01 June '16..
Yesterday, Israel’s Mission to the United Nations hosted an important conference at the world body’s New York headquarters about the need to address the threat from the BDS — boycott, divest, sanction — movement that seeks to isolate the Jewish state. The daylong event, which was dubbed “Building Bridges, Not Boycotts,” brought together a number of important Jewish groups as well as students and filled the General Assembly Hall. It was an important step for a pro-Israel community, which has at times seemed to lag behind in its responses to the efforts by anti-Zionists to establish a beachhead in this country at universities and Christian denominations after their successes in Europe. But while the effort seems to have been successful, the problems for pro-Israel activists are formidable and go beyond the necessity of arming students and others with the facts about the Middle East conflict and what BDS actually means. The battle is not only with outside forces or about the ability of organizations to work together on behalf of this cause. But perhaps the most question is whether individuals are prepared to summon the will to stand up and have the guts to label BDS for what it actually is: anti-Semitism.
To his credit, that was exactly the theme sounded by Israeli UN Ambassador Danny Danon, who was the driving force behind the conference. He correctly spoke of BDS as “modern-day anti-Semitism” and that it was necessary for people of good will to work to “reveal its true face and put an end to its ideology of hatred and lies.” Others echoed that theme. The World Jewish Congress’s Ron Lauder said that what BDS was about was an attempt to “deny the Jewish people their right to self-determination” that hid behind a false label of human rights activism. Others spoke of the need to use legal action that takes advantage of non-discrimination laws and university policies that forbid bias to brush back the Israel haters.
All this is highly useful and, if it helps prompt both Israel and Jewish groups to mobilize their resources to put information and materials in the hands of those in a position to directly confront the BDS movement, it will be an important step forward. But I think as laudable as the effort to get more of the organized community behind this effort the real question is about whether Jewish students are ready to confront BDS head on and have the sort of difficult conversations that are inevitable in such a fight.
As much as the organizations present at the UN conference seemed to accept Danon’s point about anti-Semitism, the truth is, labeling an ideology that is generally regarded as a fashionable variant of human rights activism as a form of hate isn’t the sort of behavior that can make college a fun experience for students. That’s doubly so because many of those who serve as fellow travelers of the BDS movement, if not its advocates, are left-wing Jews who have been reared on the notion that the essence of Judaism is sympathy for the downtrodden. That’s what animates the efforts of many who join groups like the misnamed Jewish Voices for Peace or even the more radical Students for Justice for Palestine, which is funded by a group led by people that previously did fundraising for Hamas.
It is true that, as one participant in the conference told the New York Times, not every person who sympathizes with BDS is “an ignorant, self-hating Jew.” Many are misled by the false arguments of pro-Palestinian groups that try to sell their ideology as a protest against Israeli “occupation” without making it clear that SJP and all mainstream Palestinian groups — Fatah as well as Hamas — consider all of Israel “occupied” territory. Biased media reports about Israel’s government that almost always fail to note that it is the Palestinians that have turned down every offer for peace and negotiations contribute to this problem.
It is important to note that fighting BDS doesn’t mean cheerleading for the Netanyahu government, a trap that some on both the left and the right have fallen into. Those who are critical of Israeli policies but still support its right to exist and defend itself shouldn’t be lumped in with BDSers unless they have actively supported them. Nor is opposing BDS synonymous with backing any one Israeli political party.
But the point is, even many of those who know that BDS is wrong, are often reluctant to speak up against it. Many are particularly reluctant to label it as a form of anti-Semitism since doing so is viewed as divisive behavior as well as flying in the face of a dominant liberal culture on campus that wrongly considers Israel and its activists as the racists. For young Jews reared on a liberal universalist creed, the notion that groups that sympathize with suffering Palestinians rather than those backing powerful Israel are the offenders is a hard sell. Moreover, as historian Deborah Lipstadt has said, sending young Jews to college with warnings about anti-Semitism is a turnoff that will lead many to shun Jewish identity rather than to spur them to greater activism.
While I deplore that sensibility, there is no use pretending that such attitudes aren’t widespread among significant numbers of American Jews. The fact that it stems from problems of assimilation and demographic collapse reflected in the 2013 Pew Survey of Jewish Americans, which has led to a decline in a sense of Jewish peoplehood and has little to do with the unpopularity of the democratically elected government of Israel, doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
But that doesn’t make it any less necessary that young Jews be told that what they are facing is a form of hate, and they have an obligation to oppose it as vocally as possible. What it boils down to is that as much as Israel and Jewish organizations need to focus on smart ways to oppose BDS, the main issue is whether individual Jews have the knowledge and the courage to oppose the liberal conventional wisdom of the day in their college environments. Asking people to talk back to professors or to risk ostracism from students that have been indoctrinated to believe that Israel is an imperialist colony isn’t easy. But like previous generations of students who found the will to stand up for their beliefs, that is what fighting BDS means.
All too many Jewish groups are still more interested in papering over stark divisions with those who are enabling BDS than in fighting it. But soft-pedaling disagreements about whether Jews have the same rights no one would think to deny other peoples or the truth about Palestinian rejectionism won’t stop the BDS crowd. The only thing that works is for individual Jews to step up and lead by example by speaking the truth. That may not be something many people are willing to do, but if we think BDS can be stopped without that sort of courage, we’re kidding ourselves.
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