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Putting the ‘pro’ into pro-Israel
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Putting the ‘pro’ into pro-Israel

Last week I spoke at Yale Hillel, leading a small group discussion about the American-Jewish dialogue over Israel and how big the ideological “tent” should be. Should Jewish organizations be hosting critics of Israel government policy, on the Right or Left? Are Jews and Israel better served by a show of unity — however artificial — or displays of disagreement, however painful?

Inevitably we talked about the situation at Brooklyn College, where plans for a panel discussion featuring Omar Barghouti and other supporters of the “boycott Israel” movement led Alan Dershowitz and a crowd of similar critics to cry “Shame!” and demand the university’s poli sci department drop its cosponsorship.

Here’s the weird thing: At the same moment I was speaking at Hillel, Barghouti was just across campus, speaking on a panel in support of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). The panel, sponsored by Yale’s Council of Middle Eastern Studies, was no more balanced than the one planned for Brooklyn College.

The organizers of my talk, active at Hillel, weren’t aware until that same day that Barghouti et al were to appear on campus. At Brooklyn College, meanwhile, BDS got the sort of attention, thanks to critics, that its leaders can only dream of. The New York media gave hourly coverage to City Council members’ demands that the college drop its sponsorship, as well as to the organizers’ defense of “academic freedom.” The New York Times published an editorial decrying the “narrow ideological litmus tests” demanded by pro-Israel groups and politicians. Dozens of Jewish academics — including pro-Israel voices who normally prefer to ignore or belittle BDS — signed a petition calling attempts to stifle the event a “grave threat to academic freedom.”

The Brooklyn event, which went on as scheduled, drew a crowd of hundreds; outside, a pro-Israel counter-demonstration drew 150 people. “The disproportionate onslaught,” wrote Chemi Shalev in Ha’aretz, “succeeded in casting the BDS speakers who came to the Brooklyn campus as freedom-loving victims being hounded and oppressed by the forces of darkness.”

And what happened at Yale? Barghouti came, he spoke, he moved on, and even the pro-Israel students on campus barely noticed.

The impulse to denounce and ostracize BDS is understandable. These are people who not only demonize Israel, but support the “one-state” solution that denies Israel’s sovereignty and essentially invites its eventual demise. The movement is itself a grave threat to academic freedom, calling for boycotts of Israeli scholars, technology, and research.

Worst of all, perhaps, is their influence on Palestinian politicians and their people. By refusing to embrace the two-state solution, by supporting not just an “end to the occupation” but a full right of return to Palestinians to what is now Israel, they encourage Palestinians in their delusional hope of total victory over the Zionists. They are the flip side of the most radical settlers, whose own “one-state” solution leaves no room for compromise or a just, sustainable peace among two peoples.

Are they anti-Semitic? The Anti-Defamation League and others think so, although their case is not airtight. In an ad that appeared in The New York Times, ADL national director Abe Foxman wrote that the Brooklyn College affair is not about academic freedom, but sending a message about “hateful” speech. What makes the BDS movement anti-Semitic, he writes, is their insistence on a Palestinian “right of return” that would lead to the “destruction of the Jewish state through demography.”

It’s a highly subjective and even risky argument; after all, you could turn it around and label as “hateful” any Jew who doesn’t accept the idea of a Palestinian state. And one group’s idea of “hateful” may be very different from another’s, as the ADL found out earlier this year. In December, a petition was circulated asking the White House to label the Roman Catholic Church as a “hate group.” It accused the pope of using “hateful language and discriminatory remarks” to oppose gay marriage. Because the petition cited the ADL’s own definitions of hate speech, Foxman responded in a news release. The petition’s claims were “abhorrent,” he wrote “While one may agree or disagree with the Church’s position on homosexuality and marriage, any attempt to label the entire faith as a hate group is illegitimate and unacceptable.”

But even were the BDS movement unequivocally anti-Semitic, it’s still worth debating the best way to confront it. If ignoring them suggests condoning their message, and loudly protesting risks giving them more publicity than they deserve, perhaps there’s a third way. The best defense, in this case, may be a good offense. Instead of telling universities who should and shouldn’t be allowed on campus, pro-Israel organizations should be offering the kinds of speakers and programs that promote the kind of Israel they believe in. If the case for Israel is a strong as we think it is, we should promote it with cultural events, star lecturers, and serious panels featuring its wealth of academics and entrepreneurs.

Colleges are marketplaces of ideas, some wonderful, some odious. People have a right to express bad ideas, and students to hear them. But we also owe it to students to present the good ideas, in a way that doesn’t turn the organized Jewish community into the bad guys. It’s time to put the “pro” back into pro-Israel.

UPDATE: Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, responded to my column about an issue I didn't tackle:

There are different approaches to confronting extremists, such as BDS advocates, including ignoring them, as you suggest. But your oped doesn’t address the Brooklyn College Political Science department’s co-sponsorship of this event.

This gives institutional support to a hateful tactic aimed at the only democratic and Jewish state in the Middle East, one bordered by a country undergoing genocide with over 60,000 victims.

This breach was the major source of the controversy. How can one expect an objective study of Israel in that department, when it co-sponsors a seminar advocating such a vile tactic?

The department is Political without the Science.

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