Last week, I tried to temper the false sense of American campuses being on fire with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity. This week I’d like to address the equally fallacious fear that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is sweeping the nation.
As I said in the previous column, by looking at the empirical facts and putting the data in context I am in no way suggesting we don’t have problems on campus. The vigilance, rapid response, education and training provided by a host of organizations has helped Jewish students deter and defeat the BDS movement at almost every turn.
The truth is the BDS movement in America has been a colossal failure. It is disturbing, and a reminder why anti-Israel faculty are the most nefarious propagandists on campus, that no fewer than 1,500 professors have expressed support for BDS or otherwise illegitimately condemned Israel. Nevertheless, no university is going to divest from Israel or boycott Israeli academics. Even the three associations that have voted for boycotts will not actually do so and two of the three are already backing away from their irresponsible and hypocritical support of a boycott. Moreover, the only professors who will boycott are the Israel haters who would not have anything to do with Israel under any circumstances. They are also so ignorant they don’t realize that Palestinian academics engage with their Israeli counterparts and the president of Al-Quds University, Sari Nusseibeh, has pointed out that “it is within the [Israeli] academic community that we’ve had the most progressive pro-peace views and views that have come out in favor of seeing us as equals. . . . If you want to punish any sector, this is the last one to approach.”
Fortunately, if anything, scholarly American-Israeli cooperation is growing, as professors from both countries engage in joint research, build ties through study abroad programs (despite the State Department’s best efforts to kill them with unwarranted travel warnings), joint degree programs and a range of other mutually beneficial programs.
The Israel deniers have had little more success with students. Last year, the BDS movement managed to convince just 16 student governments to consider divestment and 12 rejected it. So far this year, 20 campuses have voted on anti-Semitic divestment resolutions proposed by Israel Deniers and the anti-Semites have lost 15! (Stanford and Toledo both rejected divestment and then approved the proposals in revotes. Ohio State rejected proposals twice. The UC Student Association is not included in the campus count but the NYU graduate students are.)
A few more resolutions may be proposed, but the number of university student governments discussing divestment -- less than one percent -- remains trivial. Moreover, no university administration is contemplating divestment; to the contrary, university presidents have been outspoken in their opposition to these proposals.
Keep in mind that while student governments are, in theory, representative of the student body, they are more typically made up of a handful of politically active students who the rest of the campus usually ignore. Moreover, at the five universities that adopted resolutions, fewer than 80 students decided for all their thousands of peers that divestment from Israel was justified.
Even though only a handful of campuses have had divestment debates, the impact on Jewish students should not be minimized. These are nasty fights that roil the campus and leave Jewish students often feeling isolated, intimidated and fearful. Just think about how the Jews at UC Davis felt when the student government voted to divest and then BDS supporters started to chant “Allahu Akbar” at them.
On the “positive” side, like the broader Jewish community, crises tend to galvanize pro-Israel students, so it is not surprising that the schools where we see the most serious problems also typically have the most active Jewish students while, on the quieter campuses, Jewish students are often as apathetic as the general student body.
The most important question is whether the Israel deniers are having an impact on support for Israel.
The relentless anti-Israel propaganda students encounter inside and outside the classroom undoubtedly has a negative impact on at least some students’ attitudes toward Israel. Poll data suggests students are not becoming more pro-Palestinian (support is at 2%), but they do have more serious qualms about Israel, especially on human rights issues. Setting aside Jewish Voice for Peace, which has joined forces with the Israel deniers, the students who most openly protest Israeli policy belong to J Street. As the J Street conference demonstrated, a large number of Jewish students do care passionately about Israel, but do not want to be associated with the “establishment” either because they feel rejected or prefer to be gadflies. The challenge for the pro-Israel community is to find ways to engage them so they are not brainwashed by their misanthropic “save Israel in spite of itself” elders.
Although alarmists and critics of Israel both point to surveys indicating that younger Americans (Jews and non-Jews) are less supportive of Israel than their elders, polls also show that when students of today grow older, their opinions will most likely mirror their parents’ views today. There is no guarantee this will continue to be true, but the fact that American support for Israel today is higher than ever despite decades of “occupation,” settlements, media bias, intifadas, wars, Carter vs. Begin, Reagan vs. Begin, Bush vs. Shamir and now Obama vs. Netanyahu (yes, this is not the first time a president has despised the Israeli prime minister) is cause for optimism.
The way to increase the likelihood that future support for Israel does grow is to continue to invest in students, especially neglected Jews in high school, expand Birthright (ideally to include high school students), provide more advocacy training, find ways to constructively engage J Street students and, most important, finance the growth of Israel Studies.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby and Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel, After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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