(December 19, 2018 / JNS) In recent years, anti-Israel movements have spread to college campuses across North America, manifested by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Georgetown University is no exception.
Although the BDS movement at Georgetown gained momentum in recent years, it was rejected in 2017 by the university administration and hasn’t gained ground since then. Moreover, anti-Israel activities also significantly died down, making Georgetown a relatively safe space for pro-Israel and Jewish students alike.
What can explain this success story? One important factor is that the Georgetown Israel Alliance (GIA)—the university’s pro-Israel student group—adopted strategies that are more effective on today’s college campuses. By focusing on proactivity rather than reactivity, engaging in dialogue with students of different political stances, and presenting Israel through a more critical and holistic lens, GIA has successfully set the narrative in the discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and presented Israel’s case well on campus.
One idea was to be more proactive rather than reactive when it came to advocating for Israel. Pro-Israel groups on campus tend to react whenever anti-Israel campaigns or sentiment pop up in our college community. For instance, in 2017, anti-Israel student activists staged a protest in front of prospective and accepted students during Georgetown’s accepted student’s visiting weekend. They held up signs depicting Israel as an apartheid state, which made many Jewish students feel unsafe.
To respond to this, GIA staged a counter-protest to show prospective Jewish students that Georgetown is safe for pro-Israel and Jewish students—and hopefully, everyone else, for that matter. Still, while counter-protests like this are important, they aren’t an effective long-term solution because the narrative is still shaped by the anti-Israel protesters.
So we decided to become more proactive. Instead of just defending Israel from rhetoric on the offensive, we focused on information and raising awareness. To that end, we hosted a panel discussion on “What is Zionism, Really?” We also hosted events that tie Zionism to other issues, so that students see Zionism as a positive force, like “Zionism, Civil Rights and Intersectionality,” where Chloe Valdary, a prominent African-American pro-Israel activist, spoke about why Zionism is so important in the context of civil rights.
Along those lines, we are increasing our efforts to engage in dialogue with other students on campus, especially those with different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Don’t get me wrong; talking with students who hold widely different views doesn’t necessarily change their minds, but the discussions themselves allow for greater understanding among us. It also allows us to present accurate information to students not familiar with the Mideast and its complex issues.
Following President Donald Trump’s controversial decision to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we set up a table in the main square of Georgetown, open for talk. Although many students disagreed with Trump’s decision, we explained our personal views on it. We noted why Jerusalem is so important to Israel and the Jewish people, while at the same time acknowledging the geopolitical challenges associated with the move. We weren’t trying to persuade anyone that Trump had made the right decision; some of us in GIA didn’t even agree with it. But we wanted to ensure that they had a better understanding of where we were coming from. And we did reach out to pro-Palestinian students.
Although we haven’t been able to engage in dialogue with anti-Israel activists—who adhere to the “anti-normalization” policy and often don’t engage with pro-Israel students—we were effective in clarifying certain facts and showing others that we are open for dialogue.
And we are working on presenting Israel through a critical and holistic lens. In doing so, we want to humanize other students’ perception of Israel and to ensure that they are informed about the Jewish state—culturally, historically, economically. One of our events featured a discussion about gender equality and LGBTQ rights in Israel, in which the speaker praised Israeli society for its rapid progress on such rights, but also criticized the current government for a lack of progress in recent years.
The Israeli government and its policies are open for criticism—not because GIA is critical of the government, but because we want to give a space to speakers with different viewpoints. One of our major campus programs featured former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who is also the Leader of the Opposition. She criticized policies of the current Netanyahu government and advocated for a two-state solution. It turned out to be the most successful event in GIA’s history—attracting pro-Israel students and many others interested in international relations—not only because of Livni’s stature, but because people know that she isn’t just another supporter of the Israeli government. She offers alternative views.
Of course, we try to avoid tactics that are easily attackable or perceived as propaganda. While our strategies have been effective, they may not necessarily work on other college campuses. In many ways, we at Georgetown are fortunate for our international Washington location and the fact that there isn’t a strong anti-Israel presence on campus in the first place, compared to other colleges in North America. But it’s worth pointing out that when rational, calm heads prevail, we can make gains in battling BDS, and not by using older, louder, more defensive strategies of pro-Israel activism.
The writer is a student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and an intern at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA).