Israel and its friends and supporters, particularly in the US, have become increasingly concerned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on university campuses.
To win the ideological war being waged on US campuses by BDS that today intersects with classic anti-Semitism and terrorist-supporting campus organizations, Israeli and Jewish leadership needs to understand and embrace the ideological, moral and intellectual milieu of the millennial student population whose support for Israel hangs in the balance.
“Root for the underdog” – this has been the axiom of progressives for decades; fight for the oppressed, fight for the minority, fight for the underprivileged. For a movement that fought for women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights and the end of the South African apartheid, the emergence of BDS on the US university campus is a seemingly natural progression.
BDS has found a breeding ground inside the gates of the US university. These institutions of higher learning have become the ideological incubators of leftist ideology and the intellectual home of the progressive leaders of tomorrow. For the current generation of US university millennials, Israel is a tough sell even on a good day.
Unlike earlier generations for which anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Arab state aggression made Israel morally infallible, in the “millennial mind” Israel is perceived as “Israel the militarily impenetrable” and “Israel the largest recipient of US foreign and military aid” – making the Jewish state ripe for critique by this generation’s “free thinking” millennials.
Israel’s expression of strength has been required to deter and defeat the enemies crouching at its doorstep – Hezbollah, Iran, Hamas, PLO groups and Salafi jihadists to name a few. But in projecting power, Israel has paid a price among millions of millennials in the West who ideologically de-identify with power and more closely empathize with its “victims” – the underdogs – whom many millennials see as the weak and vulnerable.
In the minds of millennials and other progressive thinkers, Israel’s current status as a military and economic superpower has vindicated their perception of “Israel the bully.” The verdict of Israel as “the heavy” with regard to the Palestinian- Israeli conflict has pushed millennials and other young leftists into blindly following the BDS battle cry.
Universities have become fertile grounds for garnering the liberal-progressive condemnation of “Israel the apartheid state” denying justice to the Palestinians. The BDS leadership has exploited this opportunity. In contrast to pro-Israel supporters on campus, the BDS leadership has been particularly successful in pandering to millennial values; feelings over facts, weakness over strength and cultural relativism over a universal moral standard.
BDS assertiveness, coupled with the cultural and moral relativism that define millennials, has resulted in major student and faculty support for the Palestinian narrative, particularly that of Hamas. BDS events on hundreds of US universities commonly feature the common Palestinian rallying cry “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which essentially calls for Israel’s destruction.
And it seems that the pro-BDS campus crusaders are winning. According to the AMCHA Initiative, there was an increase of 31.2 percent in anti-Israel activity in 2014 to 2015 alone.
While pro-Israel groups have been working on campus to counter BDS success, they lack a unified front and effective counter-narrative. More significantly, they seem to be missing a conceptual understanding of the cultural and psychological dispositions of those students and faculty they are seeking to influence.
Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have been essentially reactive, rushing to the aid and defense of Jewish students and pro-Israel supporters when waves of BDS-led anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist offensives break out.
BDS leaders on the other hand have been far more proactive; they have forged a consistent core message across US campuses. They have established satellite BDS chapters on campuses across the US and effectively allied with other human rights organizations thereby leveraging their influence; all while working to achieve their primarily goal – to rally millennials in their crusade against Israel.
BDS has created a strategic disconnect on the university campus between its purported aims of “fighting for the underdog” and its true intentions of delegitimizing and ultimately destroying Israel.
Under the guise of the progressive “free thinking” agenda in the pursuit of justice for the Palestinians, BDS has gained legitimacy and support from the US millennial generation, recruiting even some American left-wing Jews into accepting their radical narrative.
Israel and its supporters must use an “expose and embrace” strategy to win hearts and minds of millennials on US campuses. They must expose BDS for what it is in a context and language that is relevant to millennials.
BDS is not a grassroots movement; its is not a movement of so-called “free thinkers” nor is it meant to bring “justice” and “liberation” to the Palestinians. Rather BDS is a tyrannical movement that has successfully imprisoned traditionally “free thinking” millennials into a moral and intellectual solitary confinement that has barred them from an evaluation of the facts, the context and the complexities of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
To embrace millennials, Israel must reveal its true self to the world in a language and context that resonates. Israel is the one and only country in the Middle East where Palestinian men and women citizens can become senior government ministers, leading legislators and supreme court justices. Its the only nation-state in the region where Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens receive the same equal and legally guaranteed benefits. And its the only place in the Middle East where two men or two woman can walk down the street holding hands without fear and protected under law.
Once it is exposed that BDS does not work to bring these rights to a prospective Palestinian state, but works only to delegitimize the one country in the region that protects them, millennials will rally against BDS.
The author is currently enrolled in the dual BA program at Sciences Po in Paris and Columbia University.
He is also a summer research associate at the Program to Counter BDS and Political Warfare at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Dan Diker is the senior project director for the Program to Counter BDS and Political Warfare at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and was former secretary general of the World Jewish Congress.
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