A discussion on Israel advocacy with Matthew Ackerman of The David Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to positively shaping campus opinion on Israel, and the lead author of The David Project’s recently released report, “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges.”
How much impact has the BDS campaign really had on campuses, and has there been an increase in support for an academic boycott of Israel in recent years?
According to the research we conducted for The David Project’s new report, “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges,” we found only three instances of what might be termed successful BDS efforts on campus. Furthermore, all of these cases consisted of resolutions passed by student government bodies with no binding influence on the financial portfolios or policies of the universities, and in most cases were quickly repudiated by administrators at the schools. It’s also worth noting that none of the schools involved are particularly influential.
As far as the academic boycott goes, by which we mean attempts to convince schools to refuse any professional partnerships with Israeli universities and faculty in particular (as opposed to economic dealings with the entire state) again we see practically zero successes, especially in the United States, where the movement never seems to have had many adherents. The strongest years for the academic boycott campaign seem to have been 2002-2007 and focused largely on the UK, where teachers unions voted in favor of the boycott, but they were ultimately withdrawn after a large public outcry.
The caveat to all this is that the BDS campaign at universities, even if successful, would have no “practical” impact. The financial holdings of all American universities in Israel likely don’t amount to even a full percent, I imagine, of foreign investment in the country. But it would have enormous symbolic power. Since the symbolism of the thing is what ultimately matters, we shouldn’t discount the importance of efforts that don’t change a dollar one way or another. So we should be at least somewhat concerned when, in 2010, Berkeley’s student government very nearly passed a divestment measure, or that 81 California State professors, staff, and administrators signed a letter this past fall opposing reinstatement of the study abroad program in Israel (canceled in 2002 due to security concerns) on purely political grounds.
But because these efforts ultimately have such little chance for success and don’t seem to be gaining ground, we think that the enormous attention placed on them by the Jewish community is largely a distraction. And we think that way because we think that there are problems on campus. They are just different problems.
To what extent would you say that progress/decline in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process impacts on the perception of Israel?
It would be too much to say that various turns in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have zero impact on Israel’s perception on campus, but for the most part the impact is minimal. A right of center Prime Minister is a harder sell on campus, and students and faculty are less likely to buy the standard fare peace message that Israel wants peace but has no partner. But movement or the lack thereof in the peace process is not the driving force.
Interestingly enough, if you were going to draw a correlation, it would be that periods of increased violence between the two sides (2000-2005, 2008) lead to greater tension on campus, creating greater impetus and support for the anti-Israel campaign. This is particularly troubling since these violent campaigns have been initiated by Palestinians who use terrorism as their chief tactic. A fair accounting of this violence also, I would argue, would hold that very little of it can be attributed to the peace process, unless you are of the persuasion that Israeli efforts to end the conflict ultimately encourage Palestinian irredentism and violence.
The most important point to grasp here I think is that peace negotiations don’t have a large impact on Israel’s perception on campus because anti-Israelism is not driven primarily by Israel’s specific policies towards the Palestinians, or whatever rights or wrongs Israel is doing or has done in regard to pursuing peace. Anti-Israelism is driven by the existence of the Jewish state itself, by which I mean not only Israel’s independence and survival, but its continued self-definition as a “Jewish” state.
I say this not to give the impression that there is anything wrong with this definition. To the contrary, I know Israel’s definition of itself as Jewish is perfectly in line with prevailing democratic norms as practiced throughout the world and is a point of clear historical justice.
I put the matter as I do because I think we need to be very clear that anti-Israelists active on campus do not ultimately frame their efforts as opposition to specific Israeli policies or leadership (although they may mention those) but as opposition to Israel itself and its self-definition as a Jewish state. The claim on campus that we need to be particularly concerned about is not when someone voices a problem with Israel’s performance in negotiations, but with the notion that a state defining itself as Jewish is inherently discriminatory.
We at The David Project say very clearly in “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges” that we should not expect campus to be a place, rightly or wrongly, that is broadly supportive of the full range of policies of the government of Israel, particularly when it comes to Israeli military actions. The challenge is to get that opposition to be framed in terms of acceptance of the basic morality of the idea of a Jewish state. To create, in other words, a campus climate where claims that the existence of a Jewish state is fundamentally unjust are seen as extreme and beyond the pale of legitimate discourse.
Are there instances in which Israel Advocacy is seen as having a negative impact on Israel’s case?
I think this relates back to your BDS question. Anti-Israelists have been promoting these efforts at Berkeley, Princeton, Penn, and elsewhere the past couple of years not because they think they have a chance for success. Norman Finkelstein, the longtime campus anti-Israel agitator, recently admitted as much. They do it because they are betting on a reaction from the pro-Israel side, which will then increase the amount of attention their cause receives far beyond what would otherwise be possible for them to achieve on their own.
So advocacy that feeds into that, advocacy that is not self-aware and self-confident enough to first ask itself if it is doing anything that helps the other side make its case, can be detrimental.
We also have seen (and we mention this in the report) that a lot of campus Israel advocacy focuses on bringing a famous, controversial, or provocative speaker to campus, and for obvious reasons: they can draw a big crowd, which then makes the event feel successful. But a lot of the people who attend these kinds of events already have their minds made up one way or the other, and they also can and have served as great organizing opportunities for anti-Israelists.
Instead (and this is the strategy we lay out in our report) we should be a lot more strategic and targeted in our advocacy work. One thing that came out of the Penn BDS conference was that a large number of pro-Israel students at Penn held dozens of small dinners at their apartments and in their dorm rooms to talk in a personal way with their fellow students about Israel and what it means to them. To us at The David Project, that is terrific campus advocacy in action and the kind of thing we’d like to see much more of all over the country.
When does anti-Israel sentiment tip over into anti-Semitism? What are the differences and what should people be alert for?
I think the entire anti-Semitism debate is unhelpful and that we should avoid it.
This is because the anti-Israel side has very effectively defined the parameters of the anti-Semitism debate. I think it’s important to note, as has been said many times before by many people, that the charge that Jews accuse people of anti-Semitism in order to “silence” criticism of Israel and otherwise control debate about the Middle East is a stunning example itself of the popularity and acceptability of fundamentally anti-Semitic discourse in many venues. It is also stunning that even less clever turns of phrase, such as saying that Arabs can’t be anti-Semitic because they are “Semites” or that Israel’s supporters in the United States have “bought and paid for” the United States Congress, have the currency they do. Or, furthermore, that a professor at a prestigious university can publicly and repeatedly endorse a blatantly anti-Semitic book and not only face no public outcry but be publicly supported by his colleagues.
But all these things are as they are. Unfortunately, using the very term “anti-Semitism” now works to reinforce them.
I think this has happened because the word anti-Semitism is so strongly associated in the popular mind with racial, right-wing, Nazi variety anti-Semitism, for obvious reasons. The first video footage of the death camps made that kind of anti-Semitism largely beyond the pale of Western discourse.
But left-wing anti-Semitism, which is different, never suffered the same public opprobrium. This kind of anti-Jewish bias doesn’t hold that Jews are deserving of racial discrimination or extermination, but it does say that the Jews are not a “real” people with the same rights as other peoples, and can very quickly descend into fantasies about global Jewish conspiracies. But it is very hard to get even a relatively well-informed person to accept that bigotry against the Jewish people from the left deserves to be called “anti-Semitism.”
This is why I far prefer the term “anti-Israelism,” and why we define the term in our report narrowly as “a specific form of bigotry targeted against the modern state of Israel.” We also write, “The key belief of anti-Israelism is that Israel is an illegitimate state with no moral claim to past, present, or continued existence under its own definition as a Jewish state.” This is really garden variety left-wing anti-Semitism of the kind prevalent in the Soviet Union, drawn up in contemporary guise.
I think it represents a form of bigotry against the Jewish people and that it deserves to be treated that way by all people of good conscience. But I don’t think we’ll get there by continuing the endless discussion of what is and what is not “anti-Semitism.” Maybe we can get there by using new terminology.
Peter Beinart recently called for a boycott of products made in Israeli settlements, but not inside the Green Line; do you think there is room for such a distinction in discourse about Israel?
No. While Beinart may make such neat conceptual distinctions in his own mind, we should not. There is a global campaign meant to turn Israel into an international pariah. The de-legitimizers use boycotts not as a precise economic tool or as “socially conscious investing” but as a political club meant to bring Israel to its knees. Beinart’s efforts feed into this larger campaign. Not only will it not help bring peace, but it will embolden the rejectionists and purveyors of hate against Israel.
What tips could you give to someone who was engaging in Israel Advocacy today?
First, if you are on campus or expect to be on campus someday, get in touch with The David Project. We have a full range of programs for a range of different ages and experience levels, from targeted trainings like day-long video advocacy seminars to weekend regional conferences and longer and more general seminars for students in college, to curricula for educators and students in high school, as well as a first of its kind advocacy trip in Israel for high school students. We even have something just for students in sororities and fraternities, and something else just for students interested in financial investment in Israel.
We are also obviously not the only ones. The last ten years have seen a depressing rise in anti-Israelism on campus, but also an explosion in organizations – from small to big to governmental – that offer an extraordinary array of different supports for someone interested in Israel advocacy in particular or Israel in general. It’s really stunning to consider the range and quality of the options, as well as the degree of financial assistance available, when compared to just 15 years ago, and Birthright is just the beginning. In particular I’d recommend offerings from Hillel, AIPAC, Hasbara Fellowships, The Israel on Campus Coalition, AEPi, MASA, and the Tikvah Fund. If I was a young person on campus I would do my best to explore all of these options and take as much advantage of them as I could.
Sometimes I even wish I could be a college student again just to do it.
I’d also say that as scary a time as it can be to try to speak up for Israel, and as many real social costs someone who identifies themselves strongly with Israel is likely to pay in certain venues, it’s also a time – for that reason also – of real opportunity. The Jewish state is intellectually under siege in a way and to an extent it hasn’t been before. That creates a true strategic threat to the country’s long-term security and wellbeing. But it also means we, in the relative safety of the United States and without ever having to pick up a gun, can play a truly important role in the continuation of the modern fulfillment of the 2,000 year old dream of a return to Zion, and to speak up for justice, democracy, and equality besides. To me, it’s an obvious thing to want to be a part of.