By Jack Wisniewski
After students and their families ate Shabbat dinner at Hillel on Friday night, they gathered in the upstairs sanctuary to hear about the recent troubles facing the pro-Israel movement on campus. The panel about these troubles involved representatives of the Israel and BDS: Crisis and Opportunity on Campus.
The panel consisted of four pro-Israel activists from both the Maryland campus and abroad. Both students and their relatives attended the panel because of Maryland’s concurrent Family Weekend.
“This was a year of challenges,” said Michael Krasna, a senior government and politics major. “We faced a strong anti-Israel presence on campus.”
Krasna, a past president of the on-campus pro-Israel organization, Terps for Israel, mentioned the “anti-Israel protest” during the Jewish Student Union’s Israel Fest last April as just one of the challenges that face Israel supporters on campus.
Eric Fingerhut, the CEO and President of Hillel International and one of the panelists, said the rise of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on college campuses catalyzed recent issues, such as the protest last semester.
“There was a sharp spike in BDS as a tactic on college campuses in the last couple of years,” Fingerhut said.
The BDS website states that “Israel is occupying and colonizing Palestinian land, discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel and denying Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes.”
In order to address the “ongoing injustice,”the movement calls for a conjoined response from “global citizens” who are involved with the Palestinian struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
“It’s a really smart tactic by anti-Israel forces,” Fingerhut said.
In regards to the impact of BDS on college campuses, Fingerhut explained that the movement still wins even if it loses politically.
“If they get a student government vote, it’s a huge victory,” Fingerhut said. “If they get a loss, it still gets weeks [support] of making the debate of a negative narrative on campus.”
According to Fingerhut, the pro-Israel community inherently cannot be passive when it comes to treating movements such as BDS on campuses.
“This is something we have no choice about,” Fingerhut said. “But the fact that we can’t help ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t be smart about it.”
Panelist Liat Deener-Chodirker, a senior American studies major and Israel studies minor, identified that many students who support human rights identify themselves as anti-Israel because of the movement’s effective way of supplying the idea that supporting Israel contradicts supporting human rights.
“There’s more media attention on these issues,” Deener-Chodirker said. “Students who are anti-occupation end up going to anti-Israel spaces.”
The J Street U vice president of the Southeast region and a student cabinet member of Hillel International, Deener-Chodirker, proposed that the Jewish community should get more involved with populations that share pro-Israel’s values of preserving human rights. He explains how this will curb the relationship between anti-Israel movements and human rights on campus.
“We need to create room for students to be anti-occupation and pro-Israel,” Deener-Chodirker said. “And not just by saying it, but demonstrating it through actions so that if students see that we hold these values of being anti-oppression and anti-injustice, then they will see that they don’t inherently have to conflict with being pro-Israel.”
Ari Israel, the director of Maryland Hillel and the only other panelist, also said that the bad perception of Israel by supporters of human rights stems from the pro-Israel movement’s lack of empathy. In his argument, he cited that the absence of Jewish activists during the development of the Black Lives Matter movement caused them to align with anti-Israel principles.
“We were not invested enough from their perspective,” said Israel. “If the Black Lives Matter movement does an event, we need to be there.”
According to the coordinator and moderator of the panel, Maiya Chard-Yaron, the importance of an Israel presence among the Jewish community necessitated the panel.
“For our Hillel, pro-Israel programming is an integral part of what we do,” said Chard-Yaron, the Assistant Director at Maryland Hillel. “In terms of this panel, we’re giving students the chance to speak alongside the national movement and our local director to give perspectives of what’s actually happening on campuses.”
Alan Greenthal, a parent of a freshman student, said he took away something different from each of the panelists.
“I got to know more about Eric Fingerhut. I got a perspective of how the director of Hillel runs the organization at a local level, and I thought the students had very interesting views and experiences,” Greenthal said.
Israel explained that the Hillel organization is capable of combating the challenges brought about by BDS, but it needs to express that capability in order to do so.
“It’s really about the ability to have a community that lives and breathes diversity,” said Israel. “That’s religious diversity, Israel diversity, opinion diversity; that is who we are as whole.”