The Battle Against BDS


The room grew tense as the speaker’s audience became increasingly disrespectful. Ishmael Khaldi, the first Bedouin diplomat in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, came to speak at a Hillel event at Rutgers University in 2010. He came to talk in a fair and diplomatic fashion about life in Israel for Arabs and Israelis, but his speech was sabotaged by supporters of BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement).

“A lot of BDS and anti-Israel students came and ruined our event,” said Liran Kapoano, a Rutgers graduate and now director of the Center for Israel Engagement (CIE) at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus. They got there early, sat in the front row and were “talking and hissing” throughout his speech. When it came time for Q&A they bombarded the speaker with “angry statements” and accusations. They were a disturbance to the event and ruined the experience for everyone else attending. No one got a chance to ask anything productive. “It’s the idea of uncivil discourse. People can’t sit comfortably in a room without feeling intimidated,” Kapoano said during an interview in his federation office. 

The BDS movement began after the second intifada, the violent uprising against Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza. The organization’s goal is to target Israel in an economic rather than violent way, as anti-Apartheid activists did when they used to boycott South Africa. Supporters of the movement want to boycott, divest and levy sanctions against Israeli companies and companies that do business with Israel. They want to punish those they accuse of profiting from perceived violations of Palestinian rights.

Young adults are also targets of the BDS movement. College-aged students, only a year or so older than me, are an impressionable age group. We are at a time in our lives when a rebellious attitude sparks passionate interests and a college campus is the perfect breeding ground for a multitude of viewpoints on local and global issues. “Being a pro-Israel student on a college campus is not the most comfortable thing,” said Kapoano.

Everywhere, supporters of Israel have been harassed and intimidated for simply expressing their opinions on a controversial topic. The negative reaction to a pro-Israeli opinion stifles the freedom of speech and expression that every citizen should feel comfortable practicing.

On campuses with an active BDS presence, such as Rutgers University, the University of California, Irvine and UC Berkeley, attitudes are especially hostile to those who oppose the movement. Students are experiencing more anti-Semitism on campus, according to Kapoano. Professors and university officials are not always active in easing this seething tension between the supporters of Israel and BDS. 

In the spring, the student government at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor voted against a divestment resolution. The issue was passionately debated on campus. Pro-Israel students were harassed, according to a blog published in The Algemeiner. At least one pro-Israel student received a death threat. Others were allegedly called names such as “kikes” and “dirty Jews.” Professors and other administrators did nothing but “encourage the student groups to engage in civil debate over the issue,” according to the blog post.

While he was a student at Rutgers, Kapoano and other Hillel members formed Scarlet, Blue & White: The Rutgers Pro-Israel Alliance (SB&W). The goal of SB&W was to promote Israel and counter BDS activities. Some of the group members organized the Khaldi appearance in 2010.

People can think what they want, he said, but “when you’re stopping my person from speaking that’s not fair.” He’s right; people should be allowed to express their opinions without fearing crude opposition.

The idea that in this day and age students are intimidated and harassed for expressing their opinions is shocking and disturbing. People have a right to form opinions, but not to harass others. 

Pro-Israel students in college should not feel afraid. They should “stand up for what they believe in and remember that no matter what kind of distortions they hear about Israel – they are on the right side,” said Kapoano. It is important not to get discouraged and, he says, to remember that outside of a college campus “there are more people who agree with them than don’t!”

Reach out to your local Jewish community if you need support. Kapoano is also happy to help people respond to hostilities and tensions on campus.

There may be strength in numbers, but in the long term strength finds justice where it waits to be heard. Even though pro-Israel students are the threatened minority, there will come a time for their side of the story to be heard and believed by many of those who oppose them now. Hashem gave Eretz Yisrael, the Promised Land, to the Jewish people in return for His protection and loyalty. The Jewish minority has made it this far with our rightful claim to Israel because of Hashem’s hand. There is strength in that.