That mouthful is the title of my talk to Limmud scheduled for 9 August. In this post I want to discuss my path to the talk and take up some salient issues which I will not be addressing directly on 9 August. It is part of my own marketing drive to ensure a reasonable audience in the face of excellent competition from other contributors to Limmud.
I suppose one could start with the basic question: why should anyone above the age of 25 years (or 30, 40 …etc) have anything to do with politics? Surely Gibbon had it right when he wrote something along the lines of “History is indeed little more than the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” And to that I would add that the same dismal prospect stretches before us to the horizon of human consciousness. After the first flush of youth and the feeling the world is ready to be made anew in the image of our own longings, does not the wisdom and experience of the years tell us that such hopes are an illusion?
Well, of course, it does but our species is condemned to pursue that illusion. The very essence of humanity is that we occupy, emotionally and intellectually, a larger universe than the limits of our own immediate physical existence. It is both our burden and our glory and so, on that rather rickety basis, we continue to repair and rebuilt our human edifice.
That sort of takes care of the metaphysics but the more immediate background is that for the previous one and half decades I have been a humble soldier in the Israeli public relations brigade. That is, of course, a largely (not entirely) informal fighting unit which formed in response to the anti-Israel propaganda front which raged in the media, in academia and in various other dimensions of our local and globalised society. We all know about it in the form of the BDS campaign and the various entities formally and informally affiliated with it.
Neither this post or my talk is directly on that topic but it is deserving of much closer inter-disciplinary scrutiny. There is an enormous amount to be learnt from such a scholarly exploration (especially from a complex systems paradigm) but I would like to mention just a few.
- What impact has this form of warfare had on the quality of debate and the possibility of peaceful and productive solutions?
- How has it piggybacked on global themes and conversely influenced global opinion divides?
- How has the funding and support profile evolved on both sides over time?
- Have the “two sides” approached the PR arena differently: strategically?
- How have ethical issues and culture informed this front?
More important for me has been the personal impact of PR/propaganda on my life. Certainly being caught up at the business end of lies, distortions and hatred is, existentially, a deeply unpleasant experience. By responding (fighting back) one is able to some extent to mitigate some of the negative feelings of helplessness and impotence induced by the campaign. I know that is true in my own case and by discussions with friends who admit to the disturbing and disempowering effect of being the target of malice and lies.
But the very nature of propaganda (even if neutrally defined as the “art of persuasion”) runs contrary to a commitment to impartial “truth” as an ethical imperative – even if one feels, as I do, that justice is preponderantly on our side. To some extent that issue can be addressed by adhering to a policy of rational and fact-based debate. Perhaps the best recent example of that is the book (downloadable as a pdf document) entitled “Filling in the Blanks: Documenting Missing Dimensions in UN and NGO Investigations of the Gaza Conflict” edited by Gerald Steinberg and Anne Herzberg. Besides downloading it as a reference, I suggest you also put aside time and watch the video here; the second set of speakers are particularly interesting.
But while this helps as does a vacation or a night out with wife and friends, in the long run propaganda, even if for the right cause, is not really compatible with disinterested enquiry. And so I have basically detached myself from the front lines and thrown myself back into an old interest: understanding collective human behaviour. Hence this Limmud topic and this post.
I start from the very basic assumption there are no final answers and no solutions to the challenges of existence: there is only the possibility of better understanding and better management. Neither I or my talk can offer much sustenance to those searching for a profound, soul-satisfying vision and/or denunciation of our enemies. That does not stop me from opposing those who wish to destroy Israel and what she stands for with all my strength, but it also does not stop me from knowing that there is more to the story than that. It is this other part of the story that my talk is concerned with.
To some extent it is this other part of the story which may assist us in finding a way out of the impasse that chance and history has thrown up in our path. It may lie in specifics, in information and ideas which offer creative solutions to the existential challenges which face Israel and more broadly Judaism. But it also lies in some very general ideas captured by the evolving concepts of complex adaptive systems. The English theorist and political activist, Dominic Cummings, expresses it quite well:
“Complex systems are, therefore, hard to understand, predict, or control. Given our limited understanding of complex systems and their vast possibilities, success requires adaptation, adaptation requires prediction amid uncertainty, and our evolved nature gives us not only amazing pattern recognition and problem-solving abilities but also illusions.”
Israel is a complex system embedded within and interacting with other complex systems. Israel has often in the past confounded her enemies and astounded her friends by adapting remarkably well – often only after some rather nasty knocks – to apparently insurmountable challenges. But complex systems can also collapse into destructive feedback loops or into chaos. The more knowledge, the greater the sensitivity to emerging trends, challenges and possibilities and the less we are prone to illusions the greater the chance of success. My talk is an initial personal effort in that direction.
More in my next post.