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4 Reasons Why Sheldon Adelson Anti-BDS Campaign Will Backfire

And so, the great irony of Israel continues: Those who hold themselves out as Israel’s staunchest defenders are often, in fact, its worst enemies.

Case in point, the Adelson/Saban donors’ conference, rumored to have raised $50 million for on-campus Israel advocacy, in a campaign they have ridiculously dubbed the “Campus Maccabees.”

Unfortunately, the Campus Maccabees are going to turn out to be a boon for the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Why? Because these donors (and the handful of organizations ideologically pure enough for them to support) have so drunk their own Kool-aid that they don’t see how alienating it is to any reasonable American college student in 2015.

We’re now due for $50 million worth of one-sided Israeli propaganda that pretends Israel does nothing wrong, “demonizes the demonizers” (in Sheldon’s words), and seeks to divide college students into two groups: For Us and Against Us.

Given that choice, most smart college students will pick Against Us. Honestly, if it weren’t for the one-statist, anti-Israel stance of much of the BDS movement, I would too. Here are four reasons why this new campaign of hasbara on steroids is likely to backfire, leading to more animus against Israel, and more support for BDS.

First, “For Us or Against Us” means patriotism, nationalism, ethnocentrism and a refusal to admit ambiguity and nuance. These are values some students have (especially those who are already on the “Us” team) but, according to the data, not most. Certainly not those who are reading Voltaire, Locke or Aristotle.

Moreover, since reasonable pro-Israel voices — i.e., those who support Israel but oppose the Occupation — are being excluded, they will soon be drowned out by their better-funded, further-right counterparts. College students will thus face a choice: nationalistic cheerleaders who refuse to admit the validity of Palestinian identity and suffering on the one side, and students in solidarity with Palestine on the other.

Some, of course, will choose the former. But if those are the only two choices, more will choose the latter.

Second, “For Us” also means willful ignorance.

For example? For years, Prime Minister Netanyahu, AIPAC and right-wing pundits have been telling us that Hamas, ISIS, Boko Haram and others are “all the same.” So saith Pamela Geller’s bus advertisements and countless op-eds in Jewish newspapers.

Oh, but did you catch the news that ISIS-affiliated Palestinian militants are now committing acts of terrorism against Hamas? So much for “all the same.” And yet, I haven’t heard any of the aforementioned Defenders of Israel admit that they may have blown that particular call.

This kind of ignorance is so commonplace, and so indefensible, that it cannot withstand a single campus debate. It will make pro-Israel seem pro-Ignorant.

Third, the Maccabees are dead wrong about the ‘Against Us’ crowd. “Demonize the demonizers” is a failed strategy from the get-go, because the “demonizers” are, in large part, reasonable students who the Maccabees’ purported target audience live, eat, sleep and learn with.

Case in point: I myself attended a session at the Association for Jewish Studies conference hosted by representatives of Stand With Us. The caricatures they presented of BDS supporters were so ridiculous that I concluded that either Stand With Us has no idea who these people really are, or that Stand With Us are liars. Either way, I knew I didn’t want to stand with them.

In the last several years, I’ve visited dozens of college campuses, and heard similar stories. With only a few exceptions, non-Orthodox Jewish students have more in common — socially, politically, stylistically — with their local Students for Justice in Palestine leaders than with the flag-waving right-wingers in the pro-Israel crowd.

Yes, they are uneasy with BDS, and with the one-sided anti-Israel rhetoric one hears in many SJP circles. But by and large, they know and respect the people involved. Students are not going to believe the demonization of BDS supporters — on the contrary, such efforts will only increase sympathy for them.

Demonizing the demonizers will only hurt the pro-Israel cause, because these students know the “demonizers” and are friends with them.

Fourth and finally, the Maccabees Strategy that we’ve seen so far is going to backfire because it willfully misdiagnoses why so many people are critical of Israel right now.

The reason is not because the critics are anti-Semitic, hopelessly liberal or otherwise deluded. It is because many people think it’s wrong for any state to deny 4 million people the right to vote, to determine their own future, and to live free of military occupation. That’s true of China too, but when it’s the Jewish state (and one propped up by American aid), American Jews feel particularly implicated.

To be told that isn’t really happening, or that it’s the victims’ fault or that it’s anti-Semitic to talk about it — all this will drive moderate students to SJP and other BDS-supporting groups.

The “world has turned against Israel” because Israel has turned against the two-state solution. It’s not quite that simple, but it almost is.

And whatever anti-Semitism is out there in the BDS world, my experience is that it pales in comparison to the racist, thuggish crap that you hear all the time at AIPAC, and from Sheldon Adelson and from Stand With Us.

I am largely resigned to this state of affairs. Having worked in philanthropy myself, I have seen the power of campaigns like this, and there’s nothing comparable on the other side. The Maccabees will come to dominate the pro-Israel conversation on college campuses, pushing aside J Street, dialogue groups, Ameinu and others.

And as a result, they will make pro-Israel voices seem like ill-informed, bigoted nationalists — driving students into the arms of BDS.

What’s tragic is that they are taking Hillel down with them. Thanks to the demands of Hillel International’s donors, the Jewish campus group is going to be dragged down into the Maccabean muck.

Hopefully, the tragically absurd propaganda of Sheldon’s Maccabees will lead to more individual Hillels jumping ship, joining the Open Hillel movement, and distancing themselves from these horrible and counterproductive campaigns.

But many won’t have that luxury. They will become fortresses of patriotism, festooned with literal and metaphorical flags, financially blackmailed into excluding voices of reason like J Street — along with voices of dissent like Jewish Voice for Peace.

I have met the directors of some of these Hillels, and in hushed tones, they share their exasperation with me. Here they are, trying to convey the gifts of Judaism to a new generation — and they are stymied by the For-Us/Against-Us viewpoint of the international organization and its key donors, which alienates the same students these hard-working Jewish professionals are trying to engage.

The historical Maccabees were zealots and terrorists, but at least they were fighting to preserve Judaism. Sheldon’s Maccabees will turn students against it.

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.

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