The Anatomy of a BDS Campus Campaign
Following dramatically different outcomes of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) votes at two California schools on last week, campus antisemitism and Israel advocacy experts spoke with The Algemeiner to break down the anatomy of a BDS campus campaign.
With the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) coming back with zero votes cast in favor of BDS, and California State University-Long Beach seeing 15 student representatives vote yes for the anti-Israel motion, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin — founder of the campus watchdog AMCHA Initiative — said “there is a complicated calculus involved in each BDS push.”
To her, the “unanimous and unequivocal opposition to BDS of all of a campus’s Jewish student organizations” is a crucial factor in heading off the efforts of anti-Zionists.
“We’ve seen a definite increase in the tactic of ‘Jew splitting,’ where BDS activists find organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace to run interference for them when they are accused of antisemitism,” Rossman-Benjamin explained. “So I think that when faced with an issue like BDS, we have to have the moral clarity to state that there is a red line and when you cross over it, the Jews will be standing on the other side, united, saying, ‘No.’”
Rossman-Benjamin pointed to the letter of “unified opposition” produced at UCSB and signed by the campus’s eight mainstream Jewish organizations as an element that was missing from the CSULB campaign against divestment.
In the letter, the groups — including the campus’s Hillel, Chabad, and the AEPi fraternity and sorority — stated “[w]e represent the broad consensus of Jewish opinion at UCSB,” and they uniformly “reject[ed] this one sided, counterproductive, and incredibly hurtful BDS resolution.”
“Anti-Zionism is highly dependent on making sure it is seen as separated from antisemitism,” said Rossman-Benjamin, adding that her organization has tracked a trend in which BDS activists at a given campus will often host an explanatory antisemitism program — often co-hosted with fringe Jewish groups — in the days leading up to a divestment vote, “to signal to people that they aren’t antisemites.”
“But if you want to see how the Jewish world really understands BDS, take a look at the people who signed a  letter condemning the movement,” Rossman-Benjamin said, referring to an international “Stop BDS” effort which gathered signatures from nearly 100 representatives of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform groups, Jewish fraternities and sororities and Israel advocacy organizations.
David Brog — executive director of the Maccabee Task Force, a group formed in 2015 to combat demonization of Israel on campus — said much of the success and failure of BDS at a campus can be attributed to what stage of pro-Israel activism students are at when the campaign is first launched.
“[Zionist students at] UCSB last year realized that they shouldn’t let student government rest in the hands of anti-Israel students, so they ran and won, and they got pro-Israel representatives on student government,” he said.
Brog added that UCSB’s Hillel center has offered non-Jewish student leaders the opportunity to go on an educational mission to Israel, called a “Fact Finders” tour, an experience he said leaves many resistant to the BDS narrative.
CSULB, Brog noted, has devoted pro-Israel students who are eager to turn around the environment that allowed BDS to pass, “but they are earlier in that process of educating and changing the campus.”
Meanwhile, Max Samarov — the director of research and campus strategy for the StandWithUs education group — said the different outcomes come down largely to a significant difference in campus demographics.
“By percentage, UCSB has one of the largest Jewish populations in the UC system, and for years and years and years it has had a strong pro-Israel community,” Samarov pointed out. “CSULB has a strong pro-Israel presence but not nearly the same numbers.”
Samarov said there “have been situations where schools with small Jewish pops come together and defeat resolutions,” but that the odds are harder to overcome.
According to Samarov, CSULB also contended with a “very intense campaign of outside pressure, and what started as a debate between Long Beach students,” was influenced by external, off-campus groups.
“All this came together to create an atmosphere of overwhelming support for BDS and of intimidation [for those against it],” he said.