The New York Times and campus debates about Israel

The New York Times published a piece by Jennifer Medina and Tamar Lewin this past weekend (May 9, 2015), with the headline “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities.”  The argument by the writers was that campus divestment campaigns “appear to be gaining traction on campuses across the country”, even though such resolutions by student governments bear absolutely no relation to actually transforming any real institutional investment choices. The score on that matter is zero, efes. The writers also argue that such campaigns are increasingly driving a wedge “between Jews and minorities.”

As a former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, which incorporates Israel Studies as part of Jewish experience to be studied, hosts Israeli fellows to teach and lecture, and sends students to study abroad at Israeli universities, I have taken more than a passing interest in BDS efforts and related faculty and student divestment debates on campuses and have tracked their outcomes.  The writers overstate the influence and the reach of such debates, which simply are not happening “across the country,” spurred by “groups at hundreds of major colleges.” Ms. Medina and Ms Lewin generalize from a limited set of cases to university campuses throughout the country.  In addition, the writers approach the subject with remarkable blinders, helping shape what and how they write and how they present the debate.

First, by misunderstanding and hence misstating the goal of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement – a goal they say is ‘to isolate and punish Israel for its policies toward Palestinians and its occupation of the West Bank” – the writers present a benign view of the BDS-inspired drive in alliance with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on select university campuses.  By failing to confront the calculated, strategic ambiguity of the BDS movement’s actual goal of “freeing all occupied Palestinian land,” they present a portrait of BDS initiatives that follows along largely on BDS terms.  In doing so, they present their readers with an either/or choice on how to comprehend and react to BDS efforts. Either the efforts are “criticism of Israel’s occupation” or they are “anti-Semitism.”  Either they are anti-Zionist and anti-occupation. Or they are anti-semitic.

But these efforts are truly both, at one and the same time.  They are efforts at protesting continued Israeli occupation of the territories won during the 1967 Six Day War and held since, and they are also efforts at denying one people, and one people only in the world, rights that are affirmed for all others to national self-determination.  It is increasingly clear that the end goal of BDS is not an end to occupation and the creation of a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but instead the erasing of the Zionist entity entirely. BDS leaders sneer at positive investment initiatives and projects aimed at underwriting new forms of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and they actively oppose all initiatives aimed at normalizing Israeli-Palestinian relations.  These are called “fig leafs” and efforts to “colonize” Palestinian minds.  BDS founders speak openly about the goal of a unitary state to replace the Jewish state with the creation through the achievement of a Palestinian right of return of a Palestinian majority.

Secondly, by titling their piece “Drive a Wedge between Jews and Minorities,” and not “Drive a Wedge between Jews and OTHER Minorities,” the authors confirm a good deal of what divestment proponents often think and claim on the select campuses where they are active, and which Jewish students there in turn come to feel, that the Jews are made “invisible” as minorities, stripped of their history and of the legacy of discrimination and oppression that are deeply part of the global Jewish experience, and conceived simply as privileged whites – or worse, accused sometimes in classic anti-Semitic tropes, as privileged Jews. The idea that Jews are simply not minorities like various peoples of color remarkably shapes the writers’ report as it does the debate on many campuses where it takes place.

The consequences are indeed, on such campuses, to make Jewish students feel “uncomfortable.” But we are not here talking about simple overheated sensitivities, the complaints of pampered students little knowledgeable beyond  easy simplicities taught in Jewish Sunday school classes,  now forced for the first time to confront the complexities of ongoing occupation by Jews over others.  No, what we see is more — a negation, a sharp denial, a stripping away from Jewish students of their basic sense of being in the world, which to many is wrapped up with being in solidarity with other minority struggles, in achieving and protecting equal rights for all before the law, and in a special sense of mission rooted in distinctive Jewish history.  The freshman at Stanford who spoke about proponents pretending that “history didn’t happen” was quite prescient in comprehending what was taking place on that campus. So too the UCLA student who observed “part of what they are hating is central to who I am and what I stand for.”

“Get over it,” the writers seem to say that most divestment proponents respond.  “Check your privilege.”  Jews are whites.  Jews are privileged.  Jews have money.  In addition, the fault lines of whiteness and color are blithely claimed to track seamlessly on the fault lines of Israel/Palestine.  Divestment proponents have mostly never encountered Israeli diversity.  Instead, oppression here is like oppression there.  One model fits all. We are all one in solidarity with others.  The amazing thing is how little recent and current events in Europe seem to spill over into the discussion of Jews or the Jewish fate on these particular campuses. One wonders what kinds of work university Jewish Studies programs are doing when these debates arise.  One wonders what contributions Jewish Studies faculty make to such debates. How privileged can any people be when at varied times and places members of that group risk being thought of as pariah outsiders who should go or take leave or be driven out, or worse, be targets for justified violence and murder?

But, to return to the opening claims in this essay, this is happening not everywhere but mostly on select university campuses – largely in the California universities, including Berkeley and UCLA, and the California state system, including Riverside, San Diego, and Santa Cruz, in select private colleges here and there, including Stanford, Northwestern, Toledo, Oberlin, and Loyola of Chicago, and in several Ivy League universities, including Columbia and Princeton.  Efforts are stirring at the University of Pennsylvania and possibly at Dartmouth. Yet outside California, I know of no state university where a divestment campaign has achieved significant traction – here at the University of Michigan it was turned down twice and at Michigan State University there has been no campaign at all.  Southern universities appear to be absent from any list of divestment campaigns. Even most campuses in the Ivy League are untouched by this nonsense.

In their important edited volume, The Case against Academic Boycotts against Israel, Cary Nelson and Gabriel Brahm, together with many other scholars, warn against the effects of the constant drip-drip of accusation against Israel  taking place on select American campuses, but they never overstate the phenomenon nor indicate it is happening everywhere.  It is not.   In that volume, too, they speak openly about the anti-semitism of the boycott and divestment movement, arguing there is no question that such efforts, aimed not merely at delegitimating Israel but at helping  eliminate it, should be understood as part of a fundamentally anti-Semitic project.

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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