Student Government and Israel

By Sybil Ottenstein
Student government is a critical vehicle for defending the interests of the student population and advancing important causes. As members of student governments across America are gearing up and preparing for upcoming elections, let us take a moment to reflect on the importance of student involvement to defend against the hateful and prejudiced Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Time and time again, students with decidedly anti-Israel agendas find their ways into their university’s student government and rather than promoting agendas for the greater good of the student population, they exclusively focus on the vilification and demonization of one state -- Israel. There is a serious shortage of honest discussion about Israeli and Palestinian narratives on college campuses as divestment advocates seek to circumvent a real debate by promoting the Palestinian narrative and delegitimizing Israel’s story.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Religion, culture and position on the political spectrum are irrelevant in the fight against BDS and biased anti-Israel sentiments on campus. Students who are pro-democracy and pro-freedom of expression, and who disagree with the use of university funds to make a hateful political statement should get involved in student government.
As the delegitimization campaign has intensified on campus, students have frequently been put on the defensive. It is time, however, to be proactive and set the agenda to present Israel in a fair and honest light. While attention has focused on anti-Israel proposals, a number of campuses have actually adopted pro-Israel resolutions. For example, Indiana University’s student government recently adopted a resolution emphasizing Israel’s strong relationship with both the University and the state of Indiana. This initiative, and similar initiatives around the country, is part of a growing trend to preempt anti-Israel sentiment on campus by actively promoting a positive image of Israel.
Members of student governments have the power and resources to shift the campus discourse from one-sided Israel bashing to a pluralistic forum of ideas and opinions. Speakers from a multitude of backgrounds and viewpoints on Israel can be invited to campus with a clear line drawn between those with legitimate critiques of Israeli policy and delegitimizers. Rather than allow the campus to be hijacked by detractors who organize Israel “Apartheid” hate fests, pro-Israel students can sponsor “Israel Peace Week” or a similar event to highlight Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution.
With Arabs now taking to the streets to demand greater freedom and democracy in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya, it is an ideal time to highlight the example set by Israel. What better model is there of a country that protects and cherishes “universal values” than Israel, the only country in the region that grants all its citizens freedom of speech, assembly and religion, respects gay and women’s rights and defends the freedom of the press.
These and other pro-active programming ideas are available in the BDS Cookbook at The BDS Cookbook also provides guidance for preempting and reacting to a BDS campaign on campus.
One of the suggestions that student governments can implement is to demand transparency of groups sponsoring events on campus. Students have a right to know the funding sources of events on campus, especially if any student fees are involved or, in the case of public universities, if taxpayer funds are being used. Students and taxpayers also have a right to demand that their money is not being used to promote hate in publicly supported institutions. Student governments should require public disclosure of all funds used to put on campus events. For example, students have a right to know who is providing funding for groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and the cost of any speakers they invite.
BDS advocates at Berkeley’s attempt to pass a divestment resolution in 2010 demonstrated the importance of participation in student government. Originally, a measure calling for the university to divest from General Electric Co. and United Technology “because of their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories” was overwhelmingly approved at a student senate debate. The student senate president then vetoed the measure, thereby starting a heated campaign to override the veto. Through the tireless efforts of committed students, faculty members and concerned community members, two senators reversed their previous decision and one abstained, thereby upholding the veto. The issue might never have been entertained or supported if pro-Israel students were members of the student government or had devoted energy and time to educating their uninformed peers.
The BDS movement seeks at a minimum to gain publicity and tarnish Israel’s reputation on campus and, ultimately, to convince universities to divest from Israel in the hopes of turning Israel until a pariah. One way to stop the campaign in its tracks is to ensure that student governments are well informed about Middle East issues. This is made possible by promoting a positive image of Israel on campus that illuminates rather than castigates. Ensuring that student governments are populated by students who put their classmates’ interests ahead of their personal political agendas translates into the proliferation of a healthy and honest dialogue on Israel rather than its hateful and biased alternative.
Sybil Ottenstein is the Campus Coordinator for the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.