Pro-Palestinian activists are planning a three-day conference next week at the University of Pittsburgh to campaign for boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
And while some Jewish leaders say the conference may not be as successful as its organizers hope, it is raising questions about how seriously the Jewish community should take the national Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and whether the local community is prepared to deal with this and future efforts in Pittsburgh.
A growing number of Jews have apparently gravitated to the movement, saying divestment or boycotts are not anti-Semitic gestures, but a legitimate way to affect change.
“We have not endorsed the full Palestinian call for boycott (against Israel),” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, national director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a San Francisco-based human rights group that supports divestment and boycott to end what they consider to be the occupation of Palestinian territories. “What we do say very strongly is the tactic of boycott is a noble and historic tactic of people’s movements to have a grassroots method of change.”
She claims more Jews are warming to this position. Though she can’t quote actual figures, Vilkomerson said JVP’s mailing list grew from 20,000 to 90,000 since the Gaza conflict earlier this year.
Which is why the mainstream Jewish community can’t afford to ignore the BDS movement, according to some Jewish leaders.
“This is a growing argument,” said Deborah Fidel, director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, “so we had better wake up and get ready.”
The executive director of the Hillel Jewish University Center is trying to do just that.
Aaron Weil said he’s willing to dialogue with just about anyone on the State of Israel as long as they support its right to exist.
In 2006, following the Lebanon War, Weil accepted an invitation from a campus group called Sessions to join a discussion with a Lebanese Pitt student who was in Beirut during the fighting. Weil happened to be in northern Israel at the same time. Instead of debating each other, they each gave their personal accounts of what it is like to be where they were during the war.
“We humanized the conflict,” Weil said. “He could have given my talk, and I could have given his.”
However, Hillel is finding it harder to tell Israel’s story because it has fewer resources these days.
Due to budget constraints, the position was not filled after the last programmer left in May.
“That puts us at a significant disadvantage,” Weil said. “There’s a tremendous difference between a Hillel that has a senior Israel programmer on staff and one that doesn’t.”
The BDS conference coming to Pittsburgh is part of a five-city tour across the nation “to support human rights and divest from apartheid.”
The other cities are Milwaukee, Columbus, Atlanta and Amherst, Mass., organized in part by the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.
The conference, which was scheduled for Friday, Oct. 23, to Sunday, Oct. 25, has already run into problems.
On Oct. 9 Students for Justice in Palestine sent out an appeal to its supporters after the allocation it received from the university to put on the conference apparently came in lower than expected.
“Today, Pitt Students for Justice in Palestine was informed that the allocations committee at the University of Pittsburgh has approved only $1748.80 of SJP’s request for $4077.51, the amount necessary to make this important conference a reality (flights, hotels, honoraria, supplies, printing, ads, etc.),” the e-mail reads. “Without the remaining balance, we will have to cancel some important workshops, presenters, and performances.” It goes on to ask for contributions to cover the costs of bringing some of its presenters.
Whether the conference takes place or not, Weil predicted the BDS campaigne will get mired in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t think it is gaining any traction and that’s largely due to the sophisticated nature at both universities,” he said, noting that the schools understand that divestment is a “financial boomerang and a political nonstarter.”
“Both universities have well-managed investment plans. To my understanding, partisan politics are not part of portfolio building either university uses,” Weil said.
In addition, Fidel, who is active with the new Jewish-Muslim Dialogue in the city, claims Islamic groups do not support the local BDS movement.
However well intentioned the Jews within the BDS movement are, Fidel said they are under the same tent as extremists who believe in a one-state solution, which would lead to the destruction of the Jewish state.
“Instead of pointing to specifics, it paints the [Palestinian] issue as a one- sided black and white, Israel-bad, Palestinians-good issue,” she said. “In doing so, it alienates many American Jews who want a safe Israel, but who are troubled by the restrictions Palestinians live under,” Fidel said.
“We cannot make common cause with anyone who is out to destroy the State of Israel,” Fidel added.
Vilkomerson has heard that argument before, but she said extremist elements within the BDS movement should not stop Jews who are genuinely opposed to Israel’s actions.
“Whenever we hear any anti-Semitism we (at JVP) call it out,” said Vilkomerson, who lived in Israel for three years, is married to an Israeli and whose children are Israeli. “However, it is a very broad movement.”
She doesn’t believe her group is obligated to moderate or educate more radical elements within the BDS movement.
“I see our job as presenting our position,” Vilkomerson said, “not to moderate other positions.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)