Hard topics about Israel demand open discussion

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is President and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

Last week, the student government at the University of Michigan voted to support divestment from companies that operate in Israel. The vote could be seen as a significant success of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel among students.  

The BDS movement promotes economic disengagement from Israel in a way that may jeopardize its future as a Jewish State. As the UM student government vote demonstrated, the fight against BDS is a political fight for the legitimacy of Israel.

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis strongly opposes BDS because we believe it is undermining the legitimacy of Israel and undermines the long-term prospects for peace. We actively invest in Israel education and travel to Israel particularly for our college students. Our support of the Israel Action Network has helped defeat multiple BDS resolutions through quiet advocacy. And we have been lead supporters of regional and state efforts to grow economic and cultural investments between Missouri and Israel. 

But some advocacy, no matter how well intended, can be counterproductive.

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Immediately after the vote at UM, condemnations of the decision were issued by many community organizations. I understand the impulse to react. Were a student government to act like this in St. Louis, our Federation would likely need to make a similar statement. 

But as someone who has taught college students for 20 years and is now the CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, I am concerned that efforts like this are having unintended consequences. These efforts include restricting the kind of public discussion that is allowable within our institutions, either through formal rules that limit partnerships on events or through an informal culture of silencing opinions. 

Students who support BDS are often treated by some parts of the Jewish community as uneducated innocents who have been “duped” by “propaganda.” Their views are labeled “anti-Semitic.” Merely considering boycotting products produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank is enough to cause alarm. Our institutions are creating a chilling culture for discussion about Israel.  

These efforts may be a reflection of the culture within many mainstream Jewish organizations, where strict dogma about Israel, if not silence, takes the place of open discussion and understanding. They are marginalizing students (and others) who are trying to find their own authentic voice as Jews and their own relationship to Israel in the face of what they view, rightly or wrongly, as injustice against Palestinians.  

I still teach undergraduate classes on Jewish Political Thought and Zionism at Washington University. Most of the students I teach oppose BDS. I believe those Jewish students who support BDS do so because of their desire to end suffering of the Palestinians. They are drawn to boycott Israel because they identify as Jews, not in spite of it. 

I do not believe that these pro-BDS students are anti-Semites, nor do I believe that most non-Jewish students who support BDS are anti-Semities. They are pursuing what they believe justice requires. 

Make no mistake: I strongly disagree with them. I believe they are gravely mistaken. I believe they fail to understand the challenges Israel faces.  And they ignore the likelihood of catastrophic civil war if they achieved their goal of a single binational state. They also downplay or outright ignore the vibrancy of Israel’s existing democratic institutions. 

We also must not be naïve. I recognize that many supporters of BDS are dangerously anti-Semitic. They apply a double standard to their attacks on Israel. They link the conflict to unrelated issues of injustice in the United States to broaden support. They intimidate, bully and deploy false arguments in order to question the legitimacy of the only Jewish state.  This is repugnant, and we need to continue to ensure that respectful open discourse is maintained, particularly on campus.  

But the fact that some or even many supporters of BDS are anti-Semites does not mean that all BDS supporters are anti-Semites. Just imagine if we judged our own opposition to BDS by the same standard. I find it repugnant that some who oppose BDS support the forced removal of Palestinians from the territories. But their advocacy of injustice does not make opposition to BDS unjust. Nor will I allow their unjust advocacy alter my opposition to BDS, even though I recognize we find ourselves on the same side of this issue.   

So, too, we must not let the anti-Semitic activism of some force us to condemn a new generation who are supporting BDS. Not when our students are working through their own political commitments and personal identity. No matter how mistaken we believe them to be.

One way to begin is to start encouraging more candid exploration of hard topics related to Israel. We need to speak frankly about the possibility that Palestinians have been victims of injustice even and especially if we strongly disagree with that view. Today, students find it difficult to explore these topics openly through mainstream American Jewish organizations.  

Many of us find these views uncomfortable or offensive, and they oppose the dominant narrative that we want to support.  But “safe spaces” within our own institutions cut against the distinctive feature of openness, intellectual exploration and simply “trying things on” that we should be encouraging within our Jewish institutions, particularly on campus.  

These limits, condemnations and labels are not protecting our students. We are not shielding the innocent from harm.  We are not advancing our cause. We are alienating ourselves from them at a critical point in their lives. We are using our fear to ignore the important concerns that motivate their actions. We are doing a disservice to the future of our community. And we are losing our credibility as honest brokers to support authentic engagement with Israel.  

Let us not get in the way of authentic exploration even when it makes us feel uncomfortable. Let us not overreact if college students make decisions that we believe are mistakes.  Let us dedicate ourselves to having hard conversations and be open to sitting in uncomfortable spaces.  

Israel is strong enough for that. Our community is strong enough for that. Our next generation is strong enough for that. 

Even, and especially, when we disagree.

Andrew Rehfeld, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Jewish Federation of St. Louis.