We’re Jewish Student Activists and We Don’t Need To Be Protected From BDS
Writing in the Forward, Seffi Kogen suggests that BDS pushes Jewish students out of social justice work on campuses across the country — because, when faced with the choice between supporting activism and supporting Israel, Jews have to choose Israel. But the problem facing Jewish student activists isn’t BDS or intersectionality: it’s the occupation, and the Jewish establishment’s support for an unjust status quo.
An assistant director for campus affairs at the American Jewish Committee, Kogen describes Jewish students as victims in need of protection from the rising tide of BDS, not as capable people with agency to make their own decisions about which groups to support. He states, “BDS has not led to a change in Israeli policy. It won’t. But it has slowly but surely begun to freeze American Jews out of the crucial social justice conversations of our time.”
But we are Jewish student activists, and we don’t feel frozen. Nor do the countless Jews on college campuses involved in the fights for racial, economic, immigration, gender and climate justice. Some of them are affiliated with Jewish groups on campus, and some are more distant from institutional Jewish life. Some of them may support BDS, and some of them may not. There is no one trajectory for Jewish students, just as Jews for centuries have encouraged a rich tradition of disagreement and discussion.
We reject Kogen’s framing on several grounds. To name a few: he assumes that all Jews are Zionists; he assumes that all Jews put unilateral support for Israel before support for Black Lives Matter; he describes Jews as in a state of perpetual victimhood, and he erases the experiences of Palestinians living under the occupation. By describing BDS as a threat to Jewish students, he obscures the realities of segregation and dehumanization that make the occupation a daily nightmare for the Palestinians who live under it, and a moral disaster for the Jewish Americans and Israelis who support and administer it.
When Jewish communal organizations claim to speak on behalf of all Jews, they force student activists to answer for policies they reject. We are tired of the argument that to be Jewish is to stand with Israel unconditionally. We have friends and family in Israel, and have both spent significant time there. But our personal ties to Israel are not what make us Jewish and do not require that we support Israel’s policies toward Palestinians.
Kogen also makes the argument that Jews should put support for Israel before support for groups that are critical of Israel, most notably Black Lives Matter. But we cannot shirk our obligation to fight for racial justice because of objections to the words “genocide” and “apartheid.” Though we should have a conversation about those words, we must demonstrate our commitment to black and brown lives, Jewish or not. Arguing that Jews should inherently choose Israel over other issues, such as racial justice, erases the lived experience of black Jews for whom supporting and participating in Black Lives Matter is a matter of survival.
What’s more, we will not be able to participate in social justice work with our full selves until we address the injustice that our own community perpetuates. If we are silent, or perceived as silent, about the time and money our community spends justifying the destruction of Palestinian lives, why should anyone take us seriously when we say black lives matter?
We believe that our involvement in social justice activism on campus is an important way of connecting to a proud history of Jewish struggles against oppression, from the Bundists of the Pale of Settlement to Jewish labor organizers on the Lower East Side to JFREJ and IfNotNow today. And that activism must include a commitment to fight against the oppressive Israeli policies our own community funds and supports.
Crucially, Kogen’s article lacks any discussion of the Palestinian people or their struggle against a racist and oppressive Israeli government that confiscates their land and demolishes their homes. The dominant narrative in Jewish communities around BDS is that it is a threat to our safety. This makes it easier for us, American Jews, to forget that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is about to turn fifty. Fifty years of subjugation and disenfranchisement, of midnight raids and checkpoints, of demolished homes and settlement building.
Groups that support BDS do not make us afraid for our safety; we do not need, or want, the protection of an out-of-touch Jewish establishment. What we truly fear is the way Jewish identity and the history of anti-Jewish oppression have been weaponized to justify the oppression of another people.
We worry that just as Jews were dehumanized by the oppression we faced in the past, we are dehumanized in the present by the oppression we inflict — whether on the ground or through communal institutions here in the U.S. To regain our humanity, we must assert the fundamental equality of all human beings — to affirm, as Cornel West challenged us to do, that the life of a Palestinian child has the same value as the life of a Jewish child — and fight for a future in which both Palestinians and Israelis live with freedom and dignity. We invite the Jewish community and institutions to join us.
Julia Berkman-Hill and Joshua Leifer are IfNotNow members who attend college at Bowdoin and Princeton, respectively, where they are involved in a range of social justice groups.