WASHINGTON — The efforts of anti-Israel activists to pass divestment resolutions at the University of California, San Diego and University of California, Berkeley are troubling developments, but not for the reasons their proponents are proclaiming. These resolutions —thwarted by pro-Israel students on campus in both cases — hold little practical impact and likely would be overturned on technical grounds if they should ever win passage. Nevertheless, the pro-Israel community must take these measures seriously for their potential to demonize Israel and foster anti-Israel sentiment on campus.
This isn’t the first time in recent history that the openness of the campus has drawn the attention of divestment forces. In the fall of 2001, a self-proclaimed divestment movement announced plans to stage a conference at UC Berkeley in response to the outbreak of the second intifada a year earlier. Although the conference was postponed to the spring in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the efforts launched a six-year effort to turn the presumed local conference into a national phenomenon by staging it in subsequent years at the University of Michigan, Rutgers, Ohio State, Duke and Georgetown. Considerable media attention and resources in Jewish and campus press were devoted to these efforts.
The pro-Israel community learned several lessons from this anti-Israel campaign — first and foremost that it was neither about divestment nor was it a movement.
The so-called divestment movement was not about economic sanctions but was a cunning attempt by marginal groups on campus to drum up publicity by comparing today’s Israel with yesterday’s apartheid South Africa. Divestment has been a thinly veiled effort to delegitimize and demonize Israel. Then as now, these groups have no reasonable chance of affecting university investment policy.
Yesterday’s divestment movement was destined to fail because it was not truly an organic, authentic movement of local students, faculty or trustees. Divestment conferences of the past featured off-campus speakers and participants from anarchist, far left and anti-Israel groups who flew in for the occasion. Local students, faculty and staff looked on with amazement and chagrin as national radical hotheads hijacked their campuses for a weekend and moved on. Other guerrilla tactics of the era, like mock “checkpoints,” were met with similar shame, bemusement and embarrassment. At the University of Virginia, the student newspaper cried shame and editorialized that such conduct had no place in the birthplace of Jeffersonian democracy.
Today’s divestment movement is different. The divestment movement is no longer seeking to hijack the campus; it wants to hijack the student government. Organizers are using the tools of democracy to lobby their student government representatives to sponsor and support anti-Israel measures. What may seem like a simple, pro-forma, sense-of-the-senate resolution to an unsuspecting college legislator has profound symbolic significance for friends of Israel on campus.
The only way to combat these efforts is to strengthen the efforts of the tens of thousands of pro-Israel students on campus who have participated in a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip or another similar program. At Berkeley and San Diego, anti-divestment activity was mobilized immediately with the collaboration of a Hillel Jewish Agency for Israel fellow, the Jewish?Community Relations Council, the Israel Consulate and myriad pro-Israel organizations in the Israel on Campus Coalition. The day before the Berkeley vote, the Israel fellow on campus had worked with other campus groups to sponsor a high-level seminar on Israeli democracy featuring renowned Israeli jurist Ruth Gavison.
Moving forward, three specific strategies should help guide our response to the new divestment movement:
• Student empowerment: This is a battle that needs to be fought and won locally. Off-campus groups should resist the temptation for uncoordinated fly-ins that undermine local efforts or send signals to the students that they cannot or should not take ownership of this issue.
• Coalition building: Israel delegitimization is not a battle the Jewish students should fight alone. It has been heartening at several AIPAC policy conferences to see hundreds of non-Jewish student government presidents who are publicly associated with the pro-Israel movement.
• Israel’s brand: Israel’s friends on campus cannot abandon efforts to promote Israel’s remarkable success as a high-tech democracy, a “start-up nation.” We must continue to represent the true Israel as a country that shares America’s Western values and contributes to the world in a variety of fields, not the least of which are industry, medicine and the arts.
This campaign presents Hillel and the pro-Israel community with an opportunity to continue to educate the campus about the true face of Israel. We cannot sit by idly as anti-Israel activists undermine Israel’s position among the future leaders of this nation. We cannot be silent as a central tenet of Jewish identity is defamed.
With only a few weeks left in this school year, it is unlikely that a specific divestment effort will succeed. However, it is important for the community to recognize the seriousness of the warning signs from this year, to support student empowerment and training, and to be prepared to fight next year’s as opposed to last year’s battle.
(Wayne L. Firestone is the president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.)