Is BDS a defensible position?

There’s this guy on the Huffington Post, named Rabbi David Wolpe. He basically argued that there are two strains of thinking regarding Israel (among Jews) that are beyond the pale: Boycot/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) on Israel, and “throw the Arabs out of Israel”.

His argument leaves me really leery of the standard journalistic trope of false equivalency: One faction (let’s call them the Right) is proposing horrible idea X, and I can only point that out if I find another opposing faction (let’s call them the Left) proposing an equally horrible idea Y. If I can’t find such an opposing faction, I’ll just pretend that the Left’s ideas are just as horrible as idea X, for the sake of “balance”

The main thrust of his anti-BDS argument is this:

These same people who anathematize Israel do not march against China for its rape of Tibet, against North Korea for its threatened obliteration of the South, against the Arab nations that have barred other religions from practice and discriminated in vicious and consistent ways against women, homosexuals and dissidents. No, they reserve their protest for a thriving, imperfect democracy that has a parliament with Arabs as well as Jews, a justice system where the chief judge in the trial condemning a former President of Israel is an Arab Israeli, where a completely unfettered press criticizes the government with vigor. Disagreeing with Israel is a time-honored tradition. Seeking to boycott it is to function as an anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism is making human faults (real and imagined) the special preserve of the Jews.

Now, that’s just ridiculous, isn’t it? The organized Jewish establishment is obsessed with creating connections between young Jews and the country of Israel. One of the Jewish community’s self-defined biggest challenges has been to give young American Jews a feeling like they have a stake in Israel. Congrats – it’s working. And now that they have a sense of identity with this country, these young women and men feel a stake in making sure that they approve of what’s being done there.

So the “why not march against China” argument is bogus for two reasons.
1. We don’t feel as much of an emotional stake with the Chinese as with our own kin/co-religionists
2. American Jews qua American Jews have much more leverage over the government and society of Israel than they do over the society of, say, Darfur.

Anti-semitism argument is wrong on it’s face, too. He sounds like someone playing dictionary games to argue that affirmative action is racist.

I still believe in the sub-argument of the article: that BDS are not only counterproductive but morally wrong. Is anyone out there making an actual, well-reasoned argument for that position? Not this guy.

What do you think of the article?

Jewish Yelling for Peace

Right before Brandeis’ Israel Occupation week, a group of students Jewish Voices for Peace (not from Brandeis) gained notoriety as they heckled Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as he spoke to the Jewish General Assembly in New Orleans.

Benjamin Netanyahu was interrupted five times by protesters who shouted and held up signs while the Israeli prime minister was delivering an address on Monday to the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America.

The protesters shouted “the loyalty oaths delegitimize Israel” and “the occupation delegitimizes Israel” while being escorted from the room. Their signs bore similar messages.

The disrupters were members of a group of young protesters convened by Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing activist organization. The protesters said that they were responding to the General Assembly’s focus on what has been called an international effort to delegitimize Israel.

There’s a lively discussion about whether they were justified. For the “their tactics deligitimize their cause” argument, see Ben Sales’ piece in the New Voices magazine. For an opposing view, read the comments to his piece, and also read the explanation of the activists in their own words.

I really like what JewSchool has to say here and also here. Lots to unpack – I could quote all three articles but I suggest you just read them.

Here’s what struck me:

But the most experienced protester on the team rightly said that people would take down our signs within seconds and we would be unable to make our point. We also considered singing. After lengthy discussion, we decided we had to yell “Young Jewish Proud!” and then the sign content. We all agreed it was the absolute right decision, but we had to sacrifice the feeling of solemnity we had preferred. We weren’t there to “heckle”- we were there to take a stand.”

We knew people would not be pleased, but we didn’t anticipate the level of violence and frankly it was not our intention to make people in the room look ugly. I have mixed feelings about that- I dont consider federation people “The Other”. That’s family in there, for almost all of us, so I don’t take pleasure in the unmasking of the mob mentality. On the other hand, I understand it’s critical for our movement that it has been revealed-many others in the room were shocked. But we would not have purposely engineered it with that particular group.

Continue reading “Jewish Yelling for Peace”

The New Media Meme: “Brandeis Hates Israel!!!”

Last Wednesday, Jonathan Mark of The Jewish Week published an article striking back at the perception that Israel is, even among Jews, losing the respect of the American people that it has enjoyed for so long.  While I try to avoid injecting myself into Israeli political debates as much as possible, I do find it interesting who Mark chooses as one of his bad guys — Brandeis University itself:

[New York Times columnist Nicholas] Kristof also brings up Peter Beinart’s recent article in The New York Review of Books “exploring the way young Jews in America feel much less identification with Israel than their elders did. Mr. Beinart noted that even the student senate at Brandeis University, which has strong Jewish ties, rejected a resolution commemorating the 60th anniversary of Israel.” Brandeis, of course, was also where a student group unsuccessfully tried to get the university to rescind a speaking invitation to Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren.

As Bogart said in “Casablanca,” “I wouldn’t bring up Paris, if I were you. It’s bad salesmanship.” But since Kristof brings up Brandeis, let it be said — as Kristof did not — that while many young Jews at Brandeis did want to distance themselves from Israel, at 51 other universities in 30 different states, reported JTA (May 21), one student president after another was inviting Israel’s ambassador to speak at their campus.

The letter to Oren, said JTA, was initiated by Brandon Carroll at Virginia Tech and Wyatt Smith at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, in response to disruptions Oren faced at the University of California-Irvine and the protests at Brandeis.

Such anti-Israel behavior “is absurd and offensive,” said the letter.  “Please be assured that these individuals do not remotely represent American college students or mainstream campus leaders.”

Basically, Mark says that although Jews at Brandeis might be moving away from support of Israel, pro-Israel sentiment is still prevalent elsewhere.

Last month, a friend of mine at Yale shocked me by saying out of the blue, “I hear your Student Union rejected a birthday resolution for Israel”.  Apparently, this relatively minor campus controversy somehow made a New York Times article three years later.  It’s very weird to hear something I was peripherally involved in used to prove a point on such a national scale, and it’s particularly disheartening to find it stripped of its context to say something that it shouldn’t.

Then again, I can’t blame Beinart, Kristof, or Mark for failing to grasp the nuances of Brandeis Union politics.  Their topics are far broader than our petty struggles; how can they be bothered to research the actual questions that were raised during the birthday resolution debate?  If I were in their place, I’d think that the resolution’s failure said much more about Brandeis’s waning support for Israel than it actually does.

It’s pretty obvious that anything related to Israel that happens at Brandeis will be viewed under a harsh microscope and analyzed as a metric of what young American Jews think about the Middle East conflict.  Therefore, should people on campus stop protesting events like the Oren speech for fear of sending the wrong message?

Of course not.  In both of the aforementioned cases, people weren’t actually protesting Israel or its policies.  They were protesting the intrusion of Israeli politics in inappropriate venues, namely the Union Senate and the commencement ceremony.  The real fault lies with those who injected Israel into these venues in the first place.  My friend Sahar is one of the most passionate Israeli citizens and supporters that I know, but he still drew the very real distinction between his patriotic sentiments and his opposition to Oren’s commencement appearance.  Unfortunately, his advocacy can now be misinterpreted as another blow against Israel from the very school that should be supporting it most fervently.  Shame on those who would force him into the false duality of choosing between his homeland and his principles.

The worst part is that those who try to make support for Israel a part of everyday campus are only hurting their own cause.  Jehuda Reinharz should be smart enough to know that appointing a divisive figure like Oren as a commencement speaker was bound to draw some level of controversy.  And he should be smart enough to know that Israel’s critics would wield that opposition as a cudgel to prove that Jews were abandoning Israel even at America’s foremost Jewish university.

There’s enough room at Brandeis for everyone to advocate and work for their own political causes, whatever they may be.  But when the line separating appropriate advocacy and invasion of campus life is crossed, everyone loses.  The media can’t be expected to get every detail of our campus life correct.  Let’s not make it easy for them to caricature us.

Another articulation of the division Oren causes our community

Many people unfamiliar with the Brandeis community view us as a strictly Jewish institution, when in fact we are a very diverse community.  We have members from a wide spectrum of Jewish backgrounds, from the many faiths of the world, and from no faith.  For a great number of our students, faculty, and staff, the issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bring out very passionate, and sometimes personal, opinions and experiences.  Michael Oren, as a spokesperson for just one view of the many on this extremely contentious issue, causes the members of our community to divide themselves in relation to their deep-seeded feelings on the views he espouses.  Instead of uniting our community around the principles of peace, justice, and coexistence we seek to uphold during our time here and after we graduate, the selection of Oren divides us emotionally and ideologically.  The selection of Oren brings the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the most sensitive topic at Brandeis University, into our most sacred ceremony–commencement.  We believe that commencement should be a time of culminating unity, when the members of our graduating class prepare to set off into the world in solidarity.  The selection of Michael Oren as commencement speaker instead tears our graduating class and campus community apart.

In peace,
Phil LaCombe (’10)

Another petition

As you already know, there’s an open letter of students and other Brandeis-affiliated people who are thinking about skipping commencement circling around. To quote one signer:

With as rich a selection of potential candidates as we have right now, it is a shame that the school has chosen such a politically loaded commencement speaker. There is a time and place for (much welcome) debate, but by choosing this speaker the school gives the impression that it officially supports a singular position on what is a very emotionally charged topic for both sides of the discussion.

It’s a day later, and the “other side” has their response: “a letter of support for President Reinharz and Ambassador Michael Oren” An excerpt:

We look forward to hearing Ambassador Oren address the Brandeis community at commencement based on his achievements and contributions to academia as a former professor at several prestigious universities in America and his work in Israel to promote the creation of the country’s first liberal arts college. Your selection of Ambassador Oren to address this year’s Commencement reflects Brandeis University’s historic ties to the American Jewish community and timeless dedication to academic excellence as well as Justice Louis Brandeis’ own commitment to Zionism and Social Justice, a legacy on which this university was founded.

Editorial note: and here we see the inevitable fracturing of campus. Battle lines are being drawn, divisiveness is increasing, etc. This is why I think choosing Michael Oren as commencement speaker was a bad choice. Especially when we’re this close to getting Paul Farmer! Paul Farmer! Why couldn’t it have been him?

An Interfaith Success Story

If you could sum up successful interfaith dialogue in three words, what would they be?

How about “Homies in Harmony”?

If those aren’t quite the words you had in mind, then you clearly weren’t one of the organizers of last week’s Jews and Muslims Session: Homies in Harmony III.  I wish that I had been able to make the event, because it seems like it was just as successful and entertaining as its name.  Check out this story in the Justice for a full overview of the event, but the basic premise was to create an interfaith conversation that would both allow for discussion of personal, controversial feelings and maintain a level of respect that would encourage participants to form friendships with people from unfamiliar faith tradition.  My good friend Neda Eid helped to organize the event, and she told me after the fact that she was very excited by how well it turned out.  Judging by the quotes from the article, it seems most of the participants felt the same way.

Last year marked a low point for interfaith dialogue at Brandeis.  It seemed that every few weeks introduced another controversy that played itself out in the papers and left a lot of hurt feelings.  The charter of Students for Justice in Palestine, the Israel 60th birthday resolution, aspects of the Mamoon Darwish saga and of the Senator-at-Large election and Judiciary case — I’m sure most of you still have sour memories of all of these events.  Even the Boston Globe took note of the firestorm the campus had become.  It’s counterproductive to go back and assign blame for everything that happened (I certainly don’t claim to be innocent myself), but I think it was clear to everyone that something had to change.

And something did change.  To the credit of the entire Brandeis community, this year has been almost completely free of the public battles that marred ’07-’08.  It’s hard to say exactly what did it; perhaps everyone just got tired of seeing so much bad blood.  Regardless, everyone at Brandeis should be proud that the interfaith dialogue on campus has improved so substantially over last year.

However, this clearly doesn’t mean that anger and bitterness don’t still exist.  Tension among religious groups has existed as long as humans have; should we really expect it to disappear overnight from our campus?  And just because it isn’t spilled out over the front pages of the Hoot and the Justice doesn’t mean that it has no effect and that we are best off ignoring it.  JAM Session should serve as a model for how to deal with these tensions productively and turn them into tools for strengthening our community.  It seems that plans are already in place to develop a more frequent series of conversations, and I encourage everyone to get involved with this in some way.  The elephant in the room is the Israeli-Palestinian tension, the biggest source of interfaith conflict on campus.  JAM Session wisely kept the focus on more general interfaith issues (though Israel/Palestine wasn’t explicitly excluded), but eventually that discussion needs to be had.  We should look at JAM Session as a model for approaching these issues in a way that allows respectful disagreement and productive action.  Brandeis has come a long way since last year, and though we may not be there yet, I have great confidence that we’ll eventually be able to engage even the thorniest of issues and remain homies in harmony.

Empty Crown?

The Crown Center’s response to Sahar’s recent post.

The Tragedy in Gaza: Competing Narratives

January 14, 2009
12:15 – 1:45pm
Rappaport Treasure Hall, Goldfarb Library

Dr. Amaney Jamal, Assistant professor of politics at Princeton University
Prof. Shai Feldman, Judith and Sidney Swartz Director at the Crown Center
Moderator: Prof. Robert Art, Christian A. Herter Professor of International Relations at Brandeis University

Dr. Amaney Jamal and Prof. Shai Feldman will present the Palestinian and Israeli narratives respectively and lead a discussion analyzing possible implications of the crisis for the parties involved and the Middle East at large.

Looks like an interesting event. From The Crown Center events I’ve seen in the past, I think they usually do events based on political analysis of the situation rather than historical narratives, so this seems like a unique presentation coming from them.

My guess is that the main reason they haven’t written much or said anything before this is just because we’re on break.