As Jewish college students headed home to celebrate Passover with their families on April 21, there was one topic on many of their minds with the potential to disrupt the joyous mood around their Seder tables: the BDS movement.
BDS stands for boycott, divestment and sanctions — against Israel. It’s a growing movement on college campuses, where students are stepping up protests of Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians, as well as the nation’s continued occupation of land that BDS supporters say belongs to Palestinians.
BDS as proxy
The BDS movement — although focused primarily on human rights — has become a proxy for disagreements over a much wider and longer-standing set of issues. As such, the movement has pitted Jews against Jews, pro-Israelis versus anti-Israelis, and pro-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supporters versus Netanyahu critics. It’s also created rifts in the progressive movement, which attracts Jewish followers because of the faith’s culture of tolerance and identification with the underdog.
Reform Judaism — the largest branch of Judaism — was the first major religious denomination to support same-sex marriage, and Israel is the only nation in the Middle East that recognizes same-sex marriages. It also is the most progressive nation in the region by far. Arab countries stone adulterers to death, throw gays off skyscrapers to their deaths and some do not allow women to drive or even show their faces.
Given the human rights abuses of other countries in the region, a lot of Jews believe Israel is singled out due to anti-Semitism, and they’re blaming the BDS movement for anti-Semitic incidents on campuses. While the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks and fights anti-Semitic hate crimes, said it hasn’t seen a dramatic rise in such crimes on campuses, a spokesman said, “The BDS movement does fuel anti-Semitism. We have some serious concerns about BDS.”
He noted that anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States routinely exceed anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said part of the problem she has with BDS is that “when we talk about Israel being grounded on injustice, we’re applying different standards to Israel than every other nation.”
The University of California-Davis held a hearing last month to consider divesting university holdings from companies that do business with Israel. After the meeting, the school’s Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi had its house defaced with swastikas. Fraternity leaders said they believed they had been targeted over their support for Israel. However, the coalition of student groups that supported divestment condemned the vandalism.
Fighting anti-Semitism on campus
The Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a report last year titled “Anti-Semitism on Campus: A clear–and-present danger.” The report called the growing rate of anti-Semitism on campuses “alarming” and “getting worse.” It referenced “grim examples of Jewish students being blocked from participation in student government and being harassed.”
Last month, the University of California’s Board of Regents became the first to adopt a “Principles Against Intolerance” policy in response to a series of high-profile anti-Semitic incidents — including swastikas found on Jewish fraternities and the attempted exclusion of a student government candidate because of her Jewish faith.
The document, which took months to prepare due to the charged political environment, states, “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
But to many Jews, especially older ones, anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic. “The well-being of Israel is really a critical part of what it means to be a Jew today,” said Rabbi Mendel Matusof, director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at UW-Madison.
The reality is that living in peace in the Middle East is impossible in these times, said Matusof. As WiG was preparing this story, the terrorist bombing of a bus in Jerusalem injured 21 people, two of them critically. And, the same day, an Israeli military court charged a soldier with manslaughter after he was caught on video by an Israeli human rights group fatally shooting a wounded Palestinian attacker.
“Israel doesn’t live in a friendly neighborhood,” Matusof said.
“What frustrates me now is the way we talk about Israel these days in America,” Kahn said. “We eliminate complexity. The problem is that real life is more complex than these really simple reductive narratives that people are drawing. They’re drawing cartoon characters. There’s good on one side and bad on the other. I would challenge people to find a place in their heart to care about Palestinians and Israeli Jews at the same time.”
While Kahn doesn’t believe the BDS movement is inherently anti-Semitic, she believes it’s “a magnet for people who hold Jews in great disdain.”
Jews against Israel
Most Jews, especially older ones, want a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. But many who support the BDS movement, including members of groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace, want Jews to abdicate their control of Israel. They reject the notion of Zionism, which guarantees a Jewish state in perpetuity.
“Anti-Zionism, non-Zionism is more common in Jewish history than Zionism,” said Rachel Ida Buff, faculty adviser to a recently formed JVP chapter on the UW-Milwaukee campus.
JVP is a pro-Palestinian campus group whose supporters believe the conditions that led to the creation of a Jewish state no longer exist and do not justify what JVP national media coordinator Naomi Dann called a situation that “privileges Jews at the expense of Palestinian lives.”
“The impact of Zionism … has been wide-scale displacement, dispossession of millions of Palestinians and nearly 50 years of a brutal military occupation,” Dann wrote to WiG in an email. She said her group values the fundamental equality of all people and cannot support Zionism because it devalues Palestinian lives.”
“This is a generational issue that I think is reaching the fever pitch that it is because the Zionists are beginning to be scared of it,” Buff said.
Buff said there’s a kind of McCarthyism in the Jewish community that stigmatizes and disavows Jews who speak out against Israeli military and social atrocities, as she does.
She said she’s stepped on the equivalent of a “third rail.” But she said she will not be silenced for her beliefs.
“It is up to me to decide what my government does with its tax dollars,” she said. “Stop arming the occupation. The Zionists are being played by Netanyahu. American Jews are a little bit mistaken if they think the State Department is supportive of Jews. Israel is on the brink of (becoming) a pariah state. American geopolitical involvement is not going to make the world safe for Jews.”
The BDS movement in the United States is emerging “from the heart of the American left,” according to Cary Nelson, a retired English professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He’s co-editor of the book, The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel.
BDS is the current cause célèbre of the left, and its presence can be seen at rallies and protests for virtually every grievance on the progressive agenda. Advocates for Palestinians have linked divestment to social justice movements against racism, militarization, globalization and other issues that are important to many college students.
Campus divestment advocates often come to student government hearings with the backing of student associations for blacks, South Asians, Mexican-Americans, gays and others. Last year, anti-Israeli protesters unraveled a sign several yards long behind speakers at a Black Lives Matter rally in Milwaukee’s Red Arrow Park. The rally was intended to draw attention to the April 14, 2014, police shooting of Dontre Hamilton, an unarmed black man.
The BDS sign was by far the largest at the rally. Jody Hirsh, a world-renown Jewish educator and WiG contributor who attended the rally, left because of it.
“I went to the rally because I really feel (police shootings) are an American problem that needs to be dealt with and the first thing I saw was a sign that said, “Milwaukee, Ferguson, Palestine. Resistance to occupation is heroism,’” he said.
“I was so upset, because it’s not the same thing at all,” he continued. “I felt that this very important American issue was hijacked by something different and I felt that I couldn’t participate in the rally.”
Nevertheless, the BDS movement is growing on the backs of other issues.
“Drawing these connections cross-struggle has been huge for our movement,” said Tory Smith, a 2012 Earlham College graduate and member of National Students for Justice in Palestine.
UW students’ experience
While BDS activism is taking a toll on Jewish life on some campuses, that’s not happening on campuses in Wisconsin, multiple sources told WiG.
At UW-Madison, which reportedly has the nation’s eighth largest number of Jewish students — a statistic that Matusof questions — BDS is a very visible movement. Nonetheless, Jewish life on campus is thriving.
UW-Madison offers a major in Jewish Studies and it has a number of active Jewish organizations, including fraternities and sororities.
UW-Milwaukee has a small Jewish population of around 200, said Marc Cohen, interim executive director of Hillel Milwaukee. Hillel International supports Jewish life on campuses throughout the world. Cohen described Hillel in Milwaukee as a kind of “Switzerland,” where pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians can talk freely and openly in a neutral, non-threatening environment.
Hilary Miller, a Milwaukeean enrolled in Jewish Studies at UW-Madison, contrasts the Wisconsin experience with that at other schools. She has attended conferences at UC-Berkeley and UC-Irvine, and she’s felt the tension on those campuses. There, she said, some people in the BDS movement are “absolutely using this as a wedge against Jews. … Sometimes it reminds me of what I’ve studied about anti-Jewish propaganda in Nazi Germany.”
Indeed, critics of Israel often complain that Jews have all the power, money and influence in the region. The re-emergence of what sounds similar to the myth of Jewish wealth and secret control of society frightens older Jews, because it echoes Nazi propaganda.
But Miller said she’s encountered nothing like that sort of extremism at UW-Madison, which she described as a very comfortable environment for Jews. In fact, she’s highly engaged in Jewish activities.
Miller founded the independent group Student Alliance for Israel, which she said is apolitical and promotes understanding of Israel’s traditions and culture. She attends pro-Palestinian events and rallies because she “wants to understand the other side,” she said.
Miller identifies politically with progressives, but she feels almost apologetic at times in progressive circles about her involvement in Jewish activities. She knows Jewish students who are afraid to put such involvements on their resumes out of fear it might affect their job prospects, she said.
And, based on what she witnessed in California, she’s afraid the situation on campus could deteriorate if BDS becomes a stronger force at UW–Madison.
Ongoing internal conflict
There will always be Jews who say that precisely because of their history of persecution, Israel should be more compassionate.
But Jews such as Matusof and Kahn are alarmed “that the Jewish community is not seen anymore as a minority deserving of the same sensitivities that the progressive community really holds strong,” Matusof said. “Jews in America,” he added, “are seen as a white privileged class, while we still are a minority and there still is discrimination.”
At any rate, analyzing and arguing are essential elements in Jewish theology and culture. There’s an old joke that goes, “If you ask 10 Jews for advice, you’ll get 11 opinions.”
The number is probably higher.