The new school year is approaching. Jewish students are returning to campus or starting their university adventure. Unfortunately, rather than simply celebrating, we also must gird for another fight over the nefarious movement to boycott democratic Israel.
While this remains a golden age for Jews on campus, with Jews feeling more comfortable than ever in the university, the anti-Israel obsession on campus is mushrooming. In an age of ISIS and lone wolf terrorists, with Iran aspiring to go nuclear and Russia busy manipulating U.S. elections, somehow Israel is considered the world’s big problem. There are four essential moves to make in fighting this scourge.
First, don’t let the haters win by making the conversation about Israel solely about boycotts, delegitimization and anti-Zionism. We need a new Zionist conversation on campus, building on the excitement that Israel trips generate and looking at Israel as an inspiration and a model of three-dimensional Jewish living rooted in the past, seeking meaning in the present and building toward a better future. We should use a new appreciation of Israel to revitalize our Jewish identities, and look at Judaism as a process of becoming not just being, as well as one of growing, stretching and challenging assumptions, values and lazy habits of thought. If we start by seeing Zionism as the movement to improve Israel and create a new Jew – one who’s prouder, stronger, freer, more comfortable, more self-critical and more dynamic – we can start looking at Israel, Zionism and Judaism as opportunities, not burdens.
Next, once we solidify our ties to Israel, we will indeed naturally, easily and happily defend it. Don’t claim Israel is perfect – no country is. But Israel is eminently defendable. Make the democracy argument, that as one of the few countries in the world with free elections, free press and free thought, it has built-in mechanisms for self-improvement. Make the peace-making argument, that it’s a country surrounded by enemies, one that has repeatedly made risks for peace and responds better to encouragement than delegitimization, meaning that all these libels against Israel make matters worse.
And make the proportionality argument, that Israel’s flaws are exaggerated, Palestinian responsibility is overlooked – in a condescending and bigoted way – and singling out the only Jewish state for the kind of obsessive condemnation not only feeds anti-Semitism, but is itself anti-Semitic. One aspect of Jew hatred traditionally has been singling out, demonizing and obsessing about the Jew. Now the academic left does this about the Jewish state.
Connected to this proportionality argument should be a classic Jew-jitsu. If people want to make a difference in this world, let them fight true evil and oppression. Why not mobilize academics to fight to free Homa Hoodfar, a Concordia University anthropology professor recently jailed by the Iranian mullahocracy? Every academic body and academic should be challenged to stand up for this colleague who is suffering at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Hoodfar is one of at least five westerners currently being held by the Iranian regime, but as a Canadian and an academic, she should stand out as a natural cause for Canadian students. Wouldn’t it be healing for Jews and non-Jews to work together on this clear case of oppression, which literally could save a person’s life?
Finally, I reiterate my call from last spring. Pro-Israel students are traumatized by the constant attacks on Israel, which last year spilled over into anti-Semitic expressions. Every Canadian academic should sign a petition denouncing the academic boycott movement as an assault on academic values and the kinds of campuses we wish to have.
In short, we need to fight, cleverly, honourably and aggressively. But before, during and after the fight, and more important than the fight itself, is the celebration and appreciation of the great opportunities to grow and stretch that Israel, Judaism and Zionism have to offer.