The American Jewish Committee’s man on campus warned that the boycott Israel movement “is picking up steam,” and that some Jewish students are feeling threatened if they advocate for Israel.
Advocates for a boycott are also bringing referenda before the entire student body, said Jacob Levkowicz, bypassing or complementing resolutions brought before student governments.
“The thinking behind that is if the entire student body approves it, it creates an opportunity to bring the matter before the university’s administration and board of trustees for their consideration. That is a big concern,” Levkowicz, AJC’s assistant director of campus affairs, told 50 people at a meeting in Short Hills.
Although no American college or university has actually sold off its Israeli-linked investments, Levkowicz believes such resolutions “send a big signal to the campus and the public” when they are passed.
In addition, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement has made inroads with “opinion leaders” and “influentials” on campuses — including members of their Latino, African-American, and progressive student organizations.
“Student leaders are drifting farther and farther away from the pro-Israel community on campus,” he said.
One of the chief on-campus proponents of BDS resolutions, Students for Justice in Palestine, has formed “pretty powerful coalitions with a lot of these groups…. It is a weird twist of fate because for so long, the pro-Israel community on campus has been focused on building those relationships. It is almost like SJP has taken a page out of our playbook.”
Levkowicz said Hillel directors and other Jewish campus leaders complained that relationships with African-American and Latino groups have deteriorated as a result.
“If a lot of these groups don’t have a relationship with the Jewish community or they are not exposed to Israel, it is not likely they will be supportive down the line,” he said.
Levkowicz said the anti-Israel advocacy on the Left has also created a dilemma for Jewish students who are “committed to progressive social justice causes.”
“They feel like they can’t carry all of these social justice causes and still be supportive of Israel, and I think that’s dangerous,” Levkowicz said.
He said AJC has been working closely with Hillel and other Jewish campus organizations “to help build back some of the coalitions and relationships they have maybe lost over time.” Under its Project Interchange program, he and other AJC staff members will be taking Jewish and non-Jewish students and university administrators — including some possible BDS supporters — on trips to Israel and the West Bank.
Levkowicz said it may be a tactical “mistake” to label every BDS supporter as anti-Semitic.
“There are hardcore BDS supporters who don’t believe in Israel’s right to exist — and they may or may not be anti-Semitic — and softcore supporters who are drawn to the cause because they are frustrated with the lack of a two-state solution or with certain Israeli policies,” he said. “We are seeing an increasing number of Jewish students who fall into that category.”
Following Levkowicz’s presentation, members of the audience with sons and daughters in college shared with NJ Jewish News their concerns about campus battles.
“My son is in a university where there is a lot of BDS stuff,” said one mother, who, like others, asked not to be identified. “He will tell you he was very fortunate because he knew his facts and whatever we did in the home and his Jewish education. When he was challenged he knew what was fact and fiction and had the arguments to counter what was thrown at him.”
“My daughter took a class on Middle East studies that was taught by a Palestinian professor,” said another father. “It worked out well. She got along well with the professor. She felt he was biased, but he was willing to listen to her side. But other students in the class were more strident than her professor.”
“What is at stake in the long term is public perception of Israel,” Levkowicz told NJJN after his speech. “If students today are growing up in an environment where Israel is seen as the antithesis of liberal progressive values, that is detrimental to Israel’s place in colleges. There is no doubt that Israel has taken a rightward turn, and there is a place to raise legitimate concerns about the path that Israel is going down while being able to make the arguments for Israel,” he said.