At first glance, the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is doing well these days. But the issue is complex.
A coalition of 51 student organizations at New York University endorsed a pro-BDS resolution, followed by a similar move by students at Barnard College (see Barnard story here).
And in an act that received extensive publicity, Israeli-born, Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman said she would not attend the Genesis Prize ceremony in June in Jerusalem where she was to be honored as the 2018 recipient of the $2 million so-called “Jewish Nobel Prize.” She backed out, she said, because she found “recent events” in Israel — presumably the killing of at least 39 Palestinian protestors at the Gaza border by Israeli soldiers — to be “distressing”; the ceremony was subsequently cancelled.
But the BDS proponents, who challenge the very existence of Israel as an independent Jewish state and often make life uncomfortable on college campuses for supporters of Israel, may have gained only pyrrhic victories.
A group of Barnard alumnae, which included two members of the board of trustees, issued a petition that criticizes their alma mater’s resolution, stating that the student vote “marginalizes a community on our campus by refusing to accept the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.” Implicit in the criticism is a withholding of donations to the institution, which has happened at other schools that supported BDS resolutions.
And Portman dissociated herself from BDS. “I am not part of the BDS movement, and I do not endorse it,” she said. “I chose not to attend [the ceremony] because I did not want to appear to be endorsing [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, who was to be giving a speech at the ceremony.”
For all the concern BDS has created in parts of the Jewish community, whose mainstream and pro-Israel advocacy groups have spent much time, energy and funds to combat it, the movement has had little substantive impact in terms of changing policies.
None of the pro-BDS referendums passed by campus organizations are binding; the movement does “virtually” no harm to the Israeli economy, and “has yet to convince most governments, companies, churches, artists or universities to treat Israel as a pariah state,” according to a recent article in mosaicmagazine.com. BDS may be losing steam across the country, experts have said in recent years.
But its primary goal has been less about actually closing off funds for Israel — or improving the lot of Palestinians — and more about opening up minds, especially on campus, to the notion that Israel is a delegitimate, apartheid state. And in that sense it has had success.
Its main accomplishment: confusing some well-meaning, but ill-informed students and members of the wider public. “Many people of goodwill have been duped into becoming unwitting followers in this virulent campaign,” the New York Daily News stated in an editorial last week.
The steady drumbeat of BDS activity is clearly taking its toll on Jewish college students. In a move that seemed to fly in the face of the very notion of a college education — being exposed to ideas that you don’t agree with — the BDS resolution at NYU included a boycott of two pro-Israel groups. The head of one of the groups, Adela Cojab, told our Shira Hanau last week, “This is creating an unsafe space on our campus. Being for dialogue and community as long as it excludes Zionist students is hypocritical, and it is hurtful.”
Cojab suggests that it’s exhausting being a pro-Israel college student these days, as Israel’s perceived treatment of the Palestinians is lumped in with all other forms of oppression in the toxic politics of intersectionality. Pro-BDS Jewish students say they are acting on their Jewish values as they call attention to Israel’s West Bank policies. But the singling out of Israel as a violator of human rights and lacking legitimacy rankles us and many in the Jewish community.
On many college campuses around the country (and Canada), the hollowness of the argument is being exposed. In recent weeks, a BDS vote at George Washington University was cancelled; a BDS resolution at Case Western University in Cleveland was tabled indefinitely; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also voted against BDS and some business students from the school took part in a 10-day Start-Up Nation seminar in Israel; the University of Ottawa rejected a BDS resolution for the third time; and a group calling on the city of Cambridge, Mass., not to renew its contract with Hewlett Packard because of the business’ ties with Israel failed to get its resolution placed on the City Council agenda.
And, closer to home, the administrations of Barnard and NYU came out strongly against the students’ pro-BDS resolutions. The administrations deserve praise for not caving in to boycott demands and for tuning out the BDS noise.
It must be acknowledged that a key part of the campus problem is Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians. But it’s also important to keep the BDS movement in perspective and to prevent it from dividing Israel from the international community.