I spent most of last Wednesday covering, and taking part in, a major effort sponsored by the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, the World Jewish Congress and about 20 other Jewish organizations, providing strategies for young people to counter BDS — the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel — on American campuses.

Sitting in the once-hallowed halls of the U.N. General Assembly and listening to an array of diplomats and other dignitaries trash the world body for its shameful bias against Israel offered up a distinct, if somewhat transgressive, thrill.

As I looked around at the room packed with an estimated 2,000 people, most of whom were Jewish day school and college students from the tristate area, enthusiastically cheering on ambassadors to the U.N. Danny Danon of Israel and Nikki Haley of the U.S., and others, I felt like a kid in school witnessing his brazen peers who had commandeered the principal’s office in his absence and were making fun of him.

Were there U.N. officials out there watching us? Were we going to get in trouble for repeatedly calling the place a bastion of anti-Semitism?

There’s little doubt that’s an accurate description of the world body that, as was noted by several speakers, last year alone passed 20 resolutions condemning Israel while voting a total of only six times against other nations.

Zionist pride at the U.N.: Hundreds of Jewish high school and college students held up State of Israel signs in the General Assembly chambers last Wednesday during a daylong anti-BDS conference sponsored by the Israeli Mission and more than 20 pro-Israel organizations.
Shahar Azran

But was it fair to conflate U.N. anti-Semitism with the BDS movement? It’s a bit complicated because BDS can mean very different things to different people. Hardcore advocates, including the movement’s founders, view it as a means of delegitimizing Israel and dismantling the Jewish state. Others, though, including a number of progressive and liberal Jews, distinguish between “global BDS,” with its direct challenge to Israel’s right to exist, and a partial BDS, in the belief that the presence of West Bank settlements are preventing a two-state solution to the Mideast conflict. They call for boycotting the settlements as an effort to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

So is the BDS movement on campus an anti-Semitic and dangerous threat to American Jewish youth as well as Jerusalem? Is it an over-hyped scare tactic that is prompting our community to expend excessive resources and funds to counter it? Or is it a symptom of the increasingly complex relationship between U.S. Jewry and Israel?

I’ve come to believe it’s a mix of all of the above — and a dramatic moment near the end of the conference underscored what I consider to be a flaw in the full-on approach to opposing BDS.

But it’s clear that the highlighted speakers at the second annual Ambassadors Against BDS program, and the audience — who cheered loudest for the most strident remarks — were not at all conflicted.

‘Speak Out For Israel’

The speakers offered differing views on whether BDS is succeeding on campus. It is largely unknown to most students and its legislative efforts are a failure, but its Apartheid Week campaigns and other efforts to demean and isolate Israel chip away at Jerusalem’s reputation as a democracy and agitate pro-Israel supporters.

At the opening session, Danon, who initiated the program last year, characterized the BDS movement as “pure anti-Semitism” and urged those who love Israel to speak up and not be silent.

He was followed by Haley, the star of the day, who described BDS as a movement “away from truth and history.” She assured the crowd that “you now have a friend and a fighter at the U.N. to help you.”

Natan Sharansky, the iconic Soviet Jewish dissident and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, focused on how young activists can make a difference. He recalled that it was “students and housewives” who initiated and inspired the Soviet Jewry movement that resulted in 2 million Jews emigrating from the Soviet Union, and his own release after nine years in prison.

“Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to speak out for Israel,” he said.

There were two afternoon sessions: one on digital warfare, countering BDS on social media, and one I moderated on empowering students to combat BDS, highlighted by remarks from four young professional pro-Israel activists, each with a unique perspective.

Fay Goldstein, managing director of Hasbara Fellowships, spoke of her group’s intense 16-day program in Israel training U.S. college students to be leading advocates for Israel on campus. Hen Mazzig, who served as an openly gay commander in the IDF for five years, described being targeted as “a war criminal” by scores of anti-Israel students when he came to speak at University College London several years ago. A video he made during the harrowing episode, which he said was more frightening than his army service, showed protestors screaming insults and hurling themselves through a window into the room where he was speaking.

Lia Weiner, a Yale student who served in the IDF’s intelligence unit, talked about her award-winning Campus Pitch project that has pro-Israel and pro-Palestinians students make arguments advocating the other side’s views in an effort to enhance the prospects for peace.

Chloe Valdary, an African-American woman who founded Allies for Israel while a student at the University of New Orleans and Director of Partnerships and Outreach at Jerusalem U, showed one of her popular rapid-fire, punchy and humorous videos about why she loves Israel. Her emphasis is on “mainstreaming Zionism into the culture” — pop music in particular — to engage the younger generation.

Putting Down Progressives

The conference featured a dramatic confrontation at the last session when two students in the audience from J Street U, the college component of the liberal pro-Israel lobby J Street, rose to ask a question of a panel on “the private sector.” What argument against BDS could they could offer to fellow students opposed to the occupation, they wanted to know. The question was greeted with a loud chorus of boos, and Alan Clemmons, one of the panelists and a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, received a standing ovation from many in the crowd when he told the J Street U students they represent “an anti-Semitic organization that chooses to ignore the law and reality to push back on Israel and the Jewish nation.”

So much for diplomacy (though other speakers during the day had urged pro-Israel students to dialogue with progressive students on campus).

Two days later, in a statement and call for donations, Brooke Davies, president of the J Street U national board, described the “scorn and abuse” members of her group met during the conference, an event she said “elevated extremists, avid Trump supporters and Islamophobic voices.”

That’s a tough charge to prove, but she is right in noting that the encounter showed why many young liberal and progressive Jews — particularly members of J Street U — are feeling doubly marginalized, if not demonized. First, on campus, for affiliating with Israel, and then in the community for being perceived as anti-Israel.

The theme of the conference was “Build Bridges, Not Boycotts,” the title of a slick, 32-page “Guide for Combatting Modern-Day Anti-Semitism” distributed by the Israeli Mission to the conference participants. It quotes Ambassador Danon as recalling that during a speaking engagement at Florida International University, his alma mater, he was confronted by BDS activists. “They didn’t come to listen,” he wrote. “They came to incite.”

His frustration is understandable. But it’s important that he and other pro-Israel activists listen to and engage those whose views differ on how best to protect Israel rather than exclude them from the debate.

A thoughtful new study, “The Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” a joint venture of the Anti-Defamation League and the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, speaks of the “crucial importance” of “narrowly defining” and combatting advocates of BDS who are “true adversaries of Zionism, the Jewish people and the state of Israel rather than [including] a much wider array of those who might be critical of aspects of Israeli policy.”

The study notes: “In contrast, any expansion of this definition significantly compromises prospects for success because it causes internal disagreements among the pro-Israel movement and expands the group of perceived adversaries.”

Chloe Valdary, the avid supporter of Israel from New Orleans, in an email to me later in the week, offered her perspective. “The community has been asking the wrong questions,” she wrote. “We have been asking how to destroy something horrible — anti-Israel activity — when we should have been asking how do we create something spectacular.”

She asserted that “we have been trapped in a circular world of Israel advocacy where our primary conversations are often about what Israel is ‘not’ — not an apartheid state, not racist, not guilty of war crimes. We have neglected telling the story of what Israel IS.”

She says her goal is to “change this culture entirely, to end the paranoia and paradigm of crisis that often informs advocacy, and to instead engage my generation using the lexicon and language we understand” in promoting a proud Zionism.

More power to her and others willing to employ fresh, creative ways to address a longstanding problem.