Another thing which helped us was community support; we couldn’t have won the divestment bill battle alone. The first point to note here is that, as pro-Israel activists, we naturally were up against an opponent with a high level of community support - after all, we were in Berkeley, a community with far more than its share of extremist politics. The entire San Francisco Bay Area was named by the Reut Institute as one of five “hubs” of delegitimization of Israel in the world today (the others being London, Toronto, Madrid and Brussels). This may not be as much of a problem in other areas, but communities with colleges and universities are generally going to be politically aligned with so-called “peace and justice” movements. As a result of this it can take some effort to network and get strong community representation, but this can be a pivotal factor, and in fact is probably necessary to winning wars against anti-Israel campus groups, at least on campuses in cities which are generally anti-Israel themselves, or which have a strong and outspoken anti-Israel community. But beyond the necessity of getting community support in order not to look more marginal than the anti-Israel forces, Jewish community support can provide invaluable help in speaking out for the Jewish community in America or even just locally; SJP made a point of bringing in numerous area Jews who are anti-Israel, in order to give the Senate the impression that a great number of Jews, generally, are anti-Israel. The best way to counter this tactic is to bring in powerful and prominent Jewish voices to lend support for Israel and against those who wish to destroy the Jewish state.
A great example of the way community support can help win battles against BDS is the example of the local Bay Area Jewish group representatives who showed up to the later divestment bill meetings, stayed all night and openly spoke out on behalf of their organizations against the bill while using downtime during the meetings to help us in Tikvah strategize. SJP, as has been touched upon, brought in dozens – hundreds? – of local community Jews to the divestment bill meetings. These individuals wore, of course, ‘I am a Jew and I support divestment’ stickers on their shirts, and a fair number of them spoke before the Senate about the ‘necessity’ of passing the divestment bill. However, even a hundred local community Jews who happen to be anti-Zionist look trivial and lose their effectiveness as a fifth column claiming to stand for a great number of Bay Area Jews when placed up against representatives of major Bay Area Jewish organizations.
Individuals from groups such as the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and San Francisco Voice for Israel (the San Francisco chapter of the influential and prominent pro-Israel organization Stand With Us), showed up and spoke eloquently and powerfully on behalf of their organizations against divestment, showing the Senate (and everyone else in the room) that a small number of disgruntled and rabid Jews, mostly from Berkeley, supporting divestment from Israel can’t be taken as representative of Bay Area Jewry. In addition, Adam Naftalin-Kelman (as I have mentioned), Executive Director of Berkeley Hillel, and even Akiva Tor, Consul General of Israel for the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, spoke out at the meeting against the divestment bill. Numerous Rabbis from the Bay Area spoke as well. In addition, a coalition of local and national groups published a letter in the Daily Californian condemning the divestment bill. This letter was supported not only by the groups that one would expect, such as the ADL, the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and StandWithUs, but was also signed by the New Israel Fund and J Street. Those last two groups are known within the pro-Israel community for their often outspoken criticism of Israel. But the divestment movement, with its overt delegitimization of Israel, was something all of these groups could unite against.
This all sent the message that the 200,000-member Bay Area Jewish community cannot be taken to be represented by several dozen anti-Israel fanatics. Indeed, the presence and support of local leaders in the Bay Area Jewish community was invaluable, I think, to our success in keeping the divestment bill from passing.
It is worth noting that pro-Israel community members living in the city where one’s university is located and in neighboring areas, both those working professionally for Jewish organizations and those with non-Jewish-related jobs, will often be better informed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and better and more experienced public speakers on this issue than college Israel advocates, and this can be a great boon. In many ways, many of the community Jews of the area in which one goes to college can be seen as the ‘big brothers’ of members of groups such as Tikvah. These people have had decades of experience fighting anti-Israel forces, are more well read on the Arab/Israeli conflict and the PR war which is currently raging, and often are former members of campus pro-Israel groups themselves. Moreover, community members sympathetic to one’s cause, especially when the cause is one as bitterly fought as our own cause of Israel advocacy, often will, in my experience, go out of their way to help university students. Finding community Israel advocates and bringing them to speak on campus is a very useful thing to do as a campus Israel advocate.
Which brings me to my next point: How one should, and can, network with local pro-Israel and Jewish groups and individuals.
Meeting and collaborating with community members is actually very easy, daunting though it may seem to a college student (and it certainly felt daunting to me at first). For one thing, major cities and areas in the United States often have branches of pro-Israel organizations, such as AIPAC or Stand With Us; contacting these local branches is an excellent idea, and is very easy and helpful, especially since these professional advocacy groups consider it part of their own agenda to reach out to offer support to college students ‘in the trenches’. Numerous pro-Israel organizations in America as a matter of fact will organize yearly conferences or trips, which can take place either in America or in Israel, designed to educate college Israel advocates on the history of Israel and the Arabs and on advocacy techniques; I probably learned half of what I know about how to do Israel advocacy from attending the yearly Stand With Us Israel advocacy conference in the Fall of 2007. But simply contacting local groups for assistance is very easy; sending an email usually does the trick.
Aside from local pro-Israel groups, which can often offer financial assistance as well as assistance with putting on campus events, another good resource can be local synagogues. For one thing, Jewish professors on one’s university, or those who are even mildly religiously active, will likely go to a synagogue near the campus, so going to synagogues is one way to meet these professors and network with them in an informal environment. However, not all synagogues choose to get involved in such issues, and there are even some synagogues whose communities are far from a pro-Israel alignment. The best way to get access to Israel activists in a synagogue is to contact the office and ask for the name and contact information for their Israel Action Committee chair (note: if they don’t have one, that’s not a good sign!). That individual will not only know others in that congregation who are active on behalf of Israel, but likely in other local synagogues as well, and can also recruit them to help you. Indeed, dozens of our pro-Israel friends and allies, some of them on behalf of local Jewish and pro-Israel groups, from the Bay Area attended the various divestment bill meetings, and many of them spoke very eloquently and convincingly on behalf of our side of the divestment bill debate. Networking, indeed, is essential to success in business, and also in Israel advocacy.
Professors on campus can be extremely helpful allies as well. It’s no secret that academia in our country (and indeed in other countries, notably England) is home to many of the worst anti-Israel personalities in the country: Noam Chomsky is the most famous example, but others abound, such as recently disgraced and fired DePaul professor (and professional Israel hater)Norman Finkelstein. As a result of the fact that anti-Israel groups on campus can and do appeal to professors on ‘their side’ for help, it’s critical that pro-Israel groups and students do the same. And while many pro-Israel professors, in my experience, are somewhat hesitant to get involved in campus student politics and activism, if one looks they can find (usually Jewish) pro-Israel professors who aren’t afraid to speak out. Indeed, when the Chair of the Jewish Studies program at Berkeley, Professor Ronald Hendel, published a letter in the Daily Californian, the campus newspaper, exposing the divestment bill effort as plainly an anti-Israel effort, and not one which had to do with opposing war crimes in the world as the bill’s authors tried to claim, was extremely helpful to Tikvah and to the greater effort to oppose the bill.
There is one last thing I’d like to mention. Much as reaching out to community members and groups sympathetic to the cause of Israel advocacy is important to being successful in keeping anti-Israel bills from getting passed in one’s student government, reaching out to students and student groups on campus for help is very important too.
The most obvious students and student groups to appeal to for help are, of course, the Jewish ones. The fact that the anti-divestment-bill effort on campus saw most of the Jewish groups at Berkeley unite together against the bill was absolutely essential to seeing this bill fail. The clearest display of this fact was when sixteen Jewish groups on campus, most of whom never engage in real Israel advocacy, came together, reportedly under the leadership of Berkeley Hillel, to sign a statement opposing the divestment bill. During the course of the divestment bill fight (not long after the bill was initially vetoed), SJP published a letter in the Daily Californian student campus newspaper titled “We Are Jews and We Support Divestment” which had hundreds of campus and community signers, including some Berkeley graduates and professors. This letter was read by thousands on campus. As I noted earlier, this illustrates the tactic SJP and other anti-Israel groups use, assembling as many anti-Israel Jews as possible and bringing them out in force in an attempt to convince bystanders that American (and local) Jewry is in fact divided heavily when it comes to Israel matters.
What kept the SJP letter from being a runaway success for the anti-Israel movement on campus was that shortly after its publication, another letter would be published in the Daily Californian, a letter urging that the Berkeley student Senate uphold President Smelko’s veto of the divestment bill. This letter was signed by the aforementioned sixteen Jewish groups I mentioned, from the Jewish Business Association to the Berkeley Bayit Jewish cooperative student house to, of course, Tikvah: Students for Israel. (It is perhaps not surprising that Kesher Enoshi refused to sign this letter.) The truth is, the voices of a dozen campus anti-Israel Jews and a couple hundred like-minded community Jews pale next to the voice of the entire organized Jewish community on campus, and any pretense SJP’s letter had to representing a considerable proportion of Jews on campus was immediately killed upon the publication of the campus Jewish community’s letter which came shortly after, as well as the previously noted letter signed by a wide range of American Jewish organizations.
Bringing the Jewish community together on campus against divestment was essential to killing the divestment bill. However, one area which Tikvah, in my estimation, needs to improve at in order to continue gaining strength on campus (and therefore, in order to ensure that no future divestment bills or bills of that nature pass at Berkeley) is in befriending non-Jews and non-Jewish student groups. SJP and similar groups often are very successful in recruiting non-Arabs and individuals who do not have any immediately apparent reason to be invested in the Israeli/Palestinian issue, to their cause as advocates of their side and outspoken activists; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for pro-Israel groups, which, both on campus and more nationally from what I can tell, are nearly exclusively made up of Jews (a pleasing exception is the 200,000-member American organization Christians United for Israel - www.cufi.org). This is a major problem because when it comes to the PR battle on campus, bystanders will immediately associate greater credence with the anti-Israel side of the debate if it has more diversity in its ranks – both because this makes the group look pluralistic and inclusive and non-racist (values college students hold very dear), and because it leads bystanders to think “If thatgroup has so many different kinds of folks in it, they must have something convincing and ‘right’ to say…maybe being pro-Israel is just a Jewish thing, maybe Jews are religiously compelled to defend and support the state of Israel.” (That Jews who support Israel generally do so due to theological beliefs is a lie often spread by groups such as SJP.) As one might imagine, this image is extremely damaging, especially since groups like SJP already take the time to spread the notion that pro-Israel students on campus are only pro-Israel because they’re Jewish (including the implication that Jews are somehow racist for supporting Israel, the Jewish, ‘white’ state). Pro-Israel groups need to reach out to non-Jews as much or more than to Jews; for while one can count on getting some Jewish members (Jews are more likely to be informed on the Middle East, and therefore are more likely to know that the pro-Israel side of the debate is right) to join pro-Israel groups, it takes more effort to reach out to non-Jewish students, who likely are intimidated by the Middle East debate to begin with. Recruitment efforts by university and college pro-Israel groups therefore should not be based around giving arguments Jews care about but others wouldn’t care so much about, and pro-Israel groups should be careful to make their arguments for their side of the Middle East debate arguments which ordinary Americans could relate to and which deal with issues non-Jewish Americans care about (“Israel’s enemies are obsessive, racist, hate Jews and are linked heavily with terror”, not “Israel is home to more Holocaust survivors than any other state”).
It is also extremely important to network with and form allegiances with non-Jewish campus student organizations. There are several very clear advantages this brings. For one, it is a given, I take it, that on any major college campus, SJP or whomever happens to be the resident anti-Israel group on campus is well situated in campus politics and has many allies and allied groups. Touching on the point I just made above, this means that SJP or whomever is more likely to be seen by bystanders as credible than a lone, largely Jewish pro-Israel group would be. Even a pro-Israel group which is allied with many Jewish groups will not look as credible as an anti-Israel group which is allied with many student groups which deal with issues unrelated to theMiddle East.
Another reason it is very important to network and make allies with other student communities and student groups is that it gives a political advantage: On Berkeley, SJP had a plethora of allied groups and communities which could be counted on to vote for SJP members running for Senate (and who could be counted on to support the divestment bill). At Berkeley SJP became very powerful by making many allies in other student communities – the African Americans, the Hispanics, the gay rights and women’s rights groups and environmentalist groups. Were it not for the fact that one of the two major political parties at Berkeley has many Jews, and by extension a good amount of pro-Israel sentiment within its ranks, Tikvah would not have had an easy time, in my estimation, convincing too many others (read: non-Jews) to oppose the divestment bill At campuses where student government is organized based on political parties as at UC Berkeley, making alliances can be important in just getting people elected who won’t allow the student government to be hijacked by the BDS movement.
Strength is in numbers, and, at colleges, in diversity within one’s ranks.
Incidentally, networking and making allies with other student communities is much easier than one might suspect. Many student groups want to reach out and learn about other student groups, and so scheduling a mixer between one’s own pro-Israel group and, say, a Christian group or an Indian group isn’t hard and can be very rewarding. It’s especially easy if members of one’s own group are good friends with members of another group. Frankly, mixers are especially good to do because they lead to friendships being made, and one student community will be willing to go to bat for another when they have good friends in the other community. There is no substitute for personal connections. And of course, all of this advice concerning networking with non-Jewish student groups and communities can be applied more generally, seeing as networking and making friends with non-Jewish off-campus groups obviously can help immensely too.
Politically, there are certain groups that are worth approaching as allies: LGBT groups, environmental groups, Indian students and Armenian students. The first two are relatively obvious, though LGBT groups have far too often allied themselves with anti-Israel groups that support extremely homophobic and hateful entities such as Hamas. India and Israel have strong ties and both see themselves as targets of radical Islamic terror groups (in India’s case, from Pakistan); in fact several prominent representatives of the Indian-American student community on campus spoke out against the divestment bill and helped the Jewish community and Tikvah in its struggle against that bill. Armenian students, in the current political climate of Turkish anti-Israel activism, may also be receptive, though wary because of Israel’s previous close ties with Turkey; Armenian students also, in my experience, can relate to Jewish students, as they see the Armenian genocide of the 1910s as akin to the Nazi Holocaust, and therefore see themselves as brethren to the Jewish people.
This goes along with a more general point, that it’s important to be politically involved and to take the time to get to know the ‘power players’ on one’s campus. Getting a person from one’s own student group elected to student government is the most prized possession, and leads to a number of positive things – visibility for one’s student group, an ability to help shape campus rules and discourse, one guaranteed ‘no’ vote on anti-Israel bills in the student Senate – with the relatively minor downside that with a student government official in office from one’s group, it’s very important for the student group itself to act maturely on campus and to comport itself well (lest the group have a harder time electing another member in the future). But even just networking with student government officials is a good idea, since many of them, in my experience, genuinely care to hear what their constituents (read: students at their university) think, and are willing to hear out one’s opinions on matters on campus (for instance, things like anti-Israel bills). It’s best to do this networking before things like anti-Israel bills come up; at that point, Senators are likely to be paying attention to their personal friends, as well as their party leaders and colleagues. It is worth noting, on a side note, that anti-Israel groups, at least at California universities, are, more and more, planning to take over university student governments more generally these days, for the purpose of having the power to pass whatever bills they so desire.
In sum, we in Tikvah: Students for Israel and in the organized Jewish community at UC Berkeley defeated the effort to pass an Israel divestment bill on campus through a number of strategies and with the benefit of knowing the character and tactics of the anti-Israel community on campus. We worked, with our allies in the Student Action political party on campus, to portray the often radical CalSERVE party which supported the bill as more concerned with grandstanding on international issues than with passing bills concerned with the campus and student life on campus. We helped undermine the anti-Israel effort by portraying its main pushers in Students for Justice in Palestine as fanatics obsessed with damaging Israel (even if we should have done more of this). We knew how the anti-Israel cabal on campus operates, and made use of that knowledge to tactically fight it in the ‘courtroom’ which was the Senate meeting room. We contacted and secured the help of Bay Area Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, and came together as a unified Jewish community on campus as well. There are many things we should have done better, and in my opinion our battle would have gone more smoothly if we’d spent more time revealing the backers of the divestment bill as the villains they are, as well as networking more with non-Jewish student communities on campus. But we ultimately – with more than a little help from ASUC President Will Smelko, the pivotal player in the divestment bill fight – succeeded in keeping the bill from passing, and came out with our heads and shoulders raised high, in a position of strength after the divestment bill war. I hope that the lessons and tactics suggested in this article will be inspiring to readers from other colleges, for I am certain that they are the right ones.
B.A., Philosophy, 2010