With the passing of Labor Day, colleges are open for business and new students and upperclassmen alike are gearing up for the school year. As parents, most of us with college-aged students are hoping they will excel in their studies, gain some measure of independence, and, to a point, have some fun along the way. At least that’s what our parents wanted from us.
But Jewish students today are faced with a challenge that didn’t exist when many of us were in school: the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel, aka BDS. In addition to prodding our students about the traditional priorities in college, we need to encourage them to educate themselves about modern Israel, a proud story of the rebirth and homecoming of a people to its ancient homeland that has been twisted and maligned by our enemies. We cannot expect young people to defend the State of Israel on campus unless and until they have the knowledge and moral confidence to do so.
BDS feeds on misinformation and misplaced passion, presenting itself as championing the rights of Palestinians when its stated goal is the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state. The movement is particularly strong on college campuses, where small numbers of BDS activists seek to unite minority groups in speaking out against ruling establishments, with Israel portrayed as an imperialist country and Zionists as racists. Moreover, members of the academic community are rarely shy about expressing their views on the subject, which invariably seem to take the side of the downtrodden Palestinians. To wit, the Anti-Defamation League’s November report found “a significant increase in BDS campaigns and other explicitly hostile programs against Israel during the 2015 academic year.”
Close to home, several universities have both student and academic activists for BDS. Last year Princeton University held a student referendum proposing that the school divest from Israeli companies; the vote for divestment won out, 1,382 to 1,359. This past February, Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar gave a lecture at Vassar College in which she urged students to become active in BDS and even accused the Israel Defense Forces of harvesting the organs of Palestinians who were killed after they stabbed Israelis. And the ADL report noted that “15 anti-Israel events have been sponsored or cosponsored by university departments, including at the University of California-Berkley, Drew University [in Madison], and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.”
It’s no longer enough for us to send our young people to college with hugs and a new car. We need to encourage them to find ways to understand the complexities of the Middle East and help counter the false narratives and baseless accusations made against Israel. Fortunately, there are fine Jewish studies programs on campuses offering courses on Israel’s history, including the Palestinian conflict, as well as Hillels, Chabad houses, and other venues providing opportunities for Jewish students to meet, socialize, and discuss these and other important issues.
College offers a unique opportunity to learn in multiple ways, not the least of which is to navigate what it means to be a Jew on one’s own and to appreciate our people’s rich history in preparing for the future.