Time to call out the campus Israel Lobby

Tom Pessah | Mondoweiss

Imagine you are a student activist trying to get tobacco products banned from your university. You insist that cigarettes cause cancer, as so much research has shown. Your opponents are other students who claim the connection is tenuous and controversial, that student government should not make judgments on complex health issues, and that some students are so attached to their cigarettes that their very identities would be under attack if such a measure were passed. What if these students called themselves regular smokers, but were in fact trained and sometimes paid representatives of Philip Morris and Marlboro? How much credibility would they have on campus?

The answer depends on whether opponents of tobacco products buy into the frame of two symmetrical student groups – “pro-smokers“ and “anti-smokers,” or whether they call out their opponents for being representatives of external bodies.

One of the biggest failings of pro-Palestine student movement in many U.S. schools is buying into the symmetry frame. We’ve largely accepted the idea that efforts to divest from Israeli apartheid are promoted by pro-Palestine student groups, and opposed by pro-Israel ones (“the Zionists”) – as if these are two symmetrical parties.

But this is a completely false picture. Groups like Students for Justice in Palestine truly are grass-root organizations. Despite persistent rumors about their secret Saudi oil money, SJP chapters hold bake sales to send students their national conferences. On the U.C. Berkeley campus, attention was diverted from SJP’s cookies and brownies by the College Republicans, who put on a lavish spectacle involving students in swimsuits. The SJP sale raised a little under $6.

Such financial improvisation is one of the hazards of truly independent student organizing. But contrast that with a recent complaint from a “pro-Israel” student: “students are bombarded with funding opportunities to engage in pre-formed activities from a dozen different organizations. There is little opportunity to be creative and scant motivation to develop programming that comes from students themselves.”

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It is in fact misleading to characterize this student as simply “pro-Israel,” or “Zionist,” any more than a representative of Philip Morris is simply “a smoker.” She is a Hasbara Fellow, atrained advocate for an external organization founded in 2001 by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She will be paid back a deposit of $250 if her activism is considered satisfactory. The program is currently run by Aish HaTora International, a huge international Jewish outreach organization with private donors that works closely with the Israeli government. Aish operates “dozens of full-time branches and programs on six continents.” It is based not in the U.S. but in East Jerusalem, and supports continued settlement of the West Bank.  This organization tells its members that the occupation is nothing more than a “myth,” and disseminates hardcore islamophobic materials, like the films Obsession and Third Jihad (which wereproduced in millions of copies by an offshoot of Aish International).

One of the features of Hasbara Fellows’ activism is a relentless attempt to smear pro-Palestine students as anti-Jewish. In a failed lawsuit against her former university, U.C. Berkeley, this student claimed that Jewish students’ experiences, especially as a result of protests against checkpoints, are comparable to “incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students… during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust.”

When routinely compared to Nazis (a comparison considered extremely offensive if made in the opposite direction), pro-Palestine students often get defensive. They protest that they’ve succeeded in drawing the line between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism, and display some of their Jewish members as proof. By doing so they implicitly accept the idea that what is at stake here is the feelings of Jewish American students, and that these students should therefore be the main parties to the debate. This framing doubly undermines our own work: first, it reproduces the very structures of power and prejudice that marginalize Palestinians in the first place. Secondly, by obscuring the voices of Palestinian American students it contributes to the perception that human rights abuses happen far away – an international issue so complex that U.S. students cannot form an opinion about it, much less act on it. But the most compelling arguments are the ones that draw connections between companies our schools are invested in and human rights abuses suffered by students in those same schools – from H.P.’s equipment for checkpoints to General Electric’s parts in helicopters which are used to attack civilians in Gaza. Palestinian students who’ve been impacted by these horrors are the experts, and they are students on our campuses. They are our best advocates.

A better way of countering these endless accusations of anti-Semitism would be to clearly distinguish the diverse community of Jewish students in each university from advocates of particular external groups. Many accusations of anti-Semitism are made by Hasbara Fellows, members of an organization that disseminates extreme islamophobic materials, as mentioned above. Similar accusations of antisemitism come from student representatives of AIPAC, whose group seeks tocut aid to Palestinian refugees, is pushing the U.S. towards war with Iran, and hasa long history of preventing recognition of the Armenian Genocide. In 2010 after a divestment resolution was initially passed at UC Berkeley (before it was vetoed), an AIPAC official promised “we’re going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote…This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s capital. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses.”

This year, a student body representing the University of California system passed a resolution distinguishing anti-semitism from criticism of Israeli state policies and affirming the legitimacy of calls for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. In response, several current and former student senators published an open letterthat contained the following language:

“UCSA’s resolution refers to “Israel’s illegal occupation” and charges Israel with “racism and Apartheid in the context of Israeli policies” without recognizing the level of debate and dissension constantly occurring around this hostile rhetoric. Furthermore, the resolution takes a stance “in strong opposition to…the racism of Israel’s human rights violations” and “encourages all institutions of higher learning to cleanse their investment portfolios of unethical investments” in companies that do business with Israel. This extreme language alienates a significant portion of the campus community, especially those whose identities are closely tied with the Jewish state. As a governing body, it is the responsibility to create a safe campus environment and avoid making comprehensive statements that can be perceived as an attack on those UCSA claims to represent.”

This letter is being disseminated by the AIPAC representatives in each school. Imagine students openly representing Exxon disseminating a letter that called any talk of global warming “extreme language” that creates an unsafe environment for students whose identities are closely tied to purchasing oil. Most students would see this as absurd. But pro-Palestine students have been very hesitant to draw these connections. Part of the reason lies in conflict avoidance: why criticize fellow students who already say (or are told to say) we are hurting their feelings? Shouldn’t we be gentler with them?

Again, being gentle to trained representatives of an advocacy group makes as much sense as reaching out to a Bank of America employee who is about to foreclose your home. Of course there is no need to deliberately offend. But if external advocacy organizations are like big corporations, pro-Palestine students can borrow from the rich traditions of anti-corporate activism. Where are our adbusters? What can we learn from Naomi Klein’s No Logo? Why should paid advocates of external bodies have unrestricted access to student newspapers, without providing full disclosure? Shouldn’t we be demanding a protocol to pre-empt that? What transparency do they owe if they serve in elected student bodies? How can the Freedom of Information Act be used to expose their typically covert lobbying? You’ve seen Shit Zionists Say – how about Shit AIPAC Says? What about a “Who Advocates?” website, modeled on Who Profits? When will “Hasbara Fellow” become a familiar term that every student associates with a tiny group of advocates for external anti-Palestinian groups – instead of seeing them as representing the voice of Jewish students? In 2011 there were only 250 Hasbara Fellows in 80 U.S., universities, an average of 3 students per school, yet they consistently speak in the name of entire Jewish communities.

While Hasbara Fellows themselves are concerned that their student groups could be seen as “a façade for multi-million dollar organizations,” the pro-Palestine movement has rarely attempted to call out the Israel Lobby on our campuses. We cannot tell our local AIPAC representatives from the Hasbara Fellows. We do not even know the names of other external advocacy groups. Serious and well-documented research on each school can engender new and creative strategies to challenge these champions of the status quo, who are blocking crucial action to end Israeli apartheid in all its forms. There is no time to waste, especially after the latest slaughter in Gaza. It’s time to call out the campus Israel Lobby.