‘Hate Spaces’ provides a wake-up call on campus anti-Zionism—and a tool to fight it

A mock checkpoint set up during “Israeli Apartheid Week,” an annual global anti-Israel initiative, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.
A mock checkpoint set up during “Israeli Apartheid Week,” an annual global anti-Israel initiative, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Credit: AMCHA Initiative.

By Jeffrey Barken/JNS.org

Picture the girl from the famous Vietnam Napalm Photo or the more recent Falling Man image from 9/11. Every so often, uncensored media pierces the status quo, shocking readers or viewers. Americans for Peace and Tolerance’s (APT) new documentary, “Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus,” does just that.

The film explores the roots of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement waged against Israel and reveals the mob mentality that characterizes anti-Semitic student groups on college campuses across the U.S. This 70-minute production strikes a nerve, but at an emotional cost. Authenticated cell phone videos and recorded interviews transport viewers to hate-crime scenes where Jewish students are subjected to verbal and physical abuse, and are intimidated even by college professors and administrators. This alarming wake-up call reverberates.

This is not a propaganda film about the Middle East conflict, Avi Goldwasser, the documentary’s executive producer, tells JNS.org. It is strictly “a film about what’s happening on campus,” he says.

Indeed, recent events at schools like Northeastern University in Boston deserve scrutiny. On that campus, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protesters have chanted during marches, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the state of Israel has got to go!” Statues of Jewish donors have been vandalized, while cruel sticker campaigns and “apartheid walls” dehumanize Israel and are used to single out and shame individual Jewish students regardless of their opinions about Israel. In April 2013, Northeastern University SJP activists stormed into a classroom and interrupted a Holocaust memorial service. “The lessons of the Holocaust were not learned, you are child murderers,” SJP members are caught shouting on camera. Perhaps most egregious of all, in February 2014, members of SJP slipped about 600 anti-Israel mock eviction notices under dorm room doors of Northeastern students, the film notes. Going beyond Northeastern, “Hate Spaces” tours the country, revealing a long list of hotspots where the BDS movement is spiraling out of control.

Rigid ideology of BDS

A quote excerpted from contemporary author George Packer’s 2011 New Yorker article, “Deepest Cuts,” gets to the core of what is wrong with BDS: “Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.” The scenes depicted in “Hate Spaces” clearly demonstrate that a rigid ideology has taken hold of BDS supporters on college campuses. Groups like SJP use megaphones to shout their rallying slogans, but adherents are fundamentally uninterested in engaging in a serious, civil debate with anyone who questions their self-proclaimed righteous position.

APT is a Boston-based non-profit whose stated mission is to advocate for “peaceful coexistence and tolerance in an ethnically diverse America.” According to Goldwasser, “Hate Spaces” is geared at engaging “decent people in America who would look at an indecent situation—which is clearly not who we are as Americans—and understand the obvious unfairness.”

“No other minority group would stand for such treatment on campus,” Goldwasser says of Jewish students’ plight.

“Hate Spaces” meticulously charts the flow of money from dictators in Muslim countries to American universities, suggesting that this transfer of capital buttresses support for Islamic causes among academics. Devoid of intellectual integrity, professors choose a path of least resistance when discussing Israel and the Palestinian territories, and are unfairly sympathetic to the BDS agenda. The result is a classroom void, where one side of the debate is permitted to demonize the other and pro-Israel students are systematically denied a voice.

The problem “has metastasized,” APT President Dr. Charles Jacobs tells JNS.org. Jacobs reflects on the cinematic predecessor of “Hate Spaces,” the contentious 2004 film he helped produce, “Columbia Unbecoming.” That documentary ignited a fierce debate on academic freedom when it uncovered an institutional bias and outright anti-Semitism among professors at New York’s Columbia University. What’s changed during the 12-year period between the two films is that “Muslim and Arab groups have determined to link their cause to the infrastructure of the ‘left’ on campuses,” Jacobs says.

“Now you have so-called human rights groups—black groups, Latino groups, gay groups—all lining up with the Palestinians against the Jews, and that, of course, is very dangerous,” he says.

Israel held to ‘impossible standard’

The pity of it all is that Israel is “singled out” and held to “an impossible standard…of perfection,” British author and journalist Melanie Phillips observes in the film. Israel’s human rights record isn’t perfect, but audiences should be aware that the totalitarian governments across the Arab world are far more repressive and brutal toward their citizens, and the Jewish state is in fact a bright spot on an otherwise bleak map, commentators who appear in “Hate Spaces” point out. This does not excuse the violence or social injustice taking place in Israel, the commentators agree, but it does beg this question: Why is Israel the focus of so much aggression?

Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist Bret Stephens describes a “blizzard of lies” that has distorted Israel’s image. Likewise, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick reflects on the outcomes of prolonged exposure to misinformation, saying, “Once you believe that the only democracy in the Middle East, the only human rights respecting government, the only place where Muslim women are given the rights and the full protection of the law is the worst oppressor, then you can believe anything.” This is how scapegoats are born.

Anti-Zionism is the “cause du jour” of the political left, Goldwasser says, boiling down the psychological elements contributing to BDS support on campus. Guilt for the post-colonial world order underlies anti-capitalist progressivism among leftist groups, and Israel becomes a symbolic target that galvanizes activists who want to believe they can be instrumental in bringing social justice to the world. Then there is an element of “moral narcissism” that stimulates anti-Israel activism among students and professors, suggests Samantha Mandeles, former senior campus coordinator for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. “They are not there to better the lives of Palestinians. They want to feel that they’re important,” she says in the film.

A new hope

Ultimately, it’s the students who offer hope. For instance, when former SJP member Rezwan Ovo Haq reflects in the film on his experience bringing a mock apartheid wall to the University of Central Florida, he recalls his life-changing encounter with an Israeli soldier. “I realized that we both want peace but we have a different way of going about it,” says Rezwan, who now works to encourage pro-Israel Muslims to speak out against the divisive and coercive tactics that SJP employs to quash dissent.

“Hate Spaces” is an emotionally disturbing documentary that brilliantly chronicles how an unabashed and unchecked propaganda effort has created a culture that rejects reason and defies decency. “When people see this film, they get very upset,” says APT’s Jacobs.

Sober minds now have the resource they need to combat an ideology that would otherwise commandeer the discourse on college campuses.

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