When the student government legislature at the University of California, Irvine voted unanimously for an anti-Israel divestment measure recently, the vote was not just a setback to the pro-Israel cause — it appeared to throw into question a broad new approach that some pro-Israel advocates have been promoting to move discourse on Israel, as they put it, “beyond the conflict.”
The strategy, which involves playing up other aspects of Israel’s society and culture, such as its science and high-tech achievements, seemed more subject to doubt when an official advisory committee at Brown University, in Rhode Island, approved a divestment recommendation around the same time. The committee called for dialogue with the school administration about Brown’s possible investment “in firms whose products and services are being used to commit human rights violations in Palestine.”
In June, Arizona State University’s student government also passed a motion calling for divestment.
Ironically, just one week before the November 13 measure passed at UC Irvine, the Israeli news site Ynet — the outlet for Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s second-largest daily newspaper — published a story hailing what it described as a pro-Israel turnaround at that campus.
Only two years earlier, a group of Muslim students had disrupted a campus speech there by Israel’s envoy to the United States, Michael Oren, at one point briefly forcing him from the stage.
The ensuing controversy gained the campus a reputation as a center of anti-Israel sentiment. But now, the Ynet story declared, the campus “has become a hotbed of pro-Israel activity.”
The student government vote — which now goes to two other bodies for approval before being submitted to the administration — seems to refute this assertion, and put two years’ worth of pro-Israel advocacy on campus under a shadow.
Following Oren’s contested appearance there, some Israel supporters made UC Irvine a testing ground for their different, softer approach. Among other measures, five Tel Aviv University science and engineering lecturers were hosted on campus to showcase the country’s contributions to cutting-edge research. Idan Raichel, an Israeli musician whose work is a synthesis of European, Asian and Middle Eastern music, gave a concert on campus. And student organizations, such as the Irvine Global Innovation Group, were created to host panels promoting Israel’s success in creating start-up companies.
The programming’s aim was to favorably influence students’ attitudes toward Israel while avoiding the kind of hard-edged confrontation with anti-Israel activists that some say only gives those activists publicity.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group that emphasizes a more aggressive approach, called the programming at UC Irvine “productive and positive,” but said that groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, which promotes divestment, will continue to oppose pro-Israel agendas, regardless of the tactics.
“The SJP really has a one-track agenda, and that’s the problem,” Rothstein said. “The pro-Israel camp can do what they want, but SJP keeps doing their negative programming.”
In a press release sent after the UC Irvine resolution passed, supporters of divestment called the action a “historic move that could initiate a domino effect across America’s campuses.” The website The Electronic Intifada proclaimed the timing of the vote “a sharp blow” and “embarrassing” to pro-Israel organizations.
But supporters of the softer pro-Israel strategy say that the latest push for BDS will not alter their goal. David Siegel, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles, called the resolution “a testing moment,” but described the student government that voted for divestment as “an insignificant student body with no standing.” Siegel, who has worked closely with UC Irvine administrators since he arrived in the summer of 2011, said that the passage of the resolution “is not going to have any impact on our strategic approach…. We believe the best response to divestment is to double down on proactive investment…. We believe BDS is the past.”
Siegel described UC Irvine as a hub of anti-Israel activity at the time of the Oren speech. He said that after the diplomat’s talk was disrupted, he moved quickly to meet with Chancellor Michael Drake. Siegel suggested partnerships to increase contacts and educational exchanges between the university and Israel.
Drake visited Israel this past April, and there he met with President Shimon Peres and signed agreements to collaborate with Ben-Gurion University, Hebrew University, Technion — Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University.
After the student legislature’s divestment resolution passed, UC Irvine’s administration released a statement describing itself as “extremely pleased with recent global collaboration between leaders and researchers here and those at top universities around the world, including Israel.”
In May 2011, the Forward reported that since 2005 there had been only 17 instances of serious BDS activity. Last October, The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise released a study stating that 97% of American and Canadian college campuses report no anti-Israel or anti-Semitic events. But some advocates say that the recent Israeli military actions in Gaza, which came soon after the actions at UC Irvine and Brown, could give a boost to the campus BDS movement.
Sabreen Shalabi, an author of the UC Irvine resolution and member of Irvine Divest, a campus group formed after the resolution passed, wrote to the Forward in an email: “The horrific images coming from Gaza should highlight the importance of being proactive when it comes to matters of international law and human rights. First and foremost, we should examine how our own universities and governments are complicit in these crimes by supplying funds and resources that are used to kill and oppress innocent people.”
Eran Shayshon, an advocate of the “beyond the conflict” strategy at the Reut Institute, in Israel, said: “Clearly, when clashes erupt, there’s a fertile ground to promote anti-Israel sentiment and much more criticism of Israeli policy. But it also diverts attention from efforts that seem marginal to the bigger story.”
Shayshon, who is director of national security and global affairs at Reut, a not-for-profit organization that focuses on influencing change in the Jewish world, said that groups like Irvine Divest were only interested in media exposure. But he acknowledged that the resolution helped “reawaken pro-Israel groups on campus.”
Lisa Armony, director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County, which was created in 2008 to counter anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity at UC Irvine, agreed that pro-Israel students were rallying in response to the resolution.
Rothstein, of StandWithUs, said that pro-Israel students felt attacked by the divestment measure. She said that when Israel is not being attacked on campus, “you have the luxury of doing education on Israel technology and humanitarian aid.”
Cecilie Surasky, deputy director of Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports some forms of BDS, dismissed the idea that the beyond-the-conflict strategy had quelled campus support for BDS. “Divestment efforts and criticism of Israeli occupation [are] simply becoming more normalized and accepted,” she wrote to the Forward in an email. “Years ago, no one even talked about Palestinians. Five years ago, student activists had to educate others about the occupation. Now, everyone knows about the occupation; the debate is about how to end it.”
Contact Seth Berkman at email@example.com