BDS and Bluster at Berkeley

Sam Berkman, National Director of Communal Relations
on October 6, 2022

In recent days, UC Berkeley has been in the news for a pro-Palestinian student group urging affinity groups on campus to support exclusionary policies toward Zionist speakers. Only nine of the more-than-100 campus groups chose to adopt such rules into their bylaws.

And while that development was controversial and unfortunate, what has put this string of events at Berkeley into international headlines is a recent opinion piece charging Berkeley with the creation of “Jewish-free zones” — a claim that is both inflammatory and false, as debunked by Berkeley Professors Ron Hassner and Ethan Katz.

Sadly for Berkeley and the broader debate over Israel/Palestine, this situation demonstrates how harder-line pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel advocates are deliberately stirring up contention and doing little to advance security, freedom, peace or justice. It draws our attention away from sincerely working toward a genuinely better future for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples and addressing the grievous acts of true antisemitism taking place in the US and around the world today.

J Street has many disagreements with the Global BDS Movement and its supporters, chief among them the premise that one cannot be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Staking out such an absolutist position is harmful and does nothing to change the facts on the ground or improve quality of life for Palestinians. If they were able to accept that one “can advocate for Palestinians and criticize Israeli policies without denying Israel the right to exist,” as the Jewish Students Association at Berkeley Law recognizes, they very well may have found support among those Jewish students. They instead double-down on silencing divergent viewpoints and refusing to recognize the right of statehood for the Jewish people – thereby alienating important potential allies in opposing the occupation and securing freedom for Palestinians.

And while national discourse surrounding Israel and BDS and the concerning increase of antisemitic incidents deserve our attention, we must be wary of those who would stoke fears within the Jewish community with disproportionate responses and hyperbolic rhetoric to advance their own agendas.

For certain, there are some who peddle antisemitism under the guise of BDS, and they should be exposed and confronted – as should all forms of antisemitism from the far-left fringes to the white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

But to insinuate that a college campus where Jewish life is, in fact, thriving is rampant with Jewish students being targeted and banished from campus activities based upon a smattering of groups adopting BDS policies that have gained scant traction is irresponsible and does little to advance security for Jews on campus.

And though I as a proud, progressive Zionist – who works for a pro-Israel, anti-BDS organization – associate Israel with my Jewish identity, I acknowledge that is not true of all Jews. Non-Jews can be Zionists (bizarrely, even some antisemites claim to be), and Jews can be anti-Zionists.

Using the two terms (Jew and Zionist) interchangeably can quickly lead one down a slippery slope to conflate antisemitism and any criticism of Israel, which may be the goal of some in order to stifle any such disapproval. In fact, it is entirely possible to simultaneously support Israel and be critical of many Israeli policies. Weaponizing charges of antisemitism as a blanket approach to delegitimize criticism of the Israeli government or as a means to dismiss the Palestinian narrative does a disservice to addressing actual antisemitism.

In the end, neither party is any better off than they were before this incident occurred. Silencing Zionist voices and employing sensationalist rhetoric in response allows both sides to continue avoiding each other, talking past one another, perpetuating blatant othering.

These are not easy topics to address or problems to solve. They are complex and deserve nuanced approaches, not exclusionary tactics or knee-jerk reactions. It is for this reason that I am thankful for J Street’s existence.

As we embark upon the Jewish new year of 5783, let us rise to the challenge of hearing the voices of those with whom we disagree, resisting the temptation to incite visceral reactions, and seeing ourselves in the other.

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