In his speech to AIPAC in 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke powerfully about how the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement’s singular focus on Israel, the only Jewish state, is "anti-Semitic.” His comments were so well received that as he finally left the stage, Bibi received by far the loudest and most sincere standing ovation of the conference. As a Jewish student and pro-Israel activist at UCLA, I couldn’t help but let his words resonate with me. In a world of universal apathy, the single obsession on Israel’s human rights record feels disingenuous. And given the deep history of singling out and scapegoating Jews, I can’t help but feel that the BDS movement represents yet another chapter in this history.
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I have spent thousands of hours directly or indirectly fighting BDS on my campus – whether through my involvement on the board of Bruins for Israel or in student government, where I now serve as student body president. One of the greatest obstacles I face as a pro-Israel leader is the answer to the question, “What should we do instead of BDS?” It is a fair question that I should be able to answer immediately.
Yet I have realized that pro-Israel students like myself have plenty of information to counteract propaganda, but lack plausible actions to address the current status quo in Israel/Palestine. Calling for “dialogue” when people are dying seems cliché and weak. Fundraising for NGOs that promote Israeli-Palestinian collaboration seems toothless. But most importantly, Bibi's reelection takes away the pro-Israel camp on campus' most powerful anti-BDS tool: the existence of a government committed to peace.
When the Israelis and Palestinians engage in negotiations for peace, their bilateral engagement makes the unilateralism of BDS seem heavy-handed at best and destructive at worst. When the conflict seems solvable and the Israeli government seems dedicated to doing so, even the worst aspects of the status quo – the military occupation, the errant missiles in Gaza – can be painted as what I truly believe they are: a dark, temporary chapter of our collective history before a momentous resolution.
But since the negotiations collapsed last year, Netanyahu’s words and actions – his doublespeak on the two state solution, his racist comments about Arab voter turnout, his settlement expansion, the foot dragging in responding to racially-motivated attacks, the reckless killing of civilians in Gaza, the "nation-state" bill, the segregated buses – have shown the world the ugly, sad truth: that his government will not be dedicated to solving, or at the very least alleviating, the conflict in any way. No one on campus believes there will be a positive change to the status quo under Bibi.
The situation has gotten so bad, so indefensible, that, over the past year, the pro-Israel community has given up on defending Netanyahu's policies. Instead, on-campus activism consists of harmless events about Israel’s startup scene or innovative water conservation research. Even “defensive” actions by pro-Israel groups against student government BDS resolutions no longer target the foundation of the BDS movement (that there are human rights violations occurring and that the best way to stop them is to cut ties with those complicit in them), for while they often lack critical context, the citations in the BDS resolutions about Israel’s human rights violations are ironclad. When the pro-Israel camp cannot present an alternative to the cycle of violence, it is very hard to oppose loud, angry students who say they have the answer.
This week, the Israeli electorate let slip the opportunity to elect someone with any vision or viable alternative to the status quo. Instead, they chose to reelect Bibi and his policies of “managing” the Palestinian issue. Netanyahu's victory is also a victory for BDS. His anti-Arab, anti-two-state-solution, nationalist coalition will serve as potent propaganda fodder for painting Israel as a racist, colonial power. Students for Justice in Palestine and the BDS movement will undoubtedly continue to gain traction as long as this government as power. What's more, Netanyahu's actions will further alienate committed young Jewish pro - Israel supporters, like myself.
This is not to say that without Netanyahu, Israel would have suddenly cleared its blemishes and secured peace with the Palestinians. I do not trust that the current Palestinian leadership is truly committed to curbing incitement and anti-Semitism, or to giving up their territorial claim for the entire land. But I’d suggest that Israel would have been better off without a prime minister who is actively dedicated to making things worse.
I am also not naive enough to proclaim that removing Bibi would have stopped anti-Israel sentiments on campus. The American college campus has bred Israel-bashers since Israel’s very inception – much before the occupation, the settler movement or the mistreatment of African migrants. Those extremist elements pose no threat to Israel’s standing in the world. The danger appears when moderate, peace loving liberals, who want to see nothing but justice and peace, are forced to side with the extremists because they see no alternative, given the positions of the Israeli government.
Avinoam Baral is a senior at UCLA. He serves as a student leader in Hillel at UCLA as well as the Student Body President, representing the campus’ 28,000 undergraduates. The views represented here are his own and do not represent the views of Hillel or UCLA’s student government.