Most of the folks fighting BDS have the best intentions at heart, and many are doing great work, but collectively, our impact is limited and, sometimes, counterproductive.
By Andrés Spokoiny
We know it’s not always wise, but we often clean up after our kids. Yes, we tell them that they won’t have dessert if they don’t help clear the table, or they won’t get the new PlayStation if their rooms are a mess, but in most cases, we relent and just clean up for them. I guess that’s part of what being a parent is all about, kind of the natural order of things.
Now, if the situation was in reverse, and we compelled our kids to clean up after us, or if we forced them to do our dirty laundry, we would probably be reported to Child Protective Services and charged with child abuse.
Yet, when it comes to campus and BDS, this is exactly what we do.
There is no doubt that BDS is one of the big issues affecting the Jewish People around the world. It is one of those issues that define a generation, in the same vein that Soviet Jewry was in the 1980s and 1990s. Campuses around the United States are “ground zero” for the BDS movement, a well-funded and well-organized political machine that is as bigoted as it is morally bankrupt. The BDS movement is particularly pernicious because it veils its true objective (the destruction of the State of Israel) and because it hijacks the values and the discourse most cherished by students – human rights, anti-racism, freedom of speech, etc.
While the situation is not the same on all campuses (plenty are free of BDS), at many universities across the country, Jewish students are literally on the frontlines of a complex battle, fought with asymmetrical warfare.
But these kids are not soldiers, they are students. They go to school to study, party, and meet girls and guys (perhaps not necessarily in that order). They are not there to carry the weight of the Jewish People on their shoulders. Moreover, they are not there to fight one of the best organized political movements in the world on their own.
And many times we, instead of helping, make their task simply impossible. In other words, we make a mess and we ask them to clean it up.
First, we have a surprisingly patronizing way of dealing with students. We call them the “boots on the grounds,” the “soldiers in our fight,” etc., implying that, we, the all-knowing geniuses, are the generals and they are the foot soldiers, the cannon fodder, there to execute our brilliant strategies. We pontificate to students; we don’t engage them so as to find out what they truly need. Moreover, we don’t involve them in crafting the strategies that they need to implement. We give them “talking points,” implying that they can’t develop their own.
I’m not free from fault here, either. I once gave a group of students a brochure that listed “ten things that students need to know about the Middle East conflict.” The students retorted, “let us tell you ten things you need to know about college students.” They taught me a big lesson. I haven’t been a student in more than twenty years! What do I know about college life in 2015? When I hear people in their seventies, who haven’t been on a campus for fifty years, lecturing about what must be done, I get skeptical, to say the least. Probably, if we like a particular campus campaign, we shouldn’t fund it, because we are not the barometer. We are the furthest thing from a twenty-year-old student in arts and humanities that exists. Today, there are scores of campus advocacy organizations – designed and funded in our offices and boardrooms – that bombard students with messages that they have no hand in crafting. We tell them what to think and say. We don’t ask them; we don’t let them wrestle with the issues; we don’t give them enough oxygen to have true conversations and ask the tough questions. We don’t leverage the unique knowledge that these young people have about campus, a knowledge that most of us utterly lack.
Second, we tell students that in order to fight the BDS battle, they need to build bridges and coalitions with many groups, especially minorities. This is critically important because BDS activists are very strategically (and maliciously) lumping the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with struggles of racism and inequality in America. The latest “From Palestine to Ferguson” banners that can be seen on many campuses attest to that dangerous trend. To an under-informed minority student, those analogies are easy to identify with and hard to resist. It is vital not to let them fall prey to those manipulations. Moreover, working with these groups is also critically important because of mere demographics: white Protestants are already a minority in America, so any strategy that ignores minorities – that are actually majorities – is bound to fail.
But at the same time that we ask Jewish students to build bridges with, say, African American and Latino students, we make their work impossible. It is us, not them, who need to build those bridges. It is us, not them, who let the alliances we had with those groups erode to the point of disappearing. How successful can Jewish students be in reaching out to their Latino friends after we gave the “Jewish Values Award” to a senator who advocates the deportation of huge numbers of Hispanics? How do we expect “La Raza” to stand with us against BDS when our communal leadership was deafeningly silent on immigration reform? How can we expect African Americans on campus to help us when, collectively, we said nothing about the “Blacks Lives Matter” campaign? How do we expect them to be sympathetic to our cause when we demonize the president they idolize?
It is our personal choice to support or not support immigration reform, or to participate or not participate in the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. I’m not arguing that we should, but we simply can’t have it both ways. Furthermore, we can’t expect students to build bridges that we destroy; we can’t ask them to clean up a mess that we made, even if that mess was, in our opinion, worth making.
Third, we ask students to stand for Israel, but we don’t demand that Israel make their lives easier. Students across the country fought BDS using the two-state solution narrative. They would say, “BDS wants to destroy Israel and install a single multi-national state; we fight for two states, for two peoples living side-by-side in peace in security.” When the Prime Minister of Israel says that there won’t be a Palestinian state on his watch, hedramatically undermines the credibility of the anti-BDS activists and their capacity to defend Israel. We use the argument that, “boycotts aren’t a tool to solve political problems,” and then, during the Gaza War, the Foreign Minister of Israel called to boycott shops owned by Arab Israelis. This is not about whether those statements were correct or not. Israeli leaders make their own political choices based on their own considerations, and it’s up to Israeli voters to reward or punish them for it, but we can’t send our “boots on the ground” to fight for a message that the top Israeli leadership disavows. If we want to support our students, we need to send a clear message to Jerusalem that we can’t stab our “soldiers” in the back every time that it’s politically expedient.
Fourth, and probably most important, we can’t ask students to fight for a Jewish cause when we haven’t invested enough into giving them a meaningful, and affordable, Jewish education. The biggest problem on campus for Jewish students is not BDS, but apathy. We have failed our students by asking them to fight without giving them compelling reasons to do it. We fail our students by asking them to be our “soldiers,” but not providing them avenues to joyful and meaningful Jewish experiences. For many, campus Jewish engagement looks like, “fight for Israel (on our terms) or else.” Jewish apathy on campus is not a student’s problem; it was created by how we failed in Jewish education. To make the anti-BDS fight the gateway to Jewish Life is a self-defeating proposition, both in terms of Jewish Identity and in terms of BDS.
I’m an eternal optimist, but the sad truth is that, besides some worthy exceptions, we are both losing the battle against BDS and failing our students. Most of the folks fighting BDS have the best intentions at heart, and many are doing great work, but collectively, our impact is limited and, in sometimes, counterproductive. In some cases, we obtain victories that students describe as Pyrrhic, for they leave them exhausted, demotivated, and traumatized. Students feel they need to fight BDS with one hand and the Jewish Communal establishment with the other. If we are to prevail against this challenge and not drive our students away, we need to radically rethink our strategy.
First, BDS as a movement goes beyond campus. It has found on campus a fertile ground to thrive, but it’s directed from the outside by professional political activists, in many cases funded by shady overseas sources. While we need to empower students to craft their own campus strategy, we need to fight the “head of the hydra” with equally trained, properly funded, and fully equipped professionals, not with amateurs. It’s unfair to demand that students alone defeat the BDS movement because much of that fight needs to be done outside of campus by legal experts, cyber-experts, and, in many cases, Homeland Security. It’s not just about expecting our students to “change hearts and minds on campus” (a very tall order at this point); it’s about helping students come up with their own solutions on the campus level while we fight the shrewd political operatives at the head of the BDS movement with adequate tools.
Second, we need to engage and build bridges with minority populations so that they don’t fall prey to false analogies. It is up to us, not only the students, to build those bridges. We need to understand that the alliances we forge have consequences on campus. We need to realize that there’s a cost for students when we take the political positions that, as a community, we are taking. It’s a legitimate political choice – that I don’t contest – to convert Israel into a right-wing wedge cause, but we need to be aware of the consequences that choice has on campus, and not ask students to do things that we have made virtually impossible.
Third, as senior leaders, we can send a clear message to Israeli leaders about the effect that their actions and statements have on campus. A negative statement by an Israeli minister undoes, in one blow, much of the work that students do in campus. Without a more keen awareness, and without better policies out of Jerusalem, students on campus will continue to fight an uphill, even impossible battle. Maybe a portion of the resources we spend on campus advocacy could be better used on advocating to and training Israeli officials.
Fourth, we need to help students build a positive Jewish identity before and during their college years. Students need to feel that being Jewish is more than fighting the BDS battle; it’s first and foremost about joy, purpose, meaning, and spiritual richness and fulfillment. We sometimes approach campus Jewish outreach as if we were a club seeking new members with the slogan, “They hate us. Join!.”
Most importantly, however, we need to engage with students on their terms, not ours. We simply can’t tell them, “fight for Israel exactly as we tell you or you are a self-hating Jew.” We need to stop lecturing and start listening. We need to let them wrestle with the issues, express their own views, and ultimately come up with a narrative that represents them. Instead of giving them talking points, we need to let them talk to us. Instead of teaching them, let’s try to learn from them. We need to trust them to do the right thing instead of demanding that they fight our fight and clean up our messes.
Above all, we need to let them enjoy those unique years in which their identity is being formed, and have joyful and meaningful Jewish experiences.
We need to rethink our way of doing campus advocacy because the evidence suggests that much of what we have done until now hasn’t worked. Most of us aren’t expert political operatives, nor are we students, so we are hardly qualified to do this alone and come up with all of the answers. Moreover, the BDS epidemic continues to spread unabated, so we haven’t earned the right to lecture and pontificate.
On BDS, we need to be humble because we have a lot be humble about.
Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of Jewish Funders Network.