In an age defined by activism, with calls for dismantling the patriarchal and oppressive ties to the past, BDS has become a rallying cry on campuses for many as a means to achieve that goal. Students are driven to become involved and protest what they deem is an “apartheid” state, full of racist, hateful, genocidal, and war crime actions. With an appeal to their moral consciousness for a desire to end the horrific crimes of humanity and secure human rights and world peace, students are drawn to get involved. 

However, there are many problems with this scene. The BDS movement uses carefully worded language to cover up its anti-Semitism and the desired goal of the destruction of Israel. The rise of BDS on campus has marginalized Jewish students and raised the rate of anti-Semitic incidents by more than 90 percent, with more 200 incidents. If so, how can so many students be swept up in such a movement and ideology? 

BDS, and its popularity on campus, is the product of a larger issue, namely anti-Zionism being a form of anti-Semitism. The BDS movement is seen as being humanitarian, advocating for the Palestinians who are supposedly suffering under the “oppression” of Israel and denied their homes. Its proponents use language to falsely compare the situation in Israel with that in apartheid South Africa, drawing inspiration to end “Israeli Apartheid.” It calls on the world to end Israel’s “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians, a claim that can easily be disproven when properly researching Israel’s actions. In the United States, the civil rights movement and all it stands for has been used as a means of advocating for humanitarian efforts around the globe, particularly in Israel. As such, people get swept up into activism, joining the BDS movement with the belief that it is truly a peaceful means of advocating for necessary social change and protection of a people wrongly mistreated. 

Yet this perception is dangerous, for the BDS movement ultimately calls for the end of Israel. Its founder, Omar Barghouti, has been heard saying things like “we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine” and “Israeli Jews are colonial settlers… Colonizers are not entitled to self-determination.” In doing so, he rejects all historical claims of Judaism to Israel, delegitimizing the right of Jews to live in Israel. The demands BDS list on its website, such as ending occupation, providing rights to Arabs, and “promoting the right of Palestinian Refugees to return” are carefully worded in a way that seem honorable and moral, but when examined spell out the destruction of Israel. In addition, it creates false comparisons to arouse the sympathies of Western students who are unaware that the situation in Israel is NOT parallel to that of the civil rights movement in the U.S., or the end of apartheid South Africa. 

BDS has become more prominent on campus due to the student organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which joined student governments throughout the West to promote BDS and petition school boards to adopt BDS in order not to be complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians. They are extremely vocal, and have managed to get approximately 47 universities to adopt such measures in the name of furthering humanitarian efforts. Members are known for chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” an open call for the end of Israel. What’s disturbing is that many students join in, not paying attention to the words and not seeing that if all the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea is “free,” that leaves no room for Israel, and calls for “freedom” beyond what SJP and BDS claim to be the occupied territories, namely the Judea and Samaria, Gaza, and Eastern Jerusalem. If this is so, how can SJP claim to be humanitarian? How can the complete destruction of Israel be justified? And how does that fit in with SJP claims that they “will continue to fight against white supremacy, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, capitalism, militarism, imperialism, homophobia, transphobia and all other political institutions that continue to oppress marginalized folks.” Advocating for the destruction of Israel, even in a roundabout way, does not help secure peace in the Middle East, and goes against their very claims for not being anti-Semitic and seemingly open to a two-state solution. 

In addition to SJP, professors are openly voicing their thoughts on Israel, using their positions to become political advocates and shame Israel and students who support it. This creates an environment of fear and suppression, where students cannot voice their own opinions due to their grades taking a severe hit or being ostracized and labeled as racist and complicit in genocide. One example is when professors refuse to write letters of recommendations  to students affiliated with Israel study abroad programs due to academic boycotts of Israel. SJP, and at times faculty, call on universities to take a firm stance on the conflict and Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Israel in order to end the continued perpetration of Israel’s alleged crimes. This is wrong, for universities are meant to be academic spaces that facilitate discussion and education about various topics, not forcing one perspective under threat of harassment, and alienating and condemning all Jewish students in the process.

Professors are openly voicing their thoughts on Israel, using their positions to become political advocates and shame Israel and students who support it. This creates an environment of fear and suppression, where students cannot voice their own opinions due to their grades taking a severe hit or being ostracized and labeled as racist and complicit in genocide.

These factors make it difficult for Jewish students to involve themselves in student organizations or engage in civil and nuanced discussions on the subject, for being anti-Zionist has become a prerequisite for any form of advocacy. You want to be an environmental activist? Denounce Israel. A feminist? Denounce Israel. It is an all or nothing situation, where students say, “how can you be a feminist when you condone Israel’s actions and allow its continued oppression of Palestinian women? You can’t!” It doesn’t matter that the situation is complex, that there is a whole historical, religious, political context, and that even Zionists might disagree with the actions of the Israeli military. It’s all or nothing, much like the overall political atmosphere on campuses. It becomes very difficult to defend oneself, for a common tactic by SJP is to lump the conflict with all other conflicts such as the BLM movement and Native Americans and others in order to show that they are all a larger universal problem and you cannot stand for one without standing for all. For students who wish to learn more about Israel or go on birthright, a free trip to Israel designed to educate students about their Jewish heritage, they might find their campus Hillel facing pressure from SJP to end these trips due to their ties with Israel. One’s connection to Israel, regardless of its nature, can ruin academic and career prospects, and this is before any outright attacks and extreme forms of harassment.  

Universities are meant to be academic spaces that facilitate discussion and education about various topics, not forcing one perspective under threat of harassment, and alienating and condemning all Jewish students in the process.

Jewish students face a harder time, as they are viewed as guilty by association. If you are Jewish, you are Zionist, and therefore are responsible for Israel’s actions, as if a 19-year-old college student has any say in the decisions of the Israeli government. It is often difficult for such students to defend themselves against the numerous accusations, for they view themselves as not knowledgeable enough to debate the topic and factually back up their support or disapproval of Israel. More frequently, this plays out in student governments, where Jewish members are harassed until they resign.  The rhetoric against them often includes things like “Even if all the orgs on campus that are Jewish are also Zionist, that’s not an excuse for you to join. That’s still blood on your hands!” Or an anti-Zionist might say, “a woman with years of internalized racism, classism, and Zionism behind her should not be given the luxury of being a [USC] student.” SJP and Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE) have been known for more extreme tactics to raise awareness of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and shock people into joining. These include mock checkpoints to mimic security measures taken in Israel, mock eviction notices on student dorms, and swastikas on Jewish students’ doors. When responses include declaring such statements and actions as anti-Semitic, the tables are turned with arguments that the Jewish students were harassed for their racism and Islamophobia, not their Judaism. Even in general conversations, these arguments are used whenever a student tries to point out the more nuanced nature of the conflict and raise legitimate arguments regarding the flaws in Palestinian leadership, the past refusals for a two-state solution, ongoing terrorist actions, and how such behaviors contribute to the conflict. Such a mention that Israel is not solely to blame is then translated into “you are perpetuating Islamophobia” and “you blame the oppressed for their oppression, therefore you are just as horrible as any colonizer and white supremacist, therefore you are a hater.” 

Further complicating the matter is SJP’s arguments that accusations of anti-Semitism are thrown around to silence them, denying them the right to the freedom of speech or to criticize what they see as Israel’s harmful actions. While for many, this is true, there is a fine line between genuine criticism and a disguise of anti-Semitism. While people should be able to speak freely about their opinions regarding the complex nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have the freedom to criticize Israel, what is problematic is SJP’s convenient lack of acknowledgement of any Jewish right to self-determination and a safe space to call home, free from anti-Semitism and persecution. By calling the entire land “Palestine,” they remove any possibility of legitimacy for Israel’s existence, thereby denying the viability of a two-state solution for the region. SJP is also known for reworking a definition of Zionism in order to leave out the historical realities of its development, and how it was greatly shaped by the aftermath of the Holocaust. Rather than Israel having been built to allow Jews to return to their homeland, which has been archaeologically and historically verified, as well as provide a safe space for Jews where a holocaust would never be able to happen, Zionism is vilified as a white colonialist movement bent on taking over a land and displacing its native inhabitants. By using language of white colonialism, with all its implications of expansionism, oppression, and subjugation, there is a deliberate misleading of well-meaning individuals who understand the implications of white colonialism, but are not aware of the political and religious realities of the Middle East. 

Even my own university, Rutgers-New Brunswick, known for a robust Jewish community and only mild cases of anti-Semitism, has felt the ramification of SJP’s actions. In May 26, 2021, during the Gaza War, the university issued a statement that “we call out and denounce acts of hate and prejudice against members of the Jewish community and any other targeted and oppressed groups on campus and in our community.” SJP quickly issued a scathing response, expressing “deep concern” that the university “conveniently ignores the extent to which Palestinians have been brutalized by Israel’s occupation and bombing of Gaza” and that the statement “neglected to use the words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian…’ this refusal to acknowledge and affirm the existence of Palestine, and thus the Palestinian faculty and students at Rutgers university, reveals the university’s inability to stand in genuine solidarity with the Palestinian members of its university.” The fact that condemning anti-Semitism on campus should be equated with, and dependent on, taking a political stance regarding Israel, perpetuating and funding any alleged crimes, or a form of discrimination toward another minority group is outrageous. It demonstrates the lie that SJP and BDS stand against anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of discrimination, racism, and bigotry. Regarding the complaint that Rutgers used “the Middle East and Hamas” rather than “Palestinians,” the school was remaining out of the conflict and not choosing sides in what is a nuanced conflict. It attempted to remain neutral and only speak about how the conflict was directly impacting the university community rather than issue a broader statement on world politics. In response to these complaints, the university stated its desire to affirm “all identities… the impact of our message fell short of that intention. In hindsight, it is clear to us that the message failed to communicate support for our Palestinian community members. We sincerely apologize for the hurt that this message caused.” The university later issued another statement, clarifying that it would not “apologize for standing against anti-Semitism” and then listing all forms of hatred and racism the university condemns. SJP’s response is one problem, but the fact that the university caved and apologized for not being inclusive enough while condemning anti-Semitism is a much greater one, demonstrating how SJP conflates multiple issues into one and creates an all or nothing environment.

Ultimately, BDS on campus is harmful to Jewish and Zionist students, as well as anyone interested in having a genuine and nuanced discussion on the matter. It uses misleading language, falsely comparing the conflict to those of white colonialism and white supremacy, denying any form of legitimacy for a Jewish state or the possibility for a two-state solution. As long as members of organizations such as BDS, SJP, and SAFE are active on campuses and push such rhetoric, and at times harass Jewish students, those campuses become an impossible space for Jewish students to thrive within. Where polite and impactful dialogue is stifled, the community cannot contribute in any meaningful way to a viable path to peace in the Middle East.