By: RICHARD BAEHR, Israel Hayom—
This past weekend, more than 50 leaders of Jewish organizations and pro-Israel groups from several countries met to plan a more systematic response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. Many journalists found the most interesting aspect of the meeting the fact that Sheldon Adelson, a supporter of Republicans, and Haim Saban, a supporter of Democrats, were joined at the hip in this new effort.
A goal of $50 million was reported to have been set to support efforts on campuses to fight the BDS campaigns — generally led by Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Students Association.
Adelson described three components of his Campus Maccabees concept: donors who will fund the operation; activists on the ground willing to take the fight to the campus; and researchers who will supply information about the anti-Israel groups and recommend possible legal avenues to block their activities.
The researchers will also provide input on messaging that can help win over hearts and minds, he told Israel Hayom. It is a U.S.-based effort, though an official informed about Adelson and Saban’s intentions said they see a role for Israel in the research component. The pro-Palestinian groups the organizers identified as causing Israel the most damage were Students for Justice in Palestine and the Muslim Student Association, which Adelson described as “BDS and Co.”
Getting the various groups together to discuss strategy was itself an important step, since some often act independently, if not competitively at times on campus. On many campuses, the efforts by the groups targeting Israel have been obsessively focused, and the efforts by pro-Israel groups have not always been so coordinated or single minded.
The meeting itself as well as the new campaign drew predictable criticism from groups such as J Street, which claim to oppose BDS efforts, but regularly invite pro-BDS speakers to their conferences and to their campus events, and can rarely, if ever, be found on the front lines at any institution where a BDS vote by students or a student government group will be conducted. One recent J Street event featured Marcia Freedman calling for the destruction of Israel, and for Jews to have protected minority status in a new Palestinian Arab state. This of course is regarded as bread and butter pro-Israel rhetoric in the eyes of J Street, and the remarks drew enthusiastic applause from the audience. J Street claims that it wants a wide-open tent to encompass a broad spectrum of views among “progressives,” and clearly nothing is out of bounds, except a defense of Israel.
For all practical purposes, J Street was created to make it easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to distance himself from Israel, by splitting left-wing Democrats off from the historically bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Congress. The fact that a quarter of all the Democrats in the House and Senate boycotted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address on Iran is evidence that the effort is succeeding. Will a reasonable number of Democrats vote to override an Obama veto on Congress disapproval of the proposed Iran nuclear deal (the approach adopted in the Corker-Menendez legislation), regardless of how weak the deal is and how much of a giveaway it is to Iran? The answer seems almost certainly to be no. Party loyalty, or loyalty to Obama himself will easily trump any concerns about the deal itself.
For years the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has played down the significance of the J Street effort, or how far Obama had moved his administration away from the traditional U.S.-Israel alliance. That break has manifested itself in several ways: in terms of the Iran negotiations and the attempt to neuter Israeli criticism of the deal; the administration’s sharp and constant public criticism of Israel; and the threats to end the use of American vetoes to defend Israel from U.N. Security Council attacks, which are designed to reduce Israel’s ability to directly negotiate with the Palestinians and force an agreement on terms dictated by the likes of Russia, China and France, not to mention Obama himself.
AIPAC has been reduced to a lowest common denominator approach, whereby voting for foreign aid makes a member of Congress or the Senate sufficiently pro-Israel, and hence deserving of support. Any tougher standard would demonstrate the real divisions between Republicans and Democrats, and rather than admit that many Democrats, or at least the so-called progressive members, have in fact moved very far from a meaningful pro-Israel position, AIPAC tries to cover up the reality. So Jan Schakowsky is pro-Israel, Steve Cohen is pro-Israel, Keith Ellison is pro-Israel, Andre Carson is pro-Israel, and so on. In essence, being pro-Israel in Congress means getting out of bed in the morning.
To date, the BDS effort has demonstrated some success, as the number of colleges and universities which have voted to back such approaches has increased over each of the last three years, reaching 15 in the 2014-2015 school year. However, no college or university board of trustees has taken account of such a student vote and made it college or university policy. There is no record so far of any institution actually cutting off ties or supporting divestment from companies allegedly collaborating with the “Israeli occupation.” Claims were made a few years back that Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, had adopted a divestment strategy toward such companies, but that claim was false. If any college were to lead the way on such an initiative, Hampshire, one of the country’s most left-wing and least substantive schools, would be a likely candidate, though Hampshire’s minuscule endowment of about $30 million would make divestment a trivial matter in terms of shares turning over.
But other campus divestment efforts have eventually reached critical mass, and boards have taken action. This was the case with the anti-apartheid campaign directed against South Africa, and of course similar language is now used to defame Israel and its supporters. It is also worth noting that there has been meaningful success recently in the campaign to get colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies.
Bill McKibben, a climate change activist summarized the recent successes: “This week, Georgetown University’s board voted to sell off its investments in coal, and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest pool of investment money in the world, announced it would do the same. This came on the heels of an announcement by the University of Edinburgh that it would divest from coal and tar-sands oil. The University of Washington did the same, and the University of Hawaii went one better and announced it was selling off all fossil fuel shares. Two days later, France’s largest insurer, the AXA Group, said it would get rid of its coal portfolio.”
The student groups fighting climate change on campus and pushing their boards of trustees to act, often include many of the same campus activists involved in pursuing action against Israel and pro-Israel supporters. Naturally, they come almost exclusively from the Left (including far-left Israel-hating Jewish students and faculty) and from among Muslim students and faculty. The anti-Israel activists work hard to enlist African-American, Hispanic and Asian groups so as to claim they are bathed in the beauty of diversity, and represent the non-white and non-privileged community on campus, the highest moral status that exists on college campuses these days.
For years, many Jewish groups have discounted the efforts by the anti-Israel coalition on campuses, or whined about it and done little to fight it, since the governing boards were ignoring the student activists and their resolutions. But the intensifying pressure on campuses to push BDS actions will eventually start winning at more than the student government level or in votes on whether to serve Israeli hummus in the dining halls. There are far too many unprincipled, weak-willed administrators who have little ability to resist such efforts for very long. The recent disaster at Connecticut College is evidence that administrators would rather join the anti-Semitic mob than fight it and risk having the mob go after them next.
The BDS crowd of course understands that even if universities sold shares in a few targeted companies, it would have a negligible impact on these companies or Israel. Corporate boycotts of Israel or government boycotts of Israel (such as the initiatives currently starting in Europe) are more dangerous. But the anti-Israel fighters have another goal in mind beyond the specific vote they seek to win. They want to make Israel and Zionism toxic on campuses and ensure that the next generation is not as comfortably pro-Israel as previous ones have been.
America has largely resisted the near worldwide movement against Israel that began after the 1967 Six-Day War. If support for Israel in America breaks down, then Israel’s isolation will be a much more serious problem. Israel is trading more with China and India, and many nations respect the technological creativity and innovation seen at Israeli universities such as the Technion and the country’s entrepreneurial energy.
Israel is not South Africa. But its enemies think they can make hay from the linkage.
It will not be easy to change the momentum on college campuses, where a fantasy world of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and assaults on free speech and non-believers of the accepted leftist wisdom and worldview (including hostility to Israel) now reigns supreme. But it is a good sign that serious people have taken notice of the problem and are trying to systematically formulate a response.