The BDS Movement has sought to co-opt progressive/liberal student groups by convincing them that Israel is inherently bad and that only BDS offers a moral path committed to human rights. Progressive campus groups include Amnesty International, Young Democratic Socialists, LGBT groups, campus pro-peace groups, women’s groups, interfaith organizations, environmentalist groups, human rights organizations, and other social justice-oriented groups.
Pro-Israel students should not cede any ground to Israel’s detractors among these and other groups that identify with the progressive/liberal community. Pro-Israel students have traditionally been founders and leaders of human rights and pro-peace organizations, from the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry to Human Rights Watch.
Pro-Israel students have nothing to fear in discussing human rights and Israel. Israel is a model for human rights, the one country in the Middle East that champions the values of freedom of the press, religion and assembly as well as the rights of workers, women and gays. Israel is home to the region’s only independent judiciary system, which is open and accessible to Israelis and Palestinians alike. When Israel does not meet its own high standards for the treatment of its citizens, or the Palestinians in the territories, journalists, activists, politicians and the courts all take up the cause and seek justice.
Progressives Say: Dialogue Not Boycotts
Do not be afraid to discuss the tough issues, but be sure to place them in the proper context of a country that has democratic values and operates by the rule of law, but also acts within a unique security dilemma in which many of its neighbors do not recognize its existence and terrorism is an ongoing threat.
The way to address the difficult issues related to human rights, peace and security for Palestinians and Israel is through dialogue, not boycotts.
How can new coalitions be built?
1. Show interest in their causes and plan events together
What interests your peers? Think about how we can build Israel-related programs around those interests, whether it be “Israel’s approach to international law” for law students, electric car/solar power for environmentalist groups, or dance/literature for arts and humanities students.
Students can also talk about human rights and peace organizations in Israel and their efforts to influence debate as well as focus more attention on human rights abuses in countries that are not receiving the scrutiny they deserve.
Hillel leaders and student activists should reach out to progressive groups and plan events that both communities find interesting. Such events do not need to have anything to do with Israel; their primary goal is to build bonds, but discussions can explore Israeli policies and innovations in areas of interest to these groups (e.g., socialists might be interested in the kibbutzim, environmentalists might be intrigued by Israel’s innovations in solar and other technologies, feminists might be interested in hearing from women in the army, etc). However, events that highlight shared values might be just as important; both Judaism and Israel embrace many values that progressives hold as well.
2. Use terminology that mirrors our values
What values do we believe in? On what values were Israel founded? Human rights, equality, democracy, justice, freedom, self-determination, and peace are all certainly among them. Explain the risks Israel has taken for peace, its commitment to human rights, and the fact that Zionism is the national liberation movement of a historically oppressed minority.
3. Create new progressive committees
Some campuses already have a Jewish LBGT group, a Jewish environmental group, or a Jewish Women’s Forum. These groups, which are often focused within the Jewish community, should also be encouraged to reach out to other similar progressive groups. If there is enough student interest, students could also start their own student human rights group, which could focus on the world’s serial violators of human rights. It may also be possible to become involved in groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and to work to ensure that the campus chapter, at least, maintains the proper perspective in assessing the policies of democracies versus authoritarian societies and focuses on the worst human rights offenders.