Opinion | What It’s Like to Oppose BDS on Campus

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New York University campus
New York University campus (Cincin12 via Wikimedia Commons)

By Sylvia Coopersmith

It was around 3:20 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2018. I had been at the New York University Student Life Center since 2:30, anticipating and preparing for a sizable crowd of Jewish students coming to witness the impending student government session.

As I looked around, there were more and more students surrounding me wearing blue and white; we were huddled outside of the room where the vote was about to take place. I was distributing Israel-related stickers to students standing around when I heard them.

“How do you spell justice? BDS! How do you spell racist? NYU!” A scared freshman next to me hesitantly asked what was going on.

“Sounds like they’re respelling words,” a fellow Jewish student leader answered. It was nice to find some laughter in all of this.

The American Jewish community knows for the most part what has been happening on the front lines on college campuses regarding Israeli politics. The BDS movement — the boycotting, divestment and sanctioning of Israel — is gaining traction on campuses all over the country. But what you might not know is how it feels to see the look of utter shock and contempt from people you thought were friends spotting you out of context across a room and realizing you’re “one of them.”

This is more than a debate over Israeli politics: This is Jewish politics, and it’s personal.

For those who keep up with Israel news on college campuses, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t: When the student government at NYU or a similar institution proposes a resolution entitled “The Resolution for Palestinian Human Rights,” they have a specific agenda with a clear desired outcome.

Although the resolution didn’t include BDS in the title, it mentioned BDS more than 10 times. They weren’t trying to fool anyone — except the media that published articles sharing the resolution’s positive-sounding title, while omitting important details.

Details like the fact that 70-plus Jewish students weren’t even allowed to step foot into the voting room to share their voices and that the few students eventually let it in got less than half the amount of speaking time as the student senators who wrote the resolution. Did I mention that those student senators rewrote the rules to ensure that their resolution would pass?

We were able to make enough of a fuss to extend the meeting by more than an hour, but they finally announced the results after counting the votes via secret ballot — the first time the NYU student government ever used a secret ballot because the senators were apparently too scared to publicly share how they felt about the issue.

Fourteen voted against, 14 abstained and 33 voted in favor of the resolution. This was better than we expected, but there was no time to put a positive spin on things.

The Jewish students in the room and the ones waiting outside in solidarity started singing “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu” and waving Israeli flags. Tears started streaming down my face as we walked, united, out of the room. But I wasn’t crying because we had inevitably lost; I was crying because my friends and I were publicly laughed at, stepped on and robbed of our voice.

As we walked out, singing a song about peace and hope for the future, we heard a bullhorn in the background saying, “The revolution still isn’t won! The revolution still isn’t won!”

I wondered to myself, when will it be enough? Will they ever be satisfied? Despite everything, we persevered, as we always do. We went back to our Hillel and lit Chanukah candles and took pride and comfort in our community —and turned to writing strongly worded op-eds for the New York Times and angry emails to our administration. In the end, all of this is really a story about Israel, and about the continuous connection the Jewish people have with Israel even amid such hostility.

The large number of Jewish students who showed up are just a small fraction of the Jews that go to NYU, and that is just a small fraction of Jews around the world who care deeply about the right of Israel to exist.

Although many in the Jewish community disagree about Israeli politics, we have stood together in times of need or when faced with an existential threat. Most Jews I know — from all political sides — agree that Israel has the right to exist.

However, with the NYU student government vote and similar incidents elsewhere, this support that we have taken for granted is starting to waver. There are groups of Jewish students who actively support the BDS movement, like the members of JVP, Jewish Voices for Peace. I see signs and posters that put Zionism in the same category as racism or sexism. There’s no interest in nuance, and there’s no middle ground.

When was the last time you visited Israel? I’ve been there three times in the past year and a half. I spent the summer there in Tel Aviv, interning in Yafo at an Arab/Israeli day care for babies with developmental disabilities. I witnessed firsthand Arabs and Israelis living and working together, getting along, building families, trying to stay safe and building a better future. How come they can get along, but Jews at NYU can’t?

Coming back to campus this year, hearing the various claims about what’s going on in Israel right now, I would have thought they were talking about a different country. I can’t believe my student government is arguing over the clauses and language of a BDS resolution. It simply doesn’t understand the reality of what’s actually going on in Israel.

Sadly, I’m starting to see this polarization not just on college campuses, but in society at large. How can we change this conversation? It’s important to understand history, and we must pay attention to and care about what’s happening today. It’s important to be able to criticize Israel when warranted.

Advocacy doesn’t mean unconditional love, but given our community’s sense of connection, passion for intellectual thought and powerful history, it does mean unconditional support for our Jewish state.

Sylvia Coopersmith is a junior at New York University.

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