There is a striking asymmetry in the way pro- and anti-Israel campus activists advocate for and against Israel. This academic year saw anti-Israel campaigners, led primarily by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), take an increasingly aggressive approach. SJP chapters around the country disrupted numerous pro-Israel events while harassing and intimidating student and faculty Israel supporters. Simply put, SJP sees itself at war with both Israel and its campus backers.
Asymmetry is evident when contrasting SJP’s approach with pro-Israel students who, on some campuses, may not even become engaged until something “bad” happens, such as an anti-Israel divestment resolution appearing in student government. Pro-Israel students often begin considering their plan for the semester only after the school year commences. Many local SJPs, however, already have in place their nationally coordinated strategy developed months before with professional guidance from off-campus groups, such as American Muslims for Palestine (AMP).
Not clear to most is SJP’s ideological alignment with Middle East rejectionists, including terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah that envision victory over Israel, not peace with Israel. For rejectionists, the failed war of aggression launched by Arab states in 1948 to destroy Israel in its cradle remains unfinished business. Their dream is to reverse that war’s results. Key to this strategy is the call for a “right of return,” which SJP supports. This demand is designed to end Israel’s existence by flooding the country with millions of descendants of the original refugees that resulted from the Arab states’ unsuccessful attack.
SJP’s Organizational Calendar
One of SJP’s major goals is to pass resolutions in student governments portraying Israel as the party solely responsible for the conflict, thereby deserving punishment with boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Their game plan is simple: during the Fall semester, SJP builds coalitions with other campus groups, particularly communities-of-color, hoping to fuse American race issues with the volatile Middle East debate. One striking example is the outreach SJP has made to the Black Lives Matters movement using the emotive and misleading slogan, “From Ferguson to Palestine, occupation is a crime.”
SJP also gets their members elected to student government, and their antagonistic activities –simulated checkpoints, mock “apartheid” walls, disruptions of pro-Israel programs and intimidation of pro-Israel students – create a hostile campus environment for Israel’s supporters.
By spring, a slew of BDS-inspired divestment resolutions predictably appears on campuses nationally. In some places pro-Israel communities are unprepared, having not reached out to natural allies or made sure their voice is represented in student government. They then desperately find themselves playing defense on their own goal line. The strident campus debate attracts media attention, giving SJP free publicity for their hate-filled messaging. Most students are uninformed about Israel, and SJP tries to take advantage of this vacuum by disseminating misinformation. So, even if their symbolic BDS resolution fails to pass, they achieve their larger goals.
BDS – Seeking Victory over Israel
BDS does not seek peace, but total victory over Israel. BDS promotes itself as embracing “non-violence,” but this pacifist rhetoric is finely tuned for Western ears. For instance, Leila Khaled, who infamously hijacked airplanes for the PFLP terror group, softens the connection between BDS and “armed resistance” (a euphemism for terrorism) with this bluntly honest explanation: “BDS doesn’t liberate land,” instead it helps “the people who [are] holding arms (i.e. PFLP or Hamas terrorists) to liberate land.”
BDS follows a three-stage anti-peace strategy. First is to turn public opinion against Israel. Next, they hope the shift in public opinion will lead to actions that actually damage Israel politically, culturally, economically, and in other ways. Finally, BDS hopes the pressures it created, combined with terrorism on the ground, will lead to Israel’s collapse. The anti-Israel campus campaign is a major component of this BDS strategy, which seeks to win future leaders and opinion makers to their cause. Our understanding of their long-term strategy helps inform StandWithUs’ campus efforts.
In North America, we are still in the first stage, meaning we can arrest their whole campaign by preventing them from turning public opinion against Israel. This is why StandWithUs is engaged with partners in the growing movement among U.S. states to adopt anti-BDS legislation. This aspect of the struggle for hearts and minds is of paramount importance.
The forces arrayed against Israel supporters on campus have grown in numbers and sophistication in the sixteen years since the Oslo peace process collapsed, when Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of Palestinian statehood and launched a devastating terror war (i.e. the “second intifada”). This period also marks the beginning of StandWithUs when in 2001 volunteers founded the organization to support Israelis during this horrifying time, and to stand up to this new, extremist anti-Israel campaign.
At the time, anti-Israel student activists were present on many campuses, but lacked professional outside support. This changed in 2002 when the first “National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement” was held at UC Berkeley. Students for Justice in Palestine, then a tiny group, organized it. Presently SJP is on 150 campuses.
Well-funded and Professional Agitation
Many well-funded professional off-campus groups, particularly American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), but also the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) the fringe Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), Palestine Legal (PL) and others, enabled this expansion. According to the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor, they all endorse the global BDS campaign, which opposes Israel’s existence, and have a combined budget of over $40 million. They provide SJP with strategy, funding, guidance, materials, and training.
As a recent exposé uncovered, SJP’s ties to AMP run deep and undermine SJP’s veneer of progressive rhetoric. Berkeley Professor Hatem Bazian, co-founder of Berkeley’s SJP in 2000, now serves as AMP’s national chair. In 2004, while Palestinian terrorists were waging their massive suicide bombing “intifada” against Israeli civilians, Bazian incredibly called for a similar “intifada” in America. “We’ve been watching [an] intifada in Palestine,” he told a San Francisco rally, “how come we don’t have an intifada in this country?”
AMP has disturbingly close ties with Hamas’s parent organization, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which openly promotes homophobia, female genital mutilation and anti-Semitism. The Brotherhood also vigorously fought efforts to bring Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator, to justice for his regime’s anti-African genocide in Darfur. Students who join SJP campaigns are likely unaware of these heinous ties.
In recent years, SJP has embarked on a deliberate policy to bully – psychologically and physically – pro-Israel students and faculty into silence while SJP promotes misinformation. SJP does not care about appearing extreme because the chaos they create gains them attention. This was evident at San Francisco State University earlier this year when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s presentation was disrupted and shut down. At UC Irvine in May a mob organized by SJP trapped and terrified a group of students in a room as they watched an Israeli film.
Muzzling Israel’s Friends on Campus
SJP’s aggressive strategy seeks to project an impression that Israel is radioactive and its supporters therefore do not deserve First Amendment rights. This muzzling campaign bodes ill not only for Israel’s campus advocates, but also for academic freedom and free speech generally. Further, when students, faculty or outside groups take issue with this bullying behavior, SJP works hard to turn the tables and garner sympathy as being victims of “Zionists” seeking to “silence” them.
Examples of SJP’s hypocrisy, radicalism and intimidation are rife. SJP’s 2014 national conference featured a keynote speaker, Muhammed Desai, who defended public calls to “shoot the Jew!” The keynote speaker at SJP’s 2015 national conference was convicted terrorist Rasmea Odeh, who participated in the murder of two Israeli college students in a 1969 Jerusalem bombing. In January, SJP’s De Paul chapter raised funds for her.
At UC Santa Cruz, a Jewish student senator was warned to “abstain” from a vote on a BDS resolution because of his “Jewish agenda.” At UCLA, a candidate for a student government committee was questioned about her Jewish identity’s supposed impact on her objectivity. At the University of Michigan, anti-Israel activists demanded that a Jewish student senator who expressed disagreement with an anti-Israel protest, be subjected to an “ethics investigation” and removed from his senate position. He was exonerated.
Anti-Semitism surfaced during a student tuition hike protest when CUNY’s SJP chapter blamed the “Zionist administration” for raising student fees and “reproduce[ing] settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education.” At one CUNY demonstration SJP students chanted, “Long live the intifada,” justifying the horrific violence in the current wave of stabbings and shootings of Israelis. Calls for intifada have also recently been chanted at SJP rallies at Berkeley and Irvine.
In sharp contrast, pro-Israel campus activists tend to present Israel through lectures, films, and cultural events, hoping to inspire their peers with Israel’s accomplishments and challenges. They advocate for a peaceful future for both peoples and promote campus dialogues. These attempts to interact with pro-Palestinian students, however, are rebuffed by SJP that disparages such meetings as “normalizing” with the “Zionists.”
Changing Strategies to Defend Israel
This escalating bellicosity demands that we revamp our own community strategies. Over the last fifteen years, StandWithUs has garnered a deep knowledge of how anti-Israel campaigns work, and what is missing from efforts to tell Israel’s story effectively. Confronting BDS’s long-term strategy requires our own long-term approach.
We have worked for many years to empower students to educate their peers about Israel while countering anti-Israel extremism as needed. We continue to do so by constantly developing new ways to tell Israel’s story proactively since playing defense alone is ineffective.
Our action plan has four primary points:
First, we develop messaging that is as inspiring as it is factual. For example, we find new and creative ways to convey the compelling story of the Jewish people’s indigenous roots in the Land of Israel, their resilience in the face of often-murderous oppression across Europe and the Middle East, and their self-liberation through the Zionist movement. If told well, Israel’s story will inspire and empower people around the world despite BDS’s demonization of Israel that simultaneously paints Palestinians as victims without agency in the conflict. Overcoming this simplistic imagery requires that we communicate Israel’s powerful story through images, videos, personal accounts and much more.
Mobilizing supporters is the second component of our strategy. This involves proactive activities on the ground and strategic outreach to key people in our network who can help join and grow our educational efforts. Action alerts, petitions and campaigns publicized through our email lists and social media are also key components.
Outreach to natural allies is next. We enjoy a close working relationship with other pro-Israel organizations and individuals straddling a broad political spectrum. We partner with them on an enormous number of programs and challenges in many different arenas including campus, high school, legal, legislative, and research. Our social media pages are in many different languages with an immense global reach of up to 100 million people (of all faiths and ages) each week.
This outreach effort includes speaker tours at churches, organized by local SWU staff or volunteers who have built relationships with these communities. We also help bring ethnically and religiously diverse Israeli speakers to campuses, and elsewhere, who connect with other minority communities, demonstrating experientially that Israel represents a beautiful tapestry of people and is not the “white European settler” country that BDS activists would have them believe. Most importantly, we give activists on the ground tools so they can build diverse coalitions themselves.
Finally, to succeed, our community’s voice must be represented in campus-wide leadership roles. We work with numerous partners on leadership development, so that pro-Israel students have the confidence and skills necessary to become leaders in the campus community at large.
Through these four steps, pro-Israel communities will be able to set the agenda and educate their peers more effectively than ever before.
Through Every Possible Medium
Today we are educating through almost every possible medium, from speakers, to conferences, campaigns, experiential marketing, and via print and digital media. We also develop proactive tools aimed at empowering pro-Israel activists to tell Israel’s story and build effective strategies in their communities. On campus, we work with students on being goal oriented and initiating their activities much earlier in the year, especially in building coalitions and getting involved in campus politics long before problems arise. This helps them set the agenda and spend much less time and energy “putting out fires.”
Fortunately, the trend in recent years has been for pro-Israel groups, both on and off campus, to work more cooperatively. Recently StandWithUs gathered over fifty organizations in Los Angeles to learn from one another and from international experts, exchange best practices and cooperate in perfecting successful strategies. We also studied the strategies of Israel’s campus opponents who have invested much effort creating methods of impacting the campus debate. The major difference, however, is unlike SJP, our path will always be civil and respectful, emphasizing the goal of peaceful coexistence.
We have made great progress in recent years, but asymmetry remains a tremendous challenge. SJP chapters and their off-campus enablers are waging a relentless war against pro-Israel students who don’t always recognize SJP’s malevolent agenda, and are still too often blind-sided by the tactics brought to campus and beyond. If we want to counter and reverse SJP’s increasingly menacing behavior, the essential first step is recognition of this asymmetrical imbalance.
In addition to Israel’s image and the sense of safety for those who openly support Israel on campus, there is much at stake. SJP’s strategy and their attempts to suppress the voice of pro-Israel activists have a broad chilling effect on campus free speech. As such, SJP presents a clear danger to the constitutionally guaranteed rights not only of pro-Israel students and faculty, but of everyone on our nation’s campuses.