Treating a problem is admirable, but over-treating it is dangerous. Yet that is exactly what appears to be happening with much of the rhetoric over the “crisis” for Jewish students on campus and the often-flippant attribution of anti-Semitism for any perceived offense.
The conventional wisdom in the Jewish community is that the campus is a hostile place, full of anti-Semites who at best harass and at worse threaten the safety of Jewish students. Much of this attitude is due to student groups who are hostile to Israel, along with faculty members who share their sentiments, making the campus experience unpleasant for Jewish students.
Incidents have certainly taken place, but the reality is that life for Jewish students does not match the descriptions that many Jewish activist organizations are presenting.
This is what led Mitchell Bard of the American-Israel Cooperative Enterprise to facetiously ask, “Have Nazis overrun the campuses?” In a recent blog, Bard speaks of the “hysteria” created by organizations whose “selective use of extraordinary incidents and flawed data” have created an impression of anti-Israel activity on campus that is “simply inaccurate.” Bard meticulously presents the actual data on anti-Israel and anti-Jewish activity and concludes that “to the chagrin of the hysterics, the situation on the overwhelming majority of campuses is quiet and hospitable to Jews.”
Hysteria indeed appears to have seeped into the consciousness of many in the Jewish community. Routinely, the anti-Semitism on campus mantra is repeated unchallenged, creating a false and distorted picture unnecessarily alarming students and their parents. In this era of safe spaces and micro-aggressions, much of what is labeled anti-Semitism would make many survivors of real anti-Semitism raise an eyebrow, but the hype has an effect. One grandparent spoke to me about making sure his granddaughters take a self-defense course before going off to an elite New York campus.
Universities are specifically and unfairly targeted as inhospitable. One Jewish publication listed Columbia University in its top 10 anti-Semitic list, even though BDS — the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel — was roundly defeated in the student council and despite the fact that Columbia is a center of vibrant Jewish life and activity.
No topic has become more radioactive for the Jewish community than BDS. Despite its repeated defeats, it is the ultimate bogeyman, danger and enemy. It has become a major issue, and at times, the only issue, for some Jewish and pro-Israel organizations.
The issue is not whether BDS should be vigorously opposed. That is a given. But just as one would not use a machine gun to combat a fly, the effort against BDS should be proportionate to the actual threat. The overreaction to BDS has resulted in a victory of sorts for Israel-haters when in fact there is none. BDS is losing, but the Jewish community acts as if BDS is winning.
To investigate this notion, my students conducted a research survey on attitudes regarding BDS among family and friends, people who self-identified as committed to Jewish life and were ostensibly knowledgeable about Israel. The results were eye-opening.
(The survey was a random sampling by students of the JCPA Israel-Arab studies program [which I direct] of more than 100 people, all of whom were involved in American Jewish life.)
This relatively well-informed group of Jewish “consumers” looked at BDS as a major threat that has largely succeeded. While almost everyone in the survey knew what BDS was, few knew that pro-BDS resolutions have been approved by less than 1 percent of student councils nationwide. Many estimated the loss Israel has suffered because of BDS in the “millions” despite all the evidence showing that Israel has not, to date, suffered any significant economic loss. The group also wildly exaggerated the presence of anti-Semitic actions on campus. Few were aware of the reality that BDS activity is rarely violent or that it has been limited to rare incidents on only a few campuses.
What all this demonstrates is that Bard’s observations are borne out in reality and that many in the community believe the panic created by some pro-Israel activist organizations. Rather than fighting the ideology that gives rise to BDS, some of these organizations have become the biggest advertisers for a success BDS has never achieved. Few have turned to the real problem, namely the dogma of progressive intersectionality that permeates academic thinking, of which Israel-bashing and BDS is but a small example. By magnifying the role of BDS in the progressive discourse, a false sense of fear and panic is created, rewarding the haters and targeting the cart and not the horse.
In a strange way, the presence of BDS has provided a golden opportunity for many pro-Israel organizations to showcase their efforts, promote themselves and ultimately raise funds. BDS has become a convenient and symbiotic enemy without which some organizations would have little reason to exist.
The real problem is the ideological narrative of weak against strong, victim against oppressor and indigenous native against colonialist. That mindset continues to spawn efforts drawing attention, by extension, to efforts opposing Jewish nationhood and self-determination. Today it is BDS, tomorrow something else. But if some advocacy groups continue to mislead and breathe life into these pernicious movements to draw attention to their own needs, they will alienate those who know better and face the fate of the poor boy who cried “wolf” when the real bogeyman shows up.
I.M. Mansdorf, a psychologist, lives in Israel and directs the Israel-Arab studies program of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.