The most prominent of Bernie Sanders’ appointees to the Democratic Platform Draft Committee is Cornel West, the provocative African-American philosopher, activist, and harsh critic of Israel. A strong backer of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, West recently accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “war crimes” against the Palestinians. His presence on the committee along with that of other outspoken Israel critics worries many pro-Israel Democrats.
(And Netanyahu’s appointment of hardliner Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister only increases that worry — and the anti-Israel crowd’s clout.)
But my deepest concerns about West stem from a different quarter. The attention he’s received with this appointment enhances the legitimacy of the BDS movement, especially on college campuses, where Sanders has garnered so many followers. It also widens the influence of faculty members like West — who taught at Harvard and is an emeritus professor at Princeton — in their support of anti-Israel groups in their institutions.
The BDS movement has been discussed and written about at great length, yet in many ways it is still shrouded in ambiguity. What is to be boycotted — goods from Israel’s West Bank or from all of Israel? Divest from whom — Israeli companies or any company anywhere doing business with Israel? Sanctions against Israelis who live in settlements or against Israelis everywhere? I’m convinced that the ambiguity and the resulting confusion are intentional, particularly at schools. They allow the movement a wide net to pull in progressive students who back Israel but oppose settlement building as well as hard-core Israel opponents out to delegitimize the state. Thus a Jewish college freshman may receive a handout from an organization supporting BDS about a rally calling for “justice” toward the Palestinians. Liberal-minded, the student may be inclined to attend, or even join the group, not knowing that much of its literature demands Israel’s withdrawal from “all Arab lands” and the return of “all Palestinian refugees,” code words for eliminating the Jewish state altogether.
Part of the BDS phenomenon on campuses includes the use of trendy terms that somehow leave Jews feeling marginalized. For example, Jewish students have been accused in some places of “micro-aggression,” meaning subtle insensitivity to minority feelings. In one case, a boy who spoke of the Holocaust to an African-American acquaintance was dubbed “micro-aggressive” for not simultaneously acknowledging the pain of slavery. Another current word, “intersectionality,” the linking of various forms of discrimination, was discussed in this newspaper a few weeks ago in connection with an incident at Brown University. In it, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a major force behind BDS, attempted to push the university’s Hillel out of a consortium of organizations that had invited a transgender author as a speaker. The SJP group argued that in supporting Israel, Hillel could not possibly also support the LGBT cause. To her credit, the speaker canceled her talk.
SJP is among the most virulently anti-Zionist organizations on campuses, with rhetoric against Israel that can smack of anti-Semitism. The AMCHA initiative, which monitors anti-Semitism in colleges and universities, quotes a Vassar student who felt “bullied into silence by aggressive anti-Israel activists who call the Jews racists.” At Stanford University a student was told, “That’s not anti-Semitic, that’s true. Jews do control everything.” Sadly, students say, faculty members who may inwardly support them refuse to speak out, fearful of jeopardizing their careers.
Two weeks ago Israel organized an international conference at the United Nations, designed, among other things, to create “ambassadors against BDS,” young people trained to fight against the BDS movement in their schools. Students can also get material and guidance from StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy organization active on college campuses. But perhaps the best help for Jewish college kids has to come from their parents. Before young people go off to college, parents need to prepare them for the anti-Israel onslaught they will face from groups like SJP, and the more subtle pressures they may feel from professors — Jewish and non-Jewish — who back BDS. At the same time parents need to emphasize the true meaning of Zionism, not as the “colonial” movement its critics brand it, but as a movement that returned Jews — persecuted throughout the world — to sovereignty and self-determination in their historic homeland.
I recently came across a book by a British writer, Ruth Corman, called “Unexpected Israel”; it is a compilation of photographs and vignettes about the real-life Israel you rarely hear of in the media. “Unexpected” is the right word. There has never been a country like Israel: an isle of democracy in a sea of turmoil, a haven for the Jewish people, a world-class center of science and culture. While recognizing the country’s flaws, young people need to have the knowledge and confidence to carry that positive image with them as they leave home and head toward new lives.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” Her new biography of Golda Meir will appear in 2017.