The answer to BDS bullies and ‘Open Hillel’

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

It’s getting harder these days to survey the latest developments in the Middle East without feeling anxiety about the negative impact they will have on our own policy debate.

Click photo to download. A demonstration in London calling for a boycott of Israel on Jan. 3, 2009. Credit: Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira via Wikimedia Commons.

I see a pattern—some may call it “Obama’s Law,” though I hesitate to do so—whereby the worse things get for Israel in a strategic sense, the more pressure there is on Jerusalem to make concessions. And because Israel cannot make concessions when Palestinian terrorists in Gaza shower the south of the country with missiles, or when Iran tries to smuggle in rockets to its Hamas allies, the image of Israel as an obstacle to a final peace deal becomes more entrenched. It’s a perverse state of affairs, to be sure, but we do ourselves no favors by bemoaning the double standards and leaving it at that.

Instead, we should be thinking of our response in the event of bad or worst case scenarios. Let’s say Israel is compelled to reoccupy Gaza. What strategy do American Jews have for making the case that such an operation is necessary to protect Israeli civilians in the south? Or even more dramatically, let’s say that Israel feels it has no option other than to launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, given that that the Geneva deal signed last year is decidedly flimsy, and that Tehran is likely feeling emboldened by Russia’s latest attempt to reassert itself as a global power. What do we say then?

After all, we know what will happen here. The response from the Obama administration will be, at best, a tepid acknowledgement of Israel’s right to defend itself, followed by a lecture on conflict resolution best practices. As for much of the media and academia, we should ready ourselves for a typhoon of anti-Israel commentary with the usual slanderous themes thrown in: Israel as an aggressor; Israel as an apartheid state; “this is all because of Jewish settlements;” Israel has nuclear weapons, so why not Iran? We know the drill by now.

In situations like these, the extremists have another opportunity to mainstream their discourse while engaging, at the same time, in intimidatory behavior. Remember when Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren was shouted down by leftwing and Islamist thugs at the University of California, Irvine in February 2010? Expect a repetition of similar scenes. Indeed, when I recall the disgraceful spectacle earlier this month at the National University of Ireland, when Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) supporters chanting anti-Semitic slogans tried to shut down a presentation by Professor Alan Johnson, a pro-Israel academic, I wonder how long it will be before we see similarly hysterical outbursts on campuses this side of the Atlantic.

Let there be no ambiguity about this: The BDS movement is rapidly reaching a point where its violent, anti-democratic rhetoric could easily transition to physical violence. Many BDS supporters look like vegan hipsters, but don’t be deceived by appearances.

That is one of the many reasons why I was glad to learn of the emergence of a new Jewish student movement named “Safe Hillel.” Founded by Boston University student Rafael Fils and Brandeis University student Daniel Mael, the group is a counterweight to the so-called “Open Hillel” movement—a group of leftwing Jewish students, including many anti-Zionists, who want campus Hillels to violate their established guidelines by hosting speakers who advocate BDS and other strategies that seek the destruction of Israel.

“The BDSers are bullies,” Mael told me, in a refreshingly accurate and pithy summary of the nature of the boycott movement. “Why,” he asked, “do they have to go after the one place where Jews feel comfortable, given the prevalence of anti-Zionism on campus?”

The answer, of course, is that the BDS movement won’t be satisfied until it has extinguished every source of pro-Israel sentiment on campus. This appalling aim is compounded by their deceit in depicting themselves as victims of attempts to shut down free speech. In fact, it’s about protecting vulnerable Jewish students in their own space from advocates of Israel’s elimination—a nakedly anti-Semitic goal if ever there was one. 

Some students, Mael acknowledges, have been misled into believing that the debate is about Israel’s presence in the West Bank, rather than whether the state has a right to exist. “Open Hillel hides behind idea that they can’t talk about the West Bank within the existing Hillel guidelines,” said Mael dismissively. “But Alan Dershowitz speaks at AIPAC and criticizes settlements! BDS has tricked a number of people into thinking this is just about Israel’s presence in the West Bank.”

Ben Cohen

In the final analysis, just as the vast majority of us would not include a Ku Klux Klan representative in a debate about race relations in America, neither should we accept the BDS movement as legitimate participants in debates about the Middle East. And as the storm clouds again gather over the Middle East, Jewish communities need to commit to shutting down the BDS movement as a foundational principle of our response in the diaspora. As British Prime Minister David Cameron said in his March 12 speech to the Israeli Knesset, the delegitimization campaign against Israel is “abhorrent... together, we will defeat it.” Fighting words, and much-needed ones in the current environment.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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Posted on March 13, 2014 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..