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Mobilizing against BDS on American campuses

Even those who don’t care for the present government’s policies need to get together under a single tent

Something is happening across the campuses of the United States. Israel is under attack. I have seen it first-hand during the past two years when I was invited to speak at more than twenty universities across America about Israel’s environment. These trips typically not only offer an opportunity to meet my professional colleagues but also the local students, Hillel centers and excellent people with an interest in Israel. Lately more and more of these communities find themselves engaged in heated campaigns against initiatives where anti-Israel student activists call on their universities to boycott or divest from Israel.

At a time when innocent citizens are slaughtered or incarcerated across the Middle East and sundry African and Asian regimes abuse their enemies indiscriminately, somehow only Israel’s imperfections are of interest. Already DePaul, Evergreen State, Oberlin, UC Irvine, UC Berkeley, UC Riverside, UC San Diego, UCLA, UC Davis and Wesleyan Universities have all passed Israel divestment resolutions. At Northwestern and Stanford Universities there currently are plans for a student-wide referendum on the issue. Encouraged by this litany of success, BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) forces have targeted innumerable other schools.

Regardless of the outcomes of these votes, in the big picture, Israel and Israel supporters have already lost before the first ballot is cast. There are other, very different divestment initiatives with which I am familiar, calling for universities to stop investing in polluting industries or companies that mine coal. The fact that a referendum will be held where students are asked whether they think that Israel is as egregious as contaminating factories or greenhouse gases implicitly leaves students with a message about the country’s illegitimacy.

Most U.S. students who vote or merely follow the debate in the headlines of their local universities will not find the time to learn the issues in depth. The BDS motions and referenda only reinforce preposterous but increasingly common comparisons of Israel to Apartheid regimes. Many of today’s students will undoubtedly go on to assume roles as influential citizens. Needless to say, Israel will not enjoy the kind of unconditional support from them that it did with their parents’ generation.

The remarkable students who campaign on Israel’s behalf in the traditionally progressive campus setting have a hard sell. Natural inclinations to support the underdog, Israel’s clumsy presentation of its case and disturbing images of casualties from recurrent battles with Hamas in Gaza play into the hands of Israel’s adversaries.

The pro-Israel (largely, but not only Jewish) students and faculty who take on the challenge do the best they can. They organize, and offer up the right talking points. Often they avoid framing their side as a narrow “pro-Israel” lobby but as a “Coalition for Peace.” They argue that if their university is to play any sort of role in the conflict, it should be to support the many efforts and organizations seeking regional conciliation rather than condemning one side or the other. Local Hillels step up to the plate, with the Israeli “shaliach” (emissary) on their staff frequently devoting considerable time and energy to the campaign.

But in a growing number of colleges it doesn’t seem to help: the anti-Israel forces have effective propaganda and are willing to go door-to-door in dormitories, intensively lobbying, publicizing and making their case. The students, faculty and staff who work in the failed effort to defend Israel are outgunned, leaving them disappointed and a little bit exhausted. After all, spending countless hours fighting on Israel’s behalf is not exactly what they signed up for when they decided to get an education at a demanding and competitive university. And there are certainly those who come away feeling that they are personally under attack as Jews.

It seems to me that the rules of the game in Israel advocacy have changed. The indiscriminate demonization and delegitimatization of Israel, for so long a part of the European landscape, is no longer some vague amorphous threat. It has arrived and is part of a new reality on U.S. campuses.

I thought about this as I attended the first day of the AIPAC policy convention today in Washington D.C. Some 16,000 pro-Israel individuals from around the country showed up to voice their support while learning about myriad aspects of life in Israel and associated issues involving U.S. policy. It is a highly sophisticated, intelligent and inspiring gathering. But I was left with the vague sense that on this particular issue, most folks still don’t’ get it.

AIPAC surely understands the importance of engaging young people. It is much more than lip service. They find the funds to bring 2,500 students from across America to attend the meeting, undoubtedly providing them with a stirring, educational experience. These students will not only be the backbone of America’s pro-Israel community in the future. Many will be motivated to go home and lend a hand in campaigns to stop campus divestment proposals. But can and should we expect them to drop their considerable academic responsibilities and wage this struggle on their own?

My sense from talking to people who have been on the front lines is that Israel advocacy needs to enter a new phase. The many 20-something, Israel fellows who come for a stay in the states to work with campus Hillels are selected to introduce students to Israel, recruit for birthright and stage cultural events about their country. They are wonderful young people. But when it comes to stopping a well-engineered, well- funded anti-Israel campaign on an American campus — they are simply out of their depth.

Campus activism is subtle, complicated and taxing. It requires great creativity, nimbleness, experience and an intimate familiarity with local culture. American Jewish student are surely talented enough for the task. But can they really take the time off between studying for organic chemistry or econometrics exams to successfully run this sort of campaign?

I had never attended an AIPAC event before and found myself impressed not only by the dimensions of the gathering but by the passion of the participants. Like many Israelis I always took AIPAC and American support of Israel for granted. No longer. There really is no room for such complacency today.

It is time that all of us who support Israel close ranks to address the latest assault on Israel’s legitimacy. J-Street too needs to clearly set down an expectation among its growing number of student groups to join the fray. As an Israeli who is also associated with the peace camp, it seems to me that when Israel is so maliciously challenged, everyone who cares about the country (even those who don’t care for the present government’s policies) needs to find a way to get together under a single tent.

Most of all, pro-Israel organizations and students at American universities where the battle over Israel’s legitimacy is being waged need to be provided with better resources: financial, substantive and human. A very strong analytical team needs to figure this thing out at the national level: Which campaigns stopped BDS initiatives and why? Do demonstrations help? Who should speak for Israel? How can the faculty lend a hand? What are the messages that resonate with relevant focus groups? Can we learn from other social movements who aroused American campuses? And how can social media be mobilized? In short, a detailed playbook needs to be compiled.

Hillels across the country are doing what they can and are important players in this process. But their staffs are not designed to run sensitive, controversial, politicized campaigns of this nature. Professional organizers who know how to strategize, motivate and galvanize are needed to help the pro-Israel campus communities. In the heat of a BDS campaign, somebody needs to wake up every morning with the singular, focused goal of winning a very tough fight. Providing such professional reinforcements is the least we can do for the intrepid and idealistic students and faculty who are standing up against the disinformation and the intolerance that is at the heart of the present assault on the Jewish state.

Israel is not without its flaws. Yet it remains a robust democracy surrounded by dictatorships. It continues to provide a homeland for Jews who seek refuge. It is a creative and stimulating place. And it is the only Jewish state we have. Defending its honor and protecting its economic viability is a righteous fight. We just need to start doing it better.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University, a veteran environmentalist and a former member of Israel's Knesset.
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