Earlier this week the student government of the University of Michigan voted to divest from Israel. It was a largely symbolic vote that is unlikely to have real implications for the University. But it is very concerning: it was the 12th attempt by the UM student government since 2002, and marks what is arguably the most significant success of the BDS movement among students anywhere to date...
Students have often been the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. This will either be seen as a high point of the Boycott Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel before its decline. Or it is simply a harbinger of things to come....
There are a growing number of Jewish students who are supporting the movement. Increasingly these students are being castigated as self-hating Jews or who have been brainwashed by anti-Semitic groups. Externally, adults seek to "protect" "vulnerable" students from this kind of activism.
I understand this motivation and sometimes feel it. But targeting students in this way is counterproductive.
I continue to teach undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis--one class on Jewish Political Thought and another on Zionism. I recognize that some students have been attracted to the BDS movement because of their love of Israel, and their repugnance of what they see as its unjust treatment of Palestinians.
These students are not hateful anti-Semites. They are pursuing what they believe justice requires through the means of civil disobedience that has been the hallmark of social justice campaigns based on core values of the Jewish prophetic tradition.
I strongly disagree with them on this issue. I believe they are mistaken in their approach. And I believe that they do not recognize that many BDS supporters not in fact seeking peaceful solutions to the conflict. There is a problem when those rallying against the only Jewish state wear anti-Israel and anti-Semitic t-shirts fabricated in countries whose violations of civil, human and political rights are shameful.
What should we do?
When Jewish communal institutions condemn students or make them out to be "brainwashed" they are insulting the intelligence of students and their ability to think for themselves.
When we keep student voices out of our communal institutions because of their views, we are not protecting them, we are not shielding the innocent from harm and we are not advancing our cause. We are alienating our next generation. We are using our fear to marginalize ourselves from the very real and important concerns that they have. BDS is not the answer. But that does not mean that their concerns are without merit.
As a professor with 20 years of experience in higher education, I don't think condemning students is a particularly effective way to go, it adds fuel to the fire. ("Grown ups" have tried doing this with students for decades; it's not that effective!) And as the CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, I am equally concerned that a strategy of condemnation of students will only strengthen BDS, particularly on campus....
The opposite of ignorance is education.
...We will continue to support the creation of broad educational opportunities to understand the conflict and the motivations of those who are supporting the BDS. And we stand ready to partner with our student organizations who want to provide an open and educational opportunity to understand the full dynamics of the conflict and why we believe BDS is a truly harmful movement.
We will continue to fight those in the BDS movement who are animated by dangerous anti-Semitism and seek to perpetrate evil, sometimes through intimidation and bullying. But must do so in a manner that does not also alienate a next generation of our own community who, because of their identity with Israel, are seeking to advocate for social justice there.--Andrew Rehfeld on Facebook.
Rehfeld is a political theorist I have known since graduate school, and our scholarly interests have considerable overlap. Since 2012, he is also the president and chief executive officer of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. He gained national prominence for his public role in responding to the vandalism of a Jewish cemetery. I was pleased to see his post on Facebook. Andrew has many wise words about the current, counterproductive and self-defeating (pro-zionist) strategy aiming to discredit the BDS campaign. And I am pleased he addresses this issue. Over the last year he is increasingly becoming a voice to be reckoned with in charting American Jewish self-understanding today.
I would like to add a few thoughts to his. But because a post like this may also be read by folks who are not my regular readers, let me just say something about my views. I defend the legitimacy of Zionism (even at the height of the Gaza war) because I take Zionism as a response to the failures of liberalism to deliver on its aims (e.g., free movement of people, protection of minorities, dignity of all etc.). So, while I am a liberal and a Zionist, I am not a liberal Zionist. I have done a series of posts in which I highlight the strategic failures of Zionism: i) its failure to establish permanent borders for the state of Israel; (ii) to settle what kind of political entity Israel should be so that it can end its near-permanent war-footing and occupation of hostile populations; (iii) (the perception of) Israel's dependence on America's political and military support, which ties Israel to America's strategic interests and electoral politics. In addition, I have become increasingly aware of (iv) the split between the interests of Zionism and American Jewry. I have written quite a number of essay about others who also struggle to chart the wisest Zionist course in today, and so hopefully you will check them out before you jump to conclusions about my views. Okay, so much for today's stage-setting.
In so far as their is a dedicated response to the BDS campaign (see Israel on Campus Coalition), it is deliberately polarizing. Andrew has highlighted the ways in which Jewish students with a strong sense of justice and reservations about Israeli politics are treated with contempt or condescension. As a leader of a Jewish community he correctly discerns that such a response is 'alienating' to the 'next generation' of would be members and future leaders of the Jewish community. This polarizing strategy will, thereby, lead American Jewry into a cul-de-sac depriving itself from future talent and leadership.
Andrew does not mention the impact on non-Jewish students, who may well come to believe that there are no arguments available to the Zionist side, and may well come to think that all Zionists support all the current unjust treatments of Palestinians;* that Zionism today is fearful of an open debate and lacks the intellectual resources to meet present challenges.
This last paragraph may seem worded to strong. But we should not overlook that pro-Zionists have supported a campaign of criminalizing support for BDS. If that were to succeed we would be in astounding position that burning an American flag and marching as a Nazi are protected speech, but calling for a boycott and divestment of Israel are not. Such a campaign of criminalizing support for BDS is not just illiberal, but also profoundly alienating to many with no intrinsic interest in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and so self-defeating over the medium term.
So, the current strategy to tackle BDS is fundamentally anti-intellectual, does not generate dialogue, mutual understanding, or true education. This is why it's good that a genuine educator like Andrew speaks about these issues.
Above, I mentioned that the current response to BDS is polarizing. This plays, in fact, into the hands of the activist core of BDS which needs a drip of news and incidents to keep mobilizing overstretched young people to take an interest in what is otherwise a distant conflict. Such polarization energizes BDS and its would be supporters.
I used to think that polarization was caused by Jews, who based on historical experience, believe that any sign of weakness, or lack of projection of strength, is setting oneself up for cycles of victimization. In addition, polarization serves those who do not wish to have Israeli policies toward Palestinians and Arab-Israelis second-guessed and questioned on American campuses. Maybe that's all what's going on. The campaign against Steven Salaita (for my view) revealed that fierce critics of Israel have to fear for their jobs, and that's profoundly illiberal and inimical to intellectual life.
But I have increasingly come to feel that polarization also plays into the hands of those Zionists that think American Jewry's future is not Stateside. I worry that quite a few people (academics, donors, etc.) who encourage and support a polarized, illiberal response to BDS are fine with such an outcome. It is notable that if I am right (recall iv) about Israel's reliance on America's strategic interests and electoral politics then this is a disastrous long-term policy for Zionism.
*It's possible, of course, that Zionism and justice for Palestinians are ultimately incompatible. But that's a different topic.