(photo credit: REUTERS)
Understandably, during these past weeks, the media has been engrossed with remembering 9/11, that horrific day in 2001 when two planes hijacked by Islamic extremists flew into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, a third crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field, killing in total some 3,000 people.
This event completely eclipsed the United Nations Anti-Racism Conference – Durban 1 – held from August 31 to September 8 of that year. Having led the WIZO delegation to that conference, I feel that this is where the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel was conceived.
The combined Israeli and Jewish Diaspora representation at the conference was 20. We (from both NGOs and the Israeli government) were ill-prepared for the massive onslaught against Israel and the Jewish people.
The result was the removal of the sole paragraph that the Jewish caucus had proposed – it spoke about the Holocaust, the need for Israel as the Jewish homeland and Israel’s non-racist democratic nature – from the final declaration.
The removal of this clause, including the reference to the prime horrific racist act of the 20th century, revealed that this “anti-racist” forum was racist against Israel and the Jewish people.
Fifteen years on, there is an awakening as to the damage BDS has been causing both Israel and the Diaspora. In the United Kingdom, the Board of Deputies of British Jewry has just issued resource pamphlets to help Jewish students combat BDS as they enter university – the breeding ground for anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. But is a pamphlet sufficient armament for combating the intense campaign to delegitimize Israel, where an annual “Israel Apartheid Week” has become a regular feature on campuses worldwide? The major effort to combat BDS has to be at universities. It is disturbing to note the inroads BDS has made, affecting not only non-Jewish students, but an increasing number of Jewish students who are too ready to accept the Palestinian narrative.
A combination of ignorance of historic facts plus a distortion of what Israel and Israelis are about contributes to a misconceived view of the one Jewish state. Pamphlets alone are totally inadequate to change a misguided perception.
While I favor materials and advocacy training for students, what is urgently needed is an understanding of Israel – warts and all – that can only be achieved through spending time in this land.
The Birthright project, initiated by Jewish philanthropists Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman – with the help of former Israeli deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin – has given young people aged 18 to 26 the opportunity of a free, 10- day Israel experience. Priority is given to those for whom it is a firsttime visit.
There is no doubt that Birthright has strengthened the Jewish identity of the fortunate participant, but 10 days is hardly a substitute for spending a year in Israel, especially prior to entering university. This is a period when a future student can touch and absorb the reality of this country, a time when the Diaspora youngster can meet and talk with his Israeli peer – an 18-year-old conscripted to the IDF while his Diaspora equivalent is looking forward to taking his place on campus.
Simply put, there is insufficient comprehension of the different lives led.
Could this be a contributing factor to the results of a recent Diaspora Affairs Ministry poll on Israel’s relationship with the Diaspora, showing that only half of Israeli Jews feel responsible for the fate of Diaspora Jewry? Conversely, how does the Diaspora view Israel? Historically, this has meant supporting Israel, primarily by donating funds toward its social welfare and educational programs. Sadly, there is a lessening of support for Israel.
Eighteen years ago, when we made aliya from the UK, the Jewish community and its students were prepared to stand up and be counted. Today, there are still those who do, but the numbers are fast diminishing.
At a personal level, this showed itself on our visits to the UK. For the first few years there were always questions about what was happening in Israel. As the years passed, the questions diminished to the point where there were none.
The media’s constant anti-Israel barrage coupled with a lack of knowledge of the reality had taken its toll.
What of the United States – Israel’s strongest ally? If we look at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policies to Congress and the executive branch, we see that it has been outstandingly successful. However, today’s younger generation is choosing to affiliate less with AIPAC and more with J Street, which sees Israel as being only within the Green Line, and all else as “occupied” territory (no recognition that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will decide the final borders).
Similarly, too many students are gravitating toward Open Hillel rather than traditional Hillel. A number of professors on Open Hillel’s academic council are public supporters of the BDS movement.
Omar Barghouti and Ali Abunimah, BDS’s main spokespersons, define BDS as being against the very existence of Israel.
OUR STUDENTS are our future, a vehicle for bringing together Israel and the Diaspora. Jointly, we must seek out those with leadership potential who are about to enter university. They are the ones in whom we are obligated to invest. It is time for a “Gap Year Birthright” enabling tomorrow’s leaders to truly discover what Israel is about. Is anyone listening?
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. She is also active in public affairs.