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Lessons Learned From the Frontline

February 9, 2012 By:
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The Editor's Desk

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference at the University of Pennsylvania has come and gone, but there are several important takeaways for us as a community to consider:

1. Campus activism is alive and well. It's a shame that it sometimes takes adversity to energize the masses, but pro-Israel students on the Penn campus stepped up to the plate, devising a smart strategy to turn a bad situation into an opportunity. A combination of programming -- from a Shabbat outreach meal to an "Invest in Israel" party -- not only excited the usual activists but, as Penn Hillel director, Rabbi Michael Uram, put it: "made new inroads to build a more diverse, Israel-friendly community on campus."

2. Community consensus and collaboration can be powerful. The organized Jewish community, led by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, worked in an exemplary manner to reach consensus and to partner with student groups on campus. The result: a unified statement, expressing concern about the conference and condemnation of the BDS movement, that was signed by organizations across the political spectrum; a successful community event featuring Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz; and financial support to fund the Dershowitz event, as well as the meal program that engaged some 800 students in conversations about Israel.

3. Students and adults alike are woefully ill-equipped to counter the arguments of BDS and other Israel detractors. The poignant plea of a female student at the Dershowitz event, asking how to respond to the claim that "Israel took Arab land," spoke volumes about the lack of knowledge regarding the history, context and complexities surrounding the creation of the Jewish state and its early years.

But she was merely articulating the pervasive ignorance of young Jews and too many adults who can't begin to counter simple questions about Israel's legitimacy let alone respond to the more sophisticated sophistry from those like BDS keynoter Ali Abunimah, the founder of Electronic Intifada. His true agenda will be more transparent at an upcoming stop: Harvard University's Kennedy School, where a March conference titled "Israel/Palestine and the One-State Solution" makes it perfectly clear that his real goal is not to address Palestinian rights but to create a binational state where the Jewish majority would quickly disappear.

4. A clear line must be drawn in the Jewish community between those who support and cherish Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state and those who don't. The debate over who gets to sit in the proverbial "pro-Israel tent" is not a new one, and litmus tests are tricky. But it is important to understand that those Jews in the BDS camp -- and sadly, there are more than a few -- cross that line.

Across the political spectrum, this distinction must be understood. On the right, there needs to be a clearer understanding of the difference between Jewish BDS supporters, who widely delegitimize Israel as a "racist" state and espouse the return of Palestinian refugees, and those who criticize particular Israeli policies. One group -- the BDSers -- wouldn't blink an eye if Israel disappeared tomorrow or became submerged in one state, thereby losing its Jewish majority and character. In contrast, other critics of Israel, including J Streeters, though they can be accused of being misguided in their positions and tactics, are mostly driven by concern for Israel's future as a Jewish democratic state.

At the same time, those on the liberal/left who truly do care about Israel and want to see a two-state solution shouldn't get duped by the so-called "post-Zionists," whose advocacy for the Palestinians trumps any real interest in a resolution of the conflict and would support the end of Israel if it meant their demands were met.

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Beyond the local gathering, which in the end attracted just a few dozen actual Penn students, the BDS movement, as insidious and hateful as it is, will likely continue to fail in its efforts to isolate Israel.

The fact that Madonna, fresh from her Super Bowl halftime show, reportedly will launch her new world tour in Israel is the best counterpunch to the distorted targeting of Israel.

The BDS further sullied its own cause by revoking the press credentials of a Jewish Exponent reporter because organizers didn't like a piece he had written. It was more than ironic that a group that insisted it was open to dialogue and the free exchange of ideas -- that was given a platform at Penn on the basis of free speech and insisted it was not anti-Semitic -- was so quick to bar this paper from its non-public events.

Despite the likelihood that the BDS movement will continue to fail, it still provides a worrisome distraction that needs to be addressed.

The whole experience here underscores the need for this community to redouble its efforts to support and develop educational programming that will help students, from an early age, understand the history of Israel and probe the nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The more we allow students to explore Israel -- its wonders as well its warts -- the more they will come to understand that the distortions and destructive nature of the BDS movement and other anti-Israel forces cannot stand up to the truth.

Lisa Hostein is the executive editor of the Jewish Exponent. Contact her at: [email protected].

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