The Conspiracy

We’re Not Talking About BDS, So Why Are You?

Dear Jewish community,

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

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

Shocking, right? We try.

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

“So, if we shouldn’t be talking about BDS, what should we be talking about?” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

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 un-protested 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 like 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 former Israel 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 UCI and Israeli philosophy professor Moshe Halbertal at the University of Minnesota. Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at SFSU just last year.

What recently happened 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?

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 to conservative commentator Anne Coulter and alt-right provocateur (read: troll) Milo Yiannopolis at UC Berkeley.

“The trend is also a major factor in Israel activism on campus.” | [Public Domain], via Pixabay

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 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 Linda Sarsour speaking at CUNY is only one recent example. Right-wing Jewish organizations, like AMCHA 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 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 article.)

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.

Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices. Kvetch or kvell to her at editor@newvoices.org.

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