Recently I had an opportunity to speak with Jewish students at Vanderbilt University Hillel. The topic was "The War Against Israel in North America: the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement."
Prior to my appearance I was ‘warned’ by the Hillel rabbi that the students I would be meeting were exceptional leaders, many are involved with AIPAC on campus, they were highly educated, aware of what’s going on politically, and they would ask ‘tough questions.’ He said that he felt compelled to warn prospective speakers.
Hearing the rabbi, I was grateful to be in front of such engaged Jewish students, especially since only days earlier while meeting with students at Georgia Tech, I was confronted by one Jewish student who said that he “didn’t care if Israel ceases to exist.”
Vanderbilt has roughly 1,000 Jewish students. Seven students (along with Hillel’s rabbi and director) attended the event.
Wanting to get a fair assessment of their knowledge, I had each student give me their impression of BDS. Two students seemed aware of BDS, and only one student appeared to fully understand BDS.
The one thing that the students, rabbi, and director all agreed on was that BDS had not reached Vanderbilt. They painted a Rockwellian picture of Vanderbilt where disagreements are discussed and that dialogue at the university is key.
My response was that especially because BDS is “not present,” the pro-Israel students at Vanderbilt should become proactive now rather than reactive later (an unfortunate trend throughout North American universities).
They met me defiantly with the “we don’t want to rock the boat” attitude. One student said that BDS seems to be more prevalent in California… as if BDS is a California problem. I replied that a BDS initiative just passed at Northwestern University (less than 500 miles away).
I said that it was nice that they live in this tranquil college cocoon, but I cautioned that, as students, they would one day leave this nest and will face BDS in the outside world. I asked if they felt that they had a responsibility to fight BDS, to take proactive steps that could become blueprints for future Vanderbilt students as well as other schools?
At that point, the director was very open… he admitted that BDS would come to Vanderbilt, it was only a matter of when, but for now, thankfully, it was not an issue. I countered that BDS is at Vanderbilt since Angela Davis, a noted anti-Israel and ardent BDS advocate (not to mention admitted Communist who many believe should have been found guilty of murder and kidnapping) was scheduled to speak at Vanderbilt the following week.
The director responded that if they didn’t challenge Davis or make an issue about it, everything would most likely die down and just fade away.
Then one student confronted me with the realities that I’ve unfortunately grown used to hearing. She questioned me as to why the United Nations, along with other countries, doesn’t get together and force Israel to comply with the U.N.? She said that if the U.N. and so many countries are against Israel, then Israel is obviously doing things that warrant such a reaction.
Her reasoning was all BDS-based rhetoric. Her understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict was supplied, not by fact or investigation, but rather by BDS propaganda. To his credit, the Hillel director gently explained that the U.N. targets Israel more disproportionately than any other country and that she might get better educated about the situation.
As I left the meeting, I saw close to 50 students milling around the Hillel lounge, cafe, and lobby. I wondered why these and others of the 1,000 Jewish students at Vanderbilt weren’t given the opportunity to hear and learn about BDS from the pro-Israel side.
Only a few weeks after my visit, Nazi swastikas were spray painted at Vanderbilt’s Jewish fraternity.
The rabbi was right. Tough questions were asked. Unfortunately they were from me, and the students didn’t seem to have the right answers.
Jack Saltzberg is the founder and executive director of The Israel Group, the first nonprofit established to fight the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement in North America. Saltzberg has been a nonprofit professional leader for nearly 20 years and he served in an anti-terrorist unit in the Israel Defense Forces. theisraelgroup.org