Jonathan S. Tobin
There are no easy answers for Jewish organizations on college campuses when it comes to defending Israel and opposing efforts to stigmatize Jews who support it.
They are faced with an academic culture that is ill-disposed against sectarian identities or nationalism, both of which are assumed to be a form of racism. Academia is also particularly susceptible to arguments rooted in intersectional theory. In that way, fashionable opinion has embraced the fallacious notion that the fight for civil rights in the United States for African-Americans, as well as the LGBTQ community, is inextricably linked to the Palestinian war on Israel’s existence.
That makes American campuses a perfect storm set up to facilitate the BDS movement’s campaign to isolate supporters of Israel.
Many Jewish students, who are either insufficiently versed in the truth about the Middle East conflict and/or lacking the strong sense of Jewish identity that would motivate them to oppose the demonization of Zionism, simply stay silent or opt out of the debate. They are isolated by the casual acceptance of “Israel apartheid” lies, as well as constrained by the fact that many of those putting forward the most hateful canards against Israel and its supporters are classmates and friends.
To engage in full-throttle debate in such an atmosphere is to risk being branded as an intolerant opponent of the progressive beliefs that are considered the sine non quon of acceptance to decent society at most schools.
Jewish organizations dedicated to helping students seek to alleviate this situation with funding, information and events. Groups like CAMERA have invested heavily in the fight against BDS on campus. The same is true for other advocacy efforts such as StandWithUs, in addition to Zionist organizations. At the heart of the struggle is Hillel International‒the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which has chapters at most institutions of higher learning that provide a safe haven for students, as well as a variety of outlets for activism, and religious and social life.
All mean well, and much of what they do is valuable. But there is little reason for self-congratulation. While the number of colleges that have adopted pro-BDS resolutions and policies are few, they are still significant.
At Brown University, a vote by the student body on BDS resulted in stunning victory for enemies of Israel. Of the 3,000 students who voted, 69 percent were in favor of the university divesting from companies that do business in Israel. Elsewhere, student governments, such as the one at Swarthmore College, have endorsed similar resolutions. Though the heads of these institutions have generally vowed not to allow the effort to influence their investment policies, the damage the movement is doing to the situation of Jewish students should not be underestimated.
As the situation grows more serious, it is appropriate for the Jewish community to assess its efforts.
The first principle that those concerned with the situation should respect is that outsiders never know as much about what is going on at a particular campus as those that are there on the ground.
The second is that this struggle isn’t really about Israel as it is about American Jewry. BDS efforts have done little or nothing to impact Israel’s prosperous economy or isolate it diplomatically. But it has made the lives of American Jewish students more difficult. If unchecked, it will continue to further marginalize Jews.
It is aided in no small measure by the liberal political culture which views leftist opponents of Israel like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) as a heroine in spite of her open anti-Semitism. Even worse, U.S. President Donald Trump’s support for Israel has delegitimized the pro-Israel community in the eyes of many progressives.
It is little wonder then that the primary approach to supporters of BDS from Jewish groups on campus has been one in which they have balanced their advocacy with respect, friendship and a willingness to listen to the other side.
Their commitment to civility and the understanding that universities must be places of open debate is admirable. As a general rule, persuasion works better than open warfare in swaying hearts and minds. But it’s also time to realize that this has only served to create a form of asymmetrical political warfare on campuses.
BDS advocates like Students for Justice in Palestine spew hatred against Israel, assisted by Jewish fellow travelers such as Jewish Voice for Peace and others on the left. In return, pro-Israel groups make reasoned arguments, albeit sometimes undermined by their apologetic attitudes about the assertion of Jewish rights. Their willingness to acknowledge Palestinian grievances is not matched by any concern about Jewish rights and security by the other side. While BDSers spread anti-Semitic tropes, Jewish groups invite their opponents to Shabbat dinners.
While such tactics speak well for the manners of Israel’s friends, many of them have chosen—often, deliberately—to downplay the intrinsic anti-Semitism of BDS because it seems too harsh a rhetorical point. Pro-Israel groups are a little too conscious of worries about the downside of accusing opponents of hate or anti-Semitism, especially when supporters of BDS are seen as well-meaning progressives.
But any discussion about BDS that does not make it clear that hatred for Israel is not only illiberal, but that it is also a noxious form of anti-Semitism will never succeed. If you feel that it is wrong—or bad manners even—to point out that BDS seeks to deny rights to Jews that are not denied to others and is inherently discriminatory, you have missed the key point of this debate.
Standing up against this hate requires courage because those doing so run the risk of being branded as reactionaries in a progressive world. But as much as persuasion is the goal, any discussion about BDS must center on the fact that its advocates are—wittingly or unwittingly—spreading hate and bias against Jews.
If that understanding is not the starting point for our efforts to push back against campus BDS campaigns, then we are doomed to fail.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.