David Bernstein spent the morning of March 29 with insiders at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. Over breakfast, Bernstein, the new president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, described the evolving nature of anti-Israel efforts on college campuses.
Beginning with direct attempts made at university divestment from Israel, to the movement of student governments recommending divestment from Israel, to the merger of the boycott, divestment and sanction movement with far left-wing causes on campus, Bernstein outlined the changing anti-Israel strategies on campus.
Current tactics are to “de-platform” Jewish students on campus, he said.
“We are increasingly seeing anti-Israel students suggest Hillel and other Israel groups can’t join social justice causes because they support Israel,” said Bernstein.
This leaves many Jewish students who want to join causes isolated and alienated on campus.”
“My Pittsburgh visit is part of a listening tour,” he said. “I’m getting to know some of our Jewish community relations councils [and] getting a sense of how we can help the Community Relations Council movement around the country.”
Since taking charge of JCPA in December 2015, Bernstein has visited with and/or spoken to members of Jewish community relations councils throughout the country.
After meeting with Josh Sayles, CRC’s director in Pittsburgh, and others locally involved, Bernstein was pleased.
“It’s great to see such a highly energetic Jewish Community Relations Council in Pittsburgh taking on big challenges and building bridges throughout the community,” he said.
By engaging with different communities throughout his tour, Bernstein has observed particular trends. He specifically mentioned a polarization in the American political scene, isolation of Israel both off and on college campuses and a widening economic gap between Americans.
In order to combat such realities, we need “more effective bridge building and to build strong partnerships,” he said.
Creating such external alliances may be the Jewish community’s best tactic for internal preservation.
“Relationship building with key groups is extremely important work,” Bernstein said. “By 2043, America will become a majority non-white. We have to know the leaders and influencers in every one of those communities and work with them on issues we share in common. There are 54 million Latinos in America, and they have found their political voice. We want to make sure America remains a welcoming country. We want to broaden and deepen those ties.”
Bernstein added that Jewish communities must consider recent engagements with the criminal justice system. “Many African-American communities are concerned about the criminal justice system. We in the Jewish community should grapple with this and make this a common [concern] as well.”
Moving forward strategically requires the Jewish community to dialogue and adopt other communities’ interests, he said. “We need more effective diplomacy and to engage other communities not only on where we are, but where they are. Sometimes we engage other communities in hopes they will support Israel. We should first understand their issues and connect with them. In some ways, this is the most effective way of doing advocacy.”
Bernstein sees the the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement as an opportunity for practical application of his aforementioned plan.
“We have to make sure to step up relationship building with ethnic communities that might be approached by the BDS movement and to build connections that lead to a joint community so when the BDSers come knocking on the door, they’ll already be working with us,” he said.
While external efforts may be key to suppressing particular ideas, internal work is certainly necessary as well.
“In many communities around the country there has been a shrill discourse around Israel,” Bernstein. “It’s time to turn inward and model the type of behavior we’d like to have with the outside world.”
Amplified and stifling rhetoric regarding Israel, the Iran deal and BDS has taken its toll on the younger Jewish generation, he said. “Most young Jews can’t understand why elders insist on a strict litmus test for Israel or [refuse] to entertain diverse dialogue regarding Israel. Many young Jews want to express their connection to Israel in their own voice. We have to respect that or we’re going to alienate them.”
Even as younger generations connect online, Bernstein believes that old-world relationship building is still effective.
“We should value one-on-one engagement even if fewer people are willing to leave the computer screen,” he said.
Not that Bernstein rejects social media — he praised its ability to “facilitate interpersonal relationships” by bringing people together for meetings and events — but relationship building is achieved “one person at a time, one group at a time,” he said.
Such approach should prevent the rise of several currents.
“I worry about the small but potentially growing amount of young Jews willing to support what we consider anti-Israel views,” he said. “And I’m always concerned that trends that start on campus won’t stay on campus, like BDS with progressive causes. This could be a larger problem.”
There is much to lose for the parties involved, said Bernstein. “The stake in all of this is the future of Americans’ relationship [with] Israel. We want to make sure a wide swath of Americans see their values in Israel and Israelis. [We’re] holding steady, but it will require a great deal of work to maintain it in the future.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.