In his May 6, 2010 Op-ed “Fighting the new divestment effort on campus,” Hillel CEO Wayne Firestone puts forth a plan that continues to ignore any sort of reality that might allow local student groups to beat back the ever growing Israel divestment movements.
The Firestone Plan outlines three steps to address the divestment movement. First student groups should address their needs locally, without outside help which is interesting coming from the CEO of Hillel International. Then students should build coalitions (again without outside help) by bringing student government officials to AIPAC events and other such “get to know Israel” programs. And finally, student groups should remain on the branding message that Israel is a high-tech leader that shares Western values. As a former student senator and Jewish activist at the University of California, Davis, I can tell you without any shadow of a doubt that the Firestone Plan is fatally flawed.
Yes, the divestment movement is somewhat misguided. Their tactics have grown ever more disruptive and obnoxious over the years. However, the campus checkpoints tell a story that speaks to students and community activists of all stripes: the image is powerful and simple. The fact that we all chat on instant message systems and that technology was created in Israel does not effectively combat the fact that Israeli teens are manning real checkpoints in the West Bank disrupting the lives of Palestinians. Posters about the “start-up democracy” will do nothing to address the fact that students, from the most radical to apolitical, are consuming information and images on campus that are based in truth.
The “we created AIM” argument has always been weak. Would activists in any other community utilize such a disjointed argument? The answer is no because it does not work. Not only is this line of defense bad, it has been dictated from on high, from the offices of Jewish organizations in New York and D.C. to be disseminated on campuses around the country, without any regard to its applicability locally. This branding effort ignores the first two points of the Firestone Plan.
But the real problem with this argument is that it simply does not work.
To say that because Israel is a democracy, has high-tech jobs and allows GLBT soldiers to fight in the army—undoubtedly true and good things to promote— does not address the fact that there are checkpoints. It does not address the fact that Israeli citizens, with the help of the Israeli government, are building homes on land that will one day be the Palestinian state. The arguments put forth on those cute post cards, printed by Hillel and others outsiders who choose this message, do not address what is at the heart of this argument.
By completely dismissing the concerns of everyday students, Israel activists following the Firestone Plan will alienate potential allies. But more importantly, by not engaging in the deeper debate, Israel activists allow the divestment movement to dictate the terms of the conversation. By saying, “yes, the checkpoints exist and they aren’t the best situation but they save lives” is much stronger in the eyes of a rational outsider than responding to the rhetoric of the divestment activists with “did you know that Israel has more high-tech jobs per capita than the any other country in the world?”
If Mr. Firestone wants to win this fight, he must take a hard look at his own movement before dismissing the movement that continues to grow, garners national press attention and most importantly is making significant inroads towards achieving its goals. The pro-Israel campus movements have allowed the message to be dominated by either a black and white argument of body counts (which it losses) or the “hey look a pony!” arguments (which don’t work). The question of Israel and the Palestinians is not a simple issue and should not be boiled down to sound bites.
The fight for the soul of the pro-Israel movement is being lost to the radicals and the so-called marketing experts. An honest debate is lost by divestment activists, but a conversation about who is the bigger victim is won by the people supporting those blocked from the doctor by checkpoints, not those with jobs at the computer company.
The branding of Israel as a democracy, or as the hot-bed of high-tech, or even as more tolerant of GLBT individuals than other western countries, is important but it is not a tactic to respond to the divestment movement. It is time for an open debate.