Beyond Birthright and Advocacy
Photo Credit: Peter Haskin for Australian Jewish News

Ken Stein
March 27, 2015

At Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch Congregation a week ago, the audience of several hundred audibly gasped at the conclusion of my presentation on Middle Eastern politics when I told them that the next day I would be giving a noon talk at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

There was good reason. For more than a decade Evergreen State has enjoyed the notoriety of being at the forefront of a particularly contemptible form of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel: BDS will end when Israel allows Palestinians to immigrate to Israel and replace the majority-Jewish state!

BDS for them is not about Israeli withdrawal from territories won in the 1967 war; it is about Israel’s elimination as a Jewish state. For me, the use of when harkens to Jimmy Carter’s most egregious line in his 2006 edition of “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid”: “It is imperative that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel.”  This BDS concept contemplates the end of Israel. Carter’s egregious call condones killing Israelis.

Both are philosophically tied to imposing political outcomes on Israel: The first seeks to eradicate the Jewish state; the second sanctions terrorist attacks until political behavior changes. Both seek to deny the Israeli people and government prerogatives to make their own choices. Both aim at Zionism’s core and Israel’s very existence, namely to wrest from the Israeli people the natural right to determine their own future.

Back to Evergreen. Three days before my talk, an Evergreen emeritus professor blasted me and my reputation in an email he claimed was sent to all Evergreen faculty and staff. He challenged my credentials as a scholar.

This was the first time in 37 years of giving academic talks anywhere that an appearance was preceded by a poison pen. Had he shown up for the lecture and identified himself, I would have ripped into his claims. Alas, he was a no-show.

I have his email letter. If he resurfaces and if it warrants future attention, appropriate legal action could unfold.

After the talk at Evergreen, several folks approached me, one a local Chabad rabbi, who said: “This was the first time in six years I have been at a lecture at Evergreen where the presenters did not tell the audience that Israeli soldiers were killing Arabs in order to ethnically cleanse Palestine!”

The young bearded rabbi shook my hand twice, as did the veteran Israeli Kfar Vitkin expatriate, who traveled an hour to come to the talk. They both said essentially the same thing: “Thanks for coming here; it was fresh air!”

Days earlier I visited San Diego State University and the University of Washington, giving public talks about the current turmoil in the Middle East and having lengthy dinner conversations with students affiliated with local Hillels. What was on their mind? How did they react to BDS and, if appropriate, anti-Semitic instances on campus?

Twelve students do not make a valid survey, yet these dozen graduates and undergraduates left decided impressions. For each, Israel had great relevance; if they could have an impact on their indifferent, apathetic or unknowing peers, they would tell them what an exceptional place Israel is. All of them were concerned by BDS and anti-Semitic incidents on this or that campus, but they were not going to be deterred from their commitment to their Judaism, however they individually defined it, or to Israel as a Jewish state. Some had issue with this or that Israeli policy, yet they felt that their Jewish identity (not religious) was stronger because Israel was a Jewish state where Jews spoke for themselves.

And therein is the difference between Evergreen’s BDS advocates and Carter on the one hand and these Jewish students on the other. The students want Israel’s story told and owned; they do not want to relinquish Jewish self-determination in a Jewish state. They are keen to learn more about Israel’s formation — why strategic decisions were made and when. They do not mind advocating for Israel as long as advocacy is based on fact and not merely replying to a specific question.

These are smart students who crave context. Their collective objective is enriching and deepening enthusiasm for Israel.

Speaking out against Israel’s detractors is our duty and right; it is our responsibility to provide Israel’s story to them. We need to push back hard against others who hijack Israel’s story and against those who want to deny Israel self-determination. We need to do more than merely listen to those dozen students. We need to do, to channel our time and vast resources beyond advocacy and after Birthright.