Fu­ture looks bleak on cam­pus for pro-is­rael stu­dents

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Perspectives - Ari Blaff Ari Blaff is a mas­ter’s stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Af­fairs.

It is not a for­tu­itous time to be a sup­porter of Is­rael on univer­sity cam­puses. I have spent the last six years in such cir­cum­stances, and I can say with near-cer­tainty that pub­li­ciz­ing your pro-is­rael lean­ings will gar­ner you no friends.

The in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion of boy­cott, di­vest­ment and sanc­tions (BDS) mo­tions on cam­puses, Black Lives Mat­ter’s ex­plicit sanc­tion­ing of Is­rael in its up­dated char­ter, and the emer­gence of Queers Against Is­raeli Apartheid are some of the topi­cal so­cial move­ments that have pub­licly de­nounced Is­rael. The prop­a­ga­tion of ter­mi­nol­ogy like “pinkwash­ing” and “green­wash­ing,” “apartheid state,” “oc­cu­pa­tion” and “col­o­nizer” have be­come de rigueur in uni­ver­si­ties, ce­ment­ing Is­rael as the il­lib­eral, anti-pro­gres­sive uni­fy­ing cause for many.

Based on this, it is un­der­stand­able why find­ing openly sup­port­ive stu­dents of Is­rael – Jewish and non-jewish – is frus­trat­ing. The iden­tity pol­i­tics era and the cam­pus pol­i­tics strat­egy to dele­git­imize Is­rael have ren­dered the sub­ject seem­ingly in­com­pat­i­ble with an “ac­cept­able” po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion.

In an un­der­grad­u­ate Mid­dle East­ern his­tory course, one stu­dent called Is­rael an “apartheid state” and Ha­mas a so­cial move­ment. In grad­u­ate school, my Cana­dian his­tory pro­fes­sor claimed that Is­rael is the worst hu­man rights of­fender glob­ally and called the Jewish em­pha­sis on in­tra-com­mu­nal mar­riage racist. A dear friend called Is­rael a “war­mon­ger,” mis­tak­enly be­liev­ing the Jewish state to be en­gaged in mil­i­tary ac­tion in Iraq. A French stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Western Univer­sity ac­tively aided, vol­un­teered for, and briefed the lo­cal stu­dent chap­ter for Sol­i­dar­ity with Pales­tinian Rights and al­luded on Face­book to the “Zion­ist Lobby.” At a re­cent Grad­u­ate Stu­dents’ Union meet­ing at the Univer­sity of Toronto re­gard­ing a prospec­tive BDS mo­tion, my speech con­cern­ing the com­mit­tee’s in­ac­tion about an in­vited lec­turer’s com­ments that Jews were “in­her­ently racist, fas­cist, and colo­nial­ist” was ques­tioned for its rel­e­vance.

Although it is no stun­ning rev­e­la­tion that cam­pus pol­i­tics have be­come in­im­i­cal to any gra­da­tion of pro-is­rael ex­pres­sion, what is more con­cern­ing is the pall this re­al­ity has cast over the minds and at­ti­tudes of Jewish stu­dents.

While I firmly be­lieve that Jewish stu­dents here are well-po­si­tioned to voice their con­cerns, there has been a si­lenc­ing ef­fect. I ex­pe­ri­enced this first hand when a stu­dent-run mag­a­zine re­fused to pub­lish an ar­ti­cle I wrote about the United Na­tions’ treat­ment of Is­rael. The truth is, few wish to en­gen­der the sort of vit­riol that is gen­er­ally lev­elled at those who sup­port Is­rael, a coun­try cam­pus crit­ics derog­a­tively la­bel as op­pres­sive, colo­nial­ist, fas­cist and racist.

Wil­fully sub­ject­ing one­self to such scru­tiny and dis­com­fort is a dif­fi­cult cause to sell. Mean­while, com­pound­ing such prob­lems of po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion is the in­creas­ingly apo­lit­i­cal na­ture of Jewish stu­dents, which may be a corol­lary of North Amer­i­can Jewry’s so­cio-eco­nomic suc­cess.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween a fad­ing Jewish iden­tity and dis­in­ter­est in Is­rael has in­deli­bly framed my view of North Amer­i­can Jewry. Few of my Jewish friends have the con­vic­tion or pas­sion to en­gage in what is per­ceived to be ten­den­tious pol­i­tick­ing. Few will write col­umns in stu­dent news­pa­pers, par­tic­i­pate in Is­rael-re­lated cam­pus ac­tiv­i­ties, or voice their con­cerns pub­licly re­gard­ing anti-semitism or anti-is­rael in­ci­dents. Few are in­formed about the lat­est de­vel­op­ments in Is­rael. The con­cepts of in­cite­ment, set­tle­ments, the 1967 bor­ders, or Ha­mas are dis­tant con­cepts – back­ground am­bi­ence – to their lives in Canada. Friends have con­fided that they are fear­ful of speak­ing up on cam­puses, par­tak­ing in pro-is­rael events, or out­ing them­selves with such a cause.

I have met many in­spired, mo­ti­vated, and deeply knowl­edge­able Jewish stu­dents across Cana­dian cam­puses who have ded­i­cated their ex­tracur­ric­u­lar lives to de­fend­ing Is­rael. With their sup­port, and help from or­ga­ni­za­tions as Has­bara Fel­low­ships, there is a bud­ding fac­tion of adroit Cana­dian Jewish Is­rael ad­vo­cates. None­the­less, it is hard to sep­a­rate this gen­er­a­tion from our his­tor­i­cal con­text.

Un­like my grand­par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, for which the pall of the Holo­caust hung over Jewish con­scious­ness, or my fa­ther’s, for which events such as the Six Day and Yom Kip­pur wars punc­tu­ated their ex­is­tence, mil­len­ni­als do not have sim­i­lar re­minders.

What is our great tri­umph to which we can rally? Oslo? Peace with Jor­dan? The Gaza dis­en­gage­ment plan? This is far from the heady stuff of Is­rael’s cre­ation, Eich­mann’s trial or peace with Egypt.

In many re­spects the strug­gle with Is­rael – that of a strong, suc­cess­ful, and lib­eral coun­try, yet strug­gling to arouse the loy­al­ties of many young sec­u­lar North Amer­i­can Jews – is anal­o­gous to the do­mes­tic pub­lic re­la­tions prob­lems the United States en­coun­tered through­out the Cold War. The dis­en­chant­ment among Amer­i­can youth with Wash­ing­ton’s for­eign and eco­nomic poli­cies, de­spite the na­tion’s more lib­eral and hu­man-rights ori­ented dis­po­si­tion, man­i­fested it­self in the coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment of the 1960s and 1970s.

A sig­nif­i­cant seg­ment of Jewish youth to­day, I would ar­gue, has re­acted in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. A few ex­am­ples in­clude Brown Univer­sity’s Hil­lel chap­ter pay­ing trib­ute to the nakba, a Pales­tinian event com­mem­o­rated in­ten­tion­ally on Is­raeli In­de­pen­dence Day to hon­our refugees; a re­cent Is­rael/ Pales­tine sym­po­sium at the Univer­sity of Toronto (co-spon­sored by the Jewish stud­ies depart­ment) that in­cluded speak­ers who de­fined the con­flict in terms such as “geno­cide” and “apartheid”; and J-street, the grow­ing Amer­i­can Jewish ad­vo­cacy group cater­ing to younger left-lean­ing au­di­ences, hosted Mustafa Bargh­outi and BDS pro­po­nents at a con­fer­ence.

The vit­riol lev­eled at Is­rael from within the Jewish com­mu­nity is as­ton­ish­ing and sim­i­lar to the over­ar­ch­ing ac­tions of the coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment. It is the refu­ta­tion of the tra­di­tional po­si­tions of past em­pha­siz­ing how one’s par­ents and grand­par­ents are mis­guided. In fact, the el­der gen­er­a­tion’s main­te­nance of such a view­point is per­ceived as ev­i­dence of their will­ing­ness to per­pet­u­ate the con­flict and cal­lous­ness. The emer­gence of such be­liefs ac­com­pa­nied by a broader dis­in­ter­est with Jewish iden­tity makes for a dan­ger­ous con­coc­tion, and por­tends poorly for the fu­ture of lib­eral Jews in North Amer­ica.

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