The (potential) blessing of BDS or what I learned from Jews for Jesus

Man lacks the ability to understand the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe –  our ways are not His ways nor are our thoughts [like] His. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:4 – see Isaiah 55:9)

Now is the time that colleges are beginning to open their doors for the new academic year. Lugging books and computers, excited and nervous new and returning students will be moving into dorms and strolling down their respective college walks.  On almost all campuses, however, there is one thing we can be sure about Zionist students (Jews and non-Jews alike) strolling down those same college walks will be inundated with the anti-Israel (and often anti-Semitic) onslaught of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement. Ironically, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

The stated goals of BDS are to harm Israel by divesting from companies which do business with the Jewish State and to boycott Israeli academic and cultural products.  The tools of their trade are low brow harassment, sabotage, and hooliganism.  Silencing speakers, intimidating students, and stifling honest debate are part of their game plan. Even those on the left of the Israeli political divide can see the anti-Semitic overtones which belie some if not most of the BDS rhetoric. In the latest, international, example, BDS supporters almost successfully lead a boycott of Matisyahu, an American Jew, for not advocating for their point of view.  While I believe that the BDS movement and its supporters represent a dangerous nuisance and can be potentially harmful to other students on campus,  there may just be a silver lining to their dark cloud.

Let me share with you what I learned from my experience with Jews for Jesus.

During my service as the JLIC director and rabbi of the Orthodox community at Brandeis University, an organization called the Brandeis Christian Fellowship invited Garrett Smith, a speaker for Jews for Jesus, to address the greater campus community. Jews for Jesus has a reputation for missionizing to Jews and is said to sometimes use deception and subterfuge to attract students at risk to their unique brand of Christianity. Brandeis overflows with Jewish students ripe for JfJ’s marketing ploys.

In this case, JfJ picked the wrong campus.

With the announcement of the upcoming lecture, student leaders sprang into action. For days, students held day and night planning sessions, partnered with friendly Christian groups such as the Catholic student organization, and created a multi-pronged response.  Part of the action plan consisted of having members of Jewish clergy, myself included, host information sessions in a room adjacent to the speaker. While Hillel affiliated students inside the lecture hall with the speaker held a dignified, silent protest against what they saw as inappropriate tactics of JfJ, members of the Catholic and other Christian community guided curious students towards the room where we had the information sessions. I have never seen the Hillel student community as energized. It was truly inspiring.

I met with numerous students during the evening; for several, this event was their first “Hillel program.”  One student event suggested that we hold programs like this more often!  (To be honest, I never thought of bringing missionaries to campus as an ideal way to generate enthusiasm for all things Jewish.)

In a way, the Jews for Jesus speaker gave the impression that Judaism was under assault. When anti-Semitism (or anti-Judaism) raises its ugly head, many Jews who ordinarily avoid the community rise to the occasion. It was one of the most successful Jewish events I attended on campus.  From the Hillel student leaders all the way to the nominally interested, the clarion call of community was answered.

Similarly, in the case of BDS, if handled correctly, we may have found a usefully tool for new vistas of engagement. While Jewish campus organizations are begging for funding, BDS empowered donors to open their wallets. While many non-Orthodox religious organizations have all but given up hope on raising funds for campus programs,  in one weekend, Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson held a mutli-million dollar summit for their Campus Maccabee program to combat BDS. The goal was 50 million dollars over a few days. Other major Jewish groups can’t even imagine raising that amount over the life of the organization.

Students need to be informed of the true nature of BDS and its supporters. With the realization that much of BDS is backed by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic forces and that the BDS groups are pushing for nothing short of the destruction of the State of Israel students can be empowered to find their voice. . As Omar Bargouti, one of the founders of the movement is quoted as saying ““We are witnessing the rapid demise of Zionism, and nothing can be done to save it.”  Or as Pro-BDS Prof. As’ad AbuKhalil  wrote  “the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel….That should be stated as an unambiguous goal. There should not be any equivocation on the subject.” Let’s spread the truth and watch what happens. BDS’s goal is destruction of the Israel — the homeland of the Jewish people.

Zionist students and organizations need to focus on the reality that is BDS. Whether one’s politics align with AIPAC or J Street (and anything in between) BDS must be called out. While we can legitimately debate the best course for Israel, we must inform Jewish students that when it comes to BDS nothing less than the existence of the Jewish State is under attack and that the next stage is the Jewish people itself.  It should come as no surprise that members of the anti-Israel community too often slip into pure old anti-Semitism.  Whether in France, Spain, or Stanford University, the anti-Zionists use antiquated canards and anti-Semitic accusations to silence (and even worse) Jewish expression.  It’s time to use this against the haters and to empower and engage Jewish students who are not part of the mainstream.

Let’s wake up. We have many allies – from every religion and cultural group – and students need to seek them out.  Student leaders need the professional and communal support to allow their potential to come to fruition. And critically, we need to help student leadership ignite the passion sometimes hidden deep in the hearts of  the many Jewish students on campus.

What I learned from Jews for Jesus is applicable to BDS as well: when others give you lemons, you can always make lemonade.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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