The more things change, the more they remain the same for Jewish students

The Jerusalem Post's piece “Tufts president slams award for pro-Palestinian club” reflects my experience as a Jewish student on campus.

A sign stands at the edge of the campus of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, U.S., November 27, 2017 (photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
A sign stands at the edge of the campus of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, U.S., November 27, 2017
(photo credit: BRIAN SNYDER / REUTERS)
I don’t imagine you paid much attention to the article in last week’s Jerusalem Post headlined “Tufts president slams award for pro-Palestinian club,” unless, like me, you happen to be an alumnus of the university. In that case you might have thought, as did I, that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
The piece was about the honor bestowed upon Students for Justice in Palestine by the Office for Campus Life. It sent me back 50 years to when I was an undergrad at the school, writing, way back then, a column for the student newspaper titled “A Jew and the New Left,” contending with anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
When I began my studies at Tufts in 1970, I had just returned from a life-changing summer escapade in Israel. At the time, it was still a nation buoyant in the wake of the Six Day War, universally embraced by the Jewish community. Young people were flocking to kibbutzim to experience this robust experiment in communalism. In the eyes of the world, the beleaguered Jewish state was still the slingshot-wielding David and the Arab aggressor the malevolent Goliath. It would be years before anyone would be speaking of the “occupation.”
Except for Uri Davis, and he and I just happened to end up on the same campus. Today, Uri is a self-described “Palestinian Hebrew national of Jewish origin, anti-Zionist, registered as Muslim and a citizen of an apartheid state – the State of Israel.”
Back then, he was a vociferous 27-year old student agitator, an Israeli raised in Kfar Shmaryahu, born to Jewish parents who had migrated to mandatory Palestine. With degrees from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in hand, Davis was in Boston on a break from his self-imposed exile in London.
The depth of his commitment to the Palestinian cause and the intensity of his vilification of the Jewish state would eventually find expression in his becoming a member of Fatah in 1984, and his election in 2009 to its Revolutionary Council. Along the way he would write books on Israel as an apartheid state, marry a Palestinian woman and convert to Islam.
To say I had my hands full is an understatement. Ten years his junior, minus his academic training and thrust into battle armed solely with a six-week teen’s tour of Israel to defend myself, it wasn’t going to be easy. 
But this column is not about Uri, and it’s not about me. It’s about what Jewish students are confronting on campuses today, and how we shouldn’t be surprised by the predicament they find themselves in when the writing was already on the wall in big, bold letters long ago. And it’s about the lessons we’ve had 50 years to learn but are still finding difficult to assimilate. Here are five of them:
1. Herzl was wrong.
Antisemitism would not disappear with the rise of the Zionist movement as he predicted it would.
For too many years, many have believed that present-day incitement against Jews is merely a vestige of a vanishing scourge. It would be disingenuous to continue arguing that, however uncomfortable it might be to admit.
The Anti-Defamation League has reported a rise of 57% in the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2017 over 2016, growing to more than 1,800 incidents in 2018, including the horrific Tree of Life massacre, followed by more fatal attacks in 2019, in addition to hundreds of physical assaults, acts of vandalism and verbal harassment. A record number of antisemitic incidents was also reported in Canada for the fourth consecutive year. And this is only North America.
2. Good Zionists criticize Israel.
The above notwithstanding, not all criticism of Israel is rooted in antisemitism. Some is. We need to be careful in differentiating between the two, as well as being cautious not to blankly accuse those admonishing Israel of denying its right to exist.
A policy paper just issued by the Reut Group warns, “In the event of annexation, the pro-Israel network’s ability to distinguish between ‘legitimate’ criticism of Israel’s policy and delegitimization will again be tested,” warning against tendencies “to classify almost every form of external criticism as delegitimization,” which “has only pushed Western liberal circles closer toward anti-Israel positions.”
3. Boycotts are legitimate.
We shouldn’t be fighting BDS as a means, but as a movement. Boycott, divestment and sanctions are legitimate ways to effect change. That’s what Jews did for decades regarding South Africa, and by refusing in the ‘60s to buy grapes and lettuce not picked by United Farm Workers.
By focusing on the strategy of those who would like us to disappear rather than their fundamental wrongness in delegitimizing Israel, we miss the opportunity to dispel the malicious characterization of Israel as an apartheid state.
4. Facts aren’t the whole truth.
“I know Israel isn’t an apartheid state,” a left-wing supporter of Israel told me. “I know about the Arab members of Knesset, the Arab winner of Master Chef, Arab doctors at Hadassah, respected Arab journalists. But I also know that Israel’s Arab sector hasn’t received its fair share of resources, that the continued expansion of settlements raises serious questions about Israel’s intentions regarding peace... so top trying to confuse me with the facts. Tell me the truth. Like you, all I want is for Israel to become all it set out to be.”
5. The tent needs to be bigger than the one you’re comfortable with.
The most likely casualties of the BDS campaign demonizing Israel are those among our young people who find themselves on the margins of consensus. Where they will ultimately end up is dependent in no small measure on whether they are treated as being inside or outside the tent. Whatever your boundaries, try expanding them a bit.
Acknowledging these lessons is particularly important in the shadow of COVID-19. Already “on the eve of corona’s breakout, BDS campaigns around the world were gaining steady momentum marked by a number of unprecedented successes,” notes the Reut Group. That, combined with the prevalence of conspiracy theories blaming the Jews for the outbreak of the virus, suggests that pro-Israel students on campuses around the world will long continue to be challenged in standing up for what they believe in.
Over the past year at Tufts alone, they’ve had to deal with a course titled “Colonizing Palestine,” a swastika hung on a Jewish student’s door, incendiary posters strewn about the campus Hillel, and a campaign to end “collusion” between US and Israeli security agencies.
None of this is to suggest that the university condones either antisemitism or the BDS movement. To the contrary, its president, Anthony Monaco, has consistently and vociferously spoken out against both. Ultimately, however, it is the student body that is going to have to eschew the inflammatory rhetoric and defamation of Israel that is causing the 20% of its Jewish members such discomfort, and prejudicing the attitudes toward Israel of so many others.
Uri Davis and I may no longer be there, but the struggle for the hearts and minds of the next generation continues unabated.
The writer serves today as deputy chair of the executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel. During his years at Tufts University (1970-73), he served as president of the campus Hillel and co-founder of a local chapter of the Radical Zionist Alliance.