What Can Funders Do to Address BDS and Related Activity on a University Campus?

By Maxyne Finkelstein

I am the graduate of two universities in Canada that have been blemished by blatant anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity. I began university in the years right after the United Nations adopted Resolution 3379, which stated that that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” This Resolution was passed in 1975 and gave fuel to a host of student activities which have endured in various forms and through a variety of memes and tropes for decades. What is going on today on campus is not new, a primary difference is that more money and effort has been invested by actors who choose to keep a campaign of hate alive through both student advocacy and teaching and of course social media opportunity for immediate communication.

An obvious question is why this subject is so easy to promote on campus and why it has been so difficult to counteract BDS and other anti Israel activity? A simple answer is that students at university are searching for responses to complex questions and will often choose the simplest explanations that fit a world view of perceived aggression vs suppression.

There is no lack of responses from Jewish philanthropists and others to this situation. Many outstanding programs exist that work locally or bring students of all religious and cultural back grounds to Israel to provide campus opinion leaders with the capacity to spread truth and justice. Israelis have been brought to campus to create meaningful relationships with their peers and serve as a means for students to come to know that Israelis have many similar qualities and values and that are open to having a discussion about the situation of their neighbors and non-Jewish citizens in their country. As a result of these efforts we see students who have become effective advocates. Unfortunately, the numbers who can participate in these programs are relatively small. Importantly, philanthropic funds continue to be offered for new and creative initiatives that will bring the best minds to consider how to combat anti-Semitism in any form.

While all current efforts are highly commendable and each will play an important role, particularly from bottom up, we must have the courage to confront those who are leaders in the academy and have continued to try to ignore the pernicious anti Israel/ anti Semitic conversation on campus and through the social media channels of their students. Alongside advocating with administration, it is equally important to support organizations that currently work to uncover bad actors and activities that infiltrate the university environment.

While Jewish and non-Jewish funders who are supporters of Israel and oppose anti-Semitism should not stop funding university programs that are so critical to quality of life, it is important that they learn to speak with administration about their concerns and find means of creating open and compelling dialogue that moves the conversation away from binary thinking. Funders are often uninformed about best practices regarding raising these issues when speaking with a university about BDS and related concerns. Who is the best person to speak to and how can the conversation be elevated beyond the limitations of the fundraising environment?

Universities, through faculty lectures and seminars can be encouraged to have open dialogue about the complexity of Israelis and Palestinians from a vast array of themes and positions. Funders can support these initiatives if they are educational, factual and balanced. Moving away from superficial lecturing and digging down into critical thinking requires courage, creativity and conviction. The academy should be an environment where open discussion is encouraged not where institutions are satisfied when students adopt narrow answers that are an easy fit. Additionally, universities must be encouraged to be transparent when accepting funds from governments and other interests which are using their resources to encourage positions that support intolerance and racism.

A guide for philanthropists to use when speaking with universities about funding would be a useful addition to the field. What language should be used when it is time to raise issues of BDS etc. what are some model approaches that can be encouraged and what investments will realize a return beyond what we have seen to date?

Maxyne Finkelstein is President of the Morris and Rosalind Goodman Family Foundation.