There’s something about winning

I’ll never forget sitting with a group of intellectuals several years ago, at the height of the messy war in Iraq, and discussing why President Bush and America had fallen so low in the esteem of the world. One great mind after another offered sophisticated analyses. My head was spinning.

Finally, someone piped up: “Everything would be different if Bush were winning the war.”

At which point a distinguished professor from Israel said: “This is brilliant! Bush’s real problem is that he’s not winning!” I sat there, slightly stunned, thinking: How can something so complicated lend itself to such an easy insight?

I reflected on that insight the other night when President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden after a nearly 10-year pursuit. Here was a president who had suffered relentless criticism for his handling of foreign affairs. And now, as Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on his blog: “Our President, in the blink of an eye, has gone from a hyper-criticized, seemingly-swamped possibly-one-term leader to an American hero, a commander-in-chief who calmly oversaw the killing of the greatest mass murderer in American history.”

And why did he become a hero? Not because he made one of his inspiring speeches or announced a brilliant new policy.

He became a hero because he got a win. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that.

We love to teach our kids that life is not about winning and losing but “how you play the game.” That may be true when you’re dealing with people of good faith. But when you’re dealing with people who are out for blood, it’s a good idea to know how to win.

Naturally, Jews and Israel have always been juicy targets for people out for blood. So, how should one deal with such aggression?

I found a wonderful answer last week in a shoe store, of all places, on trendy St. Denis Street in downtown Montreal. The French Canadian owner of the store, who has been there for 25 years, decided last year to carry a woman’s shoe line from Israel called Beautifeel. Well, wouldn’t you know it, within a few months, a vicious boycott campaign was under way against the store, led by a popular local politician, Amir Khadir.

To give you an idea of the tone of their campaign, one of the boycotters’ leaflets had an oversize image of a woman’s shoe stomping on a pile of buried naked bodies — reminiscent of those horror shots of emaciated bodies you see in Holocaust documentaries. Written on the shoe was “Beautifeel. Made in Apartheid Israel.” On top was the headline, in French, “Boycottons la boutique Le Marcheur” (“Let’s boycott the boutique Le Marcheur”).

Week after week, the boycotters recruited large and noisy crowds to hand out the leaflets and implore people not to enter Le Marcheur. Their mission was to pressure the owner, Yves Archambault, to stop carrying the Israeli shoe line so that the neighborhood would be “apartheid free.” But Archambault refused, out of principle. It didn’t seem right to him that he should be told how to run his business. His business suffered, but he held firm.

The story hardly ends there. The Jewish community in Montreal got wind of the boycott and went nuts. A “buycott” campaign was launched, and Jews from all over the city came to buy shoes at Le Marcheur. A woman bought a hundred pairs. Archambault became a local hero.

Meanwhile, creative minds went to work producing counter leaflets mocking the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement as “Boycott Derangement Syndrome,” explaining the discrimination and hypocrisy inherent in the movement. These leaflets gave people the Israeli side of the story. Archambault did his own research and found out that the Israeli shoe company (besides making great shoes!) hired women, minorities and Palestinians and treated their employees very well. The Quebec General Assembly drafted a unanimous resolution condemning the boycott and supporting the store.

And what happened to the initiator of the boycott, Amir Khadir? He went low-key and stopped coming to the demonstrations. Apparently, he concluded that the backlash might not be good for his political future.

I tell you this story not to remind you of the insidious global movement to demonize the Jewish state. That’s old hat by now. I’m telling you this story because it’s a tribute to the noble virtues of fighting back and winning.

Too often, we recoil at the idea of fighting. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth. We dread the thought of “lowering ourselves to the level of mudslinging.” We prefer notions like “engagement” and “bridge building.”

But the nasty boycotters of St. Denis Street who used Nazi imagery to malign an Israeli shoe company were not looking for engagement or bridge building. They were looking for blood — and a victory.

Faced with such aggression, how else to respond but to fight back?

Yes, in such cases, life is a zero sum game. One side wins, and the other side loses. The Jewish community of Montreal, with the support of a brave French Canadian shoe merchant, fought back ferociously and smartly against what it perceived as a grave injustice to the State of Israel. And, guess what — they won.

It’s not as dramatic as taking down bin Laden, but we’ll take it.