While young minority activists across American college campuses are rejecting Israel and isolating their Jewish classmates, Israel has chosen a government of settlers and religious extremists. Add to that the Jewish community’s ambivalent response to liberal or progressive Jewish students who question Israel’s policies, and we may be creating the perfect storm to undermine future support for Israel.
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According to a front-page article published last week in The New York Times, student groups at hundreds of American colleges are promoting divestment from Israel, and Jewish students are hurting. Fueled in part by the carnage of last summer’s Gaza war – in which more than 2,200 Palestinians were reported killed, including almost 500 children – the BDS movement is uniting a wide range of minority activist groups – African-American, Hispanic, LGBT – in solidarity against Israel, and in many cases, against Jews as well.
Many Jewish students feel cornered. They don’t know how to answer the criticism of the Gaza war or the ongoing occupation, criticism they may share or know nothing about, and they are being told that they don’t qualify as a minority by Israel’s non-Jewish minority adversaries on campus. If they question Israeli policies, the organized Jewish community views their loyalty as suspect. .
Jewish students don’t expect to be attacked as intolerant or racist or to be accused of supporting murderous colonialism, especially not by their black, Hispanic or gay peers. Jewish claims to be the ultimate victims of persecution, with earned empathy for victims of all forms of discrimination, are dismissed as irrelevant in 2015 because many of the Jewish students and faculty on campus are white, rich and privileged.
While Jews tend to still take pride in the civil rights movement, other young minority activists don’t give Jews victimhood cred anymore, don’t think they need Jewish support and don’t remember the Jewish-black alliances of 50 years ago. Even the Holocaust is no longer a trump card because it has been overused and exploited to silence dissenting voices on Israel.
Many Jewish students rightfully find it difficult to identify with the policies of Israel’s current and recent governments. How tragic – but fitting – that the first major public event during the present Netanyahu administration was the Jerusalem Day march of flags – a parade of right-wing religious nationalists through Jerusalem’s Old City and, most deliberately, through the Muslim Quarter. The march is an expression of pure chauvinism, intended to shove our Jewish sovereignty in their Muslim faces like practiced bullies. Should Jewish students stifle their criticism about such an event because it might feed the anti-Israel maw, or raise questions about their own Israel commitment?
Case in point: New York’s upcoming Celebrate Israel parade. The parade was once the peak moment of Jewish solidarity, in which 100,000 Jews of every political and religious persuasion (with the exception of the anti-Israel Satmar), took over Fifth Avenue, marching out of step but side by side. Today, celebrating the settlements seems to be at the top of the agenda of the right-wing and Orthodox groups that have come to dominate the parade and surrounding events. Passionate supporters of Israel who don’t toe the right-wing line or who believe that a healthy democracy is dependent upon self-criticism, like J Street and the New Israel Fund, endure relentless charges of betrayal as they fight for their right to march.
Jewish students who are liberal and progressive and also care about Israel are the only ones with even a remote chance of communicating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the other future leaders of America on their campuses, including those currently arrayed against us. But they are offered either "Israel is always right" propaganda – intended to counter the "Palestinians are the only victims" propaganda – or, as Peter Beinart has eloquently argued, told to check their liberal values at the door when it comes to Israel. They don’t dare to join the catcalls criticizing Israel, or entertain supporting BDS, no matter how conflicted the students might feel. If they do, they will not be welcome in the Jewish tent either.
Don’t get me wrong. The BDS movement is dangerous, and some of its sponsors are out to destroy Israel, not just to end the occupation. Lest we dismiss it as the empty posturing of young people with no real power – as opposed to, say, the members of Congress who gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu 23 standing ovations two months ago – we would do well to remember previous causes that caught fire on campuses the world over: the civil rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War, apartheid and European colonialism. Without debating the extent to which protests affected political events, we can probably agree that for the activists involved, those campus struggles were formative. And some of those activists are now running the world.
American Jews didn’t elect Israel’s current disheartening government. But it is hard to think of a more self-defeating strategy for American Jewry than rallying around the settlement flag and rejecting, rather than embracing, precisely those young liberal Jews on campus who dare to challenge Israel and demand a nuanced critique of Israeli policies.
Don Futterman is the Israel program director of the Moriah Fund, a private American foundation that works to strengthen civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.