Sunday, September 13, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah: The Challenge of BDS

When I was a kid my mother used to read to me from a collection of Israeli children’s stories. One story I still remember vividly is one where a child at a Kibbutz sees telephone wires that extend over the Jordan River, built before the founding of the state, and tries to use them to contact anyone who will listen. Despite his efforts, he doesn’t even receive static, as the adults in his life tell him that not only that no one is listening, but that the lines were cut years ago. They couldn’t listen even if they wanted to.

It seems to me that this story from my childhood is more relevant than ever. It seems to me that all of us who care about Israel and Israel engagement are talking, but no one is listening at the other end; that our dialogue about Israel is increasingly a series of monologues. We have watched liberal and traditional voices in Israel fail to bridge their gaps, Palestinian and Israeli negotiators fail again and again to come to a peaceful arrangement for a two-state solution, and now, different sides in this country debating the Iranian agreement with increasing hostility, threatening to ruin the previously bipartisan nature of support for Israel.

Nowhere do we see this more blatantly than in the BDS movement on college campuses. BDS, for those who don’t know, stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement. Using the same language as was used against South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, BDS activists advocate for investors to divest from Israeli companies or companies that do business in Israel, boycott Israeli products, and even sanction Israeli individuals—scientists, scholars, artists, musicians. The stated goal is to force Israel into a two-state solution, and it has gained increasing popularity, with Alice Walker refusing to allow her works to be translated to Hebrew, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd refusing to play in Israel, academic groups banning Israeli scholars from participation or membership, and both the national Presbyterian and United Church of Christ organizations voting to affirm BDS. When confronted, they will say that they are trying to encourage dialogue—indeed, when I confronted BDS advocates at my alma mater, Oberlin College, I was told exactly that, and dismissed somewhat huffily. They insist that they are not anti-Semitic and have even recruited Jews to the cause.

The reality is that, while the individual students and activists involved may have the best of intentions, in reality, this is thinly veiled antisemitism. Witness the Spanish concert organizers that, in August, tried to disinvite Matisyahu from participating unless he endorsed a Palestinian state. Matisyahu is not Israeli—he’s a Jew who grew up in the New York Suburbs, and lives in LA. Yes, he sings about Jewish topics, but if they aren’t anti-Semitic, what was that about? Why did they not ask the same of the non-Jewish performers? Likewise the student at UCLA who, when running for office in student government had her ‘objectivity’ questioned because she was Jewish.

Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International are both registering increased antisemitism on campuses. Whereas once BDS was the kind of thing you only experienced at small liberal arts schools, it’s become an issue on campuses across the country. And the tactics are increasingly confrontational, with ‘die-ins’ and fake eviction orders targeting Jewish students, and anti-Semitic graffiti attacking Jewish fraternities and other organizations on campus. Attempts to actually dialogue by Jewish organizations on campus are met with disregard, violent shout-downs and protests.

Why does this matter? Because support for Israel is losing on campuses, which means it will lose public support in the future. I’m not speaking of support for Israel at all costs—many of us believe Israel should be taken to task for some of its policies, not only regarding the Palestinians, but the rights and role of women and minorities, liberal Judaism in Israel, the dominance of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate, and the like. No, even progressive Zionists are being seen as suspect, with the Presbyterian Church producing a document ridiculing the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the progressive, peace- and dialogue- encouraging Shalom Hartman Institute, as liberal a voice in Israel as you’re going to get.

I could go on, but I’d much rather you hear from a voice of someone on the front lines, a former student and member of this congregation who has seen BDS up close and personal. With that, let me introduce you to an amazing young woman named Katy Barrett, who will tell you her story.

[Begin Katy Barrett's part of the sermon]
Thank you so much, Rabbi Robinson, for giving me the opportunity to speak tonight. My Beth Emeth education began in September of 1999 when I walked into this building as a kindergartener, eager for my first day of religious school. Beth Emeth has been with me every step of the way, from my bat mitzvah in 2007 and confirmation in 2010 to my two years of cadet aiding for Mrs. Wilk’s fifth grade class prior to my graduation from Wilmington Friends in 2012. When college decision time came, I chose to head to Ann Arbor, or, as my parents would say, the frozen tundra, to attend the University of Michigan. Suddenly, I was no longer one of only three Jewish students, as I had been in my class of 66 at Friends; Michigan boasts an undergraduate Jewish population of about 4500 students. I fully embraced my newfound community, joining Alpha Epsilon Phi, a nationally Jewish sorority, getting involved in a wide variety of clubs at Hillel, and visiting Israel for the first time on a Michigan Hillel birthright trip in May of 2014. Though all of these activities have figured prominently in the formation of my college experience, perhaps the most impactful has been my involvement with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, both within WolvPac, our group at Michigan, and on the national level. AIPAC has provided me with innumerable amazing opportunities and connections: student conferences, Policy Conferences, some of my best friends on my own campus through WolvPac and at schools across the country through the Diamond Summer Intern class of 2015, and even (I hope) an Advanced Advocacy trip to Israel this winter break.For my first three semesters in Ann Arbor, I believed that the acceptance of Jewish heritage as an integral piece of the campus culture meant that a love of Israel would also be ingrained in the student body. I was proven wrong one frigid morning in December 2013 when I awoke to a frantic text from a good friend of mine, a young man who is now our AIPAC campus liaison and a student government representative, detailing a mock eviction notice that had been slipped under his dorm room door while he slept, telling him that he had mere hours to evacuate the building before it was to be demolished and going on to connect the action to the treatment of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel. Later that day, I found out that Students Allied for Freedom and Equality or SAFE, Michigan’s arm of Students for Justice in Palestine, had placed flyers not just in my friend’s hallway or just in his dorm, but in six different dorms across campus, specifically targeting residences with large populations of impressionable freshmen. I was at once livid and heartbroken. I was angry that a group of students could spew such vitriolic hate and use it to infiltrate the one space that is supposed to be completely safe. I was sad because it did not feel new.Before I say anything else, let me back up and talk about my Friends School education. Even in the Lower School, the faculty at Friends work tirelessly to impress upon their students the importance of Quaker values like equality, community, and stewardship. My days on the hill in Alapocas were spent learning to question everything, searching for my passions and figuring out how to use them to make the world around me a better place. As a Friends alumna, I am acutely aware of the impact I can have and am a better activist for that precise reason. Unfortunately, this amazing education came with a pitfall: Peace class. The course description for the class now called Global Peace and Justice on the Friends website says that students are pushed “to analyze peace and justice in our interdependent world, to realize the power of individuals, and to learn how Quaker testimonies have influenced social change.” Much of this work is done through the examination of case studies, and one such scenario that was selected for my class was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this particular class section, I was the only Jewish student and it seemed as though I was the only student who entered the unit with a pre-established opinion. This part of the course was taught with an unapologetically pro-Palestinian bent and I received minimal, if any, support from my teacher in discussions where I was usually the only pro-Israel voice. I was shocked that a person who preached acceptance and diversity of opinions could make me feel so silenced, and the discovery of the eviction notice years later brought the same sense of panic that I felt at age fifteen.The better part of two years has passed since the mock evictions and activity at Michigan surrounding the conflict has not slowed down for one moment. In March 2014, SAFE put forward a resolution to our Central Student Government calling for the University to divest from companies doing business with Israel like General Electric and Caterpillar in line with the International Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement. At the first meeting, supporters of the resolution interrupted the assembly and wielded verbal barbs so fierce that another one of my male friends felt it was necessary to shield my face with his arm as we walked out of the room. After the resolution was tabled, another review meeting was set for the next week. My parents were concerned enough about the state of affairs that my dad asked me not to walk anywhere on campus alone. This time, thousands of students lined up for a meeting that eventually took six hours. I spoke and was specifically called out for cultural appropriation because I referenced Bayard Rustin, a gay African-American Quaker who taught Martin Luther King Jr. about non-violent action and who was also an ardent supporter of the State of Israel. The resolution did not pass. In the wake of Operation Protective Edge, the conflict rose to an even higher profile on campus as we returned to school last fall. First semester featured SAFE’s Palestinian Awareness Week, complete with a mock checkpoint at the central point of campus. When SAFE brought BDS back to campus this past spring, we were much more prepared. This time, I was on the leadership team of Wolverines for Peace, a group formed by executive board members from four of Michigan’s largest pro-Israel student organizations in order to galvanize the anti-divestment community. We launched a massive social media campaign in the weeks leading up to the student government hearing, including a comprehensive web page modeled on sites from Northwestern and Stanford, a collective Facebook and Twitter reach of over 900 people, and over a thousand signatures on our open letter, which rejected absolute blame, recognized the universal right to self-determination, and called for dialogue among student groups on campus. Over the course of a five-hour meeting, SAFE decried our efforts as disingenuous, called us bigots, and flat-out rejected any suggestion that they sit down and talk with us. The resolution still did not pass.Our fight is not over. SAFE has promised to bring BDS resolutions to student government every year until one passes. Luckily, I, along with thousands of AIPAC-trained campus activists across the country, understand the importance of being proactive rather than reactive. Through events like our Wolverines for Israel conference, for which we brought in experts on the political climate of the region from Michigan and from other schools, and Birthday Bash, a Yom HaAtzmaut celebration in the middle of campus complete with music, falafel, and birthday cake, we run a campaign that strictly highlights the positive aspects of Israel rather than focusing on any Palestinian faults. Drawing from AIPAC’s Campus Creed, we in WolvPac know that people engage other people much better than any speaker ever could and that genuine relationships with the student leaders of today create sustainable access and influence as we all move into adult life. This spring saw the election or re-election of eight student government representatives and an executive slate who we had previously identified as members of the pro-Israel community. When tasked in June with the creation of a leadership statement in opposition to an unfavorable nuclear deal with Iran, our team of four Michigan students interning at AIPAC was able to contact hundreds of leaders and emerge in less than a week with over forty signatures; though that number does not seem particularly high, it is important to note that ten signatories are student government representatives in addition to signatures from the current and immediate past student government presidents and the current vice president. The issue at hand was and is highly controversial, and our ability to garner visible support from such a large number of leaders was greatly aided by the pre-existing relationships we have worked to maintain.There is no doubt in my mind that students today have the desire and the capacity to affect major change. We are more connected to the world around us than any previous generation and therefore we have an outsize commitment to bettering that world. In a recent lobbying meeting with Congresswoman Debbie Dingell of Michigan’s twelfth district, she turned to me and my friend specifically to tell us that “young people are 25% of today and 100% of tomorrow.” For my fellow students, there are going to be older people who will try to delegitimize us and the things we care about and the work that we do simply because we are young. More often than not, our biggest hurdle is finding people and organizations who believe in and are willing to support our passions, no matter how big or crazy our ideas seem. AIPAC has an entire department dedicated to the engagement of high school and college students that they call Leadership Development because they believe so firmly in young people as the future of pro-Israel advocacy. Hillel International dedicates all of its resources to building campus Jewish communities that serve the needs of every student. This covers the entire spectrum of Jewish life on campus, from the kids who only go for High Holiday services to the ones like me, who actively seek out a judgment-free pro-Israel community and whose siblings have asked them if they, in fact, live in the Hillel building. In the weeks leading up to the most recent divestment vote, I sat in over ten hours a week of meetings that sometimes stretched late into the night but that were always attended by at least one member of the Michigan Hillel staff. Rather than completely shaping the campaign for us, they guided us through the entire process, providing advice on how best to articulate our viewpoint, emotional encouragement when the battle felt unwinnable, and even financial support for such necessary items as web hosting and pizza. I cannot stress enough the importance of the work that Hillels across the country do on their respective campuses, and I encourage any adults concerned about the state of Jewish life on campuses to contribute to the solution and strongly consider supporting Hillel. Whether you choose your child or grandchild’s school, your alma mater, or even a local school like University of Delaware, you are empowering students like me and enabling us to stand up for ourselves and for a world in which we want to live.Michigan Hillel is housed in a beautiful facility, and on its walls are three plaques listing names of donors who contributed to the construction of the current building. Across the top is the most famous quotation from the foundation’s namesake, Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” We, the young people, the inheritors of the world, the generation that wants to see peace in our lifetime and is ready to work for it, will stand together for ourselves and for each other. We are ready now.
[End Katy's Sermon]
The task before us is clear. We need to listen to our young people, and hear their questions and concerns. We need to support Hillels and Jewish organizations on campus that promote dialogue, including our own Donna Schwartz and the Hillel at University Of Delaware. We need to prepare our students for the conversations to come. We need to confront our alma maters and ask them what they are doing to deal with such antisemitism, and perhaps rethink our alumni contributions if we find the answers wanting.

And we need to engage ourselves. Even if we have serious questions. Even if we aren’t sure we have the answers ourselves, we need, as individuals and as a community, to model what it means to be in real dialogue with Israel.

Today we are the child trying to communicate, seeing if there’s someone on the other side.  The sadness is not that the lines of communication aren’t open; there are lots of opportunities to engage, to talk, and to really communicate if we choose. Today the sadness is that, while those of us who care about Israel’s future are talking and listening, they are not. Not yet. But we mustn’t give up; we must continue to engage, to support, and to ask our questions. We must, for Israel’s future and our own. 

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