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Pro-Palestinian campaign divides Jewish community

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.”

Progressive roots

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.

Israeli scholars face growing discrimination due to boycott movement

Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz is a leader in his field, heading a prestigious school of environmental studies at Tel Aviv University, authoring dozens of publications and holding visiting teaching positions over the years at leading North American universities.

But the British-educated Rabinowitz fears that his younger counterparts may not enjoy the same professional opportunities for a very personal reason: They are Israeli.

As a global boycott movement against Israeli universities gains steam, Israeli professors say they are feeling the pressure from their colleagues overseas. Although the movement ostensibly targets universities, not individuals, Israeli academics say they are often shunned at the personal level. They experience snubs at academic conferences, struggle to get recommendations and can experience difficulty publishing their work in professional journals.

“This is highly personal and personalized,” said Rabinowitz.

And yet Israeli universities are widely seen as liberal bastions, and their professors are some of the most vocal government critics. The situation is equivalent to foreign universities marginalizing American academics over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though those academics also oppose the wars.

Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion, Israel’s premier science and technology university, said the effect of such decisions has so far been minimal. Lavie is leading a battle against the boycott.

While acknowledging that Israeli government policies are open to criticism, he said that holding universities responsible for them is unfair and asked why countries with abysmal human rights records, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been spared.

“We have the feeling that these movements treat Israel differently than any other country in the world,” he said.

Many American Jews believe that anti-Semitism is at the heart of the discrimination leveled at Israeli academics, although many also allow that the hatred is unconscious rather than intentional. For millennia, suspicion and resentment of Jews has been so engrained into Western culture that it’s become part of the culture’s DNA.

The academic boycott is part of the broader pro-Palestinian “BDS” campaign, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Inspired by the anti-apartheid movement, BDS organizers say they are using nonviolent means to promote the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Israel says the campaign goes beyond fighting its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and often masks a more far-reaching aim to “delegitimize” or destroy the Jewish state. But the BDS movement’s decentralized organization and language calling for universal human rights have proven difficult to counter.

The BDS website says “the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to the Israeli occupation and apartheid or at the very least have been complicit through their silence.”

Already enjoying significant support in the U.K., the academic boycott has chalked up a series of accomplishments in the United States.

In recent years, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association have approved boycott measures.

In November, a meeting of the American Anthropological Association overwhelmingly endorsed a motion supporting a boycott of Israeli universities..

Lavie said relations between Israeli and American universities remain strong at the institutional and leadership levels, and praised this month’s decision by the Association of American Universities reaffirming its opposition to the boycott. The group, which represents 62 leading U.S. universities, said the boycott “violates academic freedom.”

Nonetheless, Lavie said the boycott movement has become a top concern for Israeli university leaders, particularly as it gains support at the “ground level” from U.S. student unions and academic associations.

“There may be a domino effect,” he said. “If we do not deal with it, it will be a major problem.”

Rabinowitz counts the November vote by the anthropological association as one of the most painful chapters of his career. He said he personally tried to alter the boycott resolution twice — only to be rejected with little or no debate. He said the rejection by his colleagues was a “defining moment” for him. In a statement, the association confirmed Rabinowitz’s account, noting that the meeting was “highly charged.”

Ed Liebow, the association’s executive director, said the organization felt “a strong commitment” to take some sort of action. “The one thing we can’t do is nothing,” he said. The measure goes to the association’s more than 10,000 members for a vote this spring.

Although the American anthropologists have never before proposed a boycott of academic institutions, the association said it commonly takes public stands against governments accused of restricting academic freedom. It recently sent a letter to leaders of Turkey, criticizing them for allegedly curbing scholars there.

Ilana Feldman, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University and a boycott supporter, said the proposal, if passed, would not impede professors “in any way” from working with Israeli scholars.

Rabinowitz, however, said it is impossible to distinguish between a person and his institution, which becomes part of one’s professional identity.

Israeli academics say such feelings are increasingly common.

Rachelle Alterman, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the Technion, said she still has strong working relationships with colleagues around the world, but the pro-boycott camp is a “rising minority” in academia. She said it is less of an issue in the hard sciences like medicine and physics, and much more palpable in more subjective social sciences. Younger academics trying to establish a reputation are especially vulnerable.

Alterman said she has begun to feel a “coldness” from some colleagues at conferences that was not there in the past. She said some colleagues refuse to attend conferences in Israel, and editors at professional journals tell her it is difficult to find people willing to review papers by Israeli academics.

“I call it the dark matter. It’s there all the time, but elusive, hard to spot,” she said.

In one recent case, a British colleague coolly rejected a request to assist one of her graduate students.

“I am afraid that as part of the institutional boycott being observed by some academics in relation to Israeli organisations I am unable to help with your request,” the British professor wrote in an email.

Rabinowitz said the boycott efforts will backfire by undermining Israeli moderates and playing into the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government.

“It is the best present they can give Netanyahu and the radical right in Israel,” he said.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this article.