The Brooklyn College BDS Debacle Highlights the Perils of pro-Israeli Overkill

Overzealous Israel defenders used a five-megaton bomb to swat a fly, and it blew up in our faces. But Brooklyn is only a harbinger of nasty things to come.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Far more Americans know of the Palestinian BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement today than did a week ago. Many millions of people have been exposed for the first time to the idea that Israel should be boycotted, divested and sanctioned for its occupation of the territories. Many more Americans, one can safely assume, have formed a positive image of the BDS movement than those who have now turned against it.

Tafasta merube lo tafasta, the Talmud teaches us: grasp all, lose all. The heavy-handed, hyperbole heavy, all-guns-blazing campaign against what would have been, as Mayor Bloomberg put it, “a few kids meeting on campus” mushroomed and then boomeranged, giving the hitherto obscure BDS activists priceless public relations that money could never buy.

Rather than focusing attention on what BDS critics describe as the movement’s deceitful veneer over its opposition to the very existence of Israel, the disproportionate onslaught succeeded in casting the BDS speakers who came to the Brooklyn campus as freedom-loving victims being hounded and oppressed by the forces of darkness.

Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz’s article about the “hate orgy’ that is being co-sponsored by the College’s Political Science Department may have been tactically ill advised, but Dershowitz is a private citizen and is entitled to free speech, no less than the Israel-baiting speakers invited by the students. The same is true of the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, who took out a large ad in Friday’s New York Times in which he reprimanded Bloomberg for “confusing the issues”, and tried to equate support for the Palestinian “right of return” with anti-Semitism, a point which may have been lost on anyone but the most informed and involved of his readers.

But the true tipping point came when attention-seeking politicians got into the act. When a New York City council member engaged in nuclear overkill by claiming that a meeting of several dozen students in Brooklyn is tantamount to “a second holocaust”. And especially when eager beaver municipal pols - emulating, unfortunately, far too many of their counterparts in Israel – thought it proper to threaten cutting off city funding to a well respected academic institution because of one single student meeting that they found objectionable.

The result of all of this surfeit and excess was a clear-cut, perhaps unprecedented PR coup for BDS and a humiliating defeat for Israel’s interests. When the New York Times and Mayor Bloomberg found it necessary to step in and publicly stand up for a decidedly anti-Israeli movement – whatever one thinks of their true intentions- that only a few had ever heard of before. When the “pro-Israel camp” found itself, not for the first time, portrayed not only as heavy handed but a bit unhinged as well.

The Brooklyn College incident, after all, is far from isolated. It is, in fact, symptomatic. The distressing tone and self-defeating tactics of the most vocal elements of the so-called pro-Israeli camp in America have been the rule, not the exception, in recent years, and they are also bound to backfire on us all.

This inflated and melodramatic nature of what passes as political pro-Israelism was evident to many Americans, as the New York Times correctly noted, in the dismayingly over-the-top inquisition of Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearings in the Senate last week. Senator after senator found it necessary to extract from Hagel meaningless vows of allegiance to Israel and to press him again and again on the etymology and usage of the two or three words he may have used many years ago.

The Armed Services Committee devoted more time to Israel than it did to all the other world trouble spots combined, a proportion no less preposterous, frankly, than the comparison between a college get together and a second Holocaust.

But that’s the way it’s been over the past year, since the Republican debates and primaries and throughout the presidential election campaign: disproportionate, hyperbolic and ultimately counterproductive. Did Obama really “throw Israel under the bus”, as Mitt Romney repeatedly claimed? Did the fact that Obama failed to visit Israel in his first term – as Ronald Reagan before him during his entire eight years – really constitute proof of his undying animosity towards the Jewish state? Was there anything that connected the overwrought campaign against Obama to the complex reality of his policies towards Israel? And was it truly to Israel’s benefit that candidate after Republican candidate found it necessary to vow undying allegiance to Israel in a way that, in some cases, could easily have been confused with an oath of subservience?

Because the sad fact is that far too much of the public discourse on Israel has been dominated and dictated by super-conservatives and ultra-nationalists and the billionaires who fund them. These are people whose visceral hatred for Obama has driven them over the edge, who view any measured or nuanced debate about Israel as treason, who are hell bent on making their observation that liberals are turning away from Israel into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And who usually know very little about the actual Israel they are talking or writing about.

They make mountains out molehills, carve Nazis out of Palestinians, evoke pogroms and massacres from each and every violent incident. They don’t acknowledge the occupation, see nothing wrong with settlements or “Price Tag” violence, turn a blind eye to 46 years of Palestinian disenfranchisement, regardless of whose fault it is. They recognize only one truth, their own, and view all the rest as heresy and abomination. By their narrow definitions, no less than 50% of Israelis who voted in the last elections for parties that support a two-state solution should be condemned – possibly by the U.S. Senate itself – as Israel-hating, Arab-loving defeatists.

This preposterously simplistic portrayal of Israel is bound to backfire. It is dishonest, and therefore self-defeating. It quashes disagreement and abhors true debate. It distances anyone and everyone who does not subscribe to its narrow definitions of what it means to love Israel and to truly support it, warts and all.

And it will eventually erode the genuine bedrock of support that Israel enjoys in America.

It will be like Brooklyn, but on a much grander scale.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

In this archive image from November 2012, protesters in Ireland call for a boycott of Israel following Israeli bombing of Gaza.Credit: AP

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