If the first month of school sets the tone for the rest of the year, then those of us interested in campus discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should brace for a very challenging time. While the summer ended with a bounty of sunshine, ice buckets, and charitable giving, September brought a chill in the air and a shift in public awareness campaigns. Last week, Haaretz reported that the Ohio University Student Senate president accepted her nomination for the ALS ice bucket challenge by performing a “blood bucket challenge.” The student filled her bucket with red paint and tomato juice, and then posted a video to YouTube in which she poured the blood-like liquid on her head in an effort to encourage Ohio University to divest from Israel.
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The stunt made clear that the OU Jewish community would face a new dynamic on campus this year. Campus activists at the university immediately condemned this extremist tactic, and the North American Jewish community was quick to sound a chorus of polarized advice. The ADL highlighted the growing efforts at delegitimizing Israel, now further evinced by the summer’s anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity in Europe. This only added to the panic. On the other side, Jewish Voices for Peace urged students to refrain from “witch-hunting,” and to reinforce efforts for dialogue and learning. This only effaced the drama of the blood bucket.
No matter which of these two approaches we deem appropriate, the real issue here is that Jewish mentors continue to recycle their strategies. After this summer’s war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza, in the age of blood bucket challenges, at the start of a new school year, and with Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, isn’t now the time more than ever to replace our rhetoric with a more effective one?
The pro-Israel community can take this opportunity to respond with fastidious care; instead of expressing undue anxiety about the emergence of a boycott, divestment and sanctions faction at OU (free speech is a core value of the academic community, is it not?), students there should launch a conversation about the appropriate methodology of advocating political issues.
The ALS ice bucket challenge was such an effective campaign because, among other reasons, raising money for a life-threatening disease is not a controversial issue. Exploiting this successful, meaningful and inspiring movement for the sake of raising awareness about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not do justice to the complicated nature of the struggle, nor does it do a service to any of the parties involved. This is not only true of the blood bucket challenge, but also of a similar attempt with the Hamas vs. Hummus challenge, and even of the #BringBackOurBoys social media strategy. Re-appropriating non-controversial campaigns for an issue that is far more complex is overly reductive, and therefore manipulative, and thus not helpful.
The blood bucket challenge and Hamas vs. Hummus are especially irresponsible since they are designed to go viral on social media. This summer, we saw the extent to which social media debates on Israel and the Palestinians only promote anonymity, momentary engagement, and immediate 140-character responses. While these flashy and provocative stunts might go viral, they do not push us any closer to substantial social change or awareness, as they fail to portray the depth of the conflict.
This leads me to question what the blood bucket challenge really intended to accomplish. I doubt the true goal of the stunt was to garner support for university sponsored BDS, for the video was far too sensationalist to have normative appeal. Nor did it educate in such a way that it would enlist hitherto uninformed students to the cause.
The violent imagery of blood is so extreme (in general, and in the particular way it conjures painful anti-Semitic associations of blood libel) that the video’s intention is plain: to shock. Is shock the first step toward persuasion? Not for those who are not already convinced. The jolt of watching a young woman pour “blood” over her head is likely only to be an effective means of persuading someone who has already accepted the premise of her argument. This video, then, will likely rally only the BDS base. It will also likely alienate the center, and provide evidence to those who oppose BDS that the movement relies on extremist measures.
Furthermore, it is likely that the action will serve to polarize the student body, for even in the most charitable viewing of the video, it would be hard to argue that the action promotes dialogue, insight or unity.
In her position of power, this student should have sacrificed her reactionary inclination to create a spectacle in favor of working for a far deeper – and therefore more demanding – system of advocacy. As the semester begins, I invite the North American Jewish community to suppress its own gut reactions, and slow down, so that it can have the mental space to design fruitful initiatives for peace activism and collaboration. Dialogue and nuance are always the more laborious approach, but when dealing with conflicts this deep, slow-and-steady will win the race.
Zoe Jick is a candidate for the Masters of Theological Studies at Harvard Divinity School, where she focuses on Jewish Studies. Previously, Zoe was the Associate Director of the World Zionist Organization: Department for Diaspora Activities. Zoe is a Wexner Graduate Fellow for Jewish Education.