The “vicious, well-funded and sophisticated” BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which has “strong anti-Semitic elements,” is a serious problem on college campuses, Israeli columnist and author Ari Shavit told a group of local high school  students at a JCC Manhattan program on Sunday afternoon. But it is relatively small and could be defeated by a “much larger, stronger Jewish community.” It would require a more sophisticated strategy, Shavit said, one that would have Jewish students asserting themselves as “a moral minority,” and forming alliances with a wide range of campus activist groups that now target Jews “as part of the white, privileged aristocracy.”

Across town, on the Upper East Side, an hour later, a panel of Modern Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders told an audience of an estimated 600 people at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) that the most effective — and perhaps only — way to confront the growing move to the right in Orthodoxy is to challenge rabbinic authority with a combination of Torah knowledge, ethical values of inclusion, and persistence.

(To be clear, I’m not comparing BDS to ultra-Orthodoxy, but rather focusing on advice for challenging an opposing position.)

Rabbi Benny Lau, a leading voice of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel, said that in his 25 years in the rabbinate, the changes he made toward inclusion issues ranging from conversion to women’s participation in ritual “didn’t happen until I was pushed” by thoughtful, concerned lay people. To their credit, he made clear.

No doubt he was exaggerating, given his reputation as a major force for a more open alternative to religious fundamentalism. But in addressing the inaugural event of Porat (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah), a Modern Orthodox organization to be led by lay men and women, he called for “more questions” and activism, asserting that “nothing will happen until we push” the rabbinic authorities — most notably the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. (Rabbi Lau’s cousin, Rabbi David Lau, is the Ashkenazi chief rabbi.)

The two unrelated events — at the JCC and KJ — dealt with different topics and constituencies. But the chief takeaway from each was that individuals armed with knowledge, an expansive view of Jewish values, fervor and a sense of commitment in championing a moral vision can effect real change.

Author Ari Shavit and Rabbi Benny Lau: Similar takeaways on hot-button issues in N.Y. appearances. SHAVIT PHOTO: Sharon Bareket

‘The Greatest Struggle’

Shavit, a leading columnist for Haaretz and author of the best-selling memoir, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel,” told me he has become passionate about meeting and speaking with young American Jews about Israel. He estimates that he has spoken at more than 40 college campuses in the last year and a half, and plans on visiting another 30 next year.

In addressing students who are doubtful or critical about Israel, based primarily on Jerusalem’s treatment of Palestinians, his basic message is, “If you are willing to address Israel’s flaws, then you can see the greatness and wonders” of the Zionist enterprise: a home for the Jewish people and major contributor to the world through science, medicine, technology and other vital areas.

Shavit has credibility with progressive students, who make up the great majority on American campuses, because he is an articulate, outspoken liberal Zionist who opposes settlements, one who offers a nuanced approach on Israeli life that resonates with the younger generation. He thinks our community urgently needs to apply creative thinking to the issue of younger Jews’ religious identity and feelings toward Israel. He sees it as “the greatest struggle of this generation.”

At the JCC program, held in partnership with BBYO Manhattan, Shavit guided a discussion with three young panelists who have encountered anti-Israel — and in some cases anti-Semitic — behavior as advocates for Israel at their respective colleges: University of Michigan, Barnard College and John Jay College. They spoke of their difficulties in achieving alliances with other minority groups on campus, tainted for their support of Israel.

Tomer Kornfeld, a rising senior at John Jay who was president of the Hillel chapter, noted that pro-Palestinian groups at the school have been highly successful in linking their cause to other minorities. The rallying cry at one protest, he recalled, was “Ferguson to Palestine, Occupation is a Crime.”

Shavit says such “intersectionality,” as it has come to be called, is a major problem because “three dirty words on campus today are power, privilege and particularism,” and Jews are seen as “guilty” of all three.

“We have to remind young Jews where they come from, to look to their grandparents,” he told me, referring to our immigrant history. “Somehow the Jewish students are seen as more white than Wasps [White Anglo Saxon Protestants].”

Not surprisingly, many Jewish students are apathetic about Israel, lacking the knowledge or confidence to defend its policies, and aware of the risks of verbal attacks or social ostracism if they speak up.

About 60 high school students and their parents, concerned about anti-Israel activity on campus, attended the program.

Sam Shatzin, a junior at Bronx High School of Science and a leader in BBYO, found the discussion thought provoking. Though he has attended a summer camp in Israel for several years and has good friends there, he told me he has not followed Israeli news closely and was not familiar with Shavit’s writings. He said Sunday’s discussion left him thinking that the Israel climate on campus could be a factor in what college he chooses to attend. “Now I can see myself getting involved with a Zionist group,” he said.

The discussion “didn’t scare me, it made me think about it [the Mideast conflict]. I’m not going to give up on Israel,” Shatzin continued. “My takeaway is that you are brought up with one point of view and when you get to college you’ll be exposed to the other side, so it’s important to understand Israel’s faults so you can stand up to it.”

That’s consistent with Shavit’s parting advice to the students: Most universities are “safe and wonderful.” If you are confronted with anti-Israel activity, don’t be afraid if you have the courage to fight back — while respecting others. “There is so much to be proud of Israel and of the Jewish people,” he said. “Remember the Jewish narrative and history. Stick to our values.”

‘Open The Door’

That call for individual exploration and moral activism resonated with me as I listened to the four panelists at the Porat event at KJ a bit later.

Ann Pava, a longtime national leader in the Jewish federation world, encouraged fellow Modern Orthodox Jews to be “less insular” and to serve as informal ambassadors to those who see all Orthodox Jews as essentially the same.

Similarly, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, spiritual leader of KJ, called on audience members to take seriously their potential to be a bridge between Jews on the religious left and right. “We are the only group whose members know both Satmar chasidim and Reform and Conservative Jews,” he pointed out. And he asserted that “religious authority begins from the grassroots,” with the community ultimately deciding whose halachic views will guide them.

He called for more passion in prayer and more self-criticism, but said there is room for “great optimism” in Modern Orthodoxy.

But Blu Greenberg, a central figure in Orthodox Jewish feminism, cautioned that “we’re not there yet” as a community. She said leadership of the Modern Orthodox community has “abdicated responsibility to the gedolim” [rabbinic authorities in the charedi world] on issues including conversion, higher education, pluralism, and interacting with non-Jews. Focusing on the issue of agunah, in particular, she cited how little has been done to alleviate the problem of “chained women,” those who are unable to divorce and end loveless marriages.

She decried the unwillingness of rabbis to challenge existing halachic rules on the basis of ethical values, asserting that most Orthodox rabbis “are more concerned about what the gedolim think than how it affects women’s lives.”

At evening’s end, Rabbi Avi Weiss, the primary founder of Porat, described a mainstream Orthodoxy “obsessed with boundaries” over who’s in and who’s out. He charged the audience with a call to “open the door” for those who feel left out, and to partner with rabbis rather than be led by them.

“Your voices,” he said, “will be the key to success.”

Some in the audience were looking for more specifics in terms of direction and policy, just as those at the earlier Shavit event wanted to know which colleges were “safer” for Jews than others.

But the central message in both cases was: be knowledgeable, speak up for your Jewish values, and strengthen your effort by fostering new alliances.

It’s up to us to heed that sound advice.

Gary@jewishweek.org