As the Jewish community raises to a new level its response to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement on college campuses, with tens of millions of dollars being set aside to combat anti-Israel activity, we offer congratulations — and a word of caution.
It is heartening that the Jewish National Fund, through an estate gift of the late John and Dora Boruchin, has committed to create a $100 million advocacy center to help high school and college students advocate for Israel and oppose BDS. And according to reports emanating from a private meeting last week in Las Vegas convened by businessmen/philanthropists Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban, between $20 million and $50 million has been pledged to a new effort called the “Campus Maccabees.” (See story, page 1.)
The amount of money being discussed is quite remarkable, but we should not be lulled into thinking that dollars alone can solve problems. Most significantly, though all but forgotten, the umbrella group of North American Jewish federations planned to raise $100 million when it created the Institute for Jewish Life in the early 1970s. The goal was to enhance Jewish education and combat assimilation. But it lasted only a few years with little to show for the effort, plagued as it was by lack of funds and internal debate over how the dollars should be spent. The institute is barely a footnote in American Jewish history today. But it should be a sign of the pitfalls of overreaching.
Times have changed over the last four decades. Concerns about assimilation have increased greatly as has anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe, and anti-Israel sentiment in much of the world. But more dollars are being made available today to strengthen Jewish life, thanks in large measure to a few major donors who deserve praise for their generosity and commitment. But with those additional funds comes the communal responsibility to resist being swayed by the political or ideological price tag that may be attached to the dollars offered.
The BDS summit in Las Vegas is a case in point. Most of the pro-Israel groups invited to attend and unite in the anti-BDS campaign share a right-of-center approach, as do Saban and Adelson. Key groups on the left were omitted, though they have a strong track record of success in countering BDS efforts. That’s because activist progressive Jews are more effective in engaging progressives on campus than right-wing Jewish organizations would be. Asking unaffiliated Jewish students with little depth of knowledge on the Middle East to be a “Maccabee” or follow a “Warriors Handbook,” being offered by the Jewish Values Network, is more likely to scare them away than attract them to the cause.
As Martin Raffel, former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, notes in his Opinion piece this week (page 23), “anti-BDS organizations on the Zionist left are crucial to our success, and they must be welcome to sit around our advocacy planning tables.”
What our community does not need is further divisiveness when we should be working together, each group with its own approach and constituency, countering efforts to delegitimize Israel and its very right to exist.