Our weak response to BDS

American defenders of Israel can do better than accusing every BDS supporter of antisemitism

CHEF SHAUL Ben Aderet offers chocolate mousse to BDS protesters outside the Roundhouse Theatre. (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
CHEF SHAUL Ben Aderet offers chocolate mousse to BDS protesters outside the Roundhouse Theatre.
(photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
Pro-Israel Americans are all too familiar with the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses. An increasing number of student governments find themselves voting on resolutions which call to boycott and divest from Israeli firms in response to Israel’s settlement policies and alleged human rights abuses. But what do American college students really know about the Middle East? These students are often forced to make important symbolic decisions after mere minutes of research, not nearly enough time to understand the nuances of the conflict.
The BDS movement has mastered the art of convincing well-meaning college students to vote “yes.” BDS advocates present a starkly one-sided view of the region’s past and present, painting Israelis as evil aggressors at every corner. They explain the Israeli-Palestinian situation with an “oppressor vs. oppressed” framework. By drawing comparisons between the Palestinian experience and those of American racial minorities, women and the LGBT community, they coerce socially conscious students into supporting the BDS agenda. Their claimed equivalence between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and these other issues is dishonest and deceptive, but incredibly effective.
However, the pro-Israel community’s response to BDS is equally destructive. Statements against BDS from Jewish and Zionist organizations on college campuses typically contain the same sentiment: “BDS is antisemitic, and it therefore must be rejected.” This logic is as shallow as that of their opponents. Of course, I do not deny that antisemitism exists within the BDS movement. I am sure that plenty of BDS advocates are motivated by anti-Jewish biases. I also recognize the role that antisemitic boycotts have played in the past century, particularly in Nazi Germany. But the connection between BDS and antisemitism cannot just be asserted; it must be explained. One could discuss how the “right of return” threatens Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. However, most pro-Israel activists do not develop this argument. Most claim that the movement is antisemitic strictly because it criticizes Israel, and that is a slippery slope. It suggests that no movement could ever criticize Israel’s political behavior in a legitimate manner.
The core argument against BDS must be one rooted in reason and logic, not in emotion and sensitivity. We must challenge the central claim that BDS will actually improve the lives of Palestinians. We must analyze the true consequences of BDS and argue that some of its goals are inconsistent with Israel’s survival. We should not seek to criminalize those students who genuinely seek to promote a more just existence for Palestinians. It is wrong to label such students as antisemitic bigots and refuse to engage with them. (They may be Jewish themselves.) Instead, it is our obligation to explain why we believe the BDS movement to be dangerous and unproductive. When we stand one hundred feet away from pro-BDS students and yell “Jew haters!” we are engaging in emotional, not rational, behavior. We must not stoop to such intellectual laziness.
Many pro-Israel advocates criticize BDS for being hyper focused on Israel and ignoring other, more serious human rights crises around the world. They accuse BDS of “singling out” Israel and of constantly looking for excuses to bash Zionism. This constant negative focus on Israel, many argue, must be evidence that BDS is antisemitic.
This line of reasoning is faulty and hypocritical. The attention that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict receives on college campuses can be attributed to a few factors unrelated to antisemitism. To start, a high rate of Jewish American students are interested in Israel’s political situation. Pro-Israel organizations are consequently active and strong. Some Jewish students, however, become hypercritical of Israel and its right-wing government. Many such Jewish students feel obliged to support what they believe is morally right for the Jewish state, which may lead them to BDS activism.
The same logic can be applied to students of Palestinian descent; we would expect such students to have more sympathy for the plight of Palestinians and therefore pay special attention to Israeli policies. While we may consider all of these students misguided in their opinions and goals, it is unfair to write them off as antisemitic. The prevalence of Israel criticism is primarily a result of strong interest in the region, not of Jew hatred.
The lack of attention toward other human rights issues results from a sense of helplessness with which these issues are perceived. Take the Syrian civil war, for example. The Assad regime’s tactics of violence and terror are seen as almost inevitable. No international boycotts or expressions of American soft power would be enough to stymie Assad’s behavior, and a rebel victory power vacuum is undesirable. American college students may feel very badly for Syria, but what practical actions could they take to protect Syrians from the regime? Israel is much easier to criticize because it is seen as a more legitimate government, one which values international opinions and is capable of changing course. Perhaps Israelis should take this criticism as a compliment.
Instead of being angry at the attention that Israel receives, pro-Israel students should view it as an opportunity to express their support for Israel and well-reasoned opposition to BDS. To complain about this emphasis and ask “what about Venezuela?” is common practice, but it is the wrong strategy. If anything, it makes pro-Israel students look suspicious and afraid to discuss Israel bluntly.
Students should not shy away from conversations about Israel. They should respond to BDS for what it is: a well-intended but misguided attempt to help Palestinians, and a hindrance to peace in the Middle East. If this argument is articulated well and persuasively, students need not resort to the name calling which dominates our dialogue today.
The author is a college student in Ohio and the president of his school’s pro-Israel organization. He plans to study in Jerusalem next year.