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A house divided: Campus divestment reveals cracks within the American Jewish establishment

How can a community which so highly regards deliberation and dissent demand such unwavering unity on what is, perhaps, American Jewry’s most controversial issue?

By Roi Bachmutsky

Graffiti on the Israeli separation barrier dividing East Jerusalem neighborhoods reads, “Boycott Israel”, March 26, 2012. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Belier/Activestills.org)

Uproar recently broke out regarding world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent decision to cancel his headline appearance at the fifth annual Facing Tomorrow Presidential Conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. Gil Troy penned an opinion piece in response, in which he argued that by boycotting the conference, “[Hawking] suggested that the dynamics of the conflict are mutually exclusive… to prove he is pro-Palestinian he had to act anti-Israeli.” My Facebook newsfeed is often filled with the reverse: friends who denounce Palestinians in order to prove their worth as sufficiently pro-Israel. Either way, Jewish organizations generally provide members with just two antithetical “sides” to choose between – for or against divestment, pro or anti-Israel. My research on Israel and American Jewish identity might help reveal the origin of this dichotomy, its role in the divestment debate, and its influence on the Jewish community.

As a recent UC Berkeley graduate, I am familiar with the wars over divestment, having been a freshman during the bill demanding UC Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California divest from certain companies’ “military support of the [Israeli] occupation of the Palestinian territories” in 2009. In the bill’s aftermath, I began interviewing Jewish students on campus and was shocked with what I found.

Overwhelmingly, Jewish youth described having knee-jerk reactions to divestment, often without room for reflection and contemplation. One student relayed to me that she had shown up to argue against divestment without having read the bill. “I walked in,” she recalled, “and I basically got a text just saying, ‘they’re being anti-Israel, just like, refute it,’ and I was like ‘OK, whatever.’” The call to action was unequivocal, as another student explained: “My relationship with Israel in that moment [was] very clear and one-dimensional: ‘I am going to defend [Israel] no matter what.’”

By creating a paradigm with two diametrically opposed camps, Jewish young adults felt tremendous pressure to align with the organized Jewish community, opposite the other side. “A lot of people associate [being] pro-Israel with being anti-Palestinian,” the first student began, “but I don’t see that.” On the other hand, she told me, “if somebody were to put me in a room and be like, ‘you have to go to one side that is [either] pro-Israel or anti-Israel,’ I would go to the pro-Israel side. Does that make sense?” I asked her if she ever felt forced to choose. “Yeah, absolutely,” she replied without hesitation, “…I guess that happens all the time.”

How can a community which so highly regards deliberation and dissent (two Jews, three opinions after all) demand such unwavering unity on what is, perhaps, American Jewry’s most controversial issue? The key to the mystery lies in a 1979 New York Times Article reporting on American Jewish divisions with respect to Israeli settlement policy of the West Bank. It is no coincidence that this article was published just two years after the rise of Israeli Right with the ascendance of Menachem Begin and Likud, a time in which public criticism of Israel by the predominantly liberal mainstream Jewish leaders began to surface.

The article quotes Seymour Siegel, a famous Conservative Rabbi of the time and advisor to three presidential administrations, delineating American Jewish divisions into three: (1) Those in favor of the Israeli government (2) Those opposed to the Israeli government and (3) Those who feel hesitant to publicly criticize the Israeli government yet could be swayed either way depending on the policy. The public divisions must have been troubling enough to impel Siegel to emphasize a more fundamental Jewish unity by asserting that all three groups were joined “under a tent of intense pro-Israel sentiment.”

Therein lies the idea holding together a warring Jewish community in faux public unity. The pro-Israel tent – or “broad”/”open” tent as it has been called – has since come to be widely recognized as symbolic of the boundary of acceptable thought and discourse about Israel. The realm of pro-Israel lies within, while anti-Israel is without – each cleanly severed from one another – with divestment clearly beyond the pale.

The tent has by now trickled down to a healthy majority of Jewish institutions. In large part, it has been cemented by Jewish Federations, which have instituted Israel policies prohibiting grantees from enabling programs undermining the legitimacy of the State of Israel (including condoning boycott, divestment, or sanctions, as is done by most Palestinian groups). To engage with divestment, the community proclaims, is to be against the American Jewish people.

Notably, a grassroots student movement by the name of Open Hillel has recently sprouted out of Harvard University in opposition to the momentum of Federation policies. The campaign particularly targets Hillel International’s Standards for Partnership, which “exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.” What if Harvard students, for example, wanted to host Stephen Hawking to discuss why he chose to respect the academic boycott of the Israeli Presidential Conference? Whether Open Hillel succeeds in challenging the status quo or not, it is undeniable that the Jewish community is anything but united under one tent. It fiercely remains a house divided.

Roi Bachmutsky is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter (@roibachmutsky).

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    1. Jonathan Wilson


      I don’t understand why being pro one side doesn’t mean being anti the other? If I am Pro Israel I am anti-divestment. Could you explain what is wrong with my train of thought?

      Reply to Comment
      • XYZ

        Because since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflict about one hundred years ago, the Arabs have defined it as a “zero-sum game”. They view anything bad for Israel as good for them and vice-versa. The Arabs do not accept Israel’s right to exist in any form or within any boundaries, so all actions they take on an official level are designed to ultimately bring down Israel (I say “officially” because on an unofficial level some Arabs are willing to cooperate with Israel IF they view it as being in their temporary self-interest, such as Jordan’s peaceful border with Israel since 1970).

        Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      The threat of BDS is isolation.

      Don’t take it lightly.

      Those that advocate for BDS, without angst at the moral ambiguity of punishing a large population, and largely arbitrarily, don’t have my respect.

      Hawking commented that his purpose was peace implying acknowledgement even respect of Israel, and clearly NOT the single-state or anti-colonial forced removal agenda.

      Others in the BDS movement are not as benign.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Shaun

      When you play the BDS game through to its conclusion it looks like this: destroy Israel’s economy, put thousands out of work via economic sanctions, demolish Israel education system depriving all Israelis of academic pursuit. Eradicate all government enforcement and the police forces via global courts. Then with the country in ruins and rampant unemployment, demand that Israel admit millions inot the country.

      This is the ultimate Goal of BDS. Anyone who says otherwise is deluding themselves. Hence so called Zionist-BDSers are ridiculed by both sides.

      There are no half measures here. Its either about destroying Israel as a Jewish State or preserving it. If you are pro-BDS you have chosen your camp. Be sincere about it!

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jake Berkeley

      Speaking of our Alma Mater, UC Berkeley, even the less than moderate students there understand the reality of the BDS movement which Dr Hawking seemed to miss, or much worse, actually supports. The Student Senate there recently passed a resolution by a close vote to recommend the divestment from companies helping the Israeli military. However, they made it clear that this was not in any way to be considered as a part of or an endorsement of the BDS movement. In fact, they condemned major actions and goals of the Palestinian lead BDS movement. Explicitly, the resolution disavows BDS’s “…end goal of a one-state solution that would replace the state of Israel.” The resolution also specifically condemns and disavows BDS’s “…cultural and academic boycott, which hurts more people than just policymakers, is counterproductive to academic and cultural growth…” They go on to say that their actions “…should in no way be misconstrued as support for any other goals or beliefs related to the BDS movement.” This was reiterated by the student government president, who could have vetoed the resolution but did not, when he said, “In no way do I endorse the movement’s call for cultural and academic boycotts…” It would be good if Professor Hawking and others like him could be as nuanced in their understanding of the issue and be as clear as these students in asserting their principles while disassociating themselves from the vilest of the BDS goals and intentions. That is, unless they support them.

      Reply to Comment
      • The same criticisms of cultural and academic boycotts were levied against South African BDS activists – it is bad for culture and growth, it’s bad for mutual trust, it’s bad for freedom of expression, etc., etc. Enuga Reddy responded to that criticism in 1984: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms…to the African majority…should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world.” The other excuses that we see today – such as BDS hurting more people than it helps – were trotted out by South Africa’s apologists. Philo Wasburn produced an in-depth analysis of the common oppositions to BDS used in SA, which are identical to the ones we see today used to oppose BDS on behalf of Palestinians. Phan Nguyen combed through his study and put together a full comparison here: http://mondoweiss.net/2012/04/hasbara-in-1988-despite-difficulties-south-africa-is-a-vital-progressive-state-with-much-to-admire.html

        BDS is divisive in the same way that a litmus test is divisive. It shows up those people who are OK with apartheid, so long as it’s apartheid lite. It is hard for me not to be cynical when I hear BDS opponents talking about having a ‘nuanced understand of the issue’, because on closer examination this usually turns out to be exactly the sort of nuance they mean.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Rich

      If you go to the Open Hillel website, you’ll find the now tiresome, whitewashed explanation of what BDS is – that it’s about “policies” etc. etc. And surprise surprise, Lynn Gottlieb. This is just a BDS front group trying to shape shift because Finkelstein and Berkeley are over BDS. Like Scientology uses an anti-psychiatric nonsense group to sell its cult, BDS is trying to be sneaky and disguise itself as something else, something new – a group challenging big bad Hillel. But like a cult, it still finds a way to insert the same mantras. This is getting pretty depressing. Take Anshel Pfeffer’s advice, and just stop.

      Reply to Comment