Playing defense is not working on campuses

Written by: William A. Jacobson & Johanna E. Markind for WhiteRoseMagazine.

THE ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu said, “Security against defeat implies defensive tactics; ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive.” In other words, you don’t win a war by playing defense. 

Major Jewish and pro-Israel organizations have reacted to specific campus incidents of anti-Semitism (usually masquerading as anti-Israelism), such as  student government boycott resolutions, but have consistently failed to counter the growing narrative that Israel and Jews are racist colonialists. That false narrative has now been joined by a related one, that Israel and Jews are white, anti-people-of-color oppressors, a narrative often promulgated by anti-Israel activists deeply embedded within “social justice” and Black Lives Matters movements. 

Both narratives have become primary weapons against Israel. Rather than disarming the narratives, establishment groups too often simply deny the former and pledge support for the latter “anti-racism” movement out of a sense of progressive solidarity—solidarity that is not reciprocated. Below we explore the trajectory of these narratives, and how groups like the ADL, which promotes progressive solidarity, have made the problem worse instead of better.

The Problem – Durban Set the Formula for Delegitimizing Israel

After the 2001 Durban anti-racism conference was hijacked into an anti-Semitic and anti-Israel hate-fest, campus anti-Israelism soared and became ever more clearly anti-Semitic. The Durban conference “gave birth to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement and marked the beginning of baseless comparisons of Israel to apartheid South Africa.” The century-old anti-Jewish boycott was repackaged in social justice language to appeal to Western leftists.

The century-old anti-Jewish boycott was repackaged in social justice language to appeal to Western leftists.

Since then, BDS ideology has increasingly pervaded American universities, where anti-Israel activists have pursued a no-holds-barred campaign to delegitimize Israel as a pariah state. Faculty, students, and administrators have treated unfounded smears against Israel as fact, while actively shutting down expression of actual facts and pro-Israel opinions. They also stirred up hostility against Israel supporters and Jews in general, hostility that occasionally erupted into violence:

  • On May 7, 2002, as a “Peace in the Middle East” rally at San Francisco State University was winding down, Jewish attendees were assaulted by anti-Israel counter-demonstrators who surrounded them screaming threats.
  • On September 9, 2002, violent pro-Palestinian protesters at Montreal’s Concordia University stormed a university building and forced the cancellation of a speech by former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The university student union—which reportedly organized the protest—urged the government not to prosecute the rioters and authorized the use of student fees to cover rioters’ legal fees.

The Problem Worsens – The Red-Green Alliance

Jewish organizations responded to Durban by working to correct factual inaccuracies about Israel and to expose problems on campus. Unfortunately, the problem got worse instead of better.

Following Israel’s 2008-09 Operation Cast Lead response to rocket attacks from Gaza, anti-Israel campus activists further ratcheted up their activities to stifle pro-Israel voices and advance their agenda. The various branches of the University of California (UC) were particular hot-spots.

  • In February 2010, the Muslim Student Union disrupted a speech by Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, at UC Irvine. Ten students were criminally charged and convicted of disturbing a public event, and UC Irvine suspended the MSU chapter for a year.
  • In March 2010, the leader of UC Berkeley’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter rammed a shopping cart into a pro-Israel Jewish student who was holding a placard reading “Israel wants Peace.”
  • During spring semester 2010, divestment resolutions were put forward at both UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, and only narrowly defeated
  • College professors at UC Santa Cruz and elsewhere increasingly inserted gratuitous and false anti-Israel commentary into classes and conferences. 

After the spate of anti-Israel attacks on American campuses that accompanied and followed Operation Cast Lead, more Jewish organizations jumped into the fray, including both top-down branches of existing organizations and bottom-up organizations founded at the campus level. 

However much good these groups have done, the problem worsened. The year 2014 was a watershed. That summer, in response to Hamas’ kidnapping three Israeli teenagers and firing rockets at Israeli civilians, Israel counter-attacked by invading Gaza. Predictably, the press focused on reporting collateral damage from Israeli attacks rather than Hamas’ war crimes in attacking civilian targets while hiding its personnel and military infrastructure in schoolshospitalsresidential neighborhoods, and office buildings occupied by the press.

The same summer, Ferguson police shot and killed Michael Brown, sparking riots by people charging police targeted blacks for violence. Anti-Israel activists were deeply embedded in the riots and turned them into anti-Israel protests. Among other things, anti-Israel activists made anti-Israel invective part of the protests, offering advice to rioters and spuriously claiming that Israel promoted police violence in the United States by offering police training in anti-terrorism techniques. The narrative took hold.

Anti-Semitic attacks spiked after this double-whammy, both on and off campus. At both UCLA and Stanford University during spring 2015, the suitability of Jewish candidates for student government was challenged on the supposed grounds that they might show favoritism to Israel. Prominent figures like the late Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, spoke openly of the return of anti-Semitism. Jews warning about rising anti-Semitism were told Israel and Jews were to blame. 

Sample Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Tactics

Israel-haters have actively promoted a narrative casting Israel in the role of villain. Professors like Columbia University’s Joseph Massad have long taught their personal political views of hatred for Israel as though they were facts, and persecuted and shut down Jewish and other students questioning their opinions or expressing different views. In 2018, two University of Michigan educators—associate professor John Cheney-Lippold and graduate student instructor Lucy Peterson—refused reference letters supporting study abroad for the explicit reason that the requesting students sought to study in Israel.

Anti-Israel activists have frequently prevented or shut down speeches by pro-Israel speakers, like Netanyahu’s planned 2002 speech at Concordia, Oren’s 2010 speech at UC Irvine, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s 2016 speech at San Francisco State University, and 2016 and 2017 pro-Israel events at UC Irvine featuring, respectively, a film about the Israel Defense Forces and a talk by IDF reservists. The 2016 event at UC Irvine, in particular, featured crowds chasing attendees and putting the latter in fear of their safety.

Since 2005, BDS advocates have organized an annual campus event called “Israel Apartheid Week,” designed to convince college faculty and students that Israel is a racist state that persecutes Arabs the way apartheid South Africa persecuted blacks. From its inception as a series of lectures at the University of Toronto, the hate-fest has grown into an annual event at dozens of universities. It features fact-free activities pushing a message that Israel is a Nazi-like, segregationist, racist, colonial, illegitimate state founded and maintained by oppressing Arabs—basically, that Israel is everything contemporary Americans and Western society loathe. These propaganda exercises have included:

Another tactic is pushing for passage of student BDS resolutions condemning Israel. The point isn’t just to win passage. Rather, it’s to raise the issue and offer opportunities to propagandize. To squelch opposition, anti-Israel advocates purposely try to schedule debates or votes on Jewish holidays, when many pro-Israel students are unavailable. Passover is a particularly popular time to push what is, in effect, a modern spin on medieval blood libels. Examples include:

  • At Cornell University in 2014, anti-Israel activists brought a BDS resolution to the student assembly during Passover.
  • On April 9, 2015, which was during Passover that year, a student senate committee at the University of California Santa Barbara approved and passed on to the student senate a BDS resolution from SJP. Two years later, the UCSB’s SJP chapter launched a BDS campaign on Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017. SJP insisted that “the scheduling decision was made purely for pragmatic reasons,” and it “resoundingly reject[ed] the notion that this is in any way anti-Semitic.” 
  • In March 2016, the University of Indianapolis’ student senate conducted discussion of a BDS measure on the Jewish Sabbath. 
  • Portland State University’s student government found the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret, 2016, to be preferred dates to discuss a BDS resolution.  
  • Tufts University’s student senate passed a boycott resolution the day before Passover, 2017.
  • The University of Wisconsin’s student council passed a divestment bill during Passover 2017. The bill was irregularly voted on at its initial introduction, and the student judiciary later voided the vote for trying to deprive interested Jewish students of their voting rights.
  • At Pitzer College (one of the Claremont Colleges), a BDS amendment was passed during Passover 2017.  
  • At the University of Maryland, College Park, a boycott resolution was scheduled for the middle of Passover week 2019. 

Anti-Israel activists have also hijacked other movements into vehicles for castigating Israel and its supporters. The entire rationale of today’s BDS movement is to paint the current situation in Israel as a latter-day version of South Africa’s apartheid regime. BDS supporters also tied the Black Lives Matter movement to Israeli anti-terrorism police junkets, and to racism generally. Campus black activists (for example, at Hamilton College and Oberlin College) have tied racial demands to demands for divestment.

Besides these movements, anti-Israel activists have somehow managed to convince many LGBTQ activists that Israel’s positive record on gay rights, in sharp contrast to that of Palestinians and others in the Middle East, is mere “pinkwashing” designed to distract from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The pinkwashing charge is essential in enabling BDS activists to finesse the abysmally anti-gay record of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas on college campuses. Incredibly, they have succeeded in convincing gay rights activists—who face prison and death in Arab lands—to oppose Israel (even Israeli and Jewish LGBTQ groups) and support the anti-gay Hamas and Palestinian Authority. 

Ditto with “anti-fascists”: a 2017 anti-fascism rally at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was converted into an anti-Israel rally, with activists chanting, “No Zionists, no KKK, resisting fascists all the way!” Activists have also tied women’s groups to hatred of Israel. Women’s March leadership has been explicitly tied to anti-Semitism, and the International Women’s Strike platform calls for “decolonization of Palestine”—in other words, the destruction of Israel. Both organizations have been active on campus

Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic Activists Largely Succeed in Neutralizing ADL

The Anti-Defamation League was a particular target of 2014 activists trying to tie Israel to the BLM narrative. An Ebony article published ten days after Michael Brown was shot already claimed a connection between the anti-terrorism training Israel has offered to American police departments (which activists dubbed the “deadly exchange” program) and the police shooting of Brown. The targeting of the ADL eventually led to a #DropTheADL movement to brand the ADL as racist and unwoke, a pariah with whom no woke person or organization should associate, but the broad outline was already visible back in summer 2014.

A wiser organization might have concluded that the supposed fellow-travelers condemning it were themselves prejudiced and discriminatory, but the ADL seems to have concluded that it needed to redouble its efforts to prove its heart was with the self-identified victims of racial violence. 

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s longtime leader, had given notice in February 2014 that he would step down in July 2015, and a search for his successor was underway. One of the candidates under consideration was Jonathan Greenblatt, then director of the Obama administration’s Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the Domestic Policy Council. As Greenblatt tells it, the ADL reached out to him rather than the reverse. His background was as a tech-savvy social entrepreneur, specializing in civic engagement and impact investing, and he was a professional left-wing partisan.

By November 2014, the ADL had settled on Greenblatt as Foxman’s successor. Why? 

After taking over as ADL leader in July 2015, Greenblatt doubled down on ADL outreach to the left, while his condemnations of anti-Semitism on- and off-campus have been mostly tepid. Under his stewardship, the organization largely ignored BLM’s anti-Semitism; initially ignored Keith Ellison’s anti-Semitism while supporting his campaign to lead the Democratic National Committee; allowed the anti-Semites who ran the Women’s March to elbow the ADL out of participating in a Starbucks employee exercise in anti-discrimination—despite the fact that the ADL had helped put the exercise together and that Greenblatt used to be a Starbucks vice president—because the ADL was allegedly anti-Palestinian and “constantly attacking black and brown people”; ignored the anti-Semitism of Obama administration officials marketing the prior Iran deal; and ignored anti-Semitic comments by Democratic Party Young Turks like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

By contrast, he has turned the ADL’s ire on Jews and Jewish organizations like Canary Mission, which works to expose anti-Semitism on campus. During the summer of 2020, Greenblatt’s ADL redefined racism to include only white racism against people of color. Given today’s inclusion of Jews among “whites,” the new definition appeared to deny the existence of anti-Jewish racism. (Greenblatt only tweaked the definition after Whoopi Goldberg made headlines by doing what ADL seemed to be doing—denying Jews were victims of racism because “they’re both white.”) Last fall, the ADL hired a new director of outreach (primarily to Jews of color) with a track record of blaming Jews first for black anti-Semitism and Palestinian terrorism. 

At the same time that the ADL has done little to oppose left-wing anti-Semitism, which is what dominates college campuses, while criticizing the Jewish community for standing up to anti-Semitism, Greenblatt has turned the organization into an active political partisan. He actively opposed the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, opposed the right of religious foster agencies to choose parents based on their religion, offered to register as a Muslim for Trump’s non-existent Muslim registry, compared Donald Trump to Hitler, and apologized for opposing the building of a mosque at Ground Zero. Under Greenblatt, the ADL has promoted Critical Race Theory. It has advocated for transgender accommodation for minors, and for keeping late-term abortions legal. Essentially, Greenblatt has transformed the ADL from a non-partisan advocate for Jews confronting anti-Semitism into an advocacy organization for left-wing and culture-war causes.

At the same time that the ADL has done little to oppose left-wing anti-Semitism, which is what dominates college campuses, while criticizing the Jewish community for standing up to anti-Semitism, Greenblatt has turned the organization into an active political partisan.

Only in the summer of 2021 did Greenblatt publicly admit that “the left has an anti-Semitism problem.” Since then, he has mostly continued on his woke course, hiring blame-the-Jews-first outreach staff.

Still, even focusing some attention on left-wing anti-Semitism was a big step for Greenblatt, and he has taken small steps since then to grapple with that reality. In July-August 2021, the ADL teamed up with Hillel to conduct an online survey of Jewish undergraduates about campus anti-Semitism. The survey was published in October 2021. Last fall, the ADL, Hillel, and the Secure Community Network launched an online portal where college students can report anti-Semitic incidents on their campus and receive immediate support. This is in addition to the ADL’s December report about anti-Israelism on campus, which grudgingly allowed the fact that anti-Israel activists “occasionally” espouse anti-Semitic tropes, such as alleging Jewish or Zionist power control media and political affairs.

Essentially, Greenblatt has transformed the ADL from a non-partisan advocate for Jews confronting anti-Semitism into an advocacy organization for left-wing and culture-war causes.

Given that the ADL reached out to Greenblatt, and the coincidence of his hire months after Ferguson and the 2014 Gaza War, it seems likely that he was hired for the explicit purpose of repairing ADL ties with the left. Perhaps we should be marveling that Greenblatt reached his epiphany about left-wing anti-Semitism at all, rather than complaining that he arrived so late and has yet to confront it in a serious way.

Jews Struggle to Address Campus Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism 

As the campus atmosphere has grown more and more intolerable, Jewish and other Israel supporters responded by forming new organizations and increasing their own activities. Their tactics have included:

  • Creating new pro-Israel groups, or promoting their creation and helping them plan events.
  • Exposing faculty bias and campus hostility to Israel supporters, as through the 2004 documentary film, Columbia Unbecoming.
  • Encouraging pro-Israel students to involve themselves in student government, to promote a campus atmosphere friendlier (or at least, less hostile) to Jews and Israel.
  • Recruiting campus influencers—including student leaders who might already favor BDS—and sending them to Israel on fact-finding tours.
  • Educating students and faculty about Israel and the Middle East. This can take many forms, including bringing pro-Israel speakers to campus, screening documentaries about Israel, writing opinion articles for campus newspapers, and providing students with factual research and rebuttals to false information spread about Israel.
  • Employing professional political consulting firms to advise on combatting campus votes on BDS resolutions.
  • Rallying alumni to pressure college administrators into addressing campus anti-Israel and anti-Semitic discrimination.

Tragically, some of the ever more rabid anti-Israel voices on campus have been Jewish. Anti-Israel Jewish activists, notably the misnamed Jewish Voice for Peace, have pressured Jewish groups on campus not to oppose anti-Israel activism, and even to support it. That has made it harder for campus Jewish organizations to provide full-throated support for Israel, and to oppose the growing anti-Semitism concomitant with anti-Israel activism.

A Reactive Approach is Not Working 

The problem with pro-Israel Jewish campus organizations is less what they’ve done than what they’ve left undone. The actions they have taken thus far are all commendable and have been helpful in limiting damage. They’re necessary, but they’re not sufficient. 

Currently, Jews are playing defense. By itself, that’s rarely a winning strategy. The false narratives that Israel is a racist colonial enterprise and that Jews are “white” oppressors are rarely addressed head on, because to do so would require taking on the progressive power on campuses.

Contrast this with campus anti-Israel activists. They have been playing offense against Israel, its supporters, and Jewish students generally for many years. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine have pursued an organized campaign of shutting down debate about Israel, imposing a narrative making outrageous claims against it (such as accusing it of Nazism and apartheid), and hounding Israel’s supporters or presumed supporters into silence. 

Their cause—destroying Israel and persecuting Jews—is unjust, and their tactics harmful to the very nature of the university. Nevertheless, their public relations has been wildly successful. They have controlled the narrative of converting Israel and Jews into pro-apartheid Nazi racists, and their opponents into persecuted underdogs. Jews have responded to attacks and challenged them, but have rarely set the agenda, or tried to reframe the narrative to expose their opponents’ blatant anti-Semitism and goal of annihilating the Jewish State. 

Jews were not always so passive. The Soviet Jewry movement, for instance, gained much of its energy from resourceful and provocative tactics like protestors chaining themselves to the Soviet Embassy fence, releasing black balloons during a candlelit vigil outside the Moscow Circus, picketing the Bolshoi Ballet, or unfurling banners before TV cameras at the Flyers/Soviet exhibition hockey game. These actions may or may not have had direct political impact, but they effectively framed the issue as one of Soviet repression of Jews and kept it in the public consciousness. Activists reached out directly to Soviet Jews, visiting them and supplying them with religious materials and gifts, as well as moral support, and keeping their struggle in the public eye. They also employed more conventional tactics, such as lobbying for passage of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which conditioned trade benefits on increased freedom of emigration from the Soviet Union.

Their cause—destroying Israel and persecuting Jews—is unjust, and their tactics harmful to the very nature of the university. Nevertheless, their public relations has been wildly successful. They have controlled the narrative of converting Israel and Jews into pro-apartheid Nazi racists, and their opponents into persecuted underdogs.

Jews could apply similar initiative to the current campus climate. For example, Jewish student activists could:

  • Turn the tables on Students for Justice in Palestine and similar groups by protesting their events, holding up pictures of Nizar Banat and journalists wrongly imprisoned and tortured by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, with captions underscoring that SJP is really not interested in “justice in Palestine,” but only in castigating the Jewish State. Better yet, Jewish activists could stage mock arrests of journalists by Palestinian security services.
  • Protest (through traditional means like outside SJP events, or through mock trials or some other attention-grabber) the oppression of homosexuals in Palestinian society. Ditto for the treatment of women. Besides potentially embarrassing pro-Palestinian groups and creating pressure to improve the lot of homosexuals and women in Palestinian society, protests like this might shame gay advocates and advocates for women into joining the protests against Palestinian authorities. It’s one thing to claim “pinkwashing” when an Israeli quotes facts and figures, and it’s another when confronted with protests against anti-gay oppression, honor killings, and so forth.
  • Likewise, find a way to visualize the persecution of Arab Christians by Palestinian Muslims, leading to their departure from the West Bank and Gaza. Over the past fifty years, the Palestinian Christian population has shrunk from roughly 15 percent to about 1.5 percent of the Palestinian population.
  • Stage a mock trial/sentencing of Isaam Akel, an American citizen sentenced to life in prison for facilitating the sale of Arab-owned land to Israeli Jews, for the blatant religious and ethnic prejudice of barring land sales to Jews, and for demonstrating that what the Palestinian Authority actually wants is to make its territory Judenrein.
  • Find some way to dramatize the reality that it’s the Palestinians, not Israel, holding up a peace agreement. For example, they could demonstrate outside SJP events with posters captioned “Palestinian Peace Proposal”—with the rest of the poster blank, as empty as Palestinian proposals.
  • Demonstrate both the Jewish people’s indigenous connection to Israel, and Palestinian efforts to erase same. For instance, students could conduct mock archeological digs on campus “finding” ancient Jewish artifacts, bulldozing them, and throwing the artifacts into the trash.

The student-founded, grassroots organization Students Supporting Israel has begun to use more offensive tactics. During so-called Apartheid Week 2022, SSI tested out messaging similar to the above suggestions. That’s an excellent sign. Hopefully, where they lead, others will follow.

The day before D-Day, General George S. Patton, Jr., explained his fighting philosophy to his Third Army. The gist (slightly bowdlerized) was this:

We are not holding a damned thing. Let the Germans do that. We are advancing constantly and we are not interested in holding onto anything, except the enemy’s b****.  We are going to twist him and kick the living s***  out of him all of the time.  Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy. 

Unfortunately, much of what pro-Israel and Jewish groups are doing today is at best trying to hold ground. The many fine things Jewish and pro-Israel groups have done to counter increasing attacks on Israel and Jews should not be confused with taking the fight to the enemy, so to speak. Pro-Israel and Jewish groups today are still searching for a coherent strategy and appropriate tactics to change the anti-Israel narrative and win the battle for hearts and minds.

Join us as we challenge the establishment Jewish leaders and the donors who have supported and enabled them but failed to hold them accountable.