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BDS Without Campus

The landscape that nurtured a movement shuts down, leaving activists on both sides wondering whether the debate will cool down—or get hotter

Max Krupnick
November 24, 2020
Original photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Original photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Original photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images
Original photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

In late September, students at Columbia College voted yes on a resolution for the university to divest its assets from companies that do business with Israel. But this vote looked different from hundreds of other Boycott, Divest, Sanctions resolutions: Instead of holding demonstrations on the campus quad, hosting speakers on campus for teach-ins, and posting flyers on bulletin boards, all campaigning happened online.

The vote had originally been scheduled for April 2020, but after the first wave of the coronavirus cleared out the campus, it was postponed until the fall in the hope that it could happen in-person then. But for the fall semester, Columbia only invited back to campus students who had extenuating circumstances at home, forcing a change in organizing tactics and a decrease in the campaign’s visibility.

“I don’t remember seeing anything that was like vote for or against BDS … It seemed very vague to me,” first-year student in Columbia’s Engineering School Ben Stettin told me. “Also, [I was] not sure if freshmen were allowed to vote in it.”

What happens when a social movement rooted in physical campus protest moves online? From all sides, the new environment presents new challenges and opportunities. Removed from campuses, some of the vitriol of discussion may be diffused. Conversely, by moving online, debate can extend beyond the students on campus and include outside agitators.

Israel rhetoric varies greatly from campus to campus, affected by the students’ political leanings, institutional support for Israel-Palestine conversations, and college reputation for activism. Students at the University of California, Berkeley have served as national leaders in college activism since the Vietnam antiwar movement. Its students frequently protest and debate about Israel, boycotting and shouting down speakers, sponsoring and teaching courses about Israeli settler-colonialism through the university’s DeCal system, and lobbying local government representatives. At Berkeley and other “activist campuses,” students supporting Israel often end up defending against attacks rather than proactively educating and advocating.

“Before COVID I think Berkeley’s pro-Israel community in some aspect largely felt like we were on the defensive a lot of the time and it was largely about putting out fires that were started by the pro-Palestinian movements on campus,” said Garrett Layton, a junior at Berkeley and executive board member of Bears for Israel. “There were protests consistently. There was a lot of propaganda, negative propaganda … People would just kind of spin each other’s language to try and demonize the other side.”

On the other end of the spectrum, some campuses have a quiet Israel discourse. At Yale, although there are student groups advocating for Israel and Palestine, their events are mostly self-contained speaker series, learning sessions, and social activities rather than public clashes. Yotam Wolk, who just finished his tenure as Yale’s Israel fellow, noted that the bar for improvement differs nationwide. “I was one of the lucky ones because I had a really good environment. But for other people, I don’t envy them at all … The way they measure progress at Berkeley would be immensely different than the way I would measure progress at Yale. A baby step for me would be a huge one for them to get into normalization,” said Wolk. “At the first … or second event we had my first year, we had a few people talk about their Palestinian heritage and roots and their story. … They came into a building with an Israel flag and felt safe and comfortable enough to talk about it. For me, that … [was] a great step … But for Berkeley, that would be an earthquake.”

The last six months of social organizing has required a shift in tactics. For the most part, people are no longer asked to show up to rallies, rather expressing their discontent digitally. Social media platforms serve as our town squares. Yale senior Jake Kalodner saw a possibility in this. “Particularly with the recent Black Lives Matter movement in June and July and into the present, I think there is a sort of recognition that Instagram is a powerful medium for advocacy,” said Kalodner, who helped start Jewish On Campus with other college students from around the country this summer. In just four months, the account has accrued over 20,000 followers. The team posts anonymous submissions recounting anti-Semitism on college campuses and implores their followers to tag and contact the university where the incident took place.

Many students, at Columbia and beyond, have voiced their frustration with their university administrations falling short in their investigations, condemnations, and prosecutions of anti-Semitism on campus, both related and unrelated to BDS. In a sense being physically separated from their administrations’ justice systems allows students to seek their own accountability. Notably, most of the anti-Semitic incidents that Jewish On Campus shares with its followers occurred face-to-face when students were on campus, with few happening purely online. “The vast majority of the people in the stories were too afraid to go to their administration, or they went to their administration, and the administration didn’t handle it. The administration sort of blew it off,” said Kalodner. “We decided that we wanted to … [say that] this sort of behavior isn’t OK anymore.”

Unlike activism on campus, online discourse is not restricted to members of that university community. While the leaders of Jewish On Campus attend different universities, some college organizations have gained traction online as well. In early August, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee posted an infographic on their Instagram story defining Zionism as “a racist, sectarian, exclusionary, Jewish-supremacist political ideology.” Although Harvard PSC has fewer than a thousand followers, the infographic had reached thousands more as Jewish activists denounced it. “Suddenly, they had [something like] 50,000 Jews, Jewish young adults, slamming them and … really getting angry. … They weren’t all Harvard students,” said Layton. “[This semester,] it’ll be more than just a campus movement. I think you’ll see interactions between different colleges and between people who aren’t even in college.”

Not only has the centrality of social media changed who participates in conversations about Israel, but it has also changed the content of those debates. On Twitter, users clash over interpretations of ideas and current events with a restricted character count. “[On] Twitter, it’s not about who’s right, it’s about who has the best punchline. … That is not OK, especially when something so important is being discussed,” said Yale junior Ismael Jamai Ait Hmitti.

If campuses want to cultivate a healthy Israel dialogue this semester, they may need to divorce themselves from social media platforms. “I think that the route to take is to go ahead and to make this a serious conversation where, at risk of taking ourselves too seriously, [we are] able to create some kind of [space] that doesn’t allow trolls or … funny snickering comment[s],” added Jamai Ait Hmitti.

Online forums have emerged under the umbrella of universities as well. At Princeton, during the wave of racial reckoning in June, students penned long opinion pieces about university policies and national events and sent them out on their residential college email lists. “[At Princeton,] Listserv [a mass email list] … seems to be what the political discussion is in a virtual format. Because otherwise, you just don’t have to talk to people that you disagree with,” said Princeton junior Tommy Dayzie. “[But] the [only] people that do care probably agree with you … or are firmly against you. [When] two people who are firmly against each other talk to each other, they just become more like what they are.”

While online discourse comes with many flaws, was discourse surrounding Israel any better when it was in-person? Israel protests on some campuses had been very visible and contentious before the coronavirus rendered them impossible, ranging from students staging a picketed protest on the university quad, demonstrating at a student government meeting, or boycotting or interrupting a speaker. These physical protests and their counterprotests can be short-sighted, not addressing the problem as a whole. “People aren’t willing to look all the way to the opinions that are causing these movements … they’re more confronting the action itself and demonizing it in sunlight,” said Layton.

Groups try to stifle debate through the threat of opportunity loss, either through individual networks or through websites like Canary Mission. “People are just really opposed to looking each other in the eyes but they are extremely willing to take pictures of someone who supports Israel and share that with everyone in the Palestinian movement on campus, and in some cases, demonize the person,” said Layton.

In-person protests carry with them this fervent excitement of activism. Adrenaline clouds dignity. And for those who disagree with the ideas of the protesters, it can be difficult to voice that opinion. “[Talking about Israel-Palestine] feels like something that you need to ask consent for,” said Jamai Ait Hmitti. Referencing a small protest outside of Yale’s Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life in the fall of 2019, he added: “[Jewish students] don’t expect to feel confronted in a place of comfort, in a space of love. … When the debate happens physically, it’s violent.”

The removal of the physical campus space changes far more than just where people go to talk. A building helps determine the participants and contents of a conversation. Israel-Palestine programs often take place in cultural houses, where it can be perceived as one-sided. “There’s a lot of debate happening around the issue. But it’s happening in spaces like [the Muslim Students Association], where it’s … exclusively pro-Palestinian, or places like Slifka, where it’s exclusively pro-Zionist,” said Jamai Ait Hmitti. “We found that … [many] Jews of color or … pro-Palestinian Jews that were in Slifka felt that they couldn’t talk about the subject at all.”

Without the need for an in-person meeting spot, online discussions can free themselves from the ideological constraints of a building. Luna Garcia, a Yale junior, sees moving online as an opportunity for discussion to divorce itself from university space politics. “Anti-Zionist voices or voices who are more critical of Israel [are already] in a space that’s not facilitated by the institution … I think what we’re [no longer] seeing by moving online … [is] a hierarchy of voices being established based off of institutional support. What we see is an opportunity to kind of treat everyone like they’re a valid part of the discussion. And I think that’s something that we’ve been needing that’s actually much harder to facilitate on a physical campus.”

As debate shifts away from campus centers, it has centralized instead around national Israel-Palestine advocacy groups. Without a need for individual on-campus events to drive activism, local chapters can run programming based on well-planned, large-scale online events. “Localization is entirely based on physical proximity … [these groups are] not working within a social sphere anymore,” said Garcia. “[Yale] J Street hosted a Zoom webinar and you were able to participate. But that was a facilitated conversation specifically for the Yale chapter after watching the national webinar with U.S. and Israeli Knesset representatives. … I think the only way that we’re going to be able to keep it local … is going to the national events, and then local chapter chairs [offering a] community event [after].”

For an alternative to national programming, student groups have turned to their peers on other campuses to hold joint events. In late October, Yale and Haverford’s Israel clubs co-hosted an event about the UAE-Israel-Bahrain normalization with Yoni Michanie, an Israeli Middle East expert working on his Ph.D. in political science at Northeastern University. Thirty people attended the event, but a little over half came in protest. Due to the event being on Zoom, protesters expressed themselves differently and could easily be removed if they were disruptive. “They came on with virtual backgrounds that said Free Palestine and every once in a while, they would unmute and … interrupt the speaker with music. … If they got muted twice, then they would get kicked out,” said Zachary Zabib, a junior at Yale and co-president of Yale Friends of Israel.

While joining together increases the audience size, it also drags the issues of one campus onto another. Most of the protesters were Haverford students, with some Yale students joining at the end. “I don’t think it would have [drawn protesters if we ran the event ourselves],” said Zabib. “We’ve held events similar to this with speakers that are just a bit right of center and we’ve never had … a significant protest as long as I’ve been here.”

With other political issues taking more precedence currently, this semester provides an opportunity to reevaluate the relative importance of conversations about Israel on campus. Could some time away from meeting in-person make discussion quieter in the short and long term? Wolk wondered whether increased attention to domestic issues will empower students to look critically at America instead of the Middle East. “[Talking about Israel-Palestine is] a good way for people to showcase their politics without having to be adamant about domestic politics … [or worry about] the extreme sensitivities of discussing domestic policies. It can be a wonderful test case for conversation containing multiple narratives and … engaging respectfully in an actual productive conversation,” said Wolk. “I think the debate will be quieter. There’s no annexation anymore, which helped a lot, and people are busy with [other domestic issues]. All bets are off if Israel goes into a war; that’ll become the No. 2 or 3 priority in the States.”

Without physically being together, college students can take this opportunity to talk to people that they otherwise would not or could not have before. Online events allow people to control who attends and make disruptively talking over another speaker difficult. Layton is hopeful that a new standard for discourse could emerge: “I think if we were able to have the conversations and people were able to cross the line, we would be able to accomplish something. And our campus would no longer be a little point of conflict thousands … of miles away from Israel. It would be a source of ideas and a source of support.”

Max Krupnick is a junior at Yale University studying history.