BDS’s Jewish roots: A lesson for Hillel

JVP Boston activists protest the Veolia transportation company for operating bus lines serving settlements in the West Bank. November 14, 2012. (Tess Scheflan/

In all other contexts, the Jewish people have demonstrated that we understand boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to be effective, non-violent tools for political change. So why do we deem them violent and illegitimate when it comes to Israel?

My introduction to divestment as a tool for activism came in 2005. I was a staff member at the Save Darfur Coalition (SDC) from 2005-2006, during the peak of the movement. With the help of our board members who represented organizations like the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center, American Jewish World Service, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and many more, we led a nationwide campaign calling for divestment. The campaign called on our coalition members to support divestment from those who supported the Sudanese government. Our campaign targeted companies ranging from Fidelity and Berkshire-Hathway to PetroChina and Rolls Royce.

It was in the midst of this campaign that I found my connection to the Jewish community.

The Judaism I grew up with was not one of activism. But at SDC, Judaism was activism and activism was Judaism. I learned about Abraham Joshua Heschel. I learned the scope of Jewish involvement in divestment from South Africa. I put together activist toolkits on divestment to send to synagogues, Hillels and day schools. I organized rabbis to get their congregations involved in our campaign. I learned from some of the biggest Jewish activists of our time just how deeply activism was entrenched in the texts and histories of the Jewish people.

I’ve since worked for American Jewish World Service, spent a year in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a Dorot Fellow, and completed my Masters in social work with a certificate in Jewish communal leadership. My life has become about learning how Judaism and activism intersect. I’ve studied the history of movements marked by disproportionate Jewish participation– Civil Rights, divestment against South Africa and Sudan, feminism. These are movements where Jews have been among the leaders.

These are also movements that have shown the power of non-violent activism – including calls for boycotts, divestments and sanctions. But when it comes to Israel, to Palestine, the American Jewish community is denouncing these forms of non-violent resistance.

At the University of Michigan, where I am currently situated, our Hillel is known for its openness to a plethora of Jewish voices. Yet in the past few weeks, Hillel has worked actively to shut down a resolution calling for an investigation into four multi-national companies involved in the Occupation. Initially, they sent out an email articulating their reasons for supporting the Central Student Government’s refusal to allow a resolution to be voted on about divestment from Israel. After a weeklong sit in by student activists, Central Student Government reversed the decision and eventually voted against the resolution. Hillel argued that BDS shuts down dialogue and is not an effective means to achieve a resolution to this conflict. They claim that that BDS privileges a one-sided view, yet they do not acknowledge how one view already dominates the discourse on this campus.

The prevailing power structure on this campus weighs heavily against Palestinians. There are 6,000 Jewish students on campus, representing 18 percent of the student body. Hillel hosts a Jewish Agency Israel Fellow on staff who, by their own claim, worked to first shut down a vote on this resolution, and then to secure an anti-BDS vote. We have a top Judaic studies department that hosts a Schusterman visiting Israeli scholar each year. In the face of academic boycotts, the president of the university promoted its many joint efforts with Israel.

Given my pathway into Judaism – the call of Deuteronomy to pursue justice – I find myself at a loss when I listen to the Jewish communal rhetoric surrounding the BDS movement.  I understand the fears. Having spent years studying the Holocaust, the rise of Zionism, and generational trauma, the temptation to hear “boycott Israel” as “boycott Jews” is not lost on me.

It is important for us to distinguish these two terms, though. This is not a Nazi call to boycott Jewish businesses in Germany. This is a call of a people who are living under a violent occupation, a people who are stateless and living in displacement. Their call is to boycott the government that is violently perpetuating statelessness upon them. If any people can empathize with the pathos of statelessness, it is the Jews.

In all other contexts, the Jewish people have demonstrated that we understand boycotts, divestments, and sanctions to be effective, non-violent tools for political change. Yet in the face of the BDS movement, we call it ineffective, illegitimate, and even violent.

It’s been two weeks since the BDS movement gripped the University of Michigan campus. How long will it take our Jewish community to recognize BDS for what it is – not a divisive movement intent on destroying the state of Israel, but a non-violent call for peace and justice?

Alice Mishkin lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She is an alum of the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, from which she holds a certificate in Jewish communal leadership, and is a former Dorot fellow.






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