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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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What to do about Israel Apartheid Week

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Kenneth L. Marcus. Below: The type of poster pictured is typical of Israel Apartheid Week

University campuses are now bracing for the annual onslaught known as “Israel Apartheid Week,” or “Hate Week.” In the United States, this coordinated ideological assault lasts from Feb. 26 to March 3. In Europe, it begins the week before, and elsewhere the week after. 

Some preliminary events, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) conference, have already occurred. The question for the Jewish community is what to do about it.

Some argue that anti-Israel extremism requires aggressive opposition. Others respond that overly confrontational reactions merely give the Israel-bashers free publicity. A third camp urges efforts to shift the terms of the debate by promoting positive images of Israel and ignoring the other side. The third camp, lately on the rise, received a big boost from the David Project’s new report, “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges.”

The thoughtful report argues that the pro-Israel community should focus on campus activities that promote a positive image for the Jewish state. Such positivism will, the report argues, be more effective than merely reacting to the most extreme anti-Israel voices that are heard in higher education. The David Project’s executive director, David Bernstein, urges the community to “kick the reaction addiction” and to focus on positive messaging.

While Bernstein has some smart ideas about positive pro-Israel activities, the Jewish community cannot ignore anti-Israel extremists when they lapse into outright bigotry. Israel technology conferences and Israeli dance parties are no more effective at countering campus anti-Semitism than civil rights lawsuits are at creating a positive image for Israel. Positive pro-Israel advocacy and forceful civil rights advocacy each has its own place, and neither can replace the other.

This month, this author is launching a new, independent organization to combat anti-Semitism in higher education, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The new group, backed by some big names in law and scholarship, is needed to provide a coordinated legal response to those incidents that go beyond Israel-bashing and amount to anti-Jewish discrimination and harassment.

The task will not be easy. Consider the University of California at Berkeley administrator who allegedly refused to act when an anti-Israel activist spat at a Jewish pro-Israel student.  According to then-student Jessica Felber, Dean Poullard dismissed her concerns because the activist had only spit at her, rather than spitting on her. In other words, he refused to get involved because the spittle missed its target.

Later, as anti-Israel hostilities worsened, the activist physically assaulted Felber in the middle of campus. What is worse than the administrator’s indifference is the initial reaction of the San Francisco judge, who defended Poullard by writing that spitting at Felber could be a form of protected speech—as if California law only protects Jewish students against actual battery, while assault is fair game.

As anti-Israel activists mount their virulent campaigns on college campuses, the Jewish community must be ready with a three-pronged response. First, Israel supporters can lead with positive messaging about Israel, as the David Project recommends. Ideally this is undertaken throughout the year, rather than scrambled together in response to opponents. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise recently launched the “The Israel Calendar” in order to facilitate precisely this strategy. The Israel Calendar is an online resource for the pro-Israel community around the United States to announce events related to 12 monthly themes. 

Second, Israel’s supporters should be prepared to respond with facts and figures to correct the misinformation that is too frequently spread on campus. Although Israel advocacy should not always be reactive, there are times when they must correct the record. Some groups, including StandWithUs and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, do this well.

Finally, when campus incidents cross a line into outright antisemitism, the Jewish community needs to take a stand. Legal action is not always the right answer even to brazen bigotry, but there are times when it cannot be avoided, and the community must be ready.

Kenneth L. Marcus is a former Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  He is forming a new organization to combat campus anti-Semitism, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and is a senior research associate at the Institute for Jewish & Community Research

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