The dirty little secret about the pro-Israel, anti-BDS effort launched at a private summit in Las Vegas in June by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson is that it appears doomed to be ineffective. Which is more than a shame, given that the campaign, with initial support from about 20 other major pro-Israel donors, is estimated to have raised upwards of $50 million.
Even some leaders of Israel advocacy groups on campus that stand to benefit most from the generosity of the Adelson-led effort, known as Campus Maccabees, acknowledge privately that the enormous outlay of funds to defeat BDS campaigns on campus is being misdirected — motivated more by ideology than pragmatism.
“The question for Mr. Adelson,” the regional executive of one such group told me last week, “is are you trying to defeat BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) on campus or to win the hearts of Jewish students?”
He observed that the great majority of Jewish college students do not know or care enough about Israel to become Zionist activists, have tenuous ties to their Jewish identity, and probably never heard of BDS.
Keep in mind that out of about 4,000 colleges in the U.S., BDS has been a problem, with significant anti-Israel bashing, at less than 40 (albeit elite) campuses.
Indeed, a strong case is being made by liberal supporters of Israel that much of the attention and financial support in the Jewish community directed at the BDS movement is having a counter effect, giving the relatively small, under-funded effort, which has yet to see the implementation of even one anti-BDS campus resolution, undue attention.
Calling the situation a “crisis,” as a number of Jewish leaders have, rather than one of a number of disturbing signs of increasing anti-Israel sentiment on campus, feeds the BDS movement and dramatizes its work.
For example, this week’s eye-opening Jewish Week report on BDS funding efforts on U.S. college campuses by Mitchell Bard (page 1) describes the “relatively trivial” amount of dollars allocated to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the primary BDS campus group.
In 2014-2015, SJP at University of California, Berkeley received $600; University of California, Irvine, $600; UCLA, $267.
The report, made possible by a grant from The Jewish Week Investigative Journalism Fund, notes that “to a far greater degree than pro-Israel groups, SJP has succeeded in magnifying its support by developing allies” among minority and political groups on campus affiliated with liberal causes.
Logically, pro-Israel groups should be doing the same. Student members of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group that often criticizes Israeli policy but opposes BDS, would be more effective in dialogue with fellow liberals than Jewish students aligned with right-of-center politics proclaiming to be modern-day Maccabees, a reference to ancient zealots who fought secular Jews as well as the Greeks.
But the Las Vegas summit excluded left-of-center organizations as well as some mainstream groups like the Jewish National Fund and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, instead inviting right-of-center groups hawkish on Israel. Their goal is to combat BDS campaigns aggressively on campus.
The regional director of an Israel advocacy group that was represented at the summit told me he believes that a creative, well-financed social media campaign on U.S. campuses to strengthen Jewish identity and a positive image of Israel, based on a wider lens than the Arab-Israel conflict, would be far more successful and meaningful than fighting BDS groups.
“We could be hiring public relations firms to build Israel’s brand and channel young people’s interest in culture, food, technology and other areas besides politics,” he said. He also stressed the need to coordinate the efforts of some of the major pro-Israel groups across the country “to embolden the community as a whole rather than continue to have each of us doing our own thing.”
But the executive was quick to add that “no one wants to get into a fight with Adelson” and stand to lose funding, which is being directed primarily to right-leaning Israel advocacy groups like his.
Last week it was confirmed that Haim Saban, the Hollywood billionaire and major supporter of Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians, has decided to redirect his pro-Israel support after initially partnering with Adelson, who is a mega-donor to Republican politicians.
The unlikely pairing of the two men was described by them in June, at the Las Vegas summit, as an effort to focus on their common support of Israel rather than their political differences. But it is believed that the rightward direction of the Campus Maccabees — including the choice of David Brog, who has led Rev. John Hagee’s Christians United For Israel, as director of the new group, and the high-profile role of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whose unsuccessful 2012 run for a House seat in New Jersey, as a Republican, received $500,000 from Adelson and his wife, Miriam — made Saban uncomfortable.
Rabbi Boteach insists that “BDS is a hate group” and needs to be challenged aggressively by students and others “who have simple Jewish pride and the courage to stand up to their falsification and lies.” He told me that BDS proponents “can’t win a debate because they don’t have the facts on their side, but they’re excellent at propaganda,” which too often goes unchallenged.
Liberal students have virtuous values regarding gender equality, the environment and civil rights, he said, “but they have one glaring flaw”: an inability or unwillingness “to identify and fight evil.”
Rabbi Boteach has written “The Israel Warriors Handbook,” due out in two months, and he believes that large pro-Israel events on campus with inspiring speakers and debaters can influence enough students to make a difference. “Even five activists can turn the tide,” he said.
My fear is that many college students will be turned off to a strident message about Israel’s virtues and charges of implicit anti-Semitism against Palestinians who are perceived in liberal circles as simply fighting for human rights and statehood. Skirting the issue of “the occupation” or insisting that the Palestinians initiated the conflict are unlikely to persuade young people who embrace the “why can’t we all get along?” viewpoint many of us dismiss as naïve.
Even as a number of pro-Israel groups have focused on BDS as a major threat and are pouring money and other resources into the battle, the BDS movement today is more a threat in our imaginations than in terms of real victories on campus. We shouldn’t ignore it, but the larger problem remains: Although Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu says he is ready to get back to peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians are becoming more difficult to defend on campus, for Jewish students as well. We can’t just blame the BDS movement, the media or anti-Semites. And even spending tens of millions of dollars in a Good Guys vs. Bad Guys campaign won’t produce a dramatic turnaround.
Maybe we’re fighting the wrong battle.