Many in our community view North American universities as bastions of anti-Semitism. They point to the strength of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses and the groups (including Jewish ones) that support it, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, as indicative of a vehemence against the Jewish state that is rooted in anti-Semitism.
That view may be correct. But a new voice in the debate — a solidly pro-Israel student from Stanford University, one of the campus hotspots in the BDS effort — is turning conventional wisdom on its head.
“Why do my peers oppose Israel?” sophomore and Jewish Student Association board member Benjamin Simon wrote in a new Wall Street Journal online opinion feature called “Future View.” “Not because college students are anti-Semitic, but because most hold one truth to be self-evident: Powerlessness implies moral legitimacy. The Israelis are powerful; the Palestinians are not. As such, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is merely a struggle between victim and oppressor, and nobody wants to support the oppressor.”
To be sure, Simon’s view is not a new one. It’s a derivative of the David and Goliath pro-Israel narrative that was prevalent in the pre-1967 era. That support lost ground to pro-Palestinian activists as Israel gained in military might and economic progress. But, according to Simon, “campus pro-Israel groups [still] try to portray Israel as a victim — a victim of international bias and unprovoked aggression from its Arab neighbors.” Simon questions the effectiveness of that narrative, since even though Israel may be under threat, it isn’t powerless. Instead, he suggests that pro-Israel advocates make the point that “power doesn’t automatically imply moral turpitude; and conversely, powerlessness does not guarantee goodness.”
Simon argues that pro-Israel advocates should accept the fact that many perceive Israel as powerful, and then work to change the framing of the debate over morality and legitimacy. Israel can be powerful and still strive for the protection of human rights, the development of justice and the achievement of peace. We inherently know this, of course, but according to Simon, there aren’t too many of us making that kind of a pitch when facing off against groups such as JVP, IfNotNow and Students for Justice in Palestine.
The takeaway from Simon’s piece is that pro-Israel advocates need to understand and work through issues relating to the reality of the Israel-Palestinian power dynamic as they advocate for a safe, secure and sovereign Jewish state. That’s probably a good idea. And it is probably also a good idea to recognize that given the complexity of the arguments and the changed dynamics of power on the ground, just because someone criticizes the Israeli government, that doesn’t necessarily mean that person is an anti-Semite. On the flip side, just because someone identifies as progressive, that does not necessarily imply that person is not an anti-Semite. PJC