Want to Fight Racism? Renounce Israel. This Is My Campus Reality

Unquestioning support for BDS and implacable opposition to Israel have become the litmus test for students’ progressive credentials, acceptance into the campus community and, most of all, acceptance by one’s peers.

Students and activists attend a rally in support of Black Lives Matter in Washington, D.C., July 8, 2016.
Jacquelyn Martin, AP

We are defined by labels, some of which are chosen by us and others that are assigned to us. I’m a journalism student at Northwestern University. I’m a progressive Jew. I’m a history major. 

Labels — of any kind — aim to explain. But labels are limiting and often too quickly designated.

“You support Israel, so you cannot also support us.” So I was informed by one of the organizers of a march at Northwestern University. The march was in support of University of Missouri student activists in the wake of racial tensions on campus.

At the march, I saw the pain in my friends’ eyes at the most recent onset of racism in America. I wanted to be there to bear witness with them. Hundreds gathered at the Black House to stand in solidarity with students across the United States, protesting systematic and institutional racism. I stood at the back, silent, there to listen and learn from the words of speaker after speaker.

The first thing I saw was a sign that said, “From Mizzou to Palestine, all we have to lose are our chains.” I was visibly taken aback.

My friend, a black student, turned to me and told me she would understand if I needed to leave. When I chose to stay, she hugged me, telling me she was impressed by my decision to ignore the condemnation of Israel, a country I love, to support my friends.

I stayed to avoid having a label — racist or uncaring — unfairly attached to me. But I carry other labels — Jewish, supporter of Israel — that prohibit me from being allowed to care.

Students on college campuses talk about creating "safe spaces" for people with all sorts of ideas, but increasingly the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, through the doctrine of intersectionality, is creating only two spaces: one for those that are "appropriately" liberal and caring, and one for those who are not. BDS does this by creating a false but unbreakable relationship between the plights of oppressed peoples throughout the world and the Palestinian cause. 

NU Divest is a group that started at Northwestern University in January 2015 by Students for Justice in Palestine. Through their efforts, Black Lives Matter, the pro-clean energy Fossil Free Northwestern and the pro-BDS NU Divest have merged their respective messages. They cohosted events, met with the president and demanded the university "divest from corporations profiting off human rights violations, especially those occurring in Palestine."

NU Divest has co-opted the other two to draw in students who might otherwise not be engaged by conflating support for Israel with support for oppression of all types.

So where does that leave progressive Jews who want to fight racism in America and care about green issues but don't want to renounce Israel to find their space in a campaigning student organization? The NU Divest campaign quoted approvingly on its Facebook page the response by Steven Salaita to the recent Black Lives Matter platform that accuses Israel of committing genocide: "That the endorsement has angered and alienated so many liberal Zionists is a good thing. No radical movement can achieve its goals under the influence of liberal Zionism, which by definition aims to preserve a racialized status quo." Not much room there for me.

But BDS’s biggest success, at least on my campus, is not only its appeal to students’ natural liberal tendencies and desire to support the perceived underdog but, more importantly, its appeal to the basic human desire to be accepted and to belong. 

Liberal students will support liberal ideas of social justice. And to be accepted, to be a supporter of the oppressed, one MUST accept the pro-BDS iteration of the pro-Palestinian narrative without nuance or variation. 

When student senators attempted to amend a resolution calling for divestment from G4S, which operates in Israel, it was an attempt to change this narrative.

The resolution was brought to the student senate by Unshackle NU, a group related to Black Lives Matter NU. It supported divestment from companies it said gave logistical support to mass incarceration. Other student senators presented an amendment to the resolution because Israel was singled out. The other 100 countries G4S operates in, however, were not included in the resolution. 

One Jewish senator born in Israel described the reaction by pro-divest supporters as “coercive and threatening to dissenting voices.” When he approached Unshackle leaders to explain he voted no on the resolution, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was guilty of “hating” black people.

These groups have determined that mere support of Israel disqualifies admission into the groups that support blacks, immigrants and members of the LGBT community.

Conflating all protest movements, regardless of history or context, has created a litmus test not only for humanist or progressive credentials, but for acceptance into the campus community and, to a greater extent, acceptance by one’s peers.

Israel, for all its problems and perceived dangers, is a “safe place” for me. Israel is another home. It is where I feel welcomed. I am proud to challenge Israel on the settlements, the right-wing extremism in its politics and on the occupation. I am also proud to defend its existence. But this support does not mean — cannot mean — that I am labeled a racist or ostracized because of these views.

My opinions about Israel, just like any opinion or issue, are nuanced and complicated. 

In May, Jeffrey Goldberg visited Northwestern University. We spoke about Northwestern students and interacting with Israel and I asked him how he would advise students dealing with Israel on campus. 

He responded that we have already lost the fight for people who would not have otherwise been interested in the conflict. 

The BDS movement has made this a moral issue, one with a single clear answer. They have also aligned their issue with other moral issues, each also with one clear answer. Fossil Free Northwestern works to divest from all investment in coal. Their website’s mission reads, “we aim to build a sustainable endowment that refuses to fund climate change, pollution or injustice.” 

A student at Northwestern who agrees climate change is an issue would be sympathetic to Fossil Free Northwestern’s mission. In doing so, they must also align themselves with NU Divest. A student who supports Israel may also be impassioned by Fossil Free NU, but he or she will not align themself with NU Divest. 

There is no space on campus for a thoughtful Jew dealing with the critical issues of the day unless he or she renounces Israel. For me, this is a sign not of the power of coalition-building and the fight against injustice but rather of the impoverishment of social and political conversations on campus. These now exist within ever more strictly policed parameters, one of whose essential foundations is implacable opposition to Israel. 

Lauren Sonnenberg is a rising junior at Northwestern University studying journalism, history and global health. She is interning at Haaretz. Follow her on Twitter: @LSonnenberg796