BY MICHAEL BRENNER
Published March 25, 2014
I understand James Brennan’s critique of Hillel’s reluctance to bring speakers to college campuses that support the BDS movement. He’s partially right — policy makes pro-Israel students on campus seem like hypocrites when they then call for preserving a safe space for debate. He's mostly wrong because he makes no case for why student groups on campus have an obligation to give platforms to harsh opponents of their communities. Catholic student groups are not likely to bring pro-choice activists to campus anytime soon. Groups that represent students of color are not likely to provide a platform for harsh opponents of affirmative action. So why should campus Jewish groups be required to provide a platform for BDS proponents, many of whom blame American Jews for the actions of Israelis, and assert that Jews enjoy too much financial and political power in the United States? These views are commonly held in the BDS community, and engender no criticism in it, even though they are classically anti-Semitic expressions.
Brennan appears to have no criticism for pro-Palestinian student groups (groups which collectively have a far larger constituency than Hillel does). These groups refuse to bring pro-Israel speakers to speak to their members, and indeed, were the BDS movement to become more successful, they would endeavor to ban Zionist speakers from campus altogether through an academic and cultural boycott. Clearly, pro-Israel opinions are not so hegemonic; Brennan himself admits that he does not know enough about the conflict to take an opinion one way or the other.
This practice of pro-Palestinian student groups has left their constituents with a view of Israel and its people that is remarkably ill-informed. Israel is not just a nation of soldiers. Israel is a multiracial and multiethnic liberal democracy where Arabs vote and sit in parliament, where LGTBQ rights are protected and where a free press reigns. Much of the security apparatus pro-Palestinian students criticize today came about as a result of countless suicide attacks that killed scores of Israeli civilians, including both Jews and Arabs. These attacks regrettably claimed the support of most Palestinians living in the territories. Israel’s citizens are mostly Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and Jewish refugees who were forced out of Arab states after 1948, and their descendants. This part of the story is totally absent from pro-Palestinian rhetoric and literature, and outside of the United States, where Muslims far outnumber Jews, the pro-Palestinian narrative, complete with these omissions, is predominant, and its proponents have long attempted to restrict Zionist voices from contributing to any debate.
In the real world, representatives are not required to take up every issue citizens wish to be placed on the agenda. That is particularly true when, as with divestment, student government has little power, and empty resolutions of support can only lead to further societal polarization. Leadership sometimes requires staying out of polarized debates, rather than amplifying them. The University of Michigan’s student government acted appropriately — they chose not to consider a sense-resolution that would divide the University’s campus at the behest of a vocal minority, would accomplish nothing substantively, and would place Jewish students at further risk of abuse, since so many BDS proponents blame the American Jewish community for what they perceive as Israel’s bad behavior.
I applaud them.
Michael Brenner is a board member of ACCESS of the American Jewish Committee.