A Predictable BDS Win at Tufts
News that Tufts University was the latest to join an ignominious list of schools at which student governments have voted to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel prompted yet another round of shock and calls for action from parents and alumni.
In a particularly obnoxious move, Tufts’ Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter engineered the vote to occur just before Passover, thus blindsiding many Jewish defenders of Israel who had already headed home for the holiday. Those individuals were told to submit questions via Google if they couldn’t attend the proceedings.
The balloting — undertaken in notably secretive style, with photos and recordings prohibited to conceal the identities of individual delegates and their votes — wasn’t even close. Seventeen students voted in favor, with six against and eight abstentions.
With the vote, these Tufts students opted for punishing Israel — for allegedly being an apartheid regime — and called on several corporations to end their economic activity with the Jewish state.
Israel, of course, is flourishing economically — and not a single American college or university has acted on the recommendations of radicalized student governments to boycott the Jewish state. And the apartheid smear is a trope of global anti-Israel propagandists, which is belied by the realities of Israel’s diverse, democratic and progressive society.
But fairminded people are right to be dismayed by the bigoted BDS attacks against Israel, and their potential to poison the academic community with lies about the Jewish state. Therefore, defeating these attacks is important.
A key question is why such measures succeed on some campuses, but fail on many others — or never come up at all on the roughly 4,000 US college and university campuses. There have been (according to the AMCHA Initiative’s documentation) just over 100 such measures introduced in total over the last five years on 54 separate campuses, with slightly fewer than half passing.
California schools have passed a number of divestment resolutions, including at Stanford, UCLA and Berkeley. And several elite eastern schools have passed them as well, such as Wesleyan and Oberlin. At Princeton, a graduate student group voted for divestment, while the undergraduates defeated a separate measure. Vassar passed and then rescinded their student government resolution.
Certainly the relative strength of aggressive anti-Israel groups such as SJP, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and other extreme organizations is related to the incidence and success of these campaigns, as is the presence of BDS-promoting faculty members.
On the other hand, on campuses with active, outspoken, pro-Zionist faculty members that support pro-Israel students and feature robust pro-Israel programs, the presence of hostile SJP and JVP chapters can be neutralized and BDS efforts are often defeated.
At Tufts, SJP emerged in 2010, hosted its first “Israeli Apartheid Week” in 2012 and has done the same every year since. One of its members, Munir Atalla, noted in a 2015 Tufts Daily story that in the first years of staging the anti-Israel campaign at Tufts, there was “more opposition” because it was “such a Zionist place” but that “the shift in the discourse has been monumental.” In those first years, there was even controversy about using the term apartheid within the Tufts SJP chapter. But no longer.
Another critical factor undoubtedly at play is the presence of J Street. Although the organization formally opposes BDS, and on most campuses typically tries to counter specific BDS resolutions when they occur, the group’s programs and messages throughout the year effectively support BDS by reinforcing distorted and false allegations about Israel similar to those espoused by SJP and other BDS proponents.
At Tufts, for instance, J Street has brought onto campus various anti-Israel groups that amplify its own continuously reiterated political message, which blames Israel for the lack of peace and for its failure to end “the occupation.”
In March 2016, Breaking the Silence spokesman Avner Gvaryahu spoke at Tufts on behalf of J Street and denounced the IDF and the Israeli presence in the West Bank to a student audience. His denunciations were then amplified in a news story in the student paper. There was no hint in the coverage that Breaking the Silence is a fringe, discredited group in Israel, with hundreds of fellow reservists repudiating the anonymous, unverified and anecdotal charges leveled by its far-left adherents.
A bipartisan Knesset bill is currently in the works to ban the group from speaking in Israeli schools, which shows how much antipathy there is in Israel towards Breaking the Silence.
Sometimes J Street’s one-sided events are held at the Tufts Hillel, where J Street is an active member group. In the fall of 2016, as part of a national J Street campaign focused on pressuring Israel regarding a Bedouin enclave in Susya, south of Hebron in the West Bank, J Street held multiple events at Tufts on the subject. In one case, J Street urged students to “join J Street U for a havdallah ceremony [at Hillel] honoring and sending strength to villagers in Susya.”
J Street student leader Andrew Goldblatt also published a column in the Forward, and had chaired an event a week earlier on campus with Americans for Peace Now’s Lara Friedman promoting the J Street campaign on Susya. Goldblatt titled his December 2016 column: “Want to Prevent BDS? Speak Out Against the Destruction of Susiya.”
The Susya campaign, which was partially funded by the EU and foreign, pro-Palestinian NGOs, has been turned into an international cause. J Street has aligned itself in this complicated matter with the EU, and has been actively denouncing and opposing Israel. It has pushed its campaign on campuses across the US, and has recruited students to use the story as a rallying point against Israel.
The essence of the Susya controversy concerns contested land ownership, illegal building and violated court orders to desist from further activity until the matter is settled. The EU and other NGOs that have supported the Bedouin activity have so intensified the international attention to the matter that — under duress — Israel has repeatedly postponed any demolition.
Goldblatt’s column was explicitly headlined to convey his notion that the path to avoiding a BDS indictment was for students to denounce Israel for its handling of Susya, and, further, to oppose and work against the Israeli “occupation.”
Just weeks ago, on March 6, J Street sponsored another event at the Tufts Hillel, this one featuring Chelsey Berlin, Associate Director of B’Tselem USA. B’Tselem is controversial because of its harsh and frequently discredited criticism of Israel in the international arena. Indeed, according to NGO Monitor, B’Tselem “accuses Israel of ‘apartheid,’” and “perpetrating ‘war crimes.’”
Again, the Tufts Daily ran a story on the event amplifying the focus on the ills of the Israeli occupation. Berlin reportedly “explained” to students why settlements are “considered illegal under international law.” Evidently, Berlin did not present the opposing view held by many legal scholars that, whether you support or oppose the settlement enterprise, they are not illegal. This is the view of, for instance, Professor Alan Dershowitz, who is not an advocate of settlements.
There are undoubtedly many students at Tufts who would like to hear truly diverse viewpoints about the forces that stand in the way of peace — and who would also like to learn real facts about Susya, the conduct of the IDF and the truth about human rights in the PA territories and Israel. There’s no shortage of compelling, fact-based speakers, films and programs.
Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist who is opposed to BDS, has spoken on more than 40 campuses in the last two years for CAMERA; several of these appearances were in the Boston area. He has a few things to say that might interest the Tufts community, including members of SJP. Another speaker in the Boston area and across the US is Jonathan Al Khoury, a gay Lebanese-born Israeli Christian, who also has a lot to tell audiences about what life is like in Israel.
Itamar Marcus, founder and director of Palestinian Media Watch, would also bring invaluable information about the demonizing of Jews in Palestinian media, mosques, schools and political discourse. Isn’t it important to weigh the two populations? How one has ceded land and presented repeated offers of peace, while the other has rejected every offer without even countering them, and has indoctrinated its people in the belief that they are honor bound to kill Israelis and destroy the Jewish state?
For student groups like J Street, which is supposedly devoted to the two-state solution and ending the occupation, informing the entire community about the urgency to undo decades of Palestinian hate-indoctrination should logically be the first order of business.
Continuing to present a diet of Breaking the Silence, B’Tselem and Susya campaigns — all of them entailing outright factual distortions that fuel animosity and misunderstanding — will likely guarantee that the next BDS vote will go even more unevenly against Israel. And, in the words of SJP member Munir Atalla, the “monumental” shift in the discourse against Israel and the loss of the “Zionist” presence will continue.
Tufts students of all backgrounds and beliefs deserve better.