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Sheldon Adelson is the problem, not the solution

The new campus initiative will fail because it has deliberately excluded liberal Jewish organizations

Sheldon Adelson says he wants to stamp out the BDS movement by confronting it on campus, better funding more battles with those who support boycott, divestment, and sanctions, and pressing more student government votes toward different outcomes – even though most outcomes to date have actually registered in defeats for BDS efforts. But Sheldon Adelson is the problem, not the solution. He just doesn’t get it and will make matters worse.

The conflict over BDS is not merely about boycott. It is also, first, a fight for academic freedom on campuses against those who would deny Israelis participation — based on their nationality — in the give-and-take of global academia unless they are opponents of Israel. BDSers say no, they distinguish between individuals and those officially representing Israeli institutions, but this is a canard – already there is ample evidence of silent blacklists, refusals to participate in academic reviews, and boycotts of Israeli speakers and visitors. There have been BDS-motivated boycotts of academic conferences and meetings in Israel. There is also evidence of attempts on several campuses to close down study abroad initiatives that sponsor student study in Israel. Sheldon Adelson knows nothing about academic freedom and is unqualified to and cannot speak to these issues or direct strategy regarding them.

Indeed, Adelson’s bent – and that of his Republican allies – is to use state legislation and punishment to shut down or silence BDS efforts. Such initiatives show little respect for academic freedom and fair and appropriate intellectual exchange. They are heavy handed, at least, and they open up the possibility of BDS proponents crying “foul” or screaming “intimidation” and “McCarthyism.” Such claims are unbecoming from such hypocritical opponents of academic freedom, but playing the victim card while victimizing others may have its own currency.

The fight against BDS is also a fight over the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. BDSers, despite occasional dissembling on ultimate goals, follow leaders who are nearly uniformly committed to a one-state solution. They fight under the banner of de-legitimization to end the existence of a Jewish state. They fight for a state dominated by a Palestinian majority. Sheldon Adelson also wants a one-state solution, but the mirror opposite – he would deny a Palestinian state and create an expanded Jewish state. Hearts and minds in America and on American campuses will not be won by a proponent like Sheldon Adelson of a one state solution.

Ari Shavit, who toured 35 American campuses last year – among them Michigan State University, where I was director of Jewish Studies – understands all this. Shavit understands the limits of BDS support, which is overblown in media accounts of BDS battles. Shavit also understands the liberal milieu of American campuses, the interest in diversity and multiculturalism, the vogue of human rights.

Shavit gets that the conflict on American campuses is a conflict between two lefts, a hard post-colonialist left that constructs Israel as a colonial, apartheid nation, and a more liberal left that constructs Israel as a justified and heroic exercise, given Jewish history, in national self-determination, sovereignty, and state making and building. BDSers embrace national self-determination, but they think about it only for Palestinians. Some erase Jewish history, deny it, or embrace a negation or inversion of the Jewish story, a remarkable erasure which to me is mind-bending. A persecuted people are made over into a persecuting one. A racially victimized people are transformed into racial victimizers. A minority people from the margins of European empires who creatively used, then revolted against two-faced British colonialism are made into grasping colonialists. [Don’t get me started on Brits who today cry out Israel is colonialist.]

The Israel that many BDSers put forward is a caricature, and not a living, breathing, diverse, complex society, culture, and state, with strengths and weaknesses, proud accomplishments and terrible flawed mistakes. It is a Manichean morality play which needs to be countered by flesh and blood history, argument, and understanding.

“Ninety percent of the young people I met at the universities are Democrats who support U.S. President Barack Obama,” writes Ari Shavit in Haaretz (June 4, 2015). “Trying to sell them the Gush Emunim agenda won’t work.” Shavit goes on to insist: “Only a liberal Zionist message can foment change. Only liberal Zionists can generate enthusiasm and provide inspiration.”

But Adelson is a sworn enemy of the left, and of liberalism, liberal Zionism and a two state solution. Indeed, in putting together his summit this weekend in Las Vegas, he purposefully left out all liberal Jewish organizations, including several who are making most headway against BDS on campuses and in academic professional organizations. Those he invited are not well-situated on campuses, and often put forward from outside shrill claims or silly bromides with little cachet in the intellectual conflicts on campuses. Some slander all campuses by making them what they aren’t – outposts, as Richard Cravatts of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, insists, of “Genocidal Liberalism,” and “jihad against Israel and Jews.” Who is such a person talking to – students?

“Will Sheldon Adelson’s Push To Fund Anti-BDS Campaign Backfire on Campus?” Nathan Gutman asks in the Forward (June 4, 2015). Yes, I think it will. The list of invitees to his conclave is narrow and includes conservative Christian and Jewish groups, like Christians United for Israel and the Zionist Organization of America, but not liberal Jewish ones, like J Street or Ameinu. Even the Israel on Campus Coalition and the Jewish Council on Public Affairs are sitting it out. The Anti-Defamation League is cautious. Who is it that calls such a meeting, tagging it as a “Campus Maccabees Summit?” “The idea is to find and create campus Maccabees,” Shmuley Boteach, another person with a remarkable tin ear, promotes. These are not ears attuned to the realities on American campuses nor are they voices that will capture student ears.

What is needed is better organization and funding to be sure — we who are engaged against BDS are too ad hoc in our efforts, too reactive.  We take too long to respond and we produce media with low production values.  Money can help.  But what is really important and needed is rather a broad coalition linked in an umbrella initiative shaped by more sophisticated understanding of what the battle is about, where American students are and why, how campuses work, how human rights ideas shape discourse in the conflict, and – above all — what is missing from faculty and student comprehension and perspective. BDS sentiment is a growing problem on campus but roll back the legislation and heavy handed efforts at stifling thought. Instead, engage, argue, point out what needs pointing out. Use words. Also keep up pressure on Israel and Palestinians alike for initiatives toward a two state solution. We do have talented and knowing people who can and are willing to do this on campuses and to appear in the larger community more generally. They are not Adelson and Boteach.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.
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