The upcoming anti-BDS summit hosted by Sheldon Adelson and other Jewish patrons is the latest episode in a now familiar saga. This saga is one in which major voices in the American Jewish community pour valuable resources into combatting anti-Israel activities. Yet, as good as their intentions may be and as promising as the initiatives that emerge from this convention may seem, I strongly suspect they will prove futile.
Why? Because no amount of money or secret conferences will dent the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for as long as the people behind them refuse to offer a credible alternative to what's really eroding Israel’s reputation: the occupation.
Raphael Magarik, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote last year that his experience fighting BDS opened his eyes to the self-defeating nature of mainstream pro-Israel activism. You “cannot convince progressives that Palestinians are responsible for their own suffering," wrote Magarik.
He’s right. Apart from hard-core anti-Israel activists, BDS draws much of its support from a truthful and widely shared sentiment among students: that the Israeli military occupation of millions of Palestinians living beyond the Green Line has to end. Trying to convince would-be BDS supporters that the occupation doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t a violation of human and civil rights, is a waste of time.
As the National Board president of J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, I’ve seen a story play out countless times on countless campuses. It goes like this: A student group or coalition of groups proposes a BDS resolution. Pro-Israel groups form a coalition against it, which pays lip service to peace and a two-state solution, but never actually objects to the occupation or offers a good way for students to positively advocate for a resolution to the conflict. The BDS resolution passes, or perhaps it fails, but only by a small margin.
Each year, new campuses endorse BDS, and each year the American Jewish community twiddles its thumbs as Israel elects increasingly hawkish governments, settlements continue to grow, and the occupation deepens.
Members of the American Jewish community are left with a choice: support the status-quo of occupation and oppose BDS, or support BDS and oppose the status quo. For your average progressive student, the latter choice is a no brainer.
But there must be another way. Leaders of our communities have to articulate a path for those of us who want to see a Jewish and democratic future for Israel without the blight of the occupation. We want to be able to oppose the occupation and oppose BDS.
Unfortunately, we cannot expect Adelson's conference to find a solution to that end. Adelson is not interested in opposing the occupation. This a man who has called the Palestinians a made up nation who exist only to destroy Israel; a man who has suggested that the United States should drop nuclear bombs on parts of Iran, and publicly mused that it would be no big deal if Israel ceased to be a democracy. His views on Israel may be miles away from those of most American Jews, but respected leaders in our community have no problem taking his money – and, with that, his agendas – to "fight" BDS. They do not realize, or perhaps they simply ignore the fact, that Adelson’s money dooms their anti-BDS efforts to being indifferent to (or in denial of) the occupation – and, therefore, to irrelevance.
J Street U, unlike other major pro-Israel, anti-BDS campus groups, was not invited to this summit. Our organization has advocated tirelessly for strong leadership in the American community toward a two-state solution and an end to the occupation. Clearly, those who convened this meeting would rather stick their heads in the sand than confront challenging truths.
But if American Jewish leaders want to succeed, there is a truth they must confront: Convincing liberal college students to reject BDS requires recognizing the occupation and touting the promise of a more just and democratic Israel. If they are serious about defeating BDS, American Jewish leaders must forfeit Adelson's money for the sake of engaging in honest conversations that generate positive results. And the outcome of these conversations must offer a credible alternative to BDS, articulating a vision for Israel’s future – and a path for working toward it – that progressive students can get behind.
There is no other way to confront BDS, and no other way to secure Israel’s future.
Benjy Cannon is the President of J Street U. He holds a B.A. in Government and Politics and Philosophy from the University of Maryland. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.
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