Two days ago, I was part of a J Street U delegation attending a major summit at the United Nations dedicated to confronting BDS. We went because we too oppose the Global BDS Movement and wanted to offer a serious, effective alternative to the failed right-wing pro-Israel advocacy that we see every day on college campuses and around the country.
Instead, the event perfectly encapsulated why the Jewish community is losing the fight against BDS — and turning many young people off of Israel entirely.
When we conveyed the message that effectively confronting BDS requires opposing the occupation, we were met with scorn and abuse. A state legislator called us “anti-Semitic” from the podium to a standing ovation. Summit attendees called us “pigs,” told us we were bringing about the next Holocaust and suggested we visit Gaza to “get beheaded.” During a breakout about fighting BDS on campus, panelists insulted and mocked students who criticize the settlement enterprise and called the occupation “a lie.”
If the American Jewish establishment is interested in understanding why they struggle to engage young people and progressives, they should look no further than this event. This summit is symptomatic of a far bigger problem.
Many of the co-sponsors of this summit routinely equate criticism of the occupation with denial of Israel’s right to exist. They falsely conflate defending Israel with defending settlements and occupation.
These attitudes show that the summit was profoundly out of touch with Jewish Americans, the overwhelming majority of whom oppose settlements and support a two-state solution. This is even more pronounced amongst young Jews like myself, who know that the old guard’s actions and rhetoric could push a generation of young Jews toward the Global BDS Movement.
Many American Jewish leaders in the audience said nothing while we were called anti-Semitic, with some notable and encouraging exceptions. How do they think progressive students who hear about that exchange are going to react?
It’s time for them to come to grips with the truth: There’s no way to fight BDS without fighting the occupation. Most support for the Global BDS Movement stems from very real concerns about human rights violations in the West Bank and the threats the occupation poses to Israelis and Palestinians.
Showing an utter disregard for these concerns, the summit elevated extremists, avid Trump supporters and Islamophobic voices. This is deeply troubling in its own right and a surefire way to lose the fight against BDS.
But it’s about more than just winning on campus or reaching out to unaffiliated Jews — ignoring the occupation means allowing Israel to succumb to what former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo just called its “greatest existential threat.”
That’s why the event organizers’ myopic focus on BDS at the expense of other issues is so misguided. I couldn’t help but think that if the Jewish establishment spent as much time fighting for peace as they do fighting against BDS, it would soon be a thing of the distant past — and Israelis and Palestinians might be much better off.
I don’t enjoy being jeered and insulted, but J Street and J Street U are used to taking on bullies. We understand the stakes of the fight against the occupation and for a two-state solution. We will continue to do our critical work, even in the face of some of the Jewish community’s shocking hostility.
We know the convenient truth is that the only way to beat BDS is also the only way to ensure Israel’s future as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people. It’s past time the Jewish organizations we heard from this week got the memo.