UNITED NATIONS — The best defense is a good offense. At least that’s the new strategy left-wing Jewish student organization J Street U proposed on Wednesday at the United Nation’s second annual “Ambassadors Against BDS” conference.
The campus arm of the dovish pro-Israel lobby, J Street U believes the current approach on campuses to fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS, is failing and offers no constructive path to peace. So the left-wing Jewish student organization plans to introduce a bill for ratification which calls for a two-state solution — and for investment and philanthropy in both Israel and the West Bank.
The resolution, which can be adapted for individual campuses, is the student organization’s way of trying to proactively build bridges, tone down inflammatory rhetoric and strengthen Israel.
“There is so much to celebrate about Israel — but simply celebrating Israel while demonizing and dismissing its critics does not work. Students today don’t want new sets of talking points and marching orders — they want serious engagement that is responsive to their hopes and fears about Israel’s future,” said J Street U in a statement.
“The vast majority of students aren’t usually thinking about being pro-Israel or anti-Israel, they are thinking about lifting up human rights. So if I was a student government leader I might not think a resolution was against Israel or anti-Semitic,” said Brooke Davies, president of J Street U national and a student at UNC Chapel Hill.
Davies was one of 2,000 students and pro-Israel activists attending Wednesday’s conference. Hosted by the Permanent Mission of Israel to the UN, the confab offered those opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel a chance to explore different ways to combat the movement — from strategies to employ on university campuses where BDS might be entrenched, to how to fight the movement on social media.
The J Street U initiative maintains that fighting BDS means “actively working against the occupation and in support of a two-state solution.”
To that end, the organization said it must engage with BDS supporters in “open and honest debates. We can help make our campus conversations more reasoned and productive, and stop the cycle of polarization and recrimination.”
J Street U’s case against “recrimination” was arguably made during a question-and answer segment at the conference’s final session. A Jewish student representing J Street U, asked how students can best oppose BDS on campus while also opposing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
South Carolina State Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Republican who has spearheaded legislative efforts to oppose BDS, responded by calling J Street “anti-Semitic” and rejecting the idea that the West Bank is occupied. He called Israel’s control of the territory an “eternal inheritance and legal right.”
“I personally believe that the organization that you’re representing is an anti-Semitic organization that chooses to ignore the law and chooses to ignore reality in order to push back on Israel in the Jewish community,” Clemmons said to loud cheers. “I stand by my words before that there is no illegal occupation.”
J Street U called Clemmons’s accusation “completely unacceptable.” Liat Deener-Chodirker, the group’s vice president for the southeast, said Clemmons’s statement and the crowd’s reaction reflect the mainstreaming of fringe views in the pro-Israel movement.
‘We saw fringe voices being made the norm’
“We oppose BDS on all of our campuses, and we saw this as an opportunity to talk about how to best do that,” she said. “It empowers the fringe of the community, and that becomes the face of what we’re doing. We saw fringe voices being made the norm.”
Although Israel’s current government does not refer to the territories it controls beyond the 1949-1967 armistice lines as “occupied,” most of the international community, including the United States, does.
Time for a new anti-BDS approach
In conversation with The Times of Israel, members of J Street U said they believe the “anti-BDS approach adopted and advocated by the Israeli government and much of the pro-Israel community is unhelpful and counterproductive.”
‘While elements in the BDS movement are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, the kind of language that demonizes them gives me pause’
“While there are certain elements in the BDS movement that are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, the kind of language that demonizes them gives me pause. Most students want a two-state solution, many are pro-Israel, they just don’t want human rights abuses,” said Ben Gellman of J Street U and a student at Johns Hopkins University.
Where the BDS movement seeks to isolate Israel by way of a total boycott, there are some who support a boycott only against products made in West Bank areas unrecognized by international law. Neither J Street U nor advocacy group StandWithUs support the idea of selective boycotts.
“Boycott as a general tool alienates parties and creates more damage than good,” said Shahar Azani, executive director of StandWithUs for the northeast region. “It’s very hard to make delineations about what is produced in the West Bank and if you try you often end up harming Palestinians. Whatever your position is on the issue you can engage in positive and pro-active ways to change things. You don’t need to take damaging steps.”
Azani pointed to the StandWithUs partnership with Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) as another means of fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Vassar alumni launched the non-profit after a number of anti-Semitic incidents occurred at the Upstate New York school. The organization doesn’t take an official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, except to say that it is committed to “the existence of Israel as a Jewish homeland with safe and secure borders.”
“We do see the anti-Semitism, but we’re also seeing a much stronger organizational presence in the pro-Israel arena,” Azani said. “It’s a two-pronged approach. We have to counter BDS measures as they come up, but instead of just crying foul when a resolution comes we have to focus on education about Israel.”
Who are you calling an ‘apartheid state’?
Much of the rhetoric surrounding the BDS movement cites Israel as an “apartheid state” which practices institutionalized racism and discrimination. According to Fentahun Assefa-Dawit of Tebeka, a legal aid organization serving Israel’s 140,000 member Ethiopian community, these allegations are patently false.
A Jew born in Ethiopia, Assefa-Dawit learned Hebrew, and then fled the country when his name came up for the Ethiopian military draft. He couldn’t then get safe passage to Israel and spent seven years in Montreal before immigrating to the Holy Land in 1994. He holds a degree from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and currently lives in Ashdod.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Assefa-Dawit cited the fact that members of the Ethiopian community serve as judges, in the Knesset, on the police force and in the IDF as examples disproving the BDS movement’s allegations of apartheid.
“Look, the fact that we have these issues means we are a normal country. I grew up in Ethiopia where you couldn’t stand up and fight against racism and discrimination,” said Assefa-Dawit.
“I want the BDS supporters to go and check what is happening. I want them to go to Gaza and see how the Palestinian Authority is treating its citizens. Let them see,” said Assefa-Dawit. “I’m telling you this as someone who is vulnerable to discrimination, as someone who has seen it.”
Of the many events and rallies BDS supporters sponsor, it is perhaps Israel Apartheid Week that inflames Israel advocates the most. For Jamie Mithi, of the South African-based think tank Africans for Peace, its terminology is misleading at best.
Apartheid, a now defunct system of strict racial segregation, was once South African government policy. From Mithi’s perspective using that term to describe Israel distorts his country’s own history of racism and prejudice.
A debate champion in South Africa, the Zambian-born Mithi got involved in BDS out of curiosity and tried to explore both sides of the issue. In January 2015 he went on a trip sponsored by advocacy group South African Israel Forum, and learned a lot about the issue. It was the start of a changing perspective.
The argument posited by BDS is “wrong” on so many fronts, Mithi said. For one, Israel is not a colonial entity. For another, he recognizes that Israel has faced multiple wars started by its neighbors and faces ongoing terrorism.
“The conversation is dishonest. They appeal to the emotions and find what is the most offensive thing in the community and link Israel to it. That’s why you’ll see ‘Zionists are Nazis,’ or ‘Zionism is Apartheid,'” Mithi said.
— JTA contributed to this report