Event in Marin spells out the ABCs of BDS on campus

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Johanna Wilder said she sees it all too often among college freshmen: a Jewish teen who goes from “Jewish summer camp, where everyone loves everyone, to a place where they are called Nazis and baby-killers.”

The university campus, she said, “is their battleground.”

Wilder, 26, the Pacific Northwest campus coordinator for the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, spoke April 29 at “Understanding BDS on College Campuses.” The panel discussion and workshop, subtitled “What students, parents and the rest of us should know,” drew more than 100 people to the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael.

The two-hour event was designed to help students, their parents and others understand the history and goals of the burgeoning boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Other speakers included Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council; Marc Dollinger, Jewish studies professor at San Francisco State University; and Becca Berman, a U.C. Berkeley sophomore and founder and president of Bears for Israel.

At the Osher Marin JCC, (from left) professor Marc Dollinger, Cal student Becca Berman and Rabbi Doug Kahn photo/dan pine

The BDS movement has many objectives, from trying to persuade mainline churches to divest holdings in companies that do business with Israel to convincing rock stars to boycott Israel. But some of the movement’s most successful strategies have occurred on college campuses, such as pushing Israeli divestment measures in student senates and staging large-scale anti-Israel events.

Kahn detailed the history of the BDS movement, which he said is playing the “long game, targeting young people, the decision-makers of tomorrow.” He noted organizers’ evolving tactics and their tendency to compare unrelated incidents in the United States, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, with the plight of Palestinians. He also lamented the tepid response from university administrators.

“They are slow to respond,” Kahn said. “They see this as just another topic of debate, so they [fail to see] the effort [of BDS organizers] to create a more intimidating atmosphere [on campus].”

He also claimed the true goal of BDS leaders is not to have universities divest, but rather “to utilize the opportunity to frame the narrative on campus, and to shape the hearts and minds [of students] to distance them from Israel.”

In his remarks, Dollinger noted a shift from the early days of pre-state Israel (when Zionists sought to build a socialist paradise in the Holy Land and were the darlings of liberals) to the post–Six Day War era (when “Jews entered whiteness, power and privilege … Israel went from socialist utopia to colonialist state”).

That mentality has set the stage for BDS and the worldwide opprobrium Israel faces every day, and explains why pro-Israel students struggle to get their message heard, he noted, adding that Jews seen as beneficiaries of so-called “white privilege” would have a hard time competing in the marketplace of ideas when going up against perceived Palestinian victimhood.

“You can’t put white, middle-class Jewish kids up against a Palestinian [student] whose cousin was killed by the IDF,” Dollinger said.

Berman then recounted how she founded Bears for Israel after witnessing a particularly fiery pro-Palestinian rally on the U.C. Berkeley campus last semester.

“The conversation had become polarized to a ridiculous degree,” she said, “a screaming match across the central plaza. The way to fight [BDS] is to empower Jewish students to be proud of their Jewish identities and be vocal about it.”

Midway through event last week in San Rafael, 15 teens and college students broke away for a closed-door workshop on fighting BDS, led by Berman.

In the main hall, Kahn, Dollinger and Wilder answered questions. One thing they noted was some progress on the part of pro-Israel activists recently.

For example, Kahn said that a few years ago, when a divest-from-Israel bill came before the Stanford University student senate, few faculty members publicly opposed it. This year, however, when divestment came up for a new vote, 135 Stanford faculty members signed a letter opposing it. However, the measure ultimately passed.

Dollinger noted that BDS activists often receive support from professors, especially those within ethnic studies departments who see Israel as a racist apartheid state, and they bring that sentiment into the classroom.

“We are not at a university to create a revolution,” he said, “but academics in ethnic studies are there for social change.”

In the workshop, students were asked to respond to various prompts, such as whether they had personally experienced anti-Semitism and what sort of political climate they expect at college.

Ingrid Shragge, a senior at Drew High School in San Francisco, attended the workshop, which proved to be a real eye-opener for her. Afterward, she said, “I live in a bubble. I’ve avoided the pro-Israel topic.”

Because of what she learned, she said, she will try to “find a Jewish community” when she starts next fall at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington.

Rita Gershengorn of Santa Rosa, a former teacher at Brandeis Hillel Day School in Marin,  said she found the evening’s information “painful yet inspiring. I am aware of the unrest [on campus], but I found the young people so eloquent and so dedicated.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.