A protester being removed by campus police at the University of California, Irvine, after he disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, who was then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Feb. 8, 2010. (Photo/JTA)
A protester being removed by campus police at the University of California, Irvine, after he disrupted a speech by Michael Oren, who was then Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Feb. 8, 2010. (Photo/JTA)

Forget BDS. Welcome to the age of anti-normalization.

So, you wanna understand Israel-Palestine debates on campus.

The first thing you have to do is stop talking about BDS.

Shocking, right?

But really, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement doesn’t summarize what Israel conversations on campus are all about these days. BDS resolutions on major campuses are actually going down, and yet, somehow, they still make up the bulk of Jewish news about students.

The truth is, divestment proposals happen perennially, people freak out for two to three weeks, and then students on all sides return to lives of calculus, life pondering, activism and 3 a.m. pizza.

So if we shouldn’t be talking about BDS, what should we be talking about?

Anti-normalization. Because it creates a fascinatingly complex new landscape for Jewish students, who are both on its receiving end and active participants.

If you know what I’m talking about, skip this paragraph, wise one. If you don’t, anti-normalization is an idea popular on the left that some beliefs are so untenable you can’t allow them to be left unprotested and accepted as normal. That means calling attention to their proponents at the very least, and having a zero-tolerance policy at most.

The things-not-to-normalize list includes no-brainers such as racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia. It also often includes Zionism.

That means pro-Palestinian activism on campus looks different these days — because all activism looks different. Instead of pushing boycotts, protesting Israel-related events has become a more frequent form of organizing.

A brief history: One of the earliest instances of interrupting Zionist speakers on campus happened at UC Irvine in 2010, when Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, spoke and was disrupted by students. In 2015, the same happened to former Israeli Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak at UC Irvine and Israeli philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal at the University of Minnesota. In 2016, the tactic was used against Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in a talk at San Francisco State University.

And what happened last month at the Chicago Dyke March is also a prime example. Women marching with what march organizers saw as Zionist flags couldn’t be allowed to stay, because that would be letting Zionism go unchallenged.

What does this mean?

Speaker shutdowns and event protests don’t make us special.

For what it’s worth, speaker shutdowns and event protests don’t make us special. If you follow campus news, these are happening everywhere to all kinds of speakers from controversial scholar Charles Murray at Middlebury College to conservative commentator Anne Coulter and alt-right provocateur (read: troll) Milo Yiannopolis at UC Berkeley.

But anti-normalization does mean Jewish students, particularly Zionists, are tackling a whole new host of questions on campus: Do left-leaning Zionists have a place on the campus left if liberal activists won’t categorize Zionism as an acceptable view? And if only non-Zionist Jewish students find acceptance on the left, is the campus left tokenizing Jewish students, deciding who’s a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew” from outside our community?

What does it mean to Jewish students that Zionist speakers are considered indefensible alongside alt-right speakers and worthy of the same protest by their peers? Are Zionist students and pro-Palestinian activists defining Zionism the same way?

The trend is also a major factor in Israel activism on campus. Zionist student groups are arguably already engaging in their own form of anti-normalization rhetoric and have been for a long time. One could even argue Jews were anti-normalization pioneers. When anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist remarks on campus are labeled “hate speech,” that’s our community declaring ideas too unconscionable to be expressed without protest.

Jewish outcry over Palestinian American activist Linda Sarsour speaking at City University of New York one recent example. Right-wing Jewish organizations, such as the Santa Cruz- based Amcha Initiative or Canary Mission, marked speakers, professors and student leaders too-reprehensible-for-campus before it was cool.

Whatever term you want to use, this isn’t just a leftist movement, and Jewish students across the political spectrum are experiencing it and are a part of it.

We can argue endlessly about whether anti-normalization is good or bad — and we are. Questions about this concept are at the core of today’s most fraught campus debates. Does declaring ideas unredeemable limit free speech? Or does it quash systemic societal ills? Who decides the parameters, and when are they too broad?

I can’t answer any of these questions. (That’s a different, much longer column.)

But I can call on our community to recognize them.

It’s time we see the anti-normalization forest through the BDS trees. Because until we do, we’re missing out on the juicy stuff — the larger debates happening on campus and the real questions Jewish students are asking themselves.

This piece first appeared in New Voices.

Sara Weissman
Sara Weissman

Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine, and a former J. intern who graduated from U.C. Berkeley. She can be reached at editor@newvoices.org.