As an organizer on college campuses for J Street U, the campus wing of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, I meet a lot of passionate students determined to stand up for a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. But I also see how much of the American Jewish and pro-Israel establishment places far-right, extremist voices and talking points at the center of their pro-Israel, anti-BDS advocacy –- with predictably disastrous consequences.
That was on full display last week at a major “Ambassadors Against BDS” summit, hosted at the United Nations by Israel’s UN embassy and a range of pro-Israel organizations. A delegation of J Street U students and staff attended the event. They brought with them deep concern for the threat that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank presents to Israel’s Jewish and democratic future, and the unacceptable burden that it places on Palestinians.
What they were met with in New York was a prime example of how “Israel advocates” are alienating the majority of students and American Jews by providing a major platform to people who oppose everything that progressives stand for. A J Street U student asked a question about how students could effectively oppose both BDS and the occupation. One of the panelists, South Carolina state legislator Alan Clemmons, responded with a rant about how J Street is an “anti-Semitic” organization-– and insisted that there is no such thing as an occupation.
The rant earned cheers, a standing ovation and a series of repugnant jeers and insults directed at J Street U’s students. In the aftermath, several mainstream American Jewish groups that helped sponsor the event, like Hillel, the American Jewish Committee, and the Israel Action Network, have expressed their dismay at how J Street U was treated. Importantly, they made clear that these kinds of attacks on progressive students are unacceptable and counterproductive.
But the question remains: Why was someone like Clemmons asked to speak about Israel advocacy in the first place? In South Carolina, Clemmons is well-known for authoring and helping to pass a resolution that insists Israel could never be an occupier in the West Bank – using the Old Testament as its justification. He also received national attention for authoring one of the nation’s most restrictive Voter ID laws -– a bill that the Department of Justice objected to as an effort to restrict the ability of non-white people to vote.
Clemmons was far from the only extreme voice at the forefront of the summit. Mort Klein, head of the far-right Zionist Organization of America, led a session for students about how to combat BDS on campus. He talked about the importance of denying the occupation and defending the settlements -– which is not only a terrible strategy in fighting BDS, but also demonstrates a lack of seriousness or care for those on the ground in Israel and the West Bank who suffer from the ongoing conflict.
Klein and his organization have a history of vitriolic attacks on Palestinians and Arabs, as well as against Muslims and liberal Jews in the United States. While the vast majority of American Jews have rallied against President Trump’s discriminatory executive order on immigration, the ZOA has championed it. While American Jewish and liberal groups have lined up to oppose Trump’s white nationalist adviser Steve Bannon, Klein and the ZOA have defended him.
On college campuses and in communities across the country, the vast majority of American Jews are working to oppose Clemmons’ and Klein’s brand of discriminatory right-wing politics. Yet their extremist worldviews and preference for fanaticism over facts seem to make them darlings of many pro-Israel groups.
Israel’s government has recently taken a similar approach to key public diplomacy positions. The Israeli ambassador to the UN, consul general in NY and deputy foreign minister, are all strong public opponents of the two-state solution.
The message is clear: compromise, pragmatism, and dialogue are no longer wanted or needed. I can see the impact of this on college campuses every day, as students are increasingly polarized, forced to choose between “Israel always right” or “Israel always wrong.”
The students I work with continue to fight for a principled and effective middle ground. When we succeed, we win new advocates for the two-state solution and make major contributions to the defeat of BDS efforts.
But empowering people on the political extreme and mainstreaming their ideas makes our work harder and only harms the long-term interests of Israelis, Palestinians and the American Jewish community. Defending progressive students against hate speech is important –- but it won’t get to the root of the problem. The pro-Israel establishment needs to realize that their efforts have gone down a dangerous path -– and take real steps to change course.