Why Adelson’s Campus anti-BDS Group Will Be a Bust

The head of the Maccabee Task Force thinks that a ‘no-criticism of the current Israeli government’ litmus test can be applied in building pro-Israel and anti-BDS coalitions. That’s delusional.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson next to a seat reserved for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the annual Taglit-Birthright ceremony in Jerusalem, 2007.
American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson next to a seat reserved for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the annual Taglit-Birthright ceremony in Jerusalem, 2007.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky / BauBau
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Sheldon Adelson founded the Maccabee Task Force earlier this year to combat anti-Israel activity at American universities. It will not create its own chapters but will provide grants to others advocating for Israel on campus. David Brog, former executive director of Rev. John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel (CUFI), has been appointed head of the new group.

In an interview with Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of the New York Jewish Week, Brog has shared for the first time the approach that he intends to take. What he said was not encouraging. Brog has hired consultants and run focus groups, and the result is much blather about “messaging” delivered in consultant-speak. His strategy consultant, Bill Knapp, tells us, for example, that facts are important but so are tone and feeling, and that student thinking may be influenced by their views of justice versus injustice. No kidding. In one painfully patronizing passage, Knapp informs us that young people are “smart but often uninformed” and that their views are “pliable.”

Any organization that thinks this way will be, at best, window dressing on campus, and at worst, a joke.

The following are some thoughts for the Maccabee Task Force on what is required to make an impact on campus, drawing on my experience over several years of lecturing about Israel at colleges and universities. Six principles are key.

1. Don’t assume the worst: The campus is not always a hotbed of hostility to Israel.

Yes, enemies of Israel are to be found on campus, and BDS is a project of bona fide Israel haters. Also, there are always some self-hating Jews ready to defend the rights of every group but their own. But the overwhelming majority of students have other things on their mind. And the Jewish community has done a very creditable job in combatting BDS and other anti-Israel activity aimed at students.

2. Tell Israel’s story simply, honestly, and directly.

This may seem obvious, but is not. As Jonathan Sacks has recently pointed out, we Jews are master storytellers who have forgotten how to tell Israel’s story. Even worse, our enemies are better at telling their stories than we are at telling ours.

3. Tell the truth about Israel.

This is critically important. And the truth is this: Israel is the product of Zionism, a national liberation movement that came into being to give the Jewish people control over their own destiny. Zionism created a state in the land of Israel intended to be both Jewish and democratic. This homeland was expected to promote the religion, civilization, and culture of the Jewish people and its dominant Jewish majority, while granting full civil and human rights to its minority citizens.

The only way that the goals of Zionism can be met is by partitioning the land of Israel into a Jewish and a Palestinian state. This was true in 1947 when the United Nations created Israel, and it is true now. Important matters of borders and security will be negotiated between Palestinians and Israelis, but there is no alternative to two states. Otherwise, Israel will be either Jewish or democratic but not both, an unthinkable proposition for the Zionist founders.

4. Acknowledge Israel’s faults, and don’t try to justify her settlement policy.

Israel’s settlement policy makes a two-state solution difficult and perhaps impossible to achieve. University students think that this policy makes no sense, and they will not listen to the usual litany of weak excuses to justify it. In my experience, nobody on campus defends settlement expansion, including mainstream Jewish groups. They know it is a losing argument that works against Israel’s interests and values. If the Maccabee Task Force thinks I am wrong about this, it should sponsor a speaking tour on campus for a settler leader and see what happens.

Opposing settlement does not require breast-beating or demonizing Israel. It simply means admitting that expanding settlements is a mistake and must stop.

5. Don’t try to promote Israel with the argument that “the other side is worse.”

The Palestinian national movement has too often been murderous and bloody, and it equivocates on the justice and necessity of a two-state solution. Still, it is a mistake to dismiss every criticism of the Jewish state with the assertion that the Palestinians are even worse. This amounts to an argument that Israel is the lesser of two evils. Far better to say that Israel is an imperfect work in progress but also a glorious achievement—and a state that is held to the highest standards by Jews everywhere.

6. Work with allies on the right and left who accept the foundational principles of Zionism, and don’t work with those who don’t.

Coalitions of Israel supporters are the key to pro-Israel advocacy. Brog says that he understands this, but really doesn’t. He rightly rejects Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Israel group if ever there was one, but then puts J Street U – J Street’s campus affiliate – in the same category. I don’t agree with J Street on everything, but they are an essential part of the Zionist family. And they are exceedingly effective pro-Israel advocates and anti-BDS organizers on campus, especially with students on the left.

Brog disqualifies J Street because they spend their time “criticizing Jerusalem’s positions.” In other words, the Maccabee Task Force regards as allies only those who refrain from criticism of Israeli government policies. Has Mr. Brog ever been on campus? It is madness to think that a no-criticism litmus test can be applied in building pro-Israel and anti-BDS coalitions.

Based on what Brog has said so far, the Maccabee Task Force will not be adhering to the principles I have outlined. And the likely result is that the Task Force will be a bust. My recommendation to Mr. Adelson is that he take these dollars and pour them into Birthright where they will do some good. When it comes to Jewish students, Mr. Adelson, an exceedingly generous Birthright donor, should stick to what he knows.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Clarification: The article above was amended on 22 December 2015 to attribute the paraphrases and quotes in the second paragraph to Bill Knapp, not David Brog.

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