To most people, BDS is the campaign to boycott Israel for the purpose of highlighting the plight of Palestinians.
Were it this simple, honest people might disagree on the merits of such a campaign. However, the well-documented statements of the movement’s founders (and many of their successors) reveal its true intent: the eradication of Israel as a Jewish state. On college campuses, this can be discerned from the oft-heard chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
How did this come about? How did the only thriving democracy in the Middle East become so vilified on college campuses?
The answers are many, and it’s tempting to look solely to Israel’s status as occupier. But more is at play. In the progressive environment that pervades today’s academic world, power is often equated to oppression — and both Israel and the Jewish community are seen as powerful.
From the perspective of those groups within academia who see themselves as history’s mistreated figures, dialogue with the powerful is problematic. On the one hand, most college students and their teachers support free speech. But just as many oppose speech that, to their ears, smacks of oppression. This tug of war often tilts against speakers whose message is seen as hurtful — an understandable, if not always appropriate, reaction.
Unfortunately, for campus constituencies who only see Israel as occupier and oppressor, it also means that pro-Israel speech is viewed as unacceptable and its advocates racist.
Thus, campus organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) take the view that there can be no dialogue with lsrael’s defenders, lest such dialogue lead to “normalization” of the pro-Israel point of view. As one academic known for provocation has put it, dialogue cannot take place if it “humanizes” the Israeli people. Carried a step further, this attitude also translates to pro-Israeli speakers being shouted down — a practice that occurs with regularity on today’s college campuses.
How does all of this affect our Jewish college-age students? Some students with modest backgrounds in Judaism and Israel may not be affected at all. Others, who arrive at college with a strong connection to Israel but also strong progressive views, may find themselves torn. They may have to choose between supporting Israel and being ostracized, or rejecting a core part of their identity in order to gain acceptance as a progressive.
This quandary may be less of a problem on larger campuses, where Jewish students can disregard in-your-face annual events such as “Israel Apartheid Week.” However, as time goes on, students will find it difficult to avoid the anti-Israel drumbeat even at larger schools. The recent unwillingness of two University of Michigan teachers to write letters of recommendation on behalf of two students who wanted to study in Israel is a case in point.
On smaller campuses, such as the Claremont Colleges in California, where the Pitzer faculty voted to dissociate itself from a study-abroad program with the University of Haifa, anti-Israel behavior can not only be devastating, but also seamlessly morph into anti-Semitism. The irony is that the University of Haifa’s inclusiveness, with a third of its students non-Jewish Arabs, would be the envy of many an American university seeking to build minority representation.
At Pomona, another Claremont College, one student was quoted as saying that even going to Shabbat services was being derided as a political statement. At Oberlin, a liberal arts college in Ohio favored by progressive-minded Jewish students, a group of more than 90 alumni published an open letter calling upon Oberlin’s president to end “the concerted hostility toward Israel on campus,” and stating that such hostility “fosters a hostile environment for Jewish students.” Sadly, the beat goes on at many other revered small colleges.
What can be done to influence the debate and make Jewish students more comfortable? Here are a few pointers.
From a myriad of sources, prospective students can learn about campus attitudes towards Israel even before applying. Once on campus, there is strength in numbers. On many campuses where SJP and like-minded elements of the intersectional spectrum are active, Jewish students far outnumber the most vocal of Israel’s detractors. At schools such as Columbia (where one professor recently wrote on his Facebook page that “Every dirty treacherous ugly and pernicious act happening in the world just wait for a few days and the ugly name of ‘Israel’ will pup [sic] up as a key actor in the atrocities”) and Rutgers (where one teacher spread the blood libel that “young Palestinian men … were [being] mined for organs for scientific research”), anti-Israel hostility from certain faculty departments, as well as student organizations, is unremitting.
Yet Jewish life at these institutions — although not without its discouraging moments — is thriving, owing to the large size and resilience of the Jewish student bodies. Rutgers alone enrolls more than 6,000 Jewish undergraduates.
At other schools with large Jewish populations, size can be used creatively to demand dialogue and defend against attacks on pro-Israel speech.
But the fight against campus hostility towards Israel should include all of us. Just as Oberlin’s alumni wrote the school’s president to object to the debilitating anti-Israel environment on campus, other influential alumni and alumni groups can do the same. I know countless alums who are concerned about anti-Israel fervor and anti-Semitism at their alma maters. Now is the time for them to speak up.
Most importantly, Jewish campus leadership is essential. On many campuses, Israel’s detractors have taken over the student governments, positioning themselves to introduce, if not enact, BDS resolutions. Jewish students need to enter the fray and involve themselves in student government, even though for some the effort may be painful and the end may not immediately be in sight.
Finally, for Jewish students who arrive on campus passionate about Israel, they must possess both a background and tool kit with which to work. For the lucky ones, both of these can be obtained at the dinner table. For others, more is needed.
That’s where community organizations, such as local federation chapters and national advocacy organizations, come into play, with courses designed to prepare Jewish high school students for what they are likely to encounter at college. And for many, Jewish summer camp can provide a solid Judaic grounding in an uplifting and memorable environment.
Jerome Ostrov is the author of Finding the Right School in the Era of BDS and Intersectionality.