The latest attempt to boycott Israel on a North American college campus was made over hummus. The Strauss Group, Israeli co-owner (with PepsiCo) of Sabra brand hummus, supports the Golani and Givati brigades with gift packages, and was thus accused of human rights abuses against Palestinians. Princeton students were urged to demand that other brands be offered on campus in addition to the offending Sabra product.
The attempt at Princeton failed but this is only one of the latest examples of how the global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement and its accompanying “apartheid” rhetoric is being disseminated, one plate of hummus at a time.
The BDS movement is de facto antisemitism even as it masquerades as simply targeting Israel. The stated goals of the different BDS campaigns vary, but all include the “right of return” for Palestinian “refugees,” which means opening Israel proper to millions of Arabs who fled in 1948 and 1967—and their descendants—putting an end to the demographically Jewish state.
The BDS groups’ maximalist demand — the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state — is carefully hidden.
I witnessed, on the one hand, a great deal of energy by pro-Israel students to combat this latest wave of antisemitism.
On the other hand, despite their noble and well-meaning actions, these students fall short in the face of apathy among Jewish students at large and the vitriolic activities of the pro-Palestinian camps. The latter have devised ever more vigorous means to demonize Israel, such as model “check points” and apartheid walls that disrupt campus life.
For example, while speaking at the University of Oklahoma, I was challenged by two pro-Palestinian students who read off 3×5 cards a prepared question with the “correct” answer which they thought would illustrate Israel as a colonial force that wants to rid the region of Arabs and Muslims.
The question was about the two blue lines that bookend the Star of David in the flag of Israel. It was phrased to anticipate an answer that the goal of Zionism is to expand from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea, eradicating all Muslim presence. Ironically, this reflects a common protest chant used by many pro-Palestinians during demonstrations: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
But after hearing a long explanation about the origins of the flag of Israel, which comes from the colored stripes of the Jewish prayer shawl, they left the room confused yet determined to come back with more “facts.” Such information is easily found, but BDS supporters use assertions, no matter how absurd, to portray Israel as an aggressive force that robbed Palestinians of their land and threatens the entire Middle East.
Pro-Israel students should be commended for their efforts and supported in any way possible, since it requires real courage to speak out in these situations. Moreover, these examples should motivate the pro-Israel community to work far harder to educate students, parents, and stakeholders about the Arab-Israeli conflict.
It must be recognized that Israel’s detractors will make certain the most basic facts, such as the circumstances of the Jewish state’s creation, are lost or falsified in order to depict Israel as the eternal outlaw state.
Conceptually, what makes this battle so arduous for the pro-Israel community and so attractive for the antagonizers of the Jewish state is the umbrella of academic freedom that argues that it is legitimate to debate all aspects of Israel, from specific policies through its elimination.
In their naïveté, many in the Jewish community are willing to engage in these debates precisely because they are cloaked in academic freedom, which gives them the aura of legitimate criticism rather than the honest sting of racism.
As the BSD movement has redrawn the lines of acceptable discourse, the mainstream Jewish community has begun to respond. For example, in February 2010, the San Francisco Jewish Federation announced a policy which refuses funding to groups that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”
At the same time, NGO Monitor exposed the New Israel Fund’s support of various BDS groups.
But drawing red lines around Jewish support for BDS has proved more controversial than might have been expected.
Finding the Will to Fight
A new initiative launched by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), has been dubbed the Israel Action Network. Designed to fight the de-legitimization of Israel and BDS, it proves the point that there is a broad consensus that BDS must be confronted and defeated, not defended and funded.
But as a recent article in the Jewish Week shows, the New Israel Fund continues to waffle on its red lines, as do groups like J Street. When these anti-Israel defenders of the status quo cry censorship and claim that voices critical of Israel are being marginalized, it takes pluck to face them down and recognizes them for what they are.
Until the main institutions of the Jewish community square the circle, BDS will continue to grow at the grassroots.