College campuses may be where the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is drawing attention, but the front line should be in Jerusalem.
That’s the thrust of a report on the state of the Jewish people, presented last week to the Israeli government by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a Jerusalem-based think tank. BDS was only one topic that the report covered, but it follows by three weeks billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s summit to raise up to $50 million to fight the de-legitimization campaign against Israel.
“The BDS campaign is very sophisticated,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who with another longtime former American diplomat, Dennis Ross, chairs JPPI. “Its approach is to equate Palestinian rights with human rights, with Hispanic rights.”
That approach is winning over students who support human rights in general and who are frustrated by the lack of progress toward Palestinian independence.
“Most BDS supporters are for a two-state solution,” Eizenstat said. “It’s the leadership that wants to de-legitimize Israel.”
That leadership is provided by groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, which has chapters on 300 U.S. campuses, the report states. Of these, 20 have “severe” anti-Israel activity.
Nevertheless, the report calls on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “to appoint a lead person to combat BDS and de-legitimization [and] to coordinate responses.” It recommends that Israel provide a budget to pay for “an offensive-minded campaign against the promulgators of Israel de-legitimization in the West.”
Speaking by phone from Brussels, Eizenstat offered a three-pronged approach to combating BDS: better education about Israel, how it was created and about past attempts at peacemaking with the Palestinians; Jewish unity (“We’re tearing ourselves apart,” Eizenstat said); and support for counter-BDS legislation on the state and possibly federal levels.
“Israel needs to be on the offensive and make it clear” that it is not an obstacle to peace, said Eizenstat. It needs to “announce that there will be no new settlements outside the settlement blocs” that past negotiations have concluded would be retained by Israel as part of a peace treaty.
Such changes would “peel off” some BDS supporters from hard-core Israel opponents, Eizenstat said, adding that Israel could take steps to improve the economic lives of Palestinians.
He wasn’t optimistic that Israel, with its hard-line government of supporters of settlement building, will heed his suggestions. “The current configuration of the government makes it more difficult to act flexibly.”
In Europe, support is growing for sanctioning Israeli goods produced in the territories, he said.
“Fourteen European foreign ministers — and they are not anti-Semitic — say they should be labeling products. It’s that sense of victimization of the Palestinians. Israel needs to take that away,” he said. “We’re concerned that the campus is becoming our Europe.”
Eizenstat said it is a “serious mistake to label everyone” who supports BDS an anti-Semite, as some Jewish organizational leaders are doing.
Adam Kessler agrees. The director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia believes that playing the “anti-Semitism card” only offends well-meaning progressives who “see BDS as an alternative” in the absence of a peace process. “The progressive community feels obligated to do something, and they have very few tools.
“We have to prove them wrong,” Kessler added. “We have great success taking progressive Christian leaders to Israel.”
Like Kessler, Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, makes distinctions between BDS supporters.
“We need to provide progressive students with a productive way of dealing with Israel. Right now, the only alternative for these students is the BDS movement, and that’s a poor substitute.”
While Alpert believes students should be “educated in the pro-Israel narrative” and trained as activists to counter pro-BDS campaigns, he said pro-Israel students need to do the yeoman’s work of building relationships with their campus peers.
“Ultimately, it’s those relationships that will happen over many conversations, they will help their colleagues understand why there are two, equal, narratives and that Israel is not the monster that it’s made out to be,” Alpert said.
Asked last month about the Adelson group’s plans, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, point man for the project, said that despite the millions in pledges, there’s not much of an organization to speak of at this time.
“We all participated in this conference in an effort to discover what everyone else is doing as well as what needs to be done and what is not being done so we can plug the various holes together and try, God willing, to get it funded,” he said. “Where the money is going has yet to be determined.”
Alpert said the best use of the $30 million to $50 million that Adelson reportedly raised would be to “invest in a cost-free trip to Israel for every student leader and not make them feel like they are going to be propagandized. That would be money well spent.”
Gregg Roman, director of the Community Relations Council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, would welcome $50 million, as long as it’s part of a communitywide initiative.
“There’s definitely a place at the table for Adelson as long as it is in coordination with the grassroots activists in the field,” he said.
Pittsburgh’s Jewish community is addressing BDS proactively, he said.
“We don’t look at BDS where it is right now, but as the worst-case scenario of a full-fledged movement. We want to do what we have to do to make sure we don’t get to that point.”
On Pittsburgh-area campuses, the approach is proactive as well. “We have seen no BDS motions on any of our campuses,” said Daniel Marcus, CEO of the Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh. “But we always want to make sure that we’re prepared, so our staff and student leadership get the background and skill sets” to respond.
The presence of Students for Justice in Palestine hasn’t detracted from the Jewish experience of Jewish students, Marcus said. “Jewish life on campus is thriving. That’s good news.”
David Holzel is a senior writer for Washington Jewish Week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Washington Jewish Week intern Emilie Plesset contributed to this article.