Defeating BDS by Bringing pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian Students Together

Jewish students in the U.K. defeated a student union’s academic boycott of Israel – by campaigning on a pro-Palestinian ticket.

Students at an Israeli university.
Emil Salman

Last week, students at Britain’s University of Sussex (a 14,000 student-strong institution renowned for its frequent left-wing protests and sit-ins) voted to reject an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

For those who don’t know, Sussex, on the south coast, is a famously anti-Israel campus. When I tell older members of Britain’s Jewish community where I study, they suck in their cheeks and hiss: “The anti-Semitism there’s terrible, isn’t it!” Well, no it isn’t, and I’ve had three happy and safe years here. But the atmosphere is definitely very anti-Israel.

Which is why the referendum result – in which the pro-BDS resolution “Should the Students’ Union endorse a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions?”  was defeated by 904 ‘no’ votes to 667 ‘yes’ votes – was such a groundbreaking success.

The voting followed a ‘no to the boycott’ campaign run by three Jewish students who went for a completely original tactic – one designed to appeal to voters rather than merely to make an unpopular point.

There was no mention of anti-Semitism; no justifications of settlement-building; no comparisons to the Nazi boycotts of Jewish businesses. There was no helicoptered-in backup by national Jewish or pro-Israel organizations. Instead, the focus was on dialogue and humanity.

Lead campaigner Miriam Steiner explained: “We focused on highlighting those people [in Israel itself] working toward an end to [the] occupation. Academics are often the most progressive element of society, and it would not be of any use to the Palestinian cause to stifle that voice.”

There was a real focus on what tactic would produce the best outcome as defined by peace and coexistence. The successful ‘NO’ campaign aimed to create and then build on common ground and convince those students – whether instinctively or more actively pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel – who shared a progressive ideology to engage in similarly progressive tactics.

But the beautiful thing is, I say the campaign was ‘designed’ to win over voters, but it was also honest, genuine and sincere. Many to the left have naturally assumed that it was all a disingenuous smokescreen for the campaigners’ real far-right views, not least due to the automatic equation of any honest pro-Palestinian position with support for BDS.

And many to the right have assumed that the campaign was a smokescreen for the campaigners’ real anti-Israel views. One blog post, welcoming the result, expressed regret that the campaign had “pandered to the lies and distortions of the enemy.”

However, the campaign pandered to nobody but ourselves, and it was just a fortunate coincidence that a majority of voting students at Sussex held a similarly moderate position.

And if the moderate strategy can win at Sussex, where Labour Party members get flack for being on the far right, it can certainly win elsewhere.

The anti-Israel side were able to point to considerable international support for their cause; Palestinian students’ unions have been vocal in calling for an academic boycott, and that is a fair point. The entire debate about the occupation is about upholding Palestinians’ human rights, and Palestinians themselves seem to be giving us fairly clear advice on how to support them.

When the ‘No’ campaign dissented from this advice, opposing the boycott, it was immediately attacked as “telling the Palestinians what’s best for them.” The anti-BDS answer was a realist argument, exhorting Sussex students – very remote from the scene of the conflict – to consider their real capabilities and how their influence could have the greatest impact for good.

An academic boycott implemented by a single U.K. students’ union with no buy-in from the university’s institutionally separate academic hierarchy would in truth be a completely meaningless, symbolic gesture. It would not change one thing on the ground.

But conversely, a positive engagement with progressive elements within Israeli society might. Thus the superficially enticing "international solidarity" argument came up against the "what local students can achieve" argument, and the referendum result speaks for itself.

Small-P progressive Jewish students have often, somewhat smugly, claimed to be Israel’s best weapon in terms of convincing their peers not to boycott the Jewish state. But this is the ultimate proof.

Sussex Friends of Israel, the local "adult" (non-student) pro-Israel group, expressed an interest in coming onto campus to join in the campaign. But thank goodness they didn’t. Their strategies tend to revolve around arguing that the occupation is legal, vociferously calling their opponents anti-Semites and waving ever-larger Israeli flags.

These arguments may work on marches where there is a battle for who can shout loudest, but in a democratic referendum, where passionately political students weigh arguments before voting, they would not gain traction.

Only a well-crafted, moderate campaign explaining why a boycott would not serve the typical student’s already-existing belief in human rights for Palestinians can win the day. Because ultimately it takes more to convince a student than waving a flag. A flag is not a substitute for reasoning.

Gabriel Webber is graduating from the University of Sussex in Politics & International Relations, and is about to take up a full-time job as a youth worker for LJY-Netzer, the youth movement of Liberal Judaism in the U.K. He blogs at www.gabrielquotes.org.uk. Follow him on Twitter: @gabrielquotes