Divestment movement ties itself to discourses on white privilege and critical theory to build anti-Israel coalitions
Two months ago, after a contentious meeting that lasted until dawn, UCLA’s student government (USAC) defeated a BDS resolution on a 7-5, essentially party-line vote. The hard work of hundreds of students and alumni, aided by numerous pro-Israel organizations, secured a hard-fought victory.
But Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and their allies dried their tears, regrouped, and returned for another round. Their strategy was two-fold: Cut off the vital supply lines between campus activists and the real world, then use the morally-backwards campus environment to wield the myriad “anti-racist” tools as weapons against Israel and Jews.
Campus Lawfare As Political Tool
As reported here last week, SJP filed a case with USAC’s judicial board, claiming two anti-BDS-voting council members, Sunny Singh and Lauren Rodgers, had violated conflict of interest rules by receiving a free educational trips to Israel.
This could be used to disqualify a generation of Jewish leaders and allies from involvement. Israel trips are common for young Jews, and the many who have gone on Birthright will be accused of taking Sheldon Adelson’s Republican SuperPAC money.
While the case itself has yet to be heard and hinges on UCLA-specific bylaws, its general use as a political tactic was put to the test last week, during the first USAC elections since the BDS vote.
What Really Counts: The Voters’ Split Decision
The inclusive do-gooder party, Bruins United (BU), ran Singh for president, with Avinoam Baral, a leader of UCLA’s pro-Israel community, running for internal vice president. Helpfully, the party that traditionally represented leftist racial and ethnic organizations split into two sets of squabbling special interests, flinging everything from charges of flashing gang signs to accusations of racism at each other, getting into a post-election brawl and punching a reporter in the face.
While Baral was elected, the council makeup remains the same as last year (a 6-4 BU advantage on a 13-person council, with the ideological proclivities of the three independent votes still key), and Singh lost the presidency by a mere 47 votes. BDS is likely to return next year, with a serious chance of passing (A fall special election for a newly-created 14th seat could also make the difference).
Disturbingly, SJP and their allies nationwide can see these results as proof their radical new tactics work.
Zionism As Racism, Redux
In the identity-hierarchical world of campus leftism, there are few worse crimes than making a grievance group uncomfortable. Offense (sometimes an actual act of bigotry, but just as easily mere disagreement) is considered akin to psychological violence, causing traumatization, encouraging hate crimes, and creating a hostile campus climate in which minorities feel unsafe in a way curable only by fulfilling the political demands of these student Sharptons.
Thus, SJP, backed by a host of ethnic identity-politics groups, including UCLA’s shamefully-tokenist chapter of the extremist Jewish Voice for Peace, merged the conflict-of-interest argument with a racism argument. The intent: to divide and marginalize pro-Israel groups, and render help from the outside pro-Israel community costly.
SJP, joining with organizations representing the Muslim, Black, Filipino, and Armenian communities, wrote a letter, signed by nearly all non-BU candidates, which, overflowing with irony and hypocrisy, pledged not to accept trips from groups that “support discrimination,” “marginalize any community,” or ”engages in any form of systematic prejudiced oppression.” In particular, it named the Anti-Defamation League (!!), AIPAC, and Hasbara/Aish as “Islamophobic organizations,” and claimed that these groups also oppress “Afrikans [sic]” and are pushing war with Iran.
UCLA’s newspaper, the Daily Bruin, cited the conflict as one of the reasons they did not endorse Singh, saying that his election would “create a real possibility of many students feeling alienated.”
The Armenian community in particular claimed it was also inappropriate for USAC members to have gone to the AIPAC Policy Conference, because the Azerbaijani ambassador the United States was present.
Baral was targeted most, with forged Facebook chats accusing him of saying “I hate Muslims” spreading around the Internet. Al-Talib, UCLA’s formerly pro-bin-Laden Islamic publication, demanded he distance himself from “Islamophobic” Hasbara (to his credit, he didn’t), and internet trolls attacked the Jewish community as a whole. Baral, last seen on this blog demanding the removal of the BDS cryer video, is frequently critical of anything remotely anti-Islamic in the pro-Israel community, and reportedly was unable to truly rejoice in the victory over BDS because of the sadness of the SJP crowd – stances that did nothing to immunize him. Unwilling to take the offensive, the Jewish community didn’t do much more than release a weak statement.
There are three main lessons to be drawn from this:
1. The most important BDS battles are fought on election day, not resolution day. Ultimately, flooding the room or making rousing speeches is a poor substitute for electing the right people in the first place. This means year-round activism, and a broader set of skills and support is needed to build and run candidates and parties that will vote against BDS.
2. BDS is intimately tied to discourses on white privilege and critical theory. Ultimately, it is necessary to counter these ideologies and their corollary tactics directly. But, failing that, Jewish students and otherwise-liberal anti-BDSers need to at least develop some psychological resistance to the privilege card. From the need, demonstrated at the BDS hearing itself, to list your identity groups as a resume (“As a queer womyn of color, I say…”) to silencing slurs like “check your privilege,” these systems deny the pro-Israel community the courage and the credibility to truly defend themselves when those above them in the identity politics hierarchy are arrayed against them.
3. BDS supporters are excellent at building coalitions that act separately but in concert. SJP was the lead attacker, but had several different ethnic minority organizations playing different race cards, JVP tokens neutralizing anti-semitism claims, anonymous Internet trolls spreading rumors, and politicos claiming good government. So too must the anti-BDS movement get better at coordinating multi-tiered strategies, with many potential roles that will vary from place to place. For instance, liberal Zionists could serve as the main face; Jewish groups could focus on confidently and aggressively striking back against anti-semitism; dissenting individuals or groups could undermine official identity group representative stances; conservatives can unleash their own brand of criticism and provoke extremist reactions by BDS advocates; and anti-divisiveness politicos to push dialogue and neutrality rather than the campus taking sides on such a contentious issue.
Implications For Future Anti-BDS Activism
BDS activists – who are, in a sense, at war with Israel – have shown a willingness to do what they have to in order to win.
As a budding part of the national campus far left, they have in some places decades worth of institutional infrastructure to draw upon. Now, they have learned to integrate the BDS cause with the key leftist tropes of the day, from critical theory to money in politics, and used these causes to legitimate anti-Semitic tropes such as shadowy Jewish lobbies and Zionism as racism.
Defeating BDS means having liberal allies, and certainly requires liberal Jews to defend themselves, but excessive internalization of identity politics narratives leaves them vulnerable to turning on their allies or losing the will to fight altogether. As pro-Israel groups are targeted for shunning, these potential waverers must be taught to resist the mighty weight of the race card.
Ultimately, however, the pro-Israel community needs to recognize and confront these ideological threats directly. While it is important to aggressively rebut concrete charges of oppression, it is not a realistic task to invert the hierarchies assumed by critical theory. Many Jews who cling to a self-conception as oppressed minorities often hope to do so.
The path forward also requires outside groups (many of which already do amazing work) placing additional emphasis on amassing and institutionalizing power through the political processes that are available at many schools, particularly large public ones.
In doing so, a well-managed big tent is vital. As leftist shunning strategies seek to divide the movement, the smart deployment of a diverse set of voices allows for political and personality differences to be an asset rather than a liability. Some are suited to be the sword, others the shield, but an effective movement is stronger with both.
[WAJ Note: This post was written at my request by someone very familiar with the situation at UCLA, but who, for reasons related to employment, had to use a pseudonym.]DONATE
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