A Response to BDS at Northwestern University
Parashat Terumah | February 21, 2015
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time thus far in Jacksonville, it’s that ties can run very deep here. Ties to your extended family, ties to your city and community, and thankfully, ties to our Synagogue. But above all of them, above all of these deep connections we have, are the ties we have to our college. Gators and Bulldogs, Seminoles and Hurricanes, Ospreys and Dolphins. We all wear our school colors on proudly our sleeves, our sweatshirts, and yes even our ties. My own connection, is that I bleed purple. When I attended Northwestern University, I knew that the school would impact me in many ways, but I didn’t realize how much it would effect my choice in colors. This loyalty, this school pride, is something I take seriously. It extends beyond the football field and basketball court, because the four years I spent on campus were truly transformative for me. I can say with great confidence that I would not be the person I am today, working here as a Rabbi, without all the lessons I learned on campus. Since graduating, I’ve done everything I can to support my university, in speaking its praise, in wearing its colors, and yes in making contributions to the school out of a sense of gratitude and loyalty.
That loyalty though, is now being put to a major test. On Wednesday evening, the Northwestern Associated Student Government (ASG) voted to encourage the university to divest from six companies that allegedly profit from human rights violations against Palestinians. This movement, known as NU Divest, was started by the group Students for Justice in Palestine as part of a nationwide Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement, or BDS for short. For those unfamiliar, BDS is a movement led by pro-Palestinian supporters aimed at encouraging people and organizations to stop supporting companies that do business with Israel. Although this movement has been around for ten years, BDS has tragically, gained a great deal of momentum on college campuses in recent years.
In November, the student government at UCLA passed a BDS bill encouraging the university to divest from Israel. In January, the student government at UC-Davis passed a similar bill. Two weeks ago, the University of California student association, a coalition of student governments that represents all 10 University of California campuses, passed a resolution by a 9-1 vote, that the U.C. Board of Regents should divest from companies that it claims violates Palestinian human rights. Last week, the Stanford University Undergraduate Senate voted down a BDS resolution, however on Tuesday, they voted to overturn that decision, claiming that the original vote was clouded by too hostile an environment for student senators to think clearly. And lest we think that this movement is confided to the “crazy left-ists” of California, the Associated Student Government of my own Alma Mater, Northwestern University voted Wednesday, to petition the university to divest from companies that support Israel.
For a long time I hesitated whether I should speak out against movements like this, thinking I could leave this to the students themselves and the many talented professionals who work directly with them. However, with this movement now hitting home for me as it spreads to my own college, I realize that this is in fact a movement that we all must be aware of, and one that we all must be involved with trying to stop.
What is so problematic about this BDS movement? After-all, social protest movements have brought about many positive changes to our society, so why is this one so different? It is different for three main reasons.
- The goal of the movement is itself flawed, placing blame for the ongoing conflict entirely on Israel.
- It places too heavy a burden on college students, forcing them into positions and roles 20-year-olds should not be dealing with.
- The hateful, anti-Semitic, and violent rhetoric that comes along with the movement.
Let’s take a good look at each of these flaws. #1 – the goal of the movement is in fact flawed. BDS claims that its goal is to force Israel to end its so-called “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza and to prevent a number of human rights violations. That is the rallying call of this movement – if you support human rights, you must support BDS. With a call like that, it’s understandable how so many people get tricked. But with only a little background investigation and independent thought, it’s easy to see how BDS is not actually about human rights.
In a world where basic human rights are unfortunately denied to people in many countries, this movement singles out Israel. It does not condemn thousands of people being murdered in the streets of Syria, it does not condemn the mass de-headings that ISIS proudly broadcasts on YouTube, nor does it condemn the civilizations where women are not free to drive a car, or show their face in public. At Northwestern, this group did not hesitate to call out Israel’s supposed oppression of Palestinians, but it made no mention of Northwestern University’s campus in Qatar, a country that reportedly financially supports multiple internationally known terrorist organizations.
Moreover, this movement refuses to acknowledge that Israel is in fact the lone democracy in the region and the loan country where citizens regardless of religion, race, gender or orientation, can and do celebrate equal right and even serve in governmental leadership positions. In many of these debates, students who identify themselves as “outsiders” or who say they do not have a voice in their own personal struggles, come to support the divestment movements thinking they are siding with another group that is oppressed. In reality though, these students would continue to live free lives in Israel, whereas they would be silenced and oppressed elsewhere in the Middle East.
Additionally, the goals of BDS are squarely focused on impacting Israeli policy, making no demands of Palestinian leadership. They call on Israel to find ways of making peace without acknowledging that it was Palestinian leadership that rejected Israeli offers in both 2000 and 2008 to create a Palestinian state in over 90% of the West of the Bank. They do not admit that when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, its citizens elected Hamas, a terrorist organization to serve as its leadership. Israel may not have a crystal clear record in its policy decisions, but fault for the current reality must lay at least as much on Palestinian leadership as it does on Israeli. If this movement is truly interested in creating peace, then call on Palestinians to make a change too.
#2 – The BDS Movement places an unfair burden on college students. Yes, I understand that college is a time for students to learn, to grow, to gain leadership experience, to gain life experience. But these are not the life experiences anyone should have. Look at the language used when these movements are discussed. “We have to rally the troops to fight this.” “We need to get together a strong opposition.” “It’s so important for us to win this battle over BDS.” We are talking about college students here, not soldiers. BDS is often framed in a militant perspective and it places students in the middle of what becomes a battlefield.
This has so many implications that are unfair to 20-year-old students. Instead of having this opportunity to learn in an open and safe environment, they wind up being treated as soldiers in a hostile environment. Out of necessity, Jewish life on campus becomes solely about fighting BDS. When Jewish campus professionals should be focusing on mentoring students’ jewish identities and encouraging their personal religious and cultural growth, they wind up having to spend all of their time and energy on leading “resistance movements.” Which would we rather have for our students, more thought-provoking classes on Jewish text and Jewish thought, or more debate about Israeli national policy?
Finally and most importantly, #3 – the hateful, anti-Semitic, and violent rhetoric that frequently comes along with the movement. After the BDS resolution passed at UC Davis, a student leader posted on social media that “Hamas & Shariah law have taken over UC Davis.” The very next day, swastikas were spray painted on the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity house, AEPi being the only officially Jewish fraternity the world. In the days leading up to the vote at Northwestern, a Jewish student was called genocidal in his Arabic class. Here is a student who had visited Palestinian towns in the West Bank so that he could learn about the conflict firsthand, and he did not hear those comments there. But in his Arabic class at a major university where divestment was on the table, he is called genocidal simply for being pro-Israel. Being proud of an internationally recognized terrorist organization is not fighting for human rights. Utilizing a swastika, a symbol of the Nazi party that committed the worst genocide in history is not the moral imperative. Calling someone genocidal simply for being pro-Israel is not spreading peace. These are all forms of anti-Semitism, spreading senseless hated of the Jewish people.
Supporters of NU Divest have said that their goals are solely focused on university investments and not the delegitimization of Israel. However, we still cannot ignore the mindsets and language it helps create either explicitly or implicitly. Whatever it is that creates these hostile, toxic, and anti-Semitic environments must be held accountable and stopped.
As I mentioned earlier, universities are supposed to be where new ideas and new research come from. They are supposed to be where the next generation of leaders learn and train. They are supposed to be safe places where all are comfortable expressing their outlooks and identities. The fact that many universities are becoming harbors for this hate-driven movement is not just a tragedy, but it is terrifying. What will happen in 20 years when our next generation of social, political, business, and religious leaders all spent their formative years maturing in environments like these, instead of learning freely and safely?
So where does all this leave me with Northwestern? I’m not sure yet. What was passed was only a request from students to the university to make this policy change and it remains to be seen how the school will respond. The university spokesman has already said that the school does not directly invest in the six companies named by the divest movement so it is unlikely that there will actually be any concrete change. University President Morty Schapiro is a proud Jew and in the past has done what he can to help Jewish causes on campus, so maybe there is still hope down the road. But even still, this hateful statement made in the voice of the students still exists, and it is a statement I am not proud of.
When I arrived home this past Thursday evening, on what was a chilly night, I went to grab my favorite, comfortable sweatshirt. However as I reached for it, I couldn’t go through with. I couldn’t take my purple Northwestern sweatshirt and put it on. I just could not have that color and name written across my chest. Moving forward, I will certainly think twice before I support the university in the same ways I have beforehand and it’s likely that I will be forced to wear a little less purple.
We read this morning from Parashat Terumah. As we heard, it details the instructions for building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan – the religious center of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert. Amidst the detailed instructions of how big the Mishkan should be and what materials it should be made out of, God instructs Moses, “ועשו לי מקדש ושכנתי בתוכם.” (Gen 25:8) “Let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” Why are we building this Mishkan? So that God can dwell amongst us. So that God can make His presence felt on this Earth. And how do we enable that to happen? By building a Sanctuary.
Is allowing this anti-Semitic rhetoric to exist on college campuses building a sanctuary? Does permitting those who seek to delegitimize the State of Israel a voice to spread hateful lies help God to dwell among us? Do we feel that we can truly be in the presence of God when we are called “war-mongering white supremacists” simply because we support the one Jewish state?
As part of our commandment to build a sanctuary, we must see to it that these movements are not allowed to continue. We must ensure that we are always prepared to speak out on behalf of Israel and against those who try to destroy it. We must do what we can to support the Jewish state so that we will always have a place for God to dwell in our midst.