How pro-Israel Students Should Fight BDS if They Want to Win

Forget advocacy organizations, counter-demonstrations and other self-congratulatory kitsch. Stop BDS from swooping up the moderate left and start building a broad tent of allies and partners.

Jared Samilow
Jared Samilow
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A tourist photographs a sign in Bethlehem calling to boycott Israeli products coming from settlements. June 5, 2015
A tourist photographs a sign in Bethlehem calling to boycott Israeli products coming from settlements. June 5, 2015Credit: AFP
Jared Samilow
Jared Samilow

The past year has been rough for Jewish students, as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has strengthened its hold on U.S. college campuses. Divestment motions passed at prominent schools like Stanford, Northwestern and UCLA, and the drip of classical anti-Semitism made our setbacks that much more bitter.

As a new semester unfolds, it behooves the Jewish college community to ask why the pro-Israel camp continues to lose again and again. At least superficially, we have many structural advantages: deep pockets, effective organization, sizeable student bodies, and so on. Even the best teams lose every now and then, but we are a good team with a strangely dismal record. 

Sure, we have had some success stories here and there, but we must disabuse ourselves of denial:  the sum total of battles leaves us deep in the red. We are losing. Period.

Not all of this is our fault, of course. It is inevitable that the academe should be inhospitable to Israel. Its discourses around white privilege, imperialism and racial struggle breed natural resentment toward a state that was conceived in Europe and stands as a bulwark of the American empire. Gay pride marches in Tel Aviv are nice and all, but can hardly decouple Israel from the global power structures that the progressive left seeks to upend.

That's why there is simply no way to make Israel "popular" at colleges. It's just not in the identity-politics DNA of a university to side with a mighty Western-backed state over a seemingly weaker people.

Aggressive, well-funded, pro-Israel messaging is bound to fail. It will fall on deaf ears, especially when the messaging is so bumptiously right-wing. Yet, sadly, the Jewish community seems to be planning to double-down on its failure. At a private summit a few months ago, Sheldon Adelson announced the formation of a "Campus Maccabes" outfit, which, The Forward reported, is “expected to be the best funded pro-Israel organization on campus.” Mountains of oligarchic cash might go a long way with the politicians, but are quite useless on campuses.

Being loud is a smart tactic for BDS because it is trying to upset the status quo. That takes getting attention. But for pro-Israel activists, the challenge is to maintain stability; there's no tactical reason to be noisy. Indeed, the Israel on Campus Coalition boasts that last year, pro-Israel activity outmatched anti-Israel activity two to one. But what difference did that make? BDS still gained ground. 

A reliably effective way to stymie BDS long-term can actually be learned from BDS itself: building coalitions and seeking wide influence. BDS sneaks its minions into student governments and moderate political organizations, while partnering with every social justice coterie under the sun. We have to do the same. This sounds vague, but there are actually many tangible ways to accomplish this: Jewish students taking up positions at College Democrats chapters, pro-Israel students developing relationships with center-left political parties, personal connections with candidates, conspicuous unity between J Street and AIPAC-oriented chapters (even when this requires ideological concession to the left), and so forth. 

Organizations that do not at least offer credible lip service against the occupation cannot expect to be taken seriously. This means that support for settlements or contrived defenses of the occupation ("not technically an 'occupation,'" "never was a Palestinian state," "PLO hated Israel before settlements," etc.) will go nowhere. They are dead on arrival at college campuses. If it wants to win, the Jewish establishment must make peace with this fait accompli, and learn to play by the rules of the game.

Our aim is, fortunately, a parsimonious one: to deny BDS media publicity and institutional endorsement at all costs. We should see every student not already won over by BDS as a potential ally against it, no matter how he or she feels about Israel or its policies. Studied persistence and strategic inclusion can reduce BDS to a bothersome din.

This includes managing anti-Israel activity by frustrating its ability to leverage support from moderate liberals. There are simply too few dedicated anti-Israel activists to drive BDS alone. They need allies in the political mainstream. In fact, if BDS were unable to find help from the moderate left, the hate-Israel crowd would lose momentum and slowly wither. Defanged of its potency, it would try to soldier on, but could hardly pretend to be a serious threat. 

Pro-Israel students need to ensure BDS cannot harness support from the mainstream left, and work to isolate and sequester the movement whenever it rears its head. All tactics are fair game: procedural technicalities, legal admonitions, and more. Whatever gets the job done.

So how do we do this? Forget advocacy organizations, counter-demonstrations and other self-congratulatory kitsch. They are of dubious worth. BDS can be kept at arm's length by connecting with the right people and by building a broad tent of allies and partners.

At UCLA, BDS was originally stopped not by convincing people that Israel was "good," but because the right people were in the right place, with pro-Israel anchors and allies sitting on the student council. And when BDS prevailed nine months later, it wasn't because students suddenly woke up to how malevolent the Zionists really are; it triumphed because pro-BDS students had managed to secure greater representation on the council. This anecdote advises against obsessive propagandizing, and in favor of quiet, focused and long-term political engagement.

BDS is still inchoate and vulnerable. With more strategic savvy, the Jewish community can and should give the movement a run for its money this year.

Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.

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