(April 5, 2019 / JNS) Two weeks ago, students at Brown University voted in a campus-wide referendum in favor of divesting from companies “complicit in human-rights abuses in Palestine.” The broad language of the referendum went on to implicate every company that does business in Israel.
The week before the vote, I shared my Shabbat dinner table with members of a Brown student group who supported the divestment referendum.
To be clear, I firmly oppose the international movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel (BDS). And many students at Brown RISD Hillel worked hard to combat this divestment campaign by publishing op-eds in the campus newspaper, running social-media campaigns, and mobilizing their friends and associates.
The Hillel movement rejects BDS because BDS opposes Israel’s right to exist. Hillel rejects BDS because BDS wrongly singles out Israel for blame in a complicated geopolitical conflict. And Hillel rejects BDS because BDS campaigns tear apart student communities and unfairly target Jewish students.
Days before the vote, Brown RISD Hillel opened its doors for an annual interfaith Shabbat dinner in memory of Avi Schaefer, a student who in 2010 died tragically while attending Brown. We sat together—Jews and non-Jews, students who oppose BDS and students who support BDS, because that is what Hillel does. We welcome every student who wants to share a meal, a Jewish ritual, a conversation. We respect students’ right to hold a diversity of opinions.
More than 200 people enjoyed the peace of a Sabbath meal, learned about the meaning of our Friday-night rituals, and listened to a Jewish and a Christian professor who co-teach a course on the theme of Exodus. Some of our guests’ values run counter to mine and counter to the values of the Hillel movement. But these students are within their rights to express their thoughts. Hillel’s clear stand against BDS does not stop us from living out our commitment to pluralism and diversity of opinion.
Clearly, there were students on campus, including Jewish students, who supported divestment. But there were also many students who strongly opposed it. They rejected BDS because it is one-sided, makes false claims to hide its hatred of Israel and polarizes the community.
What I saw on campus this month was not healthy debate or productive activism centered on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What I saw were BDS activists with strong opinions about divestment flattening the complexities of the Middle East into simple moral platitudes, effectively entrapping students and attempting to silencing pro-Israel opinions.
The referendum began by asking students if Brown University should divest from “companies complicit in human-rights abuses in Palestine.” Loaded questions are difficult to oppose, especially when they presuppose faulty assumptions. Of course, no student wants their university to be complicit in human-rights abuses. But framing the question this way excluded from the conversation the opinions of those who value Israel’s deep commitment to human rights, democracy and justice.
The divestment coalition also criticized Brown’s president, Christina Paxson, for her rejection of all forms of BDS. Some members of Brown’s faculty joined in, arguing that the president’s free speech somehow compromised students’ ability to exercise their rights to free speech. The art of debate and disagreement is a mainstay of any academic institution and central to academic integrity. College and university leaders have the right—and when it comes to BDS, the responsibility—to speak up. As leaders, they must use their governing authority to stop the implementation of BDS or anything else that promotes hatred and would harm the campus community.
It is wrenching, as a Jewish professional on campus, to watch the divestment debate force the diversity of opinions into unproductive intellectual combat. It pits students against one another in a political fight, rather than enabling them to engage with one another over their differences. These divestment referenda do not solve the problems of the Middle East, but they do succeed magnificently in harming the educational and spiritual climate on campus.
Disengaging from those with whom we disagree is a sort of personal divestment, and divestment is not an effective tactic for healing divisions. Despite my clear opposition to BDS, I discussed Israel and the divestment campaign with students from across the political spectrum. While I do not agree with every student’s perspective, I respect every student’s role as an explorer of ideas.
Students attend colleges and universities to encounter new perspectives, learn how to assess and challenge complicated concepts, and build community. My hope is that Hillel can set an example for students of embodying pluralism and engagement while simultaneously taking a clear and unambiguous stand for their values. It isn’t always an easy tightrope to walk. But if we fall, it’s a long way down.
Dan Ehrenkrantz is the acting executive director of Brown RISD Hillel.