The Israeli government has declared the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement as one of the biggest threats facing Israel today. Many in the American Jewish community have worried about the anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel the BDS debates on college campuses invoke. For the last years, I, along with a group of researchers, have studied what happened to a campus Jewish community when Palestinian solidarity organizations introduced a bill calling on the university to divest funds from companies supporting Israeli military operations. We found that different groups of Jewish students engaged with the BDS bill differently, both Jewish groups gaining a more complex understanding of Israel (full findings are published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology).
Jewish students who positioned Israel as central to their Jewish identity (many of them born to Israeli parents) judged the bill as an attack on who they were. When coming to college many of these students intended to celebrate Israeli culture (similarly, to the way Mexican heritage students celebrate their culture’s music, food, dance etc.). The introduction of a bill to the student union calling on the university to divest funds for companies who do business with the Israeli military led these students to shift their focus from Israeli culture to a more complex study of Israeli politics. These students were more likely to begin attending conferences of Israeli advocacy groups, visit Israel, and take Israeli history classes to prepare themselves for a debate of Israel’s legitimacy.
Other groups of Jewish students who were involved in the Jewish community had a different reaction to the divestment debate. These students tended to position themselves as having a strong Jewish identity from an early age. In Jewish camps and Jewish youth groups, they came to understand Judaism as being grounded in values of tikkun olam (reparation of the world) and social justice. When these young Jewish Americans observed the coalition forming between organizations for students of color and Palestinian solidarity advocacy, they experienced a dissonance between their commitment to justice and equality for minority groups and their identification with the Jewish community.
To resolve this dissonance these Jewish students did not distance themselves from Israel but rather formed a new Jewish organization with ties to the Israeli left. They rejected the imperative set by the leaders of Hillel to “stand up for Israel” against the bill, and instead began studying Israeli and Palestinian politics. Understanding the Palestinian position led them to understand the divestment bill less in terms of anti-Semitism and more in terms of legitimate political action.
Our findings suggest that the reaction and debates over the BDS are emotional, passionate, and tumultuous. Nevertheless, they also are associated with a more complex understanding of Israel. These debates bring Jewish students to a deeper study of Israeli politics. Such study is associated with a shift away from a romantic view of Israel to a more complex and sophisticated understanding.
Dr. Ella Ben Hagai is an assistant professor at Bennington College Her study is titled “Between Tikkun Olam and Self-Defense: Young Jewish Americans Debate the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”