Identity, Israel

After BDS victory, tending a scorched campus community

This is a guest post by Rabbi Oren J. Hayon, the Greenstein Family Executive Director at the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Life at the University of Washington.
In his biography of Pyrrhus of Epirus, Plutarch recounts the details of the ancient Greek general’s costly victory against Rome at Asculum in 279 BCE. According to Plutarch’s account, shortly after the battle, Pyrrhus considered the devastating losses to his Macedonian troops and made the dark but prescient reflection: “If we were to be victorious in one more battle against the Romans, it would utterly destroy us.” [Life of Pyrrhus, 21:9] The story of that long-ago battle comes to remind us that some victories produce a sense of exhilaration so intoxicating that they prevent us from realizing that we are actually marching unwittingly toward defeat. I write these lines in the immediate aftermath of a period in the life of our organization which looks unmistakably like a time of triumph. Nevertheless, as I write, I am keenly aware of how we have been diminished by the events of this year. I find myself surprised and concerned about how much we have lost, and about how much more we stand to lose in the future. 
This has been a very difficult piece to write, in part because it has involved acknowledging my own complicity in an unhealthy system. But I know that it is important to express these reflections, so that all of us can begin correcting our flaws and continue strengthening the good work that takes place every day in the Jewish community.
Plenty has already been written about the increasingly shrill and divisive tone that dominates whenever the Jewish community convenes conversations about Israel. Mine is just the most recent in an ongoing chorus of voices speaking out about this reality and calling for a change of direction.
I spent close to two full years preparing for BDS legislation to arrive at the University of Washington. For months, our Hillel convened dozens upon dozens of face-to-face conversations with students, faculty members, university administrators, community members, and other Jewish professionals. These conversations gave us the opportunity to hear many different perspectives on Mideast politics, and different ideas about the limits of discourse about Israel. Most importantly, these discussions meant that our coalition of students, representing the broadest possible spectrum of opinions on Israel, were well-prepared when a resolution for financial divestment from Israel finally arrived in the student senate. It was this group of students which ultimately defeated the divestment bill by a wider margin than at any other university so far.
Now that the vote is over and the press has begun reporting on our strategy, it is finally appropriate for us to take credit for the ways in which we were successful, but also to acknowledge the costs of our decision to take part in the ever-escalating battle against the BDS movement. I’ll be clear: I did not hesitate to oppose this bill or to marshal Hillel’s resources behind my decision; the bill was deeply flawed, contained untruths and factual distortions, and like so many other pieces of BDS legislation, failed to offer any realistic progress toward resolving the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nevertheless – and here this essay becomes a confessional – I now realize that in my haste to chalk up a victory against Israel divestment, I did not fully appreciate the consequences of this course of action. While it is indisputable that our Hillel’s strategy was a successful one, the victory came at a significant cost. Our singular focus on defeating this resolution meant that Hillel had to sacrifice other, more meaningful programmatic content for our students, and that, despite our best efforts, even our nuanced, pluralistic strategy against BDS wound up alienating some students whose ideas about Israel placed them outside the wide tent we took such pains to construct.
It was in 1841 that Emerson made his clever observation about “the hobgoblin of little minds,” but his words remain relevant today in our own troubled community, where “a foolish consistency” seems to have become a requirement for entry into the debate about Israel and the Zionist future. Exploration, doubt, curiosity about the other, willingness to sit in open and inquisitive silence and listen to someone who holds a different opinion from one’s own – all of these have changed from educational prerequisites into intractable liabilities for which learners are ridiculed. Again and again, I have been saddened and disappointed by the “gotcha” tactics which mock and deride those who dare to acknowledge the ambiguities of what is arguably the most complex issue in Jewish life today.
“We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” once a darkly comic relic of a bygone era, has now become a legitimate tactic for activist organizations working on college campuses. Both on the left and on the right, the best funded and most visible approaches to Israel advocacy are of the bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred variety. The moment a BDS resolution is introduced on a college campus, a mighty political advocacy engine roars to life and, before long, the entire community becomes characterized by a relentless scorched-earth approach. This approach appears in some pro-divestment activists’ inscrutable resistance to “normalization,” which asserts that conversation with Zionists is tantamount to capitulation, and it is manifest in the misbehavior of those pro-Israel community activists whose witch-hunts and name-calling drive thoughtful students to opt out of the conversation entirely.
Believe me: our students will continue to opt out if these tactics continue. Their ambivalence about engaging with difficult conversations about Israel will continue as long as educators and advocates in the Jewish community continue perpetuating the “you’re either with us or against us” ultimatums that undermine the richly nuanced conversations that are so valuable to the educational process. I do believe that BDS is a threat to the Jewish community – but not because it will usher in a new wave of anti-Semitism or violence against Jews anytime soon. Most immediately, it is a threat because it makes Jewish communal institutions entrench themselves like armies and forces educators to think like generals. And, predictably, it will always be our students who bear the most devastating casualties of this mode of engagement.
Throughout our work over this past year, our students labored tirelessly to uphold Hillel’s commitment to a pluralistic and open conversation about Israel, and strove to include as many voices at the table as possible, even when hawkish voices from the community delivered hysterical warnings that diversity would be a fatal liability. Still, the students remained calm and fearless in their demands for a reasonable, moderate response. I am unspeakably proud of them, especially now that I recognize the cost they paid for their principles.
Over the course of this year, as tensions rose on campus and at Hillel, one student after another sought me out for private conversations. In these chats, they admitted to me that they were struggling with insomnia, digestive problems and anxiety. Some of them had had nightmares. Some admitted that they were self-medicating with alcohol or prescription medications. A dysfunctional approach to Israel on campus has deep effects on our students – physical, emotional, and intellectual – of which the larger community is largely unaware. When will the Jewish community acknowledge that there is no such thing as sustainable ideals whose preservation requires that we sacrifice our young?
The Akedah retains its commanding presence in the epic history of Jewish religious life precisely because the rebuke delivered to Abraham still retains its relevance. The inspiring story about the knight of faith who places ideology above all else is, at the same time, a cautionary tale about the dangers of zealous belief. Many Jewish educators – and here, again, I confess my own inclusion in this group – promise our students a Judaism that inspires and elevates, but send them up one holy mountain after another, laden with wood for their own immolation.
As educators and communal leaders, our job is to equip young adults with knowledge and confidence, and to assure them that the Jewish community loves and desires them. But love that is conditional on unquestioning agreement is not true love at all, and any victories accrued on these terms are doomed to be Pyrrhic at best.
When we fail to treat college students as persons, and instead relate to them as objects to be manipulated for our political or ideological goals, we hasten our own downfall. Since the BDS campaign began on our campus, I have heard activists on both sides of the issue speak about college students in the most dehumanizing ways. Students were referred to as “troops” to be mustered, “vessels” to be filled, “fields” to be planted, and “assets” to be positioned. Rarely, if ever, were they celebrated as thinkers, partners, or colleagues.
The emotional effects of this mode of engagement are lamentable – but it is time for us to consider the long-term communal effects of this approach as well. Do we really wish to distance ourselves from committed, learned Jews who are deeply concerned about Palestinian suffering? Shall we not protest the lie that one cannot fight for another people’s self-determination and still call oneself a Zionist? And isn’t it finally time for us to do away with smear tactics and find new ways of reaching out to those Jews who, after searching for a legitimate, nonviolent way of raising their voices in protest, have found themselves welcomed more warmly in the BDS community than in our own?
It is clear that changes need to be made. It is no longer tenable for Jewish communities or Jewish leaders to pretend that young American Jews’ relationships with Israel are unambiguous or uncomplicated. We have to convene conversations with people who make us uncomfortable, and talk about ideas that make us uneasy. And we must insist on the highest possible standards of conduct for the way we speak to – and about – the others who join us at the table for these conversations.
During our experience with BDS on our campus, Hillel’s students demonstrated to the world that a multifaceted approach to Israel is not only a successful way forward, it is the best way to display the beauty of our community’s diversity. I believe that Hillel is uniquely positioned to lead the Jewish community forward in this difficult process, and I am hopeful that some brave conclusions will emerge from the reevaluation of Hillel International’s rules of engagement about Israel. Hillel has always been the address for young Jewish adults who undertake the hard and holy work of laying cornerstones for the Jewish future, and we will continue to play this privileged role lovingly and supportively.
This chapter of the story of BDS at the University of Washington is finally drawing to a close. The professional activists and agitators are packing up and leaving town, but when they have gone, our students will still be here. It will be up to them to pick up the pieces and figure out how to rebuild a community where dialogue and understanding are of primary importance, even in the aftermath of divisive and hurtful politicking. I can only hope that at that time, when we regard each other across the scorched turf, our students will continue to see Hillel as a worthy partner, and allow us to assist in their work of reconstruction.
And then, after the healing is complete, another chapter in this story will almost certainly begin next year. At that time, we will have to face our students’ questions as we stand with them at the foot of yet another mountain.
“Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” they will ask.
What should I tell these students then? What, at long last, will all of us tell them?

17 thoughts on “After BDS victory, tending a scorched campus community

  1. Thanks for sharing this thoughtful and introspective inside account of the ‘struggle’ out there at UW.
    I’m not sure I understand though — you praise the inclusiveness of the process and the Ha’aretz article makes it sound like a real triumph of listening to other opinions and finding common ground. So are you suggesting that’s not really how it happened? Or just that it only happened to a certain extent, and that at the end of the day some voices were left out? Or are you saying that the whole thing was just incredibly trying and difficult, and that really life on college campus would be better without the entire BDS debate?
    (These aren’t questions to challenge in anyway, just honestly trying to clarify)

  2. Thanks for your courage. Hillel Professionals are uniquely positioned to change things, and your input will make a huge difference. A point that has been missed amid all of the coverage about Hillel lately, that you crucially identified, is about resources. Time. When Hillels put so much time and effort into “combating” BDS (another military metaphor, as you aptly pointed out), other aspects of programming and engagement just don’t happen. Lots of Hillels have organized “strategy meetings” that go to the wee hours of the night to work against BDS. Do these same Hillels hold all-night or late-night study sessions on Shavuot?
    Communal priorities are not demonstrated in the abstract, but on the ground, with how actual institutions and leaders spend their time and effort. The priorities at many Hillels are clear: fight, fight, fight the “anti-Israel” folks. That’s what gets people up late at night. That’s what people plan for, as you mentioned, 2 years in advance. Proactively working on Jewish Peoplehood and Identity sometimes only merits second place. How many Hillels have been planning Sh’mitah programming the last year and a half? I’m betting very few.

  3. This is a most welcome reflection. The only thing I would add in from my experience of supporting Berkeley’s divestment decision from afar is the optics and underlying reality of a homogenous Jewish group opposing divestment while a multiracial coalition, including Jews, supports it. I also think in the Berkeley case the claim that BDS was going to affect the safety of Jews on campus led to a lot of fear among Jewish students that I don’t think was borne out.

  4. To be clear, I wasn’t following UW fight ,so I don’t know if those dynamics were operating there, but I’m guessing they are recurring features of such fights.

  5. It feels like a Catch-22: is it better not to challenge BDS resolutions when they come forward, because the damage that fighting them causes is worse than the damage done by the resolution itself? Yes campuses would be better without the whole BDS issue, but that’s no going to happen.

  6. Please consider defining BDS in future articles as the Boycott, Divesment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. We cannot assume that everyone knows what this means, even if posted on Jew School. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  7. One aspect of the BDS struggle that’s not mentioned here is the role of faculty and its impact on students. The faculty on campus who participate in the biggest faculty listserve ([email protected]) find themselves in an atmosphere that is almost unremittingly hostile to Israel (this has been true for quite a few years, and is not a function of the BDS issue). The moderator of the listserv signed a pro-divestment petition. I don’t know if this hostility spills over into the classroom or into conversations between faculty and students, but I could see its making students’ lives even more difficult than they would otherwise be. In addition, units at the UW, such as the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, sponsor lecures on campus by pro-BDS speakers but not, so far as I know, anyone on the other side. Are the students unaware of this? Does it have no effect on them?

  8. Thank you for your efforts, Rabbi, and congratulations to you and the coalition you helped build on the defeat of the BDS resolution. As thoughtful as you are in examining the costs of victory, we must be equally mindful that a different kind of price altogether would follow defeat.

  9. Thanks for this piece, I appreciate you dissecting some of the issues and ways in which divestment on campus affects some Jewish students. You said,
    “Most immediately, it [BDS] is a threat because it makes Jewish communal institutions entrench themselves like armies and forces educators to think like generals. And, predictably, it will always be our students who bear the most devastating casualties of this mode of engagement.”
    I think this is the real heart of the issue, when Jewish institutions like the Jewish Federation and the JCRC create guide lines that prohibit Jewish voices that may support BDS, it alienates some Jews. Also, many young Jews are distancing themselves and feel less connected to these institutions. So, much like your article states, with respect to Hillel doing its best to create open and honest conversation, I ask, is posing a divestment bill the problem or is the exclusive hegemonic and increasingly out of touch Jewish institutions to blame for this divide?
    I commend the Open Hillel movement and the BDS movement for challenging Jewish institutional discourse and allowing all voices to be heard.

  10. I’d like to recommend screening our film EYES WIDE OPEN on campus.
    Eyes Wide Open is a personal film that vividly conveys the nuances, complexities and ironies of the human connection between American Jews and Israel. Capturing the intimate encounter between travelers and Israel, it is primarily a film about people…their candid, spontaneous reactions and thoughts. it reflects a broad range of opinions and emotions within the American Jewish community.

  11. Forgive my ignorance, but are there campuses in America where a BDS campaign against Israel has been successful? Victor talks about “a different kind of price altogether would follow defeat,” but I’m wondering what that looks like in the real world.

  12. dlevy,
    I don’t actually encourage that you do this, in order to preserve your mental health, but if you need to know, start familiarizing yourself with the BDS agenda at EI. As you spent more time on the site, you’ll become better acquainted with the BDS ecosystem and the ambitions of various groups and individuals.
    As it pertains to campus activities, passing non-binding divestment resolutions are merely to set the table. Whereas they begin as non-binding, they generate legitimacy for the movement and create a pressure point to be pushed, in time forcing boards of regents to enact binding divestment policies. Progress at universities is thought to be a lower hanging fruit, and is expected to assist in the mainstreaming of the movement.
    From the people I keep in touch with, who are quite open about all this, the medium term goals include, among others, making impossible student and faculty exchange and research programs with Israel. This can be done in any one of numerous ways. For example, pressing to blacklist members of the IDF (nearly all adult Israeli males). Or, short of that, forcing all former IDF soldiers to submit a record of their service – making their service a point of public ostracism and harassment on campus.
    Once the premise that Israel is a uniquely illegal, occupying, colonial, violent, apartheid state, somewhat resembling Nazi Germany, sinks in at the institutional level, organizing points hostility becomes a subject for creative people to have fun with.
    The longer term goal (still on campus) is radicalizing student opinion, leading to a generational wave immersed in the binary world of BDS – Israel is evil; anyone who disagrees is a [enter your favorite pejorative] collaborator – uniquely hostile to Israel which, as it matures, can enter elements of the American power structure and effect a fundamental transformation in the US-Israeli relationship (which in their view is the key to Israel’s survival as a nation state of the Jews).
    Shabbos is coming and I don’t have much time to expound. The above is not an exhaustive account, by any means. If you want to, go ahead, immerse yourself in that world. Unless you have to deal with it, I don’t think you should.

  13. I am a70 year old Jewish woman who was riased by Eastern European immigrant parents who taught us that Jews, having experienced discrimination, must stand against it whenever and wherever it occurs. They were not Zionists and actually thought the the essence of mondern jewish communities was born in the context of the diaspora(s). They thought the idea of a Jewish state was very unjewish. They taught me that there were many Jewish communities around the world with different languages and communal practices but the common value was openess to exploring ideas and standing on the side of justice. As a child, I too gave money for those JNF trees only to learn later they they were planted on land of Palestinians taken during what the Palestinians refer to as the Nakba.
    After the 67 war and the occupation of East Jerusalem and West bank, i detatched myself from anything to do with Israel, was embarrassed by it and basically ran away from the issue. I became a an anti Vietnam was and South Africa anti apartheid activist. In recent years as conditions have gotten much worse for the Palestinians and the building of the Wall I have become convinced that Israel and it’s practices actualy increases anti semitism around the world.. After saying such things among Zionists I have been called a self hating anti semite to my face.
    So now I support BDS as I did for South Africa. I see the Jewish community moving to the rght, being less class aware, more like Donald Sterling than all the Jewish people who rode the busses South to protest segregation in the south. I think the discussion must be much deeper about which if any values Jews even American Ashkanizi Jews, actually share. If there are none or few putside some religious practices what does it mean for the Zionist establishment claim to speak for all Jews. They certainly dont speak for this old lady.

  14. I was very sympathetic to this essay until he started making up things that don’t appear in the Torah. The “rebuke” to Abraham at the akeidah? The Torah explicitly praises Abraham for his faithfulness and behavior during the Binding of Isaac. Wishing it away doesn’t make it so.
    If you need the reference, here it is, from Genesis 18:16-18:
    “By Myself have I sworn, says the Lord, that because you have done this thing and you did not withhold your son, your only one, that I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand that is on the seashore, and your descendants will inherit the cities of their enemies. And through your children shall be blessed all the nations of the world, because you hearkened to My voice.”
    There is simply no room to interpret the above as a “rebuke” of Abraham. Anyone who lies so boldly about what the Torah says cannot be trusted with any of his other comments, and frankly brings shame on everyone else who uses the title “rabbi.”

  15. Rabbi,
    You wrote: ” This approach appears in some pro-divestment activists’ inscrutable resistance to “normalization,” which asserts that conversation with Zionists is tantamount to capitulation.” And yet the link you provide explains the motivation for resistance to “normalization” at great length. So how is that inscrutable? It says quite clearly that activities that include Israelis and Palestinians are to be judged in so far as they promote the aims of the BDS movement and do not treat the two sides as equal. That’s hardly inscrutable.

  16. Marsha, if you truly believe that what unites Jews are “some religious practices”, then you are profoundly disconnected from the great bulk of the Jewish community today. There is not a terribly great excuse for that, even at 70.

  17. To David Benkoff. Please do not accuse the writer, who has done so much in service to the Jewish community, of being a liar. If you look in Genesis Rabbah you will see that rabbis far more influential than Rabbi Hayon interpreted the Torah to say that God rebuked Abraham. Jewish tradition does not judge them to be liars. The text describing the akedah is both so central in Judaism and so challenging that we should not be surprised to see that the rabbis generated a wide range of differing and complex interpretations of it. Rabbi Hayon is merely alluding to a Jewish interpretation of the text that is centuries old. He is certainly not a liar, nor is he wishing anything away in this powerful piece of writing. Please refer to Joseph Soloveitchik’s axiom at the bottom of this webpage.

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