The BDS movement might be a war on some college campuses, but how to respond to the widespread effort to delegitimize Israel through boycotts, divestment and sanctions is quickly becoming a battle within the Jewish community.
The issue, though not a new one for pro-Israel college students, gained a sense of urgency this week after major donors committed up to $150 million to backing anti-BDS efforts.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF), better known for planting trees in Israel, announced Monday the creation of a $100 million Israel advocacy center intended to help Jewish high school and college students advocate for Israel and fight BDS. The center was launched through an estate gift by the late John and Dora Boruchin, California real-estate developers and Holocaust survivors.
According to JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson, the bequest is the largest in JNF history.
“Our goal is to push the positive Israel message,” said Robinson, adding that the advocacy center will be working closely with collaborators including Hillel International, Chabad and Media Watch International, a nonprofit group affiliated with JNF that monitors Mideast news and promotes relationships with journalists.
“This launch comes at a crucial time — on college campuses, anti-Israel sentiment is stronger than ever before,” he noted.
The advocacy center initiative, still in the early stages, will open on college campuses. But for the moment the funds will fortify young adult programming already in operation, including the Campus Fellows program, currently on 18 college campuses, and Positively Israel, an initiative to raise awareness about Israel on American college campuses.
JNF’s announcement follows just days after Las Vegas billionaire philanthropist and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson convened a summit in Las Vegas last weekend, with Hollywood businessman and philanthropist Haim Saban, to raise $50 million to combat BDS efforts. The 20 donors in attendance committed at least $1 million each to the new unified effort, called the “Campus Maccabees.”
Though Robinson’s goals closely mirror those of the Campus Maccabee summit, JNF, along with several other major players, was not invited to the summit. Robinson said, though, that a “member from the consortium” contacted him after the summit to speak about collaboration.
While teamwork is the professed aim of the summit leaders, their choice of invitees — and omissions — has created an increasingly politicized climate around anti-BDS efforts. It presents a roadblock, say observers who note that of the 50 organizations attending the Vegas summit, the overwhelming majority were aligned with right-wing and hawkish political views.
JNF was not the only major player to opt out or not be invited to the Las Vegas summit. The Israel on Campus Coalition, a group established with the sole mission of countering anti-Israel activism on campus, decided not to attend, as did the Israel Action Network, a joint program of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs created to counter BDS. Both organizations declined to comment on their reasons for not participating.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, which has a special task force for battling BDS resolutions on campus, was not invited.
Several progressive Jewish organizations, including J Street, Ameinu and the New Israel Fund, were not invited, though they oppose BDS.
According to Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of contemporary Jewish life, steering anti-BDS efforts towards partisan grounds poses a grave danger.
“Historically, Israel has been successful because it is a bipartisan issue,” said Bayme. “Anything that moves towards partisanship is foreboding.” He added that the “deteriorating image of Israel on campus” concerns him much more than any BDS resolution. “Not one BDS resolution has yet been implemented, but every single one has given the movement a broader stage.”
Major philanthropist and co-founder of Taglit-Birthright Michael Steinhardt agreed that more noise about BDS would only cause more harm. “The BDS issue is, in my view, slightly overblown, but if we in the Jewish community keep making as much noise as we have, it will only seem bigger,” he told The Jewish Week.
Others, including Martin J. Raffel, former senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and currently an adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, believe those who lean politically left are best equipped to counter the BDS threat.
“Progressives can speak more effectively to fellow progressives,” he wrote in an op-ed published in this week’s Jewish Week. “Thus, the anti-BDS organizations on the Zionist left are crucial to our success, and they must be welcome to sit around our advocacy planning tables.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Adelson’s point person on the Campus Maccabee initiative, disagreed sharply with the view that elevating BDS as a threat will only fuel the movement.
“The Jewish people are in the habit of minimizing threats, even when they are full and front,” said Rabbi Boteach, referring to the American campus scene as a “war.”
“BDS is very well funded and well coordinated,” the rabbi continued. “What we need is a aggressive push to start fighting back.”
Rabbi Boteach likened what he termed the “propaganda assault” against Israel to pre-World War II Europe. “Once you demonize a people, there’s no telling what can happen,” he said.
Bayme, though not responding directly to the rabbi’s comments, said that to the best of his knowledge most Jewish students feel secure on American college campuses. “We need not absolutize [the situation],” he said. “This is not a crisis.”
Aside from the charged debate about how to counter BDS, if at all, the question of whether a national collaboration will work remains to be tested. In the past, attempts to unite Israel efforts on campus have met with limited success.
According to one of the original members of the Israel on Campus Coalition, who preferred to remain anonymous to avoid the politics of the situation, ICC originally tried to create a “President’s Conference for campus groups.” But it failed because of turf issues and funding competition, the former member said.
“At first there was a sense of camaraderie and desire to cooperate, but few projects really got off the ground. It became clear after a couple of years that Hillel and AIPAC were the 1,000-pound gorillas on campus and they were going to do their thing regardless of what the group thought,” he wrote in an email interview.
There is no reason to think Adelson’s attempt will turn out differently, he added.
Another senior Jewish communal official who, like most other activists commenting, did not want to be identified because of organizational ties with the donors attending the Vegas meeting, said the attempt to collaborate was not a new idea.
“Frankly, there is nothing new about bringing groups together and trying to coordinate them,” she said. “What’s new is the funding. It should be funneled through the people who have been doing this for a long time, like Hillel or ICC.
“What we’ve seen over the past week is a complete lack of humility,” the senior official continued, referring to the Adelson summit. “Why not call in a student who has had success actually fighting BDS and see what he or she has to say? Why not call in someone who is on the ground pushing back BDS resolutions on a daily basis? If this becomes about egos, it’s going to fail.”