Upon voting to ask Barnard’s administration to divest from several companies that have strong business connections with Israel, Barnard’s’ students have effectively decided to put their trust in “Students for Justice in Palestine”, “Jewish Voice for Peace” and of course, the BDS movement. These organizations share a commonality: they share a concern for Palestinian rights to an extent, but also an even bigger concern – or rather, disdain – for the notion of a sovereign, independent, Jewish and democratic state.
This, despite the College President’s defiant stance against boycotts and the growing alumni outrage at the vote, deserves some in-depth commentary indeed, which I’ll try to satisfy here.
What is truly mind-boggling in this case isn’t necessarily the way or the reasoning by which such organizations push for boycott, divestment or sanctioning of Israel and Israel-affiliated businesses, including both its sovereign, internationally recognized borders and the West Bank and Gaza. They are doing what they set out to do, and in quite the successful fashion, it seems. Instead, it is interesting to note the numbers behind the recent vote at Barnard. Out of some 2,500 students, only 1,153 students actually voted in this student referendum. Out of the same 2,500 students, some 850 are Jewish. This, to me, means three separate, crucial things that need to be understood if we, pro-Israel advocates, (including loving critics), are to move forward from this unprecedentedly mistaken decision.
First, that the self-described liberal students who voted for this BDS-inspired resolution are no more and no less closed off to any form of criticism and dissent than Conservatives and Populists on the right are. In this sense, one must understand that holding liberal views does not mean remaining liberal in actuality. Just because you prefer a social-welfare state, advocate equal marital rights for the LGBT+ community or stricter gun laws, doesn’t mean you are willing to allow someone who does not confer to your view articulate himself or even be given the right to defend his position. In short words, think of “Bernie or Bust“ voters or “Jill not Hill” advocates who consciously chose to remain ever-purist, even if that meant America was to wake up to a new President in Donald J. Trump in 2016. In even shorter words, Voltaire’s all but dead.
Second, that the way the BDS, JVP and the like have managed to sway liberals across elite schools – men and women of the absolute academic elite, the creme of the intellectual crop, to their position – means that they figured something out that Israel and its campus advocacy groups haven’t quite been able to. In purely Propaganda-oriented thinking, I would suggest that the campaigns aimed at aligning the Palestinian struggle with that of disadvantaged parts of society (including women, African-Americans, Latin-Americans, Native-Americans and more), citing terms like “intersectionality” etc., have struck a chord with many left-leaning Americans, regardless of the facts of the matters at hand or the complexity and delicate nature of the discussion. People want simple yes-no answers to questions that in merit much more nuanced answers. They don’t want “50 Shades of Grey” outside of the cinema – but instead, prefer a clear-cut Black and White reality. They want to root for David over Goliath, even if that means forcing misconceptions on reality (what IDF soldiers in navigating practice refer to as “forcing the reality to fit the map” rather than the other way around), and Israel has an ironically hard time portraying itself as David. This problem, of course, will only worsen over time, as occupations tend to do.
Ultimately, third – that no matter how good the intentions, no matter how complex the facts, no matter how hard we may try, Israel’s path forward, in terms of international recognition and acceptance within the younger, influential and highly political youth of America is being eroded. It is happening bit by bit, school by elite school, from sea to shining sea – not due to pro-Israel groups’ antics on campuses and not even by the Anti-Israel ones, but rather, primarily by the state’s own actions. As long as Israel continues to hold on to the West Bank and besiege Gaza (evidently, the once-Syrian Golan Heights have been forgotten by most everyone. at least we have that going for us) and as long as it remains on the Right – political, not factual – side of politics, it will be viewed as being on the wrong side of History. And rightly so, if I may add. This is a truth we can’t refute. And it is high time we start dealing with it. Not coins from the time of the second temple nor drawings of Iranian bomb-red-lines at the UN, not archeological findings in the Galilee nor eloquent speeches, praising the start-up nation, not the wonders of Jerusalem’s old city nor the sun-drenched beaches of Tel-Aviv are going to change that. The sooner Israel grasps this – and start changing its ways – the better.
This doesn’t mean that BDS or JVP “win”. Not by a long shot. What it does mean is that as it celebrates its 70th birthday, Israel must decide on the way in which it wishes to progress: does it take the highway, of compromise and reckoning – or does it choose to ignore the signs, the roadblocks and the ever-growing alienation it is bringing upon itself in dealing with the rest of the world – the United States included. The continuation of current policies, mainly the stagnation in negotiations with the Palestinians and deterioration of democracy within the state, inevitably mean that BDS and like-minded organizations’ hold of the proverbial American political stage will get bigger and more influential in time, thus drawing us closer to the fulfillment of Israel’s fear of once again being isolated and alone.