Earlier this month, pro-Israel students scored a public relations coup when they managed to steal a little of the public relations thunder from the organizers of an “Israel Apartheid Week” at Columbia University. In response to a faux “apartheid wall” that was supposed to be a representation of Israel’s West Bank security fence that was erected in front of the school’s iconic Low Library steps, members of Students Supporting Israel put up a 12-foot tall inflated Pinocchio to mock the lies of their opponents. However, in an act that was symbolic of the anti-Israel bias of many campuses but especially at Columbia, the student government demanded that Pinocchio be taken down. Yet this act of repression brought more attention to the counter-protest thus serving the purpose of the pro-Israel students.
Yet a JTA report about the battle over Israel at Columbia focused more on the fact that for the most part, Jewish students at the school were “laying low” during the week of protests. Even some Jewish activists on campus seem to think the best strategy in dealing with “Apartheid” week, which has become an annual event throughout academia in this country and elsewhere, is to just ignore it. One Hillel director from another school quoted in the story said the problem wasn’t just that it was impossible to have an elevated dialogue about the Middle East via demonstrations and other events. It’s that they fear that engaging in conflict with Israel-haters, even when they engage in anti-Semitic speech, is a turnoff for most Jewish students.
Most college students are conflict averse. College is such a fun place. When you make a space a conflict space, our fear is that people won’t want to come in.
These sentiments were echoed by Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt, who spoke on a panel with me at a conference on global anti-Semitism that was held last weekend at Kean University. Lipstadt is worried that too much of Jewish identity in America is bound up with Holocaust observances and fear of anti-Semitism. She thinks that if parents send their children off to school being told to be “on guard” against anti-Semitism that operates under a thin veil of anti-Zionism, they will simply go to ground and discard their Jewish identity.
Lipstadt is right about the way Americans have allowed the Holocaust to define Jewish identity, something that was aptly illustrated by Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. When asked about his Jewish identity in one of the Democratic debates, he responded that he was proud to be Jewish and that it “is an essential part of whom I am as a human being.” But the only example of anything Jewish the famously non-observant socialist would mention, as having meaning to him was the memory of the Holocaust. As Charles Krauthammer aptly observed about what Sanders said, it was the sort of response that summed up the views for all too many American Jews. While there is nothing wrong and indeed much that is important about remembering the Holocaust, the sole focus on that sad chapter of history gives short shrift to all of the myriad gifts and wonders that is the Jewish heritage of faith, religious studies, language, and the miracle of modern Israel. That failure to embrace a positive approach to Judaism is part and parcel of the demographic collapse of non-Orthodox Judaism that was laid bare in the 2013 Pew Survey on Jewish Americans.
But to acknowledge this problem does not excuse a willingness on the part of too many Jews as well as non-Jews to look the other way as a BDS (boycott, divest sanction) movement aimed at Israel establishes a beachhead for anti-Semitism on American campuses. It may not be “fun” to stand up for Israel or to oppose instances of anti-Semitism that are becoming endemic at all too many institutions of higher learning, but silence can’t be an option.
To a generation of youngsters weaned on liberal notions that see all divisions between groups and faiths as somehow illegitimate, Israel, and Zionism are not fashionable causes. Many also succumb to BDS because it is sold to them as advocacy for human rights for downtrodden Palestinians who are oppressed by wicked Israelis. But their goal isn’t peace but support for a terror war against Jews. The reason why BDS organizers and advocates so often slip into expressions of prejudice against Jews is because their cause is itself anti-Semitic. Those who believe that Jews are not entitled to a state in their ancient homeland or to defend themselves against terrorism are engaging in an act of bias because those are things that no one would deny to any other people. They are not speaking up for human rights. What they seek is to deny human rights to Jews. This is a message that must be delivered loud and clear on campuses and elsewhere. A failure to do so is to an act of surrender that will buy Jews no peace either in Israel or on campuses where pro-Israel students are made to feel increasingly uncomfortable.
In response to this, some on the left urge us to speak softly and, above all, not seek to engage with the BDS haters and their economic war on Israel and to label what they do as anti-Semitism. Rocking the boat in that manner will, they say, hurt more than help. As that anonymous Hillel director seemed to think, it will also turn off Jewish students and cause them to abandon the Jewish community rather than allow themselves to be recruited in a fight they want no part of.
But standing up to this movement isn’t optional. It is nothing less than of the key moral issues of our time, and it demands that we demonstrate the moral courage to respond it. If support for Israel is not fashionable, then Jews and non-Jews of conscience must fight fashion.
It is true that Jews who are raised without a strong sense of their own identity are ill equipped to fight this battle. But that does not excuse us, or them from having to engage in this struggle.
It might be more pleasant to opt out of this battle and to ignore the “Israel Apartheid” smears or accept BDS advocates as misguided but well-intentioned activists. But the ultimate cost of such acquiescence will be far higher than the inconvenience associated with fighting back. When Israel is delegitimized, so, too, will be Judaism eventually. American exceptionalism means that the rising tide of global anti-Semitism hasn’t taken hold on these shores the way it has in Europe or elsewhere. Yet if BDS movements are not labeled for what they are — expressions of anti-Semitic hate — then Americans will be taking a fearful step towards acceptance of the European disease that is making Jewish life increasingly untenable in Europe.