At the end of my critique of the BDS blacklist website Canary Mission, I asked “what is next?” Within hours, Yaman Salahi, a lawyer at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, responded with a detailed account of the various ways in which right-wing groups have used legal mechanisms and debates over funding to limit the Israel/Palestine debate on campus. Though many of these efforts are well-known — for example, the work of the Amcha Initiative — I was exposed to yet another layer of ways in which certain donors and groups hope to influence the bounds of acceptable opinion among young Jews. These efforts include censoring and hounding professors critical of Israel, lavish trips to Israel for academics, and of course, “BDS on BDS.”
One claim circulated by these groups is that campuses no longer provide “safe spaces” for pro-Zionist students. Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that the idea of a safe space — a zone free of certain types of “oppression” — has itself been heavily criticized recently for providing too indulgent a comfort for students. Do Zionist students really lack a safe space?
As noted by the New York Times, many pro-Israel actors consider college campuses to be “unsafe” for Jews as a direct result of the activism of pro-Palestinian students advocating for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. This claim has also been made by groups like Safe Hillel who seek to keep college Jewish spaces free of certain critical groups and non-Zionist public speakers. Last year, this initiative’s goal was described like this: “The goal is to make sure that Hillel remains a place on campus where students can speak freely about pro-Israel views, without having to defend against anti-Zionism.”
In short, safety for Jews is conflated with safety for certain Jews: those who are pro-Israel. Criticism of Israel’s actions — though only rarely actually committed in an anti-Semitic manner — is conflated with hatred of Jews, terror, and suspicion. Needless to say, the thousands of Jewish students opposed to Israel’s policies are forgotten. And for those of us, including myself, who have been the victim of violent or verbal anti-Semitism in the past, the conflation of political critique with our own trauma is truly galling.
Zionist students do not need “safe spaces.” Zionist students do not need and absolutely should not have Jewish spaces converted into protected zones for “loving Israel.” In any case, Zionist students do not need to be protected from a horde of evil BDS zombies. If anything, this mentality only creates a clannish, closed, unrealistic environment that does not engage students with anything remotely resembling the real world, or the challenges of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
If anything, the entire mainstream Jewish community is already a “safe space” for Zionist students. Many consider even J Street out of line — and never mind Jewish Voice for Peace. Funding for programming comes from right-wing donors that let you “discover Israel’s salad trail (on stolen Bedouin land)”; Birthright provides thousands of free and uncritical trips to Israel each year. Hillel International’s partnership standards — though now being pushed by some Hillels — prevent certain critical voices from being heard within college Jewish spaces.
If anything, the students who are silenced are the ones who are critical of Israel — be they post-Zionists like myself, BDS advocates, former volunteers for the New Israel Fund, or even those who don’t care. And for all those who have started college chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and demonstrated with If Not Now, many more silently sit in Hillels across North America. That’s the real silencing.
The arc of the Jewish community and discourse is changing. More Jews are asking “what is the Israeli state doing in my name? What is the cost of uncritically supporting Israel?” No longer are non-Zionists out of the communal mainstream, and the real world has a much tougher take on Israel than “hot men at the Dead Sea” and “Start-Up Nation.” Creating protected spaces for Zionist students does no good, and only creates unrealistic expectations and a hothouse for extremism. Just as some have warned before, the “safe space” is now part of the repertoire of those who seek to stymie change — and if we want a free, open, and self-critical Jewish community, we should not provide them for the politically favored.