This past month has seen an intense increase of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) activity on North American campuses, especially in California.
Motions brought by anti-Israel students to their student governments calling for the divestment of university funds from companies that do business with Israel were passed at University of California Irvine, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, and York University in Toronto. They were also brought but defeated at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford University, while at UC Riverside the motion was passed but then later reversed.
While this has happened before, the large number of campuses involved in a short period of time, and the unfortunate approval of the motions on some campuses, is unprecedented.
In all of these cases, the universities have either privately or publicly stated that they have no intention to divest from companies doing business with Israel. Most notably, Robert Birgeneau, the chancellor at UC Berkeley, put out a statement saying the student government “is an independent student organization, and its vote in this matter will not change investment policy established by the Regents of the University of California. In addition, it is my personal opinion that targeting a single nation or state in this highly complex world is not appropriate and does little to advance the cause of peace and coexistence.”
While the divestment motions will not have any economic consequence, the true goal of their supporters is to defame and demonize Israel. By comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, which was at the receiving end of an effective divestment campaign, Israel’s detractors attempt to convince student governments, as well as the general student body, that Israel is the enemy of peace, human rights, and equality.
Student governments are a strategic target because only a small number of students need to be targeted and persuaded, but their actions represent the entire university student body. At UC Berkeley, only 11 student senators voted for divestment, but their statement stands as a statement by all those enrolled.
So what should be the reaction of our community?
First, we must make clear that these students do not represent human rights, justice, and peace, as they claim. If these students really cared about human rights, they would be calling for justice in Syria, where over 70,000 people have been killed, or they would be crying out about the situation in Egypt where the fight for democracy and equality was never realized. Why target Israel, the one place in the Middle East where religious, racial, and political minorities all have rights and participate in the political process? Why target Israel when it has made many attempts to live peacefully with its neighbors? Of course Israel is not perfect, but should it be the one target of divestment and boycotts?
If these students really wanted peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, why not call for investment in projects and organizations that strive to create this peace and coexistence? Because peace and coexistence is not their goal; demonization of Israel is.
Second, we must encourage our pro-Israel college students to build relationships with a wide range of student organizations and leaders on campus. Unfortunately, on a few of the campuses targeted this semester, the pro-Israel students were taken by surprise. This speaks to the nefarious intentions and tactics of Israel’s detractors. But it also emphasizes the need for pro-Israel students to work with non-Jewish student leaders and organizations before divestment or other anti-Israel activities build on their campuses.
Reaching out to and educating these student leaders will create an environment that will reject one-sided defamations of Israel. When pro-Israel students have explained Israel’s true nature and intentions beforehand, blatant lies and misleading accusations will fall on deaf ears. Additionally, pro-Israel programming and activities must be encouraged and supported year round. When BDS “Israel Apartheid Week” or other anti-Israel activities arise, it is often too late to react and formulate a pro-Israel response. Having a sustained, pro-active, pro-Israel agenda throughout the year is key.
Thirdly, we have to be careful not to overreact. There is no doubt that divestment motions against Israel are dangerous and damaging. But we must realize that these actions represent a very small number of students with a radical viewpoint. The vast majority of students do not support these divisive and hateful views, and most are not interested or engaged in issues surrounding Israel at all.
Israel’s detractors are looking for attention and publicity. Often our response gives their activities more oxygen. Major letter campaigns, petitions, and solicitations of public statements by politicians and other leaders can often give the hateful messages and activities even more publicity and attention.
I am not advocating that we ignore BDS. But we must also realize that the more attention we give to Israel’s detractors, the more they are able to get their hateful message out to a wider audience.