wants to be labeled an Islamophobe, a racist, a supporter of apartheid, an occupier, an elitist or a cynical manipulator of the LGBTQ community. Framing the discussion in such a way kills the marketplace of ideas, because those who have competing claims are not seen as people with a different take on the world, but rather as agents of, well, evil. And you don’t need to have a dialogue with evil, just vanquish it.

Take for example a lecture held at the University of Michigan, in which photos of Hitler and Netanyahu were projected together with the words: “guilty of genocide” written on Netanyahu’s face. The message is clear, and effective: support Israel, or Netanyahu, and you’re supporting genocide and Hitler.

Similarly, at Tufts University, a BDS-supporting professor recently taught a course named “Colonizing Palestine.” The course presented a one-sided narrative depicting Israel as a colonial oppressor.

The one-sided approach to the Israel/Palestinian conflict is not just an intellectual issue, but is also corrosive outside the classroom, as NYU student Jordana Meyer discovered. After posting a picture supporting females in the IDF, Meyer received such hateful responses such as: “Zionist whore…You and your family should be gassed,” and “You are more cruel than the Nazis …”

The Academy can do much better.

The good news

How can we respond?

The first instinct is to push back hard with our own narrative. It’s OK as long as we are not heavy-handed. We must recognize that BDS activists want an over-reaction calling for a shutdown of their voices. This would allow them to play up their one-sided victimhood – being deprived, as it were, of their academic freedom and freedom of expression. We must not agree to this, we must engage, ask questions, and expose the complexity of the problem, including by delineated opposing viewpoints.

BDS supporters are to be exposed as one-sided, and anti-academic. They’ve got their narrative and everyone else is wrong.

Their power is in their certainty. And, like so many things, one’s strength is often one’s weakness as well. Thinking people know there are two sides to every story.

Many BDS supporters and aligned social justice warriors label others too easily, with a lack of regard to the damage they cause. You may believe that you are a victim, but it doesn’t give you the right to victimize others. How can you be so certain that you are not injuring an innocent person?

When they refuse to talk but are happy to label and protest, remember that their fear is not really about validating our truth but, rather, they are frightened that their truth cannot hold up in the marketplace of ideas. Better to blame, judge and label…and like most people who blame everyone else for their problems, it doesn’t really work.

Finally, BDS is a movement with terror underpinnings. How can a thinking person support co-opting righteous causes (oppression and discrimination in its many forms) for the purpose of destroying a sovereign state? The Jews have been oppressed as well. In the end, the Academy and the social justice movement are both injured by this enterprise.

Debate is not just about balance, but about real discussion allowing all sides to be acknowledged. As such, we should listen to them, and expect the same in turn. We must demand that college administrators work to promote dialogue through differences.

However, this does not mean we should accept untruths. As the Israeli poet Nathan Alterman once wrote: “This besieged one – how can I overcome him?… Only this shall I do: I will dull his mind / And cause him to forget / The justice of his cause.”

Here lies the answer: we need to refuse to be demonized. Our students and professors, administrators and alumni must demand conversation free from violence, and labeling.

We must ask our academics to start to view labeling – made many times easier by intersectionality – as regressive and not progressive.

We must realize that self-righteous certainty retreats in the face of the oxygen of nuanced conversation between engaged people.

For example, if one opposes the State of Israel, a thinking person should carry concern about the future of Jews as a minority. Even Edward Said admitted to this truly worrisome prospect. As he said in 2000:

“I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.”

And Said wasn’t even confronting today’s reality. Yes, during the Middle Ages, Jews in the Middle East were, on the whole, treated somewhat better than in Europe, but that is hardly the state of affairs today. Many religious minorities in the Middle East outside of Israel are facing existential threats – one can cite the plight of the Coptic Christians or the Yazidis as prime examples. Indeed, Shi’ites and Sunnis persecute each other.

What is the likelihood that Jews in the region would be treated well without a country of their own? Those advocating the destruction of Israel or a one-state solution should have to respond to this question, and many more.

When college students and faculty can hear the whole story, the good with the bad, the complicated, the half-answers and half-mistakes, they can form more thoughtful opinions. This openness to thinking is the best antidote to BDS rhetoric, and it represents the halls of the Academy at its best.

The nuanced pursuit of truth may not lead to the certainty of a True Believer, but it has a power all its own. And, as our ancestors discovered, it can be compelling. ■

Dr. Mark Banschick is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, with a practice in Katonah, New York. He is a co-founder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a StandWithUs nonprofit that mobilizes alumni to improve campus life, with an emphasis on a marketplace of ideas, civility and confronting antisemitism