Donate to RNS

What is the best way to fight BDS?

Sometimes, the cure for BDS can be worse than the illness itself.

Make no mistake about it: the BDS movement is an insidious anti-Israel campaign.

It stands for boycotting Israel; divesting from funds that have been invested in Israel; and sanctions against Israel and those companies that do business with it.

The movement is not merely critical of Israeli policies. It is critical of Israel itself. It desires nothing less than the economic, cultural, and intellectual isolation of the Jewish state.

At this point, it has had scant economic impact on Israel.

But, it has successfully created an atmosphere of fear on the college campuses.

Consider the case of John Cheney-Lippold, a professor at the University of Michigan. He refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study at Tel Aviv University. Why? Because he advocates BDS. He was heavily chastised by the university.

Then, days later — again, at the University of Michigan — Lucy Peterson, a teaching assistant refused to write a letter of recommendation for another student to study in Israel.

If those students had wanted to study in, say, China, the FSU, Cuba, Turkey, would those professors have similarly withheld their recommendations?

Is Israel the only country worthy of their moral outrage?

The University of Michigan handled the Cheney-Lippold situation correctly. He had created an atmosphere of academic intimidation. So has Ms. Peterson.

Add to this: the University hosted Emory Douglas as a speaker for a required course — in which he showed a slide comparing Prime Minister Netanyahu with Hitler — which the ADL has condemned as anti-semitism.

Alexa Smith, a student at the University of Michigan, stood up to this hatred.

Amanda Berman, the co-founder and president of the Zioness movement, praised Smith on Facebook.

I am so proud of this amazing Zioness Alexa Smith for standing up for herself amid an increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students at the University of Michigan. Everyone should read this and be aware of what is going on — just two weeks after a professor refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student wishing to study abroad in Tel Aviv. This is anti-Semitism and we must all fight it together.

Yes, that is how you fight BDS.

But, how don‘t you fight BDS?

Consider what has been happening at Ben Gurion Airport.

Officials have been — what is the best word for this? harassing? — certain travelers who have sought to enter Israel.

Why? Because they hold ideological positions that have been critical — often, hyper-critical — of Israel and/or Israeli policies.

It happened to left-wing journalist Peter Beinart — who, while famously critical of Israel’s policies — can hardly be called an anti-Zionist.

And now, Israel has detained a young South Florida woman, Lara Alqasem, seeking to study in a masters degree program at Hebrew University, because of her pro-BDS views and alleged links to anti-Israel groups.

Various Jewish groups have protested this treatment of Lara: the URJ; J Street, the ADL, even Hebrew University itself.

From the URJ statement:

The Reform Movement categorically opposes BDS. But at the same time, we believe this type of blunt and short-sighted approach toward activists who pose no security threat is inconsistent with Israel’s commitment to an open and free democracy.

You don’t have to support what Lara believes (and I vociferously do not) in order to understand that Israel’s action is clumsy, hateful, and unhelpful.

Why do I say that?

Because the best way to counter hatred of Israel is to expose people to Israel. Not as a Jewish theme park, but as a real place, wherein they can learn the complexities and nuances of the conversation.

In fact, once people learn those facts and narratives, they understand Israel more. Maybe they don’t love Israel more (that is not exactly the goal, anyway), but they see the grey areas.

Because what Israel is doing is re-imagining itself to be, not a state, but a Jewish terrarium — a self-contained ecosystem that feeds only on itself.

Israel is building a wall between itself and the world. That includes the Jewish world. And, increasingly, that includes American Jews who would have major difficulty defending these actions — no matter how much they love Israel, and because of how much they love Israel.

Recall the story of the twelve spies in the book of Numbers, who scout out the land of Israel to assess whether or not the Israelites will be able to conquer it.

Moses asks them: “Are the cities fortified, or not?”

Why did Moses ask that question? What was he trying to learn?

RASHI, the great medieval commentator, puts it this way.

If the cities were open, it meant that the people were strong.

If the cities were walled, it meant that the people were weak, and therefore, afraid.

Israel has much to fear: terrorism, fiery kites and balloons, Hamas, Hezbollah.

But — a young woman seeking to enter the country to learn? How could this possibly help Israel? Seriously? You want to make Lara the poster child for the BDS movement?

Who knows? She might actually learn some things about Israel that could change her thinking?

Let her in.