Does Divestment Divide Jewish Students From Their Peers?

May, 15 2015
Students for Justice Wall

by Anna Isaacs

Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a story about the popularity of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on dozens of American college campuses, describing the range of minority student groups that embrace calls for divestment from Israeli companies and the Jewish students – particularly ones who are otherwise politically progressive – who may feel sidelined as a result.

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“College activists favoring divestment have cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a powerful force’s oppression of a displaced group, and have formed alliances with black, Latino, Asian, Native American, feminist and gay rights organizations on campus. The coalitions — which explicitly link the Palestinian cause to issues like police brutality, immigration and gay rights — have caught many longtime Jewish leaders off guard, particularly because they belonged to such progressive coalitions less than a generation ago.”

The story made note of two headline-making charges of anti-Semitism at U.C.L.A. and Stanford, both involving Jewish students who were questioned about their religious affiliation while being considered for a student government position; on both campuses, the student governments had passed divestment resolutions amid heated debate.

It also illustrated a quieter kind of exclusion:

Some said that while they had never hidden that they were Jewish, they felt uncomfortable voicing their support for Israel and often chose to stay out of debates around other current political issues. 

“When there were marches about Ferguson, I went, but I stayed on the sidelines,” said Natalie Charney, a U.C.L.A. senior and the president of the Hillel Student Board, who had been made uneasy by the chants of “From Ferguson to Palestine,” which she saw as totally unrelated. “I wanted to be there, but part of what they are hating is central to who I am and what I stand for.”

A Students for Justice in Palestine demonstration on the campus of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in April 2012. Photo credit: benchilada / Creative Commons.

A Students for Justice in Palestine demonstration on the campus of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in April 2012. Photo credit: benchilada / Creative Commons.

But is the dynamic in the Times piece representative of all campuses? I couldn’t help but think of my alma mater, the University of Maryland at College Park, where I participated in one of the country’s largest Hillel chapters and was a member of a Jewish student population of over 5,000 – nearly a quarter of the undergraduate student body.

Thirty distinct Jewish groups operate under the Hillel umbrella at Maryland, among them social justice groups, cultural groups, and my own Jewish a cappella group, which is one of three. Eight of those 30 groups identify as pro-Israel, from J Street UMD — which invites Palestinian voices but does not support BDS — to TerPAC, a play on AIPAC and UMD’s mascot, the Terrapin. This year’s campus Israel Fest drew crowds of up to 1,500, and every year, dozens of Maryland students — myself included — go on a ten-day Birthright trip to Israel organized through Hillel.

In short, Jewish life — and pro-Israel life — is alive and well in College Park. It’s no surprise, then, that Rabbi Ari Israel, the executive director of UMD Hillel, when consulted, said, “The question I have with all this stuff is — what is hype and what is real?” While conceding that tension exists, he said it’s “not affecting us at Maryland in any way, shape or form.”

“I think part of our strategy is building all across campus, having a very strong, proactive presence,” Israel added. “We’re not waiting in a corner just to react and deal with crisis — we’re advancing a positive agenda.”

Of course, controversy around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does rear its head at UMD — particularly among the pages of the student newspaper, The Diamondback, where I was once a reporter. Warring columns surface around Israeli and Palestinian-focused events; cartoons launch protests and apologies. Even advertisements spur student government condemnations.

Natalia Cuadra-Saez, who attended Maryland from 2007 to 2011, embodies the solidarity illustrated in the Times piece: Half Chilean and half Puerto Rican, she served as president of Students for Justice in Palestine her senior year. I know her from my time covering political groups and the student government beat in college.

Now a middle school social studies teacher in Boston, Cuadra-Saez said she doesn’t see distance growing between Jewish students and other minority groups. “The whole framing of [the Times article] isn’t something that I would agree with,” she said.

But minority groups’ aligning with Students for Justice in Palestine and vice versa is not just a trend — it’s a core part of SJP’s mission, she said.

“It’s a very conscious effort to just be in solidarity with other struggles and to see it as an anti-oppression movement and to be in solidarity, to always be aware of intersectionalities,” she said, particularly among the issues of oppression, racism, colonialism and militarization. “If you’re zooming in on only the issue of Palestine without looking at the root causes… you’re kind of missing the point.”

Cuadra-Saez said while there were discussions at UMD about how to become more involved with the BDS campaign — even going so far as to get some professors to agree to sign on — they were always on a personal rather than an institutional level, and never came to fruition. She described SJP as “definitely in the minority” at Maryland, and opposition to her group as “institutionalized.”

“I felt in my school that people were actually trying to silence the Palestinian perspective,” she said.

Cuadra-Saez described the reactions to Palestinian Solidarity Week at Maryland in 2009, put on shortly after Operation Cast Lead, as “very intense.” Calls from concerned parents or alumni led administrators to pressure or try to censor the students organizing the event, she said, but there was never any “official” action.

During that week, anonymous fliers were posted depicting “a woman, wearing a traditional Muslim burqa and holding an AK-47 in one hand and a bomb-toting baby in the other. ‘What did she teach her child today?’ was written above the picture.” University Police ultimately determined no crime had been committed, but the fliers were reported to the FBI as a hate incident.

At the same time, there was always some Jewish participation in SJP while Cuadra-Saez was involved, including hosting official events — like interfaith dialogue projects — with Jewish groups. Among her housing co-op, Jewish students would attend SJP events, and in turn, some SJP members would attend events at Hillel, like a social justice-themed Passover Seder. SJP and J Street UMD — a student chapter of the national nonprofit that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” — have sponsored speakers together.

“The students on campus, it was a lot more fluid than [the article describes],” she said. At least among her co-op friends, “We went to each other’s events and we supported each other.”

That’s a picture Ari Israel paints, too — of campus integration as well as “building strategic alliances across boundaries, with Jews and non-Jews.”

“There’s a lot of cross-cultural opportunities at Maryland. I wouldn’t say that the Jewish community feels isolated in any way shape or form, and there’s open conversations,” he said.

But Israel and Manar Dajani, the current vice president of Maryland’s SJP, both described an example of what is so far unwelcome at UMD: the left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS.

Israel said there is “currently not room for a group that is not supportive of the Jewish democratic state of Israel under the Hillel umbrella” – the party line of Hillel International, and a catalyst for the launch of and ensuing debate over the Open Hillel movement, which aims to loosen the organization’s “standards for partnership.”

Dajani said the Times peace depicts pro-Israel students as being rejected by student minority groups because of BDS. But she thinks there are issues that run deeper.

“There are so many connections. And the fact that [pro-Israel students] refuse to look at [the Palestinian] issue and how they’re similar, and how they’re connected, I think that that’s what’s driving the wedge,” she said. “When they want to stand up for one issue and not for another, that kind of discredits them in the eyes of minorities.”

Though SJP reaches hundreds more potential supporters via their email listserv — many of them members of minority campus groups — Dajani said there are just four or five people in SJP’s leadership, with fewer than a dozen students showing up to regular meetings.

The pro-Israel ranks on campus are “overwhelming” by contrast, Dajani said, making prospects slim for a divestment resolution going before the student government. Alliances with other minority student groups will help propel such an effort eventually, she said, but not any time soon.

“It’s going to take a lot more support,” she said. “It’s long, long way to go.”

Amna Farooqi, the southeast representative for the national board of J Street U and a member of the J Street UMD board, said Maryland’s campus environment is of a different breed than those in the Times story, in which SJP and other solidarity groups are comparatively small and less organized.

But she contends that the wedge is driven by a lack of nuance in the campus debates, along with a lack of preparation by American Jewish community institutions.

“They’re on the losing side of this debate if they don’t learn how to talk about the conflict in a way that’s not so black and white,” she said.

Many young American Jews in general “are being forced to grapple with this question” of Israeli government policies toward Palestinians they don’t support, but don’t have the vocabulary to debate or discuss BDS and other pro-Palestinian campaigns. They don’t learn about Palestinians as early as they are taught about Israel, Farooqi said, “or are scared of the word ‘occupation.’”

“I think it is going to be difficult,” she said. “I think it’s inevitable that it comes up.”

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