Conflict on Campus

U.S. Students Ramp Up BDS Movement in Wake of Gaza War

Operation Protective Edge triggers growth of anti-Israel student groups - including Jewish members; Pro-Israel groups counter movement by boosting leadership training.

Evan Goodman

NEW YORK – On Monday, Mia Warshofsky will start her sophomore year in Orlando, at the University of Central Florida. One of the first things the 19-year-old plans to do is launch chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, two groups that advocate for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Warshofsky, who is Jewish and has not been to Israel, is eager to advocate for BDS on her 59,000-student campus, though she’s concerned about the reception she’ll face. “Because of the rise in anti-Semitism right now people get very frightened and I worry that the Zionist groups on campus will not be very happy with us. My biggest concern is people being antagonistic,” she said in an interview from Oakland, California, where she was attending a BDS Student Leadership Training conference co-sponsored by JVP and the American Friends Service Committee.

In the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, which leaders of BDS advocates refer to as a massacre of Palestinians in Gaza, groups like JVP, which has grown by nearly half over the summer, and SJP, with chapters on 114 campuses across the U.S., are ramping up their presence at universities and planning on introducing more BDS resolutions. Pro-Israel groups like Hillel, The American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC,] J Street U and the Israel on Campus Coalition are focusing their own student leader training on ways to respond to the Gaza emphasis.

“On those campuses which are politically active there will be more tension than there has been probably since the early 1970s,” said Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which covers 15 campuses including University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore. The 15 institutions are attended by roughly 12,000 Jewish students, of a total student population of about 100,000. Alpert spoke with Haaretz shortly after reviewing security protocols with his director of facilities. “There is scary [anti-Semitic] stuff that has happened in other places. One would be naïve or foolhardy to simply assume that it can’t happen on their home campus.”

This summer’s conflict has been a boon to anti-Israel student groups’ membership.

“This Gaza attack has been able to catalyze a lot of people,” said Taher Herzallah, national campus director of American Muslims for Palestine, a group that provides funding and training to SJP. The Anti-Defamation League describes AMP as an organization that “promotes extreme anti-Israel views and has at times provided a platform for anti-Semitism.”

“What happened in Gaza will add intensity to the work that we’re doing,” said Herzallah. “This has helped us get a lot more public support from people we have trouble reaching, people who are usually apathetic.”

While BDS has been a growing focus among Palestinian advocates over the past few years, it will likely become even more of an emphasis now, with campus groups using the Gaza war as a linchpin for resolutions and other activities, experts say.

“Last year all across the country we saw ‘Israel apartheid weeks.’ I’m concerned this will be ‘Israel apartheid year,’ said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, which trains students to combat anti-Israel activity and funds pro-Israel programs. “Traditionally we see BDS activism concentrated in the spring semester. We’re going to see a lot more of it in the fall. We are already seeing a lot of this happen.” There have already been two BDS resolution attempts this month, at Florida Atlantic University and the United States Student Association, he said. Both were beaten back.

“The campus environment will definitely be more challenging than it was in previous years precisely because the anti-Israel movement sees itself as an extension of the ambition of Hamas, which is to isolate, demonize and eradicate Israel,” said Noam Neusner, a Hillel International spokesman. “There is going to be blowback from the war. Hamas’ supporters in the U.S. will portray themselves as the underdog and the victim when obviously Israel was the victim here. Getting that message across on campus is difficult because there is always a sentiment that favors the perceived underdog.”

Hillel and other organizations are focusing – and putting money behind – increased Israel programming. The ICC is training 50 undergraduate student fellows from 50 different campuses where “there is a high risk of BDS activity” and little pro-Israel student presence, Baime said. It is also growing its network of faculty fellows, focusing on disciplines where BDS resolutions are likely to come up in academic organizations. Hillel and the ICC are part of a coalition of Jewish groups including Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity, bringing 120 students in to Washington at the end of August for intensive advocacy training.

The ICC also has a micro-grants program which has already received 100 applications for projects that “demonstrate physical public support for the Jewish state,” Baime said. His organization is soliciting requests for funding from pro-Israel faculty and leaders of other campus groups for one-on-one meetings between adults and students over coffee or pizza, too. The goal, Baime said, is “to increase students’ confidence so they realize what they’re doing is right and good and they should be proud of it. If you’re an undergrad meeting with a professor on campus is valuable. It’s validation. Talking about Israel’s humanitariasm, just boosting their confidence.” The organization has allocated $100,000 to these micro-grants but is willing to double that if the demand is there, Baime said.

The ICC wants to shift the Israel conversation away from defensiveness. “In the past people have tried to win an argument with the other side. Given the context we face this fall it will be most important to bolster the confidence of the pro-Israel side,” said Baime. “We want not to let Israel’s detractors define the agenda. There’s an impulse we all have to respond. Let’s define our own agenda on campus.”

BDS without dialogue 

Pro-Palestinian students are planning fewer campus protests than in the past, said AMP’s Herzallah, as they shift efforts toward impacting policy. While divestment resolutions brought to student governments are symbolic, since the bodies don’t control university investments, anti-Israel groups say they are a critical building block of their campaigns.

“These student government [resolutions] pass or not, but the point is it’s a platform for us to move to the next step, Herzallah said. “Several University of California campuses have passed divestment efforts already. Once we get done with the nine campuses [in the UC system] we can go to the regents and say ‘all of your campuses want this.’ It will add a lot of pressure to the university system in demanding divestment from these companies.”

Of the roughly 400 anti-Israel events on American college campuses in 32 states last year, said Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism, about 150 of them were BDS-related. While most of the divestment proposals fail, “the symbolic is important,” he said. “The fact that they haven’t succeeded in any way is beside the point. It’s a way to get other people to latch on to their cause and broaden the tent of opposition to Israel.”

The goal of BDS resolutions “is about atmospherics, to shake the confidence of pro-Israel students,” said the ICC’s Baime.

Just initiating the divestment debate enables “the discussion around Israel’s violations of human rights to become an active thing. That’s one huge benefit of it,” said Herzallah. “Now divestment is an issue that’s talked about, no longer an afterthought.” While the AMP and SJP lobby for university divestment from Israeli firms and companies that do business with the Israeli government, they refuse to engage in conversation with Israel advocates and discuss Israel only in the most dramatic terms. “We are completely against normalization and dialogue with Zionist groups because you cannot have a conversation with people who are supporting an ideology that is committed to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” Herzallah said.

Rabbi Evan Goodman is executive director of the Hillel at UC Santa Barbara, where SJP and its allies brought divestment resolutions to the student government board in each of the last two years. The college, which has a Jewish population of about 1,800 students out of 18,000 undergraduates, did not approve it.

The BDS push, as well as the Gaza conflict, have ratcheted up tensions, Goodman said. “I’m concerned that it will be harder to have honest, open discussions between people and that we will have to work extra hard to keep our civil campus climate positive. I’ve been doing this for enough years to know that there are periods that are easier to deal with and periods that are harder. This is undoubtedly going to be difficult, though so much of it depends on what the situation on the ground is when students return.”

“We all know there will all be a very charged atmosphere on campus, that there will be a lot of anger and heated rhetoric across the spectrum around the crisis in particular,” said Ira Stup, J Street U’s outgoing director. Most of the 110 students who attended J Street U’s Summer Leadership Institute on August 8-10 at the University of Maryland spent at least part of their summer in Israel, he said, and dealing with the Gaza crisis became “the thrust of the institute weekend.” The student arm of the lobbying organization has chapters on 60 campuses around the country and 6,000 affiliated students.

“There’s a real recognition that this is not just another crisis,” said Stup. “The situation has gotten so tragic that this is a different moment, which requires a different reckoning about how we move forward.” The focus of student training sessions was on “inserting the right focus in those campus conversations,” Stup said.

At AIPAC’s Saban Student Leadership Seminar in July, attendees compiled a 72-point list of pro-Israel activities and campaigns to bring to campus, including a “siren simulation dinner,” which would be interrupted by a “red alert” siren. AIPAC did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

“We’ve just emerged from a very bloody escalation in violence and the conversations around Israel [on campus] will be harsher,” said J Street U’s Stup. “As we see every time there is violence, Israel is further marginalized in campus discourse.”

ICC