Peretz Chein

BDS, Birthright, and thinking inside the box

Imagine if the BDS movement sweeping through college campuses today would have occurred say, fifteen years ago. Leaders of the American Jewish community, including major organizations and philanthropists would have decried the modern-day anti-semitism and searched for solutions to combat this poisonous phenomenon.

Considering that BDS seeks to de-legitimize Israel on college campuses, and it is Jewish college students who are confronted by the demonstrations and petitions, it would be prudent to focus efforts on Jewish college students. To empower them not to be intimidated by the bullies with the loud megaphones, and more importantly, to be a powerful counter-force that would put the protesters on their heels and on the defensive.

The most effective way to empower anyone, and in particular college students, is to provide them with a strong sense of identity.

In fact in his book, Defending Identity, Natan Sharansky shares that it was identity that gave him and many others the inner freedom and strength to challenge and defeat the Soviet Union and its powerful anti-semitic apparatus. Those with a strong identity he later claimed, will always persevere in the struggles they face.

There would be no better way to provide college students with a strong sense of identity, the leaders and philanthropists would argue, than to take them to Israel for a free ten day immersive and impactful experience.

In Israel they would see first hand the Jewish miracle in the desert and its vibrant democracy, and walk in the paths of our Patriarch Abraham and King David. Their connection to Israel and the Jewish people would then empower them to return home to their campuses and take on the BDS thugs.

To take every Jewish college student to Israel for free is a bold and outside-the-box idea, and it is called Birthright.

However the “time” tables are turned. It was Birthright sweeping through college campuses fifteen years ago, having since then brought 400,000 young Jewish adults from 1,000 college campuses to Israel, and it is the BDS movement that only in recent years reared its ugly head.

So why are the leaders and philanthropists back at the drawing board trying to figure out how to deal with this menace? Why aren’t the tens of thousands of students on college campuses standing up to the Israel haters? Why hasn’t the apparently preemptive solution worked?

Unquestionably the intense ten day Israel experience reinforces and even creates a strong personal identity. However the personal identity was made in Israel and remains in Israel. Crossing over the Atlantic with the students is largely an identity with Israel and the Jewish people who are living in Israel.

The identity used by Natan Sharansky and his fellow Refuseniks against those seeking to delegitimize them was an identity based on self awareness of a personal self distinction that is anchored in a value greater than themselves.

This kind of personal identity provides a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. It enables one to be proud of who they are wherever and with whomever they encounter. It empowers them to enter any space and engage any person, whether friendly, foreign or hostile.

Israel is a place conducive to creating and nurturing this identity for those living there. For those visiting for ten days it simply gives a taste of how it feels. For those however born and raised in the US, and who spend their most formative years on a college campus, an Israel experience cannot provide it.

The solution to the BDS dilemma, amongst other Jewish dilemmas, lies in the ability to give today’s college students, on their own campus, a personal Jewish identity.

The first step in achieving this objective is to recruit and place on each Jewishly populated college campus, individuals who exemplify a personal Jewish identity. They will role model, engage and inspire young Jewish college students to embrace and own their personal Jewish identity. They would make a long term commitment to their campus so that they become intimately acquainted with the campus’ unique culture.

Fortunately someone has already undertaken this initiative. Fifteen years ago one man gave seed funding to Chabad Shluchim couples on college campuses across America and other countries, reaching over 220 campuses. The seeds have been transformed on shoestring budgets and through the herculean toil of courageous men and women into seedlings.

With their distinctive appearance (men with full beards and women with modest attire), and lifestyle (deeply Chassidic), these couples joyously move to a campus foreign to their values and way of life. They are comfortable with who they are, wherever they may be, and are willing to engage anyone. They personify a personal Jewish identity to the highest degree.

Chabad Campus Shluchim are uniquely positioned to lead a new wave of personal Jewish identity that will sweep American college campuses.

The time is ripe and necessitates the unleashing of this force through massive support and resources in order that every college student is empowered with their personal Jewish identity.

It  is time to pursue an inside-the-box solution that already exists on our college campuses instead of the outside-the-box solution, across the Atlantic.

About the Author
HaShliach Rabbi Peretz Chein is co-director of the Chabad House at Brandeis University, which he co-founded with his wife Chanie in 2001. In 2021 they co-founded M54, an educational startup that shifts the learning content from text to participants' life experiences, allowing them to discover new language and voice from which increased vibrancy emerges.
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