The BDS movement hasn’t won many victories in the United States in recent years, but Israel’s opponents had to be thrilled when they learned that the student body at Barnard College voted to endorse a proposal asking the highly regarded educational institution to divest from eight companies that do business in Israel.
The symbolic importance of the Barnard vote wasn’t limited to the timing, which came on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day. According to Hillel International, Barnard is one of the most heavily Jewish colleges in the United States with 850 Jewish students out of a student body of 2,500. That makes the vote in which 1,153 students participated a signal triumph for the anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine groups, which sponsored the resolution.
While pro-Israel groups vowed to redouble their efforts to fight BDS, some Jews blamed the Jewish establishment for what happened. Barnard alumna Jenny Singer wrote in The Forward that the problem was that Jewish students are fed fairy tales about a perfect Israel and are then unprepared to face the anti-Zionist narrative in which the Jewish state is portrayed as a human-rights offender. She believes that what’s needed is Jewish education about Israel that is more self-critical.
Singer is right about the appalling ignorance about the Middle East that is displayed by Jewish students. She’s also right that this reflects a failure on the part of the American Jewish community, rather than putting the onus just on the students. However, she’s wrong to think that the answer to the anti-Semitism of the BDS movement is more criticism of Israel, or that a decision not to directly confront the liars and haters is the wiser path for pro-Israel students.
The problem at Barnard is no different than that of scores of other colleges.
Jewish teenagers arrive on campus and are confronted by Israel-haters that have a clear script in which the Jewish state is depicted as an apartheid regime that commits genocide against innocent Palestinians. Most Jewish students don’t know that the smears of Israel are lies or lack the basic knowledge of history to refute them. Even many who do realize that the charges are false feel intimidated by a campus culture in which intersectional theory has become a modern gospel. At a time when support for groups like Black Lives Matter is the new liberal orthodoxy, the bogus connection asserted between US civil-rights disputes and the Palestinian war on the Jewish state is enough to bludgeon a great many Jewish students into silence or acquiescence. That’s the opening that BDS supporters have exploited into victories like the Barnard vote.
Why don’t Jewish kids know as much about the Middle East as the BDS crowd? The answer starts and finishes with the appalling failure of Jewish education.
Large numbers of Jewish kids get no Jewish education at all, let alone one that will arm them with the facts about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Yet the truth is that those who do get some kind of Jewish education often don’t wind up knowing much about Israel either.
Given the limited time they get with their students, even the best synagogue schools are hard-pressed to give youngsters the religious knowledge and Hebrew skills needed to pull off a bar or bat mitzvah. An in-depth look at the Jewish state is usually beyond their means. Sadly, the same is often true for many day schools, which, in theory, ought to have the time to teach Jewish history and Zionism, as well as dive deeply into contemporary Israel’s challenges. Nevertheless, sometimes they wind up giving all that short shrift.
One of the greatest achievements of American Jewry in the last 20 years was the creation of Birthright Israel, the program that takes college-age students (as well as young adults in their later 20s) on trips to Israel. As much as Birthright has had a positive impact, if we wait until kids get to college to teach them about Israel, we’re going to lose most of them. Jewish schools of every variety need to begin making the centrality of Israel a bigger part of Jewish education.
It’s also true that teaching about Israel should take into account the complex nature of the conflict with the Palestinians. It’s OK to acknowledge that Israel isn’t perfect, while still pointing out that it is the sole real democracy in the Middle East, and that Arab citizens there have rights denied to their counterparts in Arab majority nations.
But the problem goes deeper than that. Jewish kids grow up in an environment that tends to view all forms of nationalism as illegitimate and to regard the concept of a Jewish state as a form of racism. That makes them vulnerable to the lies of those who wish to destroy Israel.
Many on the left point to groups like AIPAC, blaming them for not being more critical of Israel. But the notion that BDS can be countered by advocates who spend as much time bashing the Jewish state as upholding the justice of its cause is as much of a myth as any tall tales about a perfect Israel. The problem isn’t that the pro-Israel side isn’t more reasonable. It’s that countering the lies requires a willingness to stand out in a campus world where doing so isn’t going to win you many friends (and in some cases could even affect your academic standing).
No matter how educated college students are about the Middle East or how nuanced their views of the conflict or Israel’s flaws, resisting BDS also requires a willingness to do something that is hard for anyone: standing up to the political fashion of the day and being willing sometimes to be an embattled minority.
Calling out anti-Semites on campus is the kind of a task that won’t win anyone a popularity contest. But when confronted by groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace, which trade in lies about Israel and engage in anti-Semitic arguments that delegitimize Jewish rights, that’s exactly what is needed. Yet before we can expect Jewish kids to muster the courage to fight back, the Jewish community must do a better job in preparing them for the challenge. Until that happens, more debacles like the one at Barnard are almost certain to follow.
By Jonathan Tobin/JNS