Local leaders: Don’t assume campus BDS activism linked to anti-Semitism

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

St. Louis Jewish community leaders said that they had not seen an increase in anti-Semitism or difficulties for Jewish college students. Some noted that, while they disagreed with the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, it is sometimes hard to draw a direct line between BDS activism and anti-Semitic behavior on campus. 

Karen Aroesty, head of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri/Southern Illinois, said it was vital to condemn any view that delegitimizes the State of Israel or questioned its right to exist. However, she also cautioned against a purely defensive mindset.

“What we need to do is prepare our young students to have the confidence and the tools to respond when something does happen but not to necessarily be anxious that something, in fact, will happen,” she said.

Aroesty said she had not heard of any specific anti-Semitic incidents at area campuses recently. She noted there had been some controversy at University of Missouri-Columbia of late over an upcoming course on Zionism as well as a recent instance of graffiti. She said it was still unclear whether the vandalism was intended to be anti-Semitic or what the content of the course would be, but the ADL was keeping an eye on both situations.

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In any event, Aroesty said that it would be an oversimplification to automatically link anti-Jewish sentiment to BDS activism.

“The problem with all this is that it happens in this atmosphere where everybody wants to create a nice, neat little package that, yes, it is all because of the BDS movement,” she said. “Do we know that students experience [problems] every once in a while? Absolutely they do. But is it really part of some concerted campaign on the part of local BDS activists here to create controversy on campus? I just can’t say that I know that.”

Rabbi Hershey Novack of Chabad on Campus said he hadn’t seen any general uptick in anti-Semitic or anti-Israel feeling locally. He said Washington University, where Chabad is very active, is a model for students dealing with one another with “respect and decorum.”

“The administrations across the various universities and colleges of St. Louis and those on the other side of the river have been consistently positive in recognizing the perils of BDS and supportive of open academic exchange with Israel scholars and universities,” he said.

He also noted that the BDS movement, whatever its dangers, wasn’t necessarily the central hurdle the Jewish community needs to overcome in terms of building a base for support of Israel.

“Apathy and disinterest are our great challenges,” he said. “As we work to solve these, support for Israel falls into its appropriate positive place.”

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council, said that, like Novack and Aroesty, she was worried over demonization of the Jewish State.  

“We are concerned about any activities where the goal is the delegitimization of Israel and questioning its right to exist,” she said.

However she said that while the BDS movement was sometimes used as a vehicle for anti-Semitism, it was problematic to assume that everyone associated with it sympathized with such a view.

“There are those whose motivation is anti-Semitic. There are those whose motivation is anti-Israel. There are those whose motivation is neither,” she said. “I might disagree with the approach but I think we have to be careful about making a blanket assertion as to the motivation.”