OP-ED: How Jews on the left and the right are empowering BDS

An aerial view of Michigan Stadium as the sun rises on the University of Michigan campus. (University of Michigan/Flickr)

(JTA) — The BDS debacle at the University of Michigan proved once again that Jews can be their own worst enemies.

Since 2002, the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) has, on 10 occasions, rejected resolutions to support the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction the State of Israel.

This month, however, for the first time, the resolution passed, to much hand-wringing in the Jewish community.

The students who fought the resolution — sacrificing sleep, schoolwork and social lives — did absolutely everything they could, and are to be commended. And, after the resolution passed, the university’s administration immediately announced that, despite the vote, Michigan would not become the first school in the country to divest from Israel.

Just why did the resolution pass this time? Contributing factors included strong bonds forged between various “progressive” coalitions and anti-Israel students; a stacked CSG (the vice president and several other members were staunch supporters of divestment); and a pervasive know-nothingness that saw the anti-Israel crowd raucously cheer the decision to prevent Professor Victor Lieberman — a recognized expert in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — from speaking at the debate on divestment from Israel.

But what sealed the deal in favor of BDS were Jews — in two different flavors of radicalism.

Sadly, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) has become an integral part of nearly every campus-based attack on Israel, and Michigan was no exception. Jarring, though unsurprising, was the op-ed from the University of Michigan chapter of JVP, published the day before the divestment vote, entitled “To fight white supremacy, support divestment.”

This, of course, is a blatant lie: The creation of the State of Israel was itself a historic triumph over a white supremacist regime that sought to destroy a people it considered racially inferior.

What is JVP’s evidence that Israel represents white supremacy? First, they charge that Jewish organizations (including my own, the American Jewish Committee) issued congratulations to President Trump after his November 2016 victory — which, as nonpartisan entities, they surely were right to do, whatever they thought of the new president. Next, they cite the odious Richard Spencer, the disreputable doyen of the alt-right, who, true to his trollish nature, heaps praise upon Israel despite his well-known disregard for Jews. Finally, they offer a litany of disputed racial incidents in Israeli history, as if Israel must be perfect to deserve to exist.

This rhetoric isn’t limited to Michigan. At schools across the country, and off-campus as well, JVP’s outspoken anti-Zionism gives cover to non-Jewish Israel-bashers and renders them immune to the charge of anti-Semitism, no matter how deserving of the label they might be.

The second type of radical Jew that helped ensure the BDS victory is the far-right group behind the McCarthyite blacklist at Canary Mission. The website, launched in early 2015, announced itself with a video featuring the tagline “It is your duty to make sure that today’s radicals are NOT tomorrow’s employees.” The site has documented the names, affiliations and activities of a number of young anti-Israel activists at campuses across the country, holding them accountable, in perpetuity, for the ill-advised tweets from their youth, their membership in political organizations and their campus activism.

Some of those exposed by the site are undoubtedly Israel-haters. But by creating the specter of a blacklist, Canary Mission handed powerful ammunition to the anti-Israel crowd at Michigan. Using Canary Mission as a bogeyman, BDS proponents so scared the members of the CSG that they would end up on a shadowy website intended to make them unemployable that they took the extraordinary measure of voting by secret ballot.

As the Washington Post’s memorable slogan puts it, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” This deeply undemocratic decision to vote in secret left the members of CSG completely unaccountable to the voters who had elected them. Thus unburdened, they voted, narrowly, to divest.

Now Canary Mission, in a preposterous partnership with its ideological opposites at JVP, has forced the Jewish and pro-Israel community at the University of Michigan to deal with the fallout of a successful BDS resolution.

Is all lost for the pro-Israel community on campus? Have we entered an era when these two oddest of Jewish bedfellows open the floodgates to widespread divestment? Hardly. The very next night, with no Jewish Voice for Peace op-ed and an open, roll-call vote, the University of Maryland student government heartily rejected BDS.

Seffi Kogen is the American Jewish Committee’s director of campus affairs.