Fighting BDS on America’s Campuses

Muslim students protest Israel at the University of California, Irvine. (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Muslim students protest Israel at the University of California, Irvine. (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

In her time at the University of California, Davis, Julia Reifkind saw the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel take hold in its student government and on its campus, where swastikas were drawn on the Jewish fraternity house, Alpha Epsilon Pi.

As a member of the student government and president of Aggies for Israel, she worked to combat both the BDS movement and anti-Semitism on campus.

Today, Reifkind, in her early 20s, serves as director of community affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, where she leads the fight against the delegitimization of Israel. Reifkind was the featured speaker at an event on Jan. 8 at Temple Isaiah, during which a documentary called “Crossing the Line: The New Face of Anti-Semitism on Campus” was screened. Afterward, Reifkind led a question-and-answer panel about her firsthand experiences with the BDS movement.

“It is a global campaign attempting to increase economic and political pressure on Israel by boycotting Israeli institutions, divesting resources from those institutions and imposing legal sanctions on Israel,” said Reifkind. “It is intended to marginalize and delegitimize Israel on a national scene.”

BDS first came to college campuses in 2001, Reifkind explained, the campaign being pushed by a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at UC Berkeley. The first BDS vote in the U.S. took place in 2002 at Wayne State University, where a divestment resolution passed in the student government. Although the campaign was successful, nothing resulted from the boycotts themselves. Administration responded by telling students that the school would not be boycotting Israel.

Reifkind said SJP is the largest organization pushing BDS on college campuses, and it is able to find support from students by allying with other minority groups and progressive students.

“Through language such as human rights, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, genocide and racism, they are able to get people, because unless you have that [Jewish] education and background, you can’t see the fallacies within,” said Reifkind.

According to Reifkind, BDS activists use a variety of underhanded tactics to undermine Jewish organizations and institutions that support Israel. In her experience at UC Davis, she and the other pro-Israel students didn’t have a chance at combating the BDS vote. “All of our student senators ran for student senate for the purpose of passing divestment,” she said. “These were anti-Israel students who ran solely to pass this resolution.”

Activists also equate Palestinian issues to the struggle of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We heard on my school’s campus equating Ferguson [Missouri] to Palestine, so they were able to get the entire black student union on their side,” she said. “It is ridiculous, because Martin Luther King Jr. was a big Zionist, but unfortunately, they don’t listen to that. They describe the nature of the oppression of the Palestinian people and equate that to the oppression of the LGBT community. That is how they build numbers.”

SJP and similar organizations also use anti-normalization, which opposes any peace process and seeks to completely isolate Israel as a pariah state on the grounds that Israel is not a normal country and should not be treated as such. Supporters argue that Palestinians and Israelis should not interact whatsoever, be it for business or peace, Reifkind said.

“At our chapter of SJP, we found out they had a bylaw that said that any Israeli speaker that comes to campus, they must protest it,” she said.

BDS activists argue for the self-determination of the Palestinian people but ignore human-rights and civil-rights abuses by Palestinian leadership, according to Reifkind. To them, all human-rights violations are at the hands of Israel, she said.

“They deny the right to self-determination of the Jewish people and the entire Jewish narrative about our historic ties to the land of Israel,” she said.

In her two-and-a-half years combating BDS in college, Reifkind saw BDS resolutions come up five times.

“I wanted it to pass after a while,” said Reifkind. “They would stop bringing it up, and we could do fun things, which is exactly what we wanted to do to promote our pro-Israel agenda on campus and keep the integrity of our movement strong without being bothered by these little things.”

Advocated such as Reifkind and Hadar Shahar, the Israeli shlichah at the Jewish Federation of Howard County, say the best way to combat BDS is with education and dialogue.

“One of my goals is to present complexity to students, to engage their critical thinking and spark them with interest and understanding that the world is complicated rather than black and white, that you have to do your research to see where you stand,” Shahar said.

“I try to give students a very realistic and personal view of Israel,” she continued. “In my opinion, the first step toward really combating BDS and its harmful way of operating is knowledge and awareness. When a student gets to campus, if they have prior knowledge and know that the situation is complicated rather than good versus bad, they have the tools to use critical thinking when engaging those organizations, and that is the best thing that we, as educators, can do.”

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin is planning to introduce anti-BDS legislation in Maryland’s 2017 General Assembly. Although BDS has not affected Maryland significantly, he believes that it is still worth doing as a proactive measure “and, frankly, as a statement to the rest of the country — in some respects, to folks outside of this country too,” he said.

“You don’t have to go all that far to see that Israel is under attack by sectors that simply don’t understand the history and nature of the conflict,” Zirkin continued. “Israel is our closest ally and the only true democracy in the Middle East, and it deserves our respect and attention, so anything that I can do [I will].”

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