BDS Resolutions & the Empathy Gap on College Campuses

Back in March of 2021, UCLA’s student government passed a resolution about divestment from Israel, a move that sparked immense anger and controversy. Our Hillel president at the time, as well as our campus’ AIPAC chapter issued a statement in response, claiming that the resolution “derails any potential for honest debate” because it accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing. Ironically, these groups’ instinct to dismiss the ideas with which they disagreed was a fundamental tenet of the very resolution they opposed.

Three years and two wars later, our student government passed yet another resolution echoing the calls of the Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement on February 20. This non-binding resolution was crafted and passed with the understanding that the University of California has time and time again made clear that it will never adopt the recommendations of the BDS movement.  This resolution is just one of many examples of inflamed animosity at UCLA (and campuses across the nation) in conversations about Israel-Palestine. This polarization means that there are far too many students on campus who have become too reactionary to learn about or responsibly consider the myriad perspectives on the century-long conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. For other students, this level of discourse makes them afraid to engage at all. 

If we, as college students, enter conversations from a moral baseline that recognizes the humanity and rights to self-determination that both Palestinians and Israelis inalienably possess, only then we can begin to understand how these fundamental rights have been denied to Palestinians in Palestine, to Ashkenazi Jews throughout 20th-century Europe, to diaspora Palestinians trapped in refugee camps, to Mizrahi Jews forced out of the MENA region. But if we cannot correct the myopia of assuming that Israelis are ontologically genocidal or that Palestinians are ontologically antisemitic, of assuming that both societies cannot change, we will never be able to realize a better future for all. 

The supporters of the resolution, entitled “A Resolution to Boycott and Divest from Apartheid, Ethnic Cleansing, and Genocide” may claim that such issues are not complicated, that to include or even consider different viewpoints is to devalue the suffering of the Palestinian people. Or, as one supporter of the resolution put it: “I refuse to be “educated” about issues that I know about through personal experience”—insinuating that because his people had been victims of a war wherein many atrocities occurred, he intrinsically understood the plight of the Palestinians. However, reductionist attempts to view history only through the lens of our own personal experiences only serve to bolster widespread misunderstanding about and dearth of compassion for the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.  

One opponent of the resolution stated in the Feb. 20 meeting, that “a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinians existed on October 6th”. This rhetoric comes dangerously close to endorsing the pre-October 7th status quo, upheld by the myth of “managing the conflict”. My fellow college students (and everyone else for that matter), we must understand that this is not a zero-sum game: the pre and post- October 7th reality was and is unsustainable for everyone who calls the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea home. Palestinians must be granted statehood, equality, and freedom from blockade, military occupation, administrative detention, censorship, and repression.

I do agree that one needn’t be an expert to speak with moral clarity. Every single one of the 1,400 Israelis and 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza who have been killed on and since October 7th had a name, a family, memories, dreams, and passions, now gone and buried under rubble. The loss and fear from this horrific tragedy have left an indelible mark on both societies. 

It is not only possible but critical to recognize that both peoples deserve to live in freedom and safety, and simultaneously recognize the reality on the ground— that the majority of people in Gaza are homeless, starving, at risk of preventable disease, and trapped inside Rafah. Many communities in Area C of the West Bank are at risk of settler violence and forcible displacement. Thousands in Israel have been protesting for the release of hostages and almost all are still haunted by the collective trauma of October 7. Israelis in the north are faced with the threat of war, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the south and north are still displaced. Acknowledging the suffering of Israelis does not negate the suffering of Palestinians nor the power imbalance. 

To understand how we have reached this point, we must consider a wide range of ideas and individuals even and especially when they are distasteful. Considering others’ perspectives does not mean abandoning your values. Not considering others’ perspectives makes a better future all but impossible.  

If the goal of our campus’ BDS resolution is to make material change, either at UCLA or in Israel-Palestine, then by all measures it has been a failure. BDS demonstrated its interest in symbolic virtue signaling over pragmatic material change when it called for the boycott of Standing Together, silencing not only the movement’s Israeli Jews, but also the movement’s already-marginalized Palestinian citizens of Israel. Standing Together is the largest grassroots movement of Palestinians and Jews inside Israel working to mobilize their society to dismantle inequality within and over the Green Line. By smearing their vision of freedom, safety, and self-determination for all as “normalization,” it begs the question—what kind of future does BDS really imagine, and how does it hope to achieve this?

This resolution claims to answer this by returning “political agency” to students and distributing a list of unspecified vendors and corporations to boycott. However, by prescriptively relying on inflammatory terminology— rather than giving students educational tools so that they can understand why these terms may or may not apply—it actually strips away the agency of students to make sound political choices on their own and dissuades them from dialogue . This resolution, like many resolutions similar to it across the country, relies on its simultaneous vagueness and binary categorization without creating any meaningful difference on our campus or in Israel-Palestine. 

As students at American universities, we are incredibly privileged to have the opportunity to speak about these issues far removed from the threat of bombs and rockets. It would be a grave mistake for any of us to abuse this privilege and resort to anger and divisiveness rather than compassion, education, and solutions. 

About the Author
Rachel Burnett is a senior at UCLA majoring in Middle Eastern studies and psychology. She is currently the VP of Communications at J Street U and The Roslyn and Abner Goldstine Undergraduate Fellow at UCLA’s Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. She was born and raised in Philadelphia.