On May 8, 2015, IAM organized a panel “Who Sponsors Israel's Delegitimization on Campus?” at Tel Aviv University.
The topic attracted public and media attention, but there was no interest from the Israeli government. Indeed, the event organizers reported that they contacted a number of officials in relevant ministries, but failed to elicit a response.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, a pioneer against the BDS movement and one of the panelists, spoke about his frustration with Israeli government. He noted that the “Israeli government failed to tackle the BDS movement, not because it tried and failed, but because it did not try at all.”
Interestingly enough, this is the view of Ari Shavit, the noted journalist and author. During a tour of more than twenty American campuses, Shavit was told by Jewish student activists that they felt overwhelmed by the massive BDS campaign and abandoned by the Israeli government. Facing unremitting hostility from pro-Palestinian activists, many Jewish students retreat from the public arena. It is hardly helpful that, according to recent polls, younger Jewish American cohorts are losing their Jewish identity and, more to the point, their attachment to Israel.
There is a virtual consensus that the delegitimization - born out of the BDS drive - is a vital security issue for Israel. Unfortunately, the verbal lamenting has not been translated into a coherent plan of action.
Israel has abandoned young U.S. Jews in fight against BDS
Israel’s fate will not only be determined on the country’s southern or northern borders, but on the quads of American campuses.
By Ari Shavit
Published 15:38 14.05.15
The Jewish students at UCLA will never forget the night of February 25, 2014. For 13 nightmarish hours, they were confronted with the hateful words and wild eyes of hundreds of fellow students — supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement — who alleged that defending Israel was tantamount to defending racism, genocide and infanticide. For one long night they experienced a debate on boycotting Israel that turned into a horror show of persecution.
They had not been prepared for such a near-violent conflict, and many of them were emotionally wounded. Thus when the vote — on whether the university should divest of companies that ostensibly profit from the occupation — went narrowly in their favor, they felt no sense of triumph; on the contrary. More than a hundred students left the meeting at dawn, hugged each other on a campus lawn and cried.
In recent months I have visited 27 American universities. I did not come to preach, but to listen. I tried to conduct an open, candid dialogue with the sons and daughters of a new Jewish generation that faces a challenge their parents and grandparents never did. Day after day I sat for entire days with groups of Jewish students — more than 100 groups in all — and asked them to share with me what was on their minds and in their hearts.
In Hillel houses at Princeton, Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, Michigan, Northwestern, the University of California San Diego and 20 other campuses, I repeatedly heard variations of the same heartbreaking story: Jewish students who (still) love Israel and (still) feel close to it, but who are asking tough ethical questions that Israel has no answers for. These are students facing near-overt anti-Semitism who themselves have harsh questions about the Jewish state that the Jewish establishment forbids them to express.
Thousands find themselves in a very tough jam. In front of them are professors and students who argue that Israel is Goliath, but behind them there’s no Israel proving that it is a David.
We feel like we’ve been abandoned on the battlefield, many of them told me. The anti-Zionists, they said, are accusing us of collaborating with evil, but Zionism doesn’t understand us and doesn’t speak to us; instead, it’s busy building more and more and more settlements.
That’s why their internal struggle is so agonizing and their pain so deep. That’s why many of their in-depth conversations with me came to tears, too.
The contemptible, sophisticated and well-oiled offensive by the BDS movement is a strategic threat to Israel. If it isn’t halted, it could position the democratic Jewish state as the South Africa of 2020. But the real existential threat facing the Jewish people is the increasing tension between the liberal identity of most young American Jews and the distorted image of Israel as an unjust oppressor and occupier.
As a result of this tension, some come out against Israel, some are confused and many are simply indifferent. For too long, the right has been telling these young people that everything here is great – startups, Tel Aviv parties and cherry tomatoes.
For too long the left has been telling these young people that everything here is awful — checkpoints, discrimination and the exclusion of women. For too long these intelligent, impressive and warm young Jews have not heard a strong Israeli voice talking with pride about the Israeli miracle while acknowledging that Israel does have some flaws.
Birthright has done wonders and lit a Jewish-Israeli spark in the hearts of hundreds of thousands in the past 15 years. But since Zionism has not provided a reliable, relevant and inspirational narrative to galvanize these millennials, many are simply keeping their distance. And when they arrive on campus and are exposed to anti-Israel venom, the Jewish and pro-Israel identity of many of them collapses.
There is no greater danger to Israel and the Jewish people than this collapse. Our fate will not only be determined on the country’s southern or northern borders, but on the quads of American campuses. To win the hearts and minds of young American Jews, we must define a revitalized, moral and liberal Zionism.
If there is still a Jewish national leadership in Jerusalem, New York or Los Angeles, it must wake up and take immediate action. As things stand now, the Jewish future is slipping through our fingers.
The new danger for Israel on campus
MAY 27, 2015, 4:19 PM
Social media, Federation fundraising videos, and even The New York Times have all placed a spotlight on the growing BDS efforts, anti-Israel resolutions, and verbal attacks that supporters of Israel on college campuses are subjected to on an ongoing basis.
The measureable increase in the quantity of these attacks, as well as in their intensity and viciousness, is indeed profoundly troubling and requires of the Jewish community a significant response. The Jewish world is right to be concerned and right in marshalling forces to protect our students and Israel. The frontline of anti-Israel sentiment, however, is more entrenched and pervasive than that which is exhibited in resolutions or demonstrations. Our challenge is not merely how to confront an enemy on the outside, but rather how to combat an ever-growing alienation toward Israel from within the Jewish student body.
This alienation is not the outgrowth of any single, particular event, such as the latest Gaza War or proclamation du jour by an Israeli politician. There is something more profound going on today in the lives of our students on campus, and unless we recognize it, our efforts will be only partially beneficial at best.
The challenge begins not on campus, but with the meaning and purpose of Zionism, and by extension, Israel itself. Since its inception, the Zionist movement has been divided between two different ideas and impulses. The first may be called Survival Zionism, which saw in the creation of a Jewish state the only viable solution to the existential dangers that Jews faced when living as a minority throughout the Diaspora. If Jews were to live — literally live — it would only be possible in the context of a sovereign state which would serve as the homeland of the Jewish people.
The second, Cultural Zionism, saw Israel as the place where the “Jewish problem,” not the problem of the Jews, would be solved. A Jewish state is necessary, because therein, and therein alone, could a renaissance and healing of Jewish ideas, religion, values, language, and culture be attained. When the Jews would be sovereign in their own land, Judaism could be healed from 2,000 years of malaise inflicted upon it by exile, and a new, moral, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural vitality would emerge. The public space of Israel was to serve as the catalyst, laboratory, and ultimately the reality for this renaissance.
The core foundation for Israel alienation, is that amongst our college students, both meanings of Zionism are not merely irrelevant, but incoherent. The essence of the North American Jewish enterprise in general, and Jewish life on campus in particular, is to provide an alternative solution to the “problem of the Jews.” Just like their parents and grandparents before them, who found a safe and viable home in the United States and Canada, and in fact in much of the Western world, campus life is predicated on the assumption, possibility, and indeed value of integration of Jews into the larger and general society.
For a Jewish student who leaves home to be absorbed within their campus experience, understanding Israel as a safe haven to protect Jews in danger is something which was at best relevant in the past, but which is completely irrelevant to their Jewish experience today.
The same is the case, and in many ways even more so, with Cultural Zionism. North American Jewish life is an attempt to create a Jewish renaissance within the context of living as a beloved minority. From the perspective of most young North American Jews, Israel’s past contributions to their Jewish identities is taken for granted and in fact, to ever-increasing degrees, Israel is the family member by whom one is embarrassed. The Jewishness of our youth is firmly embedded within a liberal ethos, in which Tikkun Olam, democracy, equality, and religious pluralism are its building blocks. While Israel’s Declaration of Independence fully embraces this ethos, the perception from North America is that over the last 10 years, Israel increasingly has been distancing itself from it.
If Israel is neither contributing to Jewish survival nor to Judaism’s moral vitality, for many it is merely unnecessary baggage. While many of our students do experience outsider attacks at pro-Israel events, many do not for they are not showing up.
When confronting an outside foe, the battle lines are clear. But when the challenge is alienation and loss of sense of purpose within our community, there is no simple or short-term fix. We need not merely to protect our students, we need to find new ways to engage with them and to have them engage with the ideas of Israel.
The days of survival Zionism as inspiring and relationship building for North American Jews are largely over, and will, God willing, remain so. The primary foundation for a relationship between young North American Jews and Israel in the future will be Cultural Zionism. Not, however, in its past, chauvinist sense of Israel’s superiority, but in the sense of Israel contributing together with North American Jewish life in the creation of a vital Judaism for the twenty-first century.
The future of viability of Cultural Zionism, however, requires two foundations. The first is a North American Jew who engages with the moral and spiritual challenges, difficulties, and opportunities entailed in sovereignty and feels empowered to build the Israel that can inspire their identification with it. The second is on the strengthening of an Israeli society which is engaged in precisely the same thing. When this occurs, we will still be exposed to enemies from without, but we will be able to rest assured that there is an army within which is willing to stand up with Israel.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem and Director of the Institute's iEngage Project