Israel/Palestine and campus BDS battles

When I was in college I got very involved in Israel/Palestine activism. It was never my plan, or what I had imagined myself spending four years doing. But I went on a Birthright trip winter break of my freshman year, just because a friend and I then agreed to try the free trip together. It was certainly an exciting and meaningful experience, and I came home feeling more invested in exploring my Jewish identity. What that meant exactly, I wasn’t sure.

A few weeks after returning home, I was talking about my fun trip. Someone asked my opinion on the fact that any Jewish person like myself from anywhere in the world can travel throughout Israel with ease, but there are Palestinians who have lived on the land for generations who face burdensome restrictions of movement.

I had no idea what to say. I didn’t even know what checkpoints were.

“It’s the Jewish homeland?” I replied meekly, frustrated with my own ignorance. Not only was I unable to defend Israel to people who challenged it, but I felt embarrassed and confused.

Several weeks later I was asked how I could defend a state that expanded settlements in the occupied West Bank. I had no idea what people were talking about regarding “international law” and “illegal outposts.” Again I scratched my head and realized I knew very little.

What followed were several intense years of learning, writing, and changing. I heard about J Street U, the campus arm of J Street, and it struck me as a potentially good place for young Jews like me to engage with the thorny issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict openly and honestly. I ended up founding my campus’s J Street U chapter, and after my sophomore year I went back to Israel, this time traveling to the West Bank, too. It was exhausting and no Jewish Disneyland experience, but it was eye-opening and humbling. We met with two-staters, one-staters and those who advocate a constitutionally enforced binational state. We met with Palestinians and Jews living in the segregated city of Hebron. We wrestled with the role of diaspora Jews. We met with Israelis from Sderot and Netiv HaAsara who regularly face the threat of rockets from Gaza, with Holocaust historians from Yad Vashem, with leaders of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, Israeli university students, Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, human rights activists and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

My senior year I served on J Street U’s national student board. I’m very proud of a lot of what we did, and grateful for the friends I made as a result of that work. So many of them are truly extraordinary leaders today in so many fields.

I also left college deeply frustrated with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s government seemed to be trending ever more right-wing, and John Kerry’s peace talks had all but floundered. The summer after I graduated was also a new seven week period of violence between Israel and Gaza, in a disturbing time known as “Operation Protective Edge.”

Overall, I felt I really needed a break from all of it. And so I took that break, for the last few years. I threw myself into other issues, mostly all much closer to home. At the same time some of my J Street U friends were busy starting new organizations, including IfNotNow, which is now one of the leading Jewish groups in the U.S. focused on protesting the occupation. But I needed a break.

Today two of my J Street U friends are now leaders at Jewish Currents, a leftist magazine founded in 1946. One of them asked me recently if I would interview Josh Nathan-Kazis, a staff writer at the Jewish Daily Forward, about a series of articles he’s published over the past half-year detailing the more aggressive tactics being used to fight the boycott divestment and sactions (BDS) movement on college campuses.

I agreed, and started catching up on Nathan-Kazis’s reporting. I’m someone who considered myself pretty darn familiar with the dynamics of Israel-Palestine campus politics, but reading his articles made me realize a lot has changed, even since I left school about five years ago.

I interviewed Josh this month, and several days later, the Forward announced it would be ending its print edition and laying off nearly 30 percent of its staff. Josh is staying on, but it’s a huge blow to independent Jewish journalism.

Today my interview with Josh was published. I think it offers a decent primer for people who (like me) weren’t paying very close attention to the recent issues and developments.

Also two days ago, Michelle Alexander, the acclaimed civil rights lawyer and author of The New Jim Crow, published an op-ed in the New York Times about injustice in Palestine and Israel. It’s a great piece, timed to MLK Day, and one well worth reading.

But Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., called the op-ed a “strategic threat” to Israel. The Anti-Defamation League called it “dangerously flawed, ignoring critical facts, history & the shared responsibility of both parties.”

Some of the same Jewish organizations that came out to attack Alexander’s op-ed are the same ones behind the new anti-BDS strategy on college campuses that Josh reported on and I spoke to him about. I do think our interview offers some important context to what we’re seeing going on.

I’ll end this post with part of Alexander’s op-ed:

I am left with little doubt that [MLK’s] teachings and message require us to speak out passionately against the human rights crisis in Israel-Palestine, despite the risks and despite the complexity of the issues. King argued, when speaking of Vietnam, that even “when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict,” we must not be mesmerized by uncertainty. “We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.”

I won’t lie, the conflict still exhausts me, frustrates me, and makes me very sad. I can’t and won’t focus my energies on it in the same way I did while in college. But I can’t stay silent and look away, either.