If you can believe the breathless e-mails and exhortations sent to some parents of Jewish college students, the nation’s campuses are swarming with anti-Zionists ready to persuade unsuspecting Jewish students to sign up for the local branch of Hamas. We exaggerate, but not by much. There is an assumption that many campuses are increasingly dangerous places for Jewish students, breeding grounds for the insidious movement known as BDS — a push to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel in order to isolate the Jewish state from the family of nations.
Forward reporters spent several months examining that premise and here’s what they found: Only 17 instances of significant BDS activity occurred in North American campuses since 2005, the official start of the pro-Palestinian campaign. Now, that number does not include actions falling under the rubric of free speech — a lecture, a petition drive — because they are difficult to catalog and even more difficult to vilify. Universities, after all, are designed to be places where all manner of ideas are debated and challenged. But the number — only 17, over six years —does include any time groups have taken serious steps to swing campus policy away from supporting Israel.
And in no instance has BDS action led to a university in the U.S. or Canada divesting from any company or permanently ceasing the sale of any product.
By that measure, BDS on campus has so far failed.
Proponents won’t say that, of course, and neither will those opposed to BDS. Both sides have reason to play up the threat. And the truth is, what pro-Israel activists rightfully fear is what BDS supporters want: A shift in tone, a growing acceptability that Israel’s right to exist should be questioned, or even denied.
That threat is real, and it must be addressed, but it also must be kept in perspective. Fighting BDS cannot be turned into a cottage industry for the fearful and anxious. And these efforts must recognize that all calls to boycott are not the same. A group can support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state and still believe that buying products made in the occupied territories helps perpetuate an untenable, immoral situation. Boycotts are peaceful, legitimate tools of economic leverage, and don’t automatically lead to delegitimization.
The black citizens in Montgomery, Ala., who refused to ride segregated buses didn’t believe that their city shouldn’t exist. They were simply using economic clout to challenge and try to change an unjust system.
The real affront is when BDS is targeted against all of Israel, or against its legitimate means of defense. Then it is no longer challenging an unjust system, it is challenging the very right of Jews to govern themselves in their internationally-recognized homeland. That movement must be countered at every turn.
Hopefully, the mainstream leadership of Jewish communal organizations involved in anti-BDS work appreciate these distinctions. Parents must, as well. Those who came of age in the heady days of independence and military victory may find it difficult to know how to deal with criticism of contemporary Israel, and it may be harder still for college students who matured during intifidas and terrorist campaigns. But in confronting the challenge, we must not inflate it and risk making our opponents appear much stronger than they really are.