BDS movement attempts to derail agendas of student governments on local college campuses

BDS wall image
Israeli Apartheid Wall at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Nationally, the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement hijacked the agendas of several student governments this spring. At Loyola, nine members of the United Student Government Association (USGA) who were also members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) introduced an "emergency" resolution calling for the university to divest from companies doing business in Israel. There was no opportunity for discussion of other viewpoints. The resolution passed 26 - 0 with two abstentions by claiming that the school would be complicit in human rights violations if it did not divest from the companies in the resolution.    

The following week, a second vote was taken after vigorous debate during which Israel advocates, working with staff of JUF's Israel Education Center, significantly changed hearts and minds. While the second vote did pass, the margin was substantially different. The result was 12-10 with nine abstentions.  The next day, the student President vetoed the resolution stating that "no matter what viewpoint you hold on the larger issue, this resolution caused harm among the student community." At Loyola, the University Administration emphatically declared that "Loyola University Chicago has NOT adopted a resolution calling for the University to withdraw or refrain from investing in certain companies providing products and services in Israel… This is not the position of Loyola University Chicago and we will not adopt this proposal." 

After failing to pass at Loyola, the tactic was shifted to a referendum at DePaul University. The referendum will be placed on the student government election ballot in order to take the vote to the wider student body.  This allows divestment supporters to water down the argument even further and offer a false choice between "supporting" or "opposing" human rights violations.  No vigorous debate was necessary or really even possible.  

Proponents of BDS understand that being perceived as "just and fair" resonates on campus. They hide the simple reality that their real goal is the demonization and delegitimization of Israel, leading to its destruction. The Israel divestment resolutions on campus are part of the overall BDS strategy that also includes the recent efforts by some academic associations to boycott Israeli academics. In countering all these efforts, we work closely with Hillel professionals on campus, the Israel Action Network, and other national Israel advocacy groups.

The strategies are increasingly more sophisticated and nationally coordinated with elaborate social media, websites, and grassroots campaigns. The resolutions offered are crafted to manipulate and distort the facts. They simplify a complex conflict by saying to students that if they support BDS, they stand for justice and human rights. Israel is routinely accused of being "apartheid," "colonial," and perpetrating "ethnic cleansing." There is no mention of the fact that Israeli Palestinians are full citizens who vote, serve in the Knesset, and work as judges, doctors, and professors alongside Jews.

To date, the BDS efforts have had limited success. However, they have the potential to make Jewish students on campus feel insecure and isolated, especially when they create a "hostile" environment for Jewish students and enter the classroom. In Illinois, the resolutions have had the opposite effect than the one intended.  They have mobilized and ignited student support for Israel from previously unengaged Jewish and non-Jewish students alike.  Christian, LGBTQ, African American, and Greek life students worked together against the divisive resolutions at Loyola and DePaul.

While the divestment efforts have yet to impact the portfolios of any particular campus and it is virtually certain that will not be happening, that isn't the main goal in any case.  Moreover, the cumulative negative PR effects of these campaigns is a matter for concern. We must remain vigilant as new tactics and threats are developed. With the support of Hillel and the Israel Education Center our students in Illinois will not stand alone and will not allow support for Israel to be eroded by those who seek its destruction. 

Emily Briskman is the director of JUF's Israel Education Center.

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