A pro-BDS student attending the first Open Hillel conference in Harvard, Oct., 2014. Illustrative. Gili Getz

The Year BDS Became the Number One Concern for American Jews

Last academic year, Jewish groups faced the 'most organized campaign to demonize Israel,' says Hillel CEO. In response, Jewish organizations have shifted their strategy.

NEW YORK – This was the year that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement moved to the center of the American Jewish community’s agenda.

While BDS efforts began more than a decade ago and have not reached the level of impact that similar work has in Europe, BDS proponents claim progress.

This academic year “we faced the most organized campaign to demonize Israel and attack pro-Israel students we have ever seen,” wrote Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut in a Dec. 22nd letter to Hillel International board members. “We were prepared,” he wrote, citing Hillel’s work with nearly 250 campus professionals on communications and other training, and plans to bring many to Israel in January.

The academic sphere is a major focus, with BDS resolutions brought before student governments and graduate student unions, as well as academic associations of college professors. The next attempt will be at the annual conference of the American Historical Association, a 14,000-member group meeting in early January in New York City.

BDS has become a central focus for the organized American Jewish community, which views it as a long-term threat. This year new coalitions were formed and efforts to fight it intensified by countering anti-Israel speakers and events on college campuses with others on the pro-Israel side. A new book of nearly three dozen essays, “The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel,” edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, has just been published.

Prompted in part by last summer’s Gaza war, “we certainly did see an increase in anti-Israel activity in the beginning of the semester but simultaneously we’ve seen a dramatic surge in pro-Israel activism. The movement has never been broader, has never been stronger,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition. “We’re tracking at least 4 or 5 pro-Israel events for every anti-Israel event. Pro-Israel activism by far outweighs anti-Israel activity in the aggregate. There are tons of pro-Israel speakers for every anti-Israel speaker” on a campus, he said.

One of the few BDS resolutions to win endorsement in a college system was at the University of California, whose graduate student union members on December 10th approved a resolution that calls on the UC system and United Auto Workers International union “to divest from companies involved in Israeli occupation and apartheid.” The union has 13,000 members working as teaching assistants and tutors on UC’s nine campuses.

Jacob Baime. Photo by Courtesy

Just over half the 2,100 union members who voted personally pledged not to participate in any research, conferences, events or exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities.

Another was at Chicago’s Catholic DePaul University, where divestment narrowly won a student referendum in May.

A similar measure was rejected in the City University of New York’s graduate student union.

BDS opponents say in the U.S. “the BDS campaign has been a complete failure. They have not really succeeded in convincing anybody except a handful of students and some professors that this in any way will contribute to peace or improving the lot of Palestinians,” said Mitchell Bard, executive director of the Israeli-American Cooperative Enterprise, a group which brings Israeli academics to American campuses.

“When it comes to campuses, the boycott has been a colossal failure,” he said. “There are roughly 2,000 four-year colleges in the U.S., and in the last academic year there were 16 or 17 divestment resolutions and they lost at least 12.”

Mitchell Bard. Photo by Renee Comet

Andrew Kadi, an IT professional of Palestinian descent in Washington, D.C., is co-chair of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. In an interview, he took issue with Bard’s description. If “this has been a complete failure, then why is so much money being invested in trying to counter it? All of the explicitly Zionist Jewish organizations in the country seem to be investing very heavily in the millions to oppose BDS,” Kadi said.

“I am not going to sit here and try and paint boycott as the greatest victory success of this year. This is a long-term process. It took 10 to 15 years for these type of campaigns to help end apartheid in South Africa, for those campaigns to have an effect at the policy level.”

Kadi acknowledged that BDS has been far more influential in Europe. “In the U.S., he said, “we still have a long ways to go.”

Death by papercuts

American Jewish organizations are shifting strategy in order to make change in the long term, moving toward building relationships with potential partners rather than being reactive when a new BDS initiative emerges.

“All of the leaders of our community believe we have to broaden our efforts. We all believe that this is not just a Jewish issue, but an American issue,” said Baime. “We’re seeing pro-Israel students active in politics making new allies outside the pro-Israel traditional circles.”

The David Project, for instance, is growing a program that this winter break will bring a pro-Israel student and two or three non-Jewish campus leaders they invite on a trip to Israel. This year it involves 32 campuses. Next year, said Philip Brodsky, the group’s executive director, they plan to involve 40.

“The community has gotten more sophisticated in understanding that every fight doesn’t have to be at the nuclear level,” said Bard. “Different tools are needed.”

“There are reasons to be concerned about growing disaffection from Israel, concern that even if today we have support, 10 years down the road we will have a bigger problem,” said Geri Palast, director of the Israel Action Network. Her network, which supports pro-Israel work at Hillels, JCRCs and non-Jewish groups like churches and black and Latino organizations, is a partnership between Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Center for Public Affairs and has a $1.5 million annual budget.

A decade from now, “will you have a progressive community in America that is no longer as supportive of Israel as they are today because they’ve grown up in this environment? That’s what you have to think about – not the resolution itself.”

“It’s death by a thousand papercuts,” Bard said. “People seem to feel we need to defeat it everywhere so they don’t gain the foothold or confidence they’ll need to succeed.’

Ethan Felson, vice president of the JCPA, the community relations arm of the organized Jewish community, said there should be a positive focus to anti-BDS efforts. “We’re trying to develop a movement in support of peace embodied in two states for two people, not fighting some bogeyman,” he said.

Felson tracks BDS efforts among Christian churches and said that he anticipates divestment resolutions similar to that passed in June by the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be raised in just about every mainline Protestant denomination in the coming year.

Entry point to academia

BDS proponents say their efforts this year have yielded success.

“BDS efforts have been greatly effective,” said Sydney Levy, advocacy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, which describes itself as part of the BDS movement. The decision of Durham, NC, to drop a $1 million contract with G4S, a multinational security corporation, over the company’s work in Israeli prisons and security checkpoints is one reflection of their success, Levy said.

Another is SodaStream’s decision to move its factory from a West Bank industrial park to a town in southern Israel. The home seltzer-maker manufacturer said in November it was moving for purely commercial reasons. But, Levy told Haaretz, that it is “moving out of a settlement shows the success of the BDS campaign.”

Beyond, perhaps, that instance, the BDS fight is not influencing Israeli policy, said JCPA’s Felson. “Even if Israelis are aware of the BDS movement, it’s not a motivator. Israeli leaders make decisions and Israeli voters make decisions based on far more tangible factors like security, their economic interests and political concerns. They’re inured to international isolation. They’re used to the UN and the EU and this one here and that one there saying they should go away.”

BDS has also not impacted Americans’ views on Israel, as a whole. In focus groups with influential non-Jewish Americans “no one knew what BDS was,” said a source, who did not want to be named. “It consumes a lot of our energy but it doesn’t have much reach. We think the whole world is BDS. It’s not so much.”

One arena in which BDS advocates have been notably successful this year is in academia, where being pro-boycott and divestment has become a near prerequisite for progressive bona fides.

“Our contacts on campuses are extremely alarmed at the way the Palestinian issue is being framed as a kind of entry point for people who want to see themselves as defenders of the downtrodden,” said Gideon Aronoff, CEO of Ameinu, a liberal Zionist organization that started The Third Narrative in 2013. This year TTN launched a forum for academics who oppose both the occupation and boycotts of Israeli universities.

“Its ability to become a sort of huckster for being properly left is very worrisome. When it becomes this kind of ideological signifying issue it loses its ability to be countered with factual arguments. That transition has happened this year,” Aronoff said.

The next battle?

At next month’s conference of the American Historical Association, which has 14,000 members, there will be a roundtable discussion by historians “critical of Israeli policy,” said one of the organizers, Van Gosse, and two resolutions condemning Israel will be raised at the business meeting.

Historians Against The War, a group started in 2003 to oppose the American occupation of Iraq, is trying to put the Israeli occupation on the AHA’s agenda.

Their resolutions reprimand Israel for “acts of violence and intimidation by the State of Israel against Palestinian researchers and their archival collections, acts which can destroy Palestinians’ sense of historical identity as well as the historical record itself,” for “refusing to allow students from Gaza to travel in order to pursue higher education abroad, and even at West Bank universities” and its “policy of denying entry to foreign nationals seeking to promote educational development in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

“If you move a large body like the AHA, which has real standing, that changes consciousness and opinion,” said Gosse, associate professor of history at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College, and a member of HAW and the AHA. “If we stimulate debate on these issues, that’s what we’re seeking to do,” said Gosse, who has personally donated money to JVP.

The AHA has not addressed international issues in his four years as AHA’s executive director, said Jim Grossman but previously that took a stand on the freedom of scholars in Russia. Grossman declined to share if he is Jewish or pro-Israel, saying, “my views on this are irrelevant. If there are historians whose rights as scholars, whose academic freedom is being constrained then we will speak out on their behalf.”

The AHA would join several other academic associations that have put anti-Israel resolutions on their dockets in the past year, though the AHA is the largest by far. The Middle East Studies Association adopted a policy last month allowing its 2,700 members to boycott Israel. The American Studies Association, with 5,000 members, passed a resolution to boycott Israeli academics and institutions in December 2013, though Israeli scholars were permitted to participate in its conference this year.

The American Anthropological Association rejected an anti-boycott measure at its annual conference last month, instead appointing a task force to bring recommendations to its 2015 conference. The Modern Language Association, which has nearly 24,000 members, rejected an Israel boycott motion at its conference in June.

Some pro-Israel historians members said they are working behind the scenes to try to scuttle boycott efforts at the AHA.

“The notion the AHA will have any effect whatsoever on Israel’s policies in the West Bank or nudging the parties toward negotiations is ridiculous,” David Greenberg told Haaretz. Greenberg is associate professor of history, journalism and media studies at N.J.’s Rutgers University. “There is a worldwide campaign of delegitimization of Israel. Every little piece makes a difference. In and of itself it’s not important but insofar that it contributes to the idea that Israel should be a pariah state it’s a bad thing. It’s bad for the AHA, it alienates Jewish members and creates divisions.”

Young scholars’ views on BDS can threaten their career prospects, he said.

“People who are even mildly supportive of Israel are in kind of a delicate position in academia. If you’re a graduate student or junior untenured professor you’re really fighting a strong anti-Israel climate in a lot of departments and your future could be on the line,” said Greenberg. “It’s no secret that there are almost no conservatives in the historical profession. Support for Israel has become equated with the conservative position. Anyone remotely supportive of Israel faces the legitimate worry that they will suffer as a result.”

“You should be able to say that I’m a Zionist and still get tenure and people shouldn’t care. It shouldn’t impinge on judgments of your scholarship. But it does.”

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