Watch Out, Jewish Students: The anti-Israel Movement Will Boycott You Next

Recent events at Brown University reflect a frightening new stage in the BDS movement: targeting Jewish students and institutions that don't explicitly distance themselves from Israel.

A photo of Janet Mock used to advertise her planned speech for Moral Voices at Brown University, March, 2016.
Via Brown Moral Voices / Facebook

Janet Mock was born in Honolulu in 1983 to an African-American father and native Hawaiian mother, and is a soaring star in LGBT circles—almost a pop icon of the transgender community, if you will. As I discovered last week, she’s in high-demand as a speaker on college campuses. “Moral Voices,” a social justice group that operates under the auspices of Brown University’s Hillel, secured her as a speaker for a March 21 seminar entitled “Redefining Realness.” The event was well-publicized, and — as evidence of its expected popularity — was slated to take place in Brown’s largest lecture hall. 

But, unbeknownst to the program’s organizers, Hillel’s right to sponsor events had apparently been revoked by a handful of student activists. A group calling itself “Brown Students” published a petition on Change.org urging Mock to disavow Brown/RISD Hillel’s sponsorship, since its umbrella organization—Hillel International—is pro-Israel on most issues. 

I take pity on my readers, and will therefore reproduce only the most critical part of the tortured document:

“Hillel as a corporation has consistently defended and even advocated for the Israeli state’s policies of occupation and racial apartheid. Israel’s violent policies center on colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide of native Palestinians. Further, the Israeli government has been ignoring (and actively perpetuating) waves of anti-African violence in the past few years, recently including the mob shooting and lynching of an African asylum seeker and anti-African state-supported police violence.” 

The petition’s authors also coughed up the highly-original pinkwashing charge — that Hillel is exploiting Israel’s positive record on LGBT rights in order to distract people from how evil the Jewish state is. 

The students were not protesting anything about Janet Mock; just that Hillel doesn't have any right to host "one of their own" – a transgender woman of color – if it supports Israel. The petition attracted only 159 supporters — not all of them even Brown students — but as Mercutio said, “‘tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve.” Janet Mock cancelled the event. In an email, her representatives explained that “the focus of Janet's work was lost leading up to the proposed event, and her visit was received with controversy and resistance rather than open dialogue and discussion about the issues closest to Janet's work.”

The fingerprints of Students for Justice in Palestine were all over this from the start, and SJP’s proud confession in Monday's issue of the Brown Daily Herald leaves no doubt that the petition was its handiwork. 

The Janet Mock incident was just one episode of the anti-Israel scourge that has racked Brown this semester. Hillel hosted its highest profile event of the year on January 28, when former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharanksy and Hollywood legend Michael Douglas came to speak about their “Jewish Journeys.” Needless to say, that program didn’t sit too well with the dark forces of anti-Israelism, whose faithful picketed the talk in an attempt to disrupt it. Then came the coup de grce: Students at the Jewish and LGBT frats discovered anti-Semitic and homophobic vandalism graffitied on their walls last week. There’s no evidence implicating SJP in this, but when punishing the world’s only Jewish country becomes a permanent and obsessive feature of campus life, what happens next cannot be dismissed as an unhappy coincidence. 

Context matters, and it’s important to point out that few students hold strong opinions about Israel. These sorry fiascos usually fly right by the great majority of the campus. If you were busy with exams or engaged in other productive activities, you probably wouldn’t have even noticed that SJP spent three months waging a war against a food condiment produced in the United States because of its perceived ties to Israel. 

But crucially, Janet Mock’s cancellation foreshadows the newest frontier of anti-Zionist activity. The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is no longer content to just target Israeli institutions. It is now targeting individuals and organizations that are aligned ideologically with Israel.

We might recall the infamous Rachel Beyda story at UCLA, where a Jewish student was initially denied a seat on a student body over fears she’d be pro-Israel. The Jewish community raised eyebrows about anti-Semitism, but missed the forest for the trees. Rachel Beyda’s appointment wasn’t stalled because she was Jewish, but because she was assumed to be a pro-Israel Jew. Ditto with Janet Mock, Sharansky and Douglas at Brown: SJP opened fire on Hillel because it is a proudly pro-Israel organization. 

What we are facing therefore, is a targeted – perhaps even unintentional – form of anti-Semitism. It’s entirely possible that SJP does not mean for its behavior on campus to discriminate against Jewish students as a whole. Perhaps they resent Christian Zionist or atheist supporters of Israel just as much as Jewish ones, and would break out in apoplexy if Mock agreed to speak to one of their institutions, too. I won’t play amateur psychologist and claim to know what’s in their heads. But the outcome of their logic is that Jews and Jewish organizations — all of which have ties to Israel, the country where 40 percent of all Jews live — are ostracized unless they expressly distance themselves from Israel. 

This form of discrimination is more sophisticated than the coarse anti-Semitism of the past, but that only makes it more dangerous and tougher to prove. 

Campus BDS cells, animated by the ideology of intersectionality — and emboldened by the inertia of pusillanimous administrators around the country — are experimenting with a secondary boycott: a boycott of those who don’t fall in line with an anti-Israel position. This will effectively split the Jewish community into two camps: those who stick with Israel, and those who don’t.

I suspect — hope — that most Diaspora Jews wouldn’t be willing to suppress their identification with Israel in order to negotiate a cold tolerance from anti-Israel zealots. We don’t want to be sorted into “good Jews” and “bad Jews” based on how willing we are to throw Israel under the bus. But when we are forced to choose between being pro-Israel and pro-any other liberal cause, some of us may cave.  

A few days after Mock cancelled, Brown’s president wrote in an email that it is “counter to Brown’s norms and values for expressions of dissent to be targeted at a student group because of its religious affiliation.” But it hardly matters. The damage is done and the precedent has been set. If Jewish organizations aren’t aware of this phenomenon already, they’ll be put on notice soon enough. 

Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.