A house divided: Campus divestment reveals cracks within the American Jewish establishment

How can a community which so highly regards deliberation and dissent demand such unwavering unity on what is, perhaps, American Jewry’s most controversial issue?

By Roi Bachmutsky

A house divided: Campus divestment reveals cracks within the American Jewish establishment
Graffiti on the Israeli separation barrier dividing East Jerusalem neighborhoods reads, “Boycott Israel”, March 26, 2012. (photo: Ryan Rodrick Belier/Activestills.org)

Uproar recently broke out regarding world-renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s recent decision to cancel his headline appearance at the fifth annual Facing Tomorrow Presidential Conference hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres. Gil Troy penned an opinion piece in response, in which he argued that by boycotting the conference, “[Hawking] suggested that the dynamics of the conflict are mutually exclusive… to prove he is pro-Palestinian he had to act anti-Israeli.” My Facebook newsfeed is often filled with the reverse: friends who denounce Palestinians in order to prove their worth as sufficiently pro-Israel. Either way, Jewish organizations generally provide members with just two antithetical “sides” to choose between – for or against divestment, pro or anti-Israel. My research on Israel and American Jewish identity might help reveal the origin of this dichotomy, its role in the divestment debate, and its influence on the Jewish community.

As a recent UC Berkeley graduate, I am familiar with the wars over divestment, having been a freshman during the bill demanding UC Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California divest from certain companies’ “military support of the [Israeli] occupation of the Palestinian territories” in 2009. In the bill’s aftermath, I began interviewing Jewish students on campus and was shocked with what I found.

Overwhelmingly, Jewish youth described having knee-jerk reactions to divestment, often without room for reflection and contemplation. One student relayed to me that she had shown up to argue against divestment without having read the bill. “I walked in,” she recalled, “and I basically got a text just saying, ‘they’re being anti-Israel, just like, refute it,’ and I was like ‘OK, whatever.’” The call to action was unequivocal, as another student explained: “My relationship with Israel in that moment [was] very clear and one-dimensional: ‘I am going to defend [Israel] no matter what.’”

By creating a paradigm with two diametrically opposed camps, Jewish young adults felt tremendous pressure to align with the organized Jewish community, opposite the other side. “A lot of people associate [being] pro-Israel with being anti-Palestinian,” the first student began, “but I don’t see that.” On the other hand, she told me, “if somebody were to put me in a room and be like, ‘you have to go to one side that is [either] pro-Israel or anti-Israel,’ I would go to the pro-Israel side. Does that make sense?” I asked her if she ever felt forced to choose. “Yeah, absolutely,” she replied without hesitation, “…I guess that happens all the time.”

How can a community which so highly regards deliberation and dissent (two Jews, three opinions after all) demand such unwavering unity on what is, perhaps, American Jewry’s most controversial issue? The key to the mystery lies in a 1979 New York Times Article reporting on American Jewish divisions with respect to Israeli settlement policy of the West Bank. It is no coincidence that this article was published just two years after the rise of Israeli Right with the ascendance of Menachem Begin and Likud, a time in which public criticism of Israel by the predominantly liberal mainstream Jewish leaders began to surface.

The article quotes Seymour Siegel, a famous Conservative Rabbi of the time and advisor to three presidential administrations, delineating American Jewish divisions into three: (1) Those in favor of the Israeli government (2) Those opposed to the Israeli government and (3) Those who feel hesitant to publicly criticize the Israeli government yet could be swayed either way depending on the policy. The public divisions must have been troubling enough to impel Siegel to emphasize a more fundamental Jewish unity by asserting that all three groups were joined “under a tent of intense pro-Israel sentiment.”

Therein lies the idea holding together a warring Jewish community in faux public unity. The pro-Israel tent – or “broad”/”open” tent as it has been called – has since come to be widely recognized as symbolic of the boundary of acceptable thought and discourse about Israel. The realm of pro-Israel lies within, while anti-Israel is without – each cleanly severed from one another – with divestment clearly beyond the pale.

The tent has by now trickled down to a healthy majority of Jewish institutions. In large part, it has been cemented by Jewish Federations, which have instituted Israel policies prohibiting grantees from enabling programs undermining the legitimacy of the State of Israel (including condoning boycott, divestment, or sanctions, as is done by most Palestinian groups). To engage with divestment, the community proclaims, is to be against the American Jewish people.

Notably, a grassroots student movement by the name of Open Hillel has recently sprouted out of Harvard University in opposition to the momentum of Federation policies. The campaign particularly targets Hillel International’s Standards for Partnership, which “exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their political views on Israel.” What if Harvard students, for example, wanted to host Stephen Hawking to discuss why he chose to respect the academic boycott of the Israeli Presidential Conference? Whether Open Hillel succeeds in challenging the status quo or not, it is undeniable that the Jewish community is anything but united under one tent. It fiercely remains a house divided.

Roi Bachmutsky is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter (@roibachmutsky).