TWO INSTRUCTORS from the University of Michigan denied recommendation letters for a study abroad program because the students’ preferred destination was Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS/REBECCA COOK)
The surge of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement incidents at US colleges in recent years, and particularly during the last few months, has left supporters of Israel searching for new solutions.
But the remedy was in place before the problem emerged.
While non-binding Israel divestment resolutions within student governments has become a concerning, yet commonplace and combatable phenomenon, BDS is taking on new forms and zeroing in on new targets like study abroad programs. In November, Pitzer College’s faculty voted to end the school’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa, and the preceding month, two University of Michigan instructors denied recommendation letters for such programs solely because the students’ preferred destination was Israel.
At New York University, a BDS resolution passed in December but was anything but a garden variety anti-Israel student government measure. It garnered the support of not only 51 campus groups, but also 34 faculty members.
Yet, as BDS broadens its institutional footprint on campus, including increased backing from faculty members, it’s important to remember that while we can combat BDS, we won’t completely stop BDS. Anti-Israel and antisemitic activists will always be there.
The pro-Israel community can effectively improve the landscape on campus not by persistently lamenting or hyping up the threat, but by taking practical steps to spread positive narratives about the Jewish state. This is accomplished by training the articulate pro-Israel voices who will make a case for Israel on campus that appeals to the masses rather than only preaching to the choir.
During these challenging times, there’s no shortage of Jewish and Israeli organizations who work on training young pro-Israel activists. That’s a good thing for our community. Yet, among the various groups engaging in this space, Hasbara Fellowships is the only player which is uniquely qualified to fill the role of cultivating a new generation of Israel advocates, specifically because our existence preceded the BDS movement.
Today, on the outset of 2019, the campus arena is arguably the greatest hotspot for the BDS movement, which was launched in 2005. Founded in 2001, Hasbara Fellowships has the crucial and strategic advantage of taking the long held view of the BDS threat and not having our judgment clouded by the common pitfall of knee-jerk, short-term decision-making in reaction to current events.
BDS is a strategy for those who wish to harm Israel. But even before BDS existed, anti-Israel propaganda was commonplace on college campuses. It took different forms – apartheid walls, protests, mock checkpoints – but had the same objective. Hasbara Fellowships was created precisely at the time when this coordinated anti-Israel campaign sprouted up on campuses. In the ensuing two decades, we have trained and supported students to stand up against such propaganda.
That being said, BDS is a strategy which is more strategic than its predecessors. Instead of creating guerrilla theater, it focuses on persuading influential members of the student body. If a student government votes for an Israel divestment resolution, it appears that the university itself is supporting BDS, even though in reality, a student body vote has no bearing on a school administration’s policy. This façade has amounted to a PR victory for Israel’s haters. BDS has also helped anti-Israel campus activists rally their proponents around a focused goal, and build allies through linking the suffering of the Palestinian people with the marginalization of other minority populations and intentionally excluding Jewish voices from this space.
Yet in all honesty, BDS hasn’t changed the focus of Hasbara Fellowships. We help students fight and defeat BDS, just like all the other anti-Israel strategies that have surfaced over the years. Eventually, BDS will lose its shelf life and a new anti-Israel strategy will emerge.
No matter the threat, our proactive pro-Israel solutions will be there to address it.
The educational initiatives of Hasbara Fellowships – including this winter’s two exclusive, 16-day leadership and advocacy training programs in Israel – are unique in that the training they provide is all-encompassing; featuring all key competencies from public speaking, to on-camera techniques, to social media skills, to coalition-building, to role-playing scenarios which are likely to arise in hostile campus environments. Only the most versatile, well-rounded advocates will succeed in today’s campus environment. Our young pro-Israel voices need to be prepared for any possible scenario, to be well-versed in all narratives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to embrace diversity in a way that enables them to partner with non-Jewish students and all populations on campus. That is precisely what our Israel advocacy program accomplishes.
Another unique program is the new partnership between Hasbara Fellowships and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, known as the JIGSAW initiative, in which six law students were trained in a legal track to bring back relevant knowledge and assist undergraduate advocates in their work on campus by using university policies as well as state and federal law. Such initiatives empower students with the practical skills and knowledge that they will utilize in specific, real-world situations when it comes to Israel and BDS on campus, as well as help deal with other forms of anti-Israel propaganda and antisemitism.
When Hasbara Fellowships was founded in 2001, we envisioned an antidote to a BDS epidemic that didn’t yet exist. Now, it’s time to get hands-on about the pro-Israel response. It’s time to train as many articulate Israel advocates as we can, to individually and collectively address this growing threat, and to fight darkness with light. Judging by the passion and ingenuity of the 80 students from across North America, who are taking part in the Hasbara Fellowships advocacy training trips this winter, we’re well on our way to a stronger solution.The writer is managing director of Hasbara Fellowships.
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