A senior Jewish federation executive has unusually blunt words for Israeli government officials planning to take up arms in the anti-BDS struggle on American college campuses: Back off, he says.
“The Israeli government needs to get out of this business,” says Jay Sanderson, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which serves the largest Jewish community in North America outside of New York. “It should not be involved in what’s happening on the college campuses. There’s lots of ignorance about what this issue is really about, and rather than addressing it in a nuanced way, the Israeli government is simply stoking the flames.”
Last June, the government allocated $25 million to a special campaign to combat the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The funding was allocated to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is meant to be gathering intelligence on anti-Israel activities abroad, including on college campuses, and sabotaging them. The college campuses of California have been a particular hotbed of BDS activities in the past two years.
In an interview in his Beverly Hills office, Sanderson argued that the various divestment votes taken against Israel on college campuses in the state have been meaningless.
“None of them matter at the end of the day, and they haven’t had any impact whatsoever on the Israeli economy or on trade with Israel,” he said. “But the more money that goes into this, and the more people who make this the big issue of all time, the more fuel we’re giving the other side.”
In the past few years, several student government bodies on California campuses have passed resolutions recommending that their institutions divest from American companies that “profit from the Israeli occupation.” None of these resolutions have been adopted by university administrations.
The vast majority of Jewish students on American college campuses – about 75 percent, in Sanderson’s estimation – are “disinterested and disconnected” from Israel and belong to what he describes as ”the soft middle.”
“These are Jewish kids who could go either way,” he said. “But when the issue is so polarizing, with small numbers on the far left and on the far right – all that this loud noise does is take this soft middle and push them away from Israel altogether. And that’s the biggest problem in Jewish life and on Jewish campuses that’s getting completely dwarfed by the big BDS thing, which is not that big at all. While we’re worrying about the big BDS folks and whether J Street is a problem or not, we are leading that group of 75 percent completely adrift from the Jewish community and Israel.”
More activities and investments aimed at engaging these students with Israel, he argued, is not the solution.
“In my generation, Israel may have been the first driver of Jewish identity,” said Sanderson. “But it’s not going to be anymore in the same way. Israel’s too complicated. So our approach has to be to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel. In other words, first feel good about your Jewish self and then learn about Israel, as opposed to what is used to be, which was learn about Israel first, and then through Israel, find out about your Jewish self. This is a major change, which we have to learn to embrace, and which is not always easy.”
Before assuming his position at the federation six years ago, Sanderson served as a film and television executive. Among other productions, he was creator of the widely hailed PBS series “The Jewish Americans.” As it is unusual for Jewish federation officials to voice public criticism of the Israeli government, Sanderson said he was aware that his comments might “get me in trouble.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last year to try to rally Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal, in Sanderson’s view, served to alienate Jewish students even further from Israel. “When it looks like there’s a rift with a president of the United States whom most of these students voted for, that exacerbates disinterest and disconnection,” he said.
Sanderson also criticized the many pro-Israel advocacy organizations that “yell and scream” on college campuses. Without mentioning specific names, he said: “It’s not effective advocacy to act like the house is burning. Frankly, we need to quiet the noise on our end. Every single Jewish organization in the world seems to want to be on the college campuses, and while it may be helpful for their fundraising efforts, it’s not helpful to the students. It’s kind of like there’s a fight going on with water pistols, and these people come in with heavy artillery, and so it gets louder and louder and looks bigger and bigger.”
After several trips to Israel, said Sanderson, his own 22-year-old daughter had returned with concerns about where the country is heading.
“If I tell her not to ask those questions or that her questions or feelings are wrong, then what is that going to mean for our relationship or her relationship to Israel?” he asked. “Instead, I listen to her, and it’s very uncomfortable for me. Her Zionism and my Zionism, we have to be able to resolve them and not push them farther away – but that, unfortunately, is not a strategy in the non-nuanced world of the Israeli government.”