On Dec. 4, I spent a drizzly, lonely day in U.C. Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza shoving “Vote NO on BDS” fliers at graduate students. Why did I do it? UAW 2865, the student-workers union that represents teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, readers and tutors, had proposed that the union support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement; Dec. 4 was voting day. As a former graduate student and current affiliate, the results mattered to me: I care about the university and believe the union is important for ensuring good working conditions for students. I believe this vote diminishes the union’s credibility and effectiveness. I also believe that BDS is a misbegotten movement with goals, whether stated explicitly or not, that are inimical to peace and to the existence of Israel.
The experience was both depressing and instructive. Sproul Plaza sits in the heart of social science and humanities buildings, which house the bulk of the BDS supporters. Throughout the day, a steady stream of people waited in line, all radiating a sense of shared righteousness that made it clear they were voting for BDS. In the midst of my growing sense of isolation and futility, some approached my table to discuss the vote and BDS. Their perspective made it clear that the people voting for BDS are not of peace, that those who oppose it do not always act, and that feelings trump facts for both sides. Here are the three types I met:
The Ostrich: “Why would I join an anti-Semitic organization?” said a biogenetics student. Over the summer, he had received UAW 2865’s communication that included the following statements: “The current situation in Palestine is one of settler-colonialism” and “The Israeli state enforces an apartheid system, illegally privileging one ethnic group over another.” He did not understand that not voting was capitulation. He wasn’t the only one. A co-worker reported the most common response in his science department was not for or against BDS, but against the union itself. What approach can reach those who care but won’t act?
The Chutzpahdik: “If BDS is a bad idea, what is your solution to the problem?” An Iranian physics student asked me this. So did a Jewish history student. So did several others, all supporters of BDS. It is possible to answer the question one way or another, but I refused to take the bait. Instead, I responded that I lacked the requisite chutzpah to propose a solution when I have neither the diplomatic chops nor the lived experience to give a simple answer to such a complex, heartrending situation. My questioners did not like the answer: They felt that any action — and many saw BDS as simply a tactic to make peace — was better than standing by. These were not people who wanted to see Israel vanish, but true believers in a moral cause that would solve an intractable problem. It is an attitude that is both naive and arrogant — and ultimately has the potential to cause great harm. What approach can teach humility?
The Selectively Blind: “Show me where it says that BDS wants to destroy Israel,” asked a sociology student. He is technically right: It is difficult to find an explicit statement that calls for Israel’s elimination. But just as it is not necessary to explicitly use the N-word to be a racist, it is not necessary to explicitly call for Israel’s elimination to promote policies that lead there. This student would make the connection vis-à-vis racism. That he could or would not do so with regard to BDS speaks to a selective blindness. (To be clear, selective blindness affects everyone involved in this conflict, to a greater or lesser degree.)
Another student insisted that any concern Israelis might have about withdrawing from the occupied territories — whether that might result in a Hamas takeover or an incursion by Islamic State militants — was overblown, extreme and fed by the Israeli government. The United Nations, he explained with confidence, would not stand by and let Israel be destroyed. Regardless of whether Israeli fears are justified, his confidence in the United Nations is sorely misplaced, indicating either ignorance or wishful thinking. What approach changes selective blindness?
The three categories show how difficult it is to make the case against BDS. Logic, facts and reason have little to do with making an effective case. Rather, the problem is understanding and combating the apathy of surrender, the arrogance of self-righteousness and the selective blindness of wishful thinking. In this season of miracles, solving that problem would be the real miracle.
Patricia Keer Munro is a visiting scholar at the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies at U.C. Berkeley School of Law.