Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

LOOKING AROUND : Boycotting the Jewish People

By Barbara Sofer
Oct. 24, 2002

The current divestment campaign against Israel is the newest twist in a history of old and ugly boycotts targeted at Israel and the Jews. Such happenings on college campuses are particularly loathsome to those of us who feel a nostalgic fondness for those years we learned logic, literature, and history in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

In our lifetimes, we saw the anti-Jewish quotas on elite campuses dissolve along with requirements to take classes and exams on Saturday or Jewish holidays. Students became comfortable wearing kippot to class, and even demanded dispensation from campus housing rules to accommodate religious sensibilities.

Suddenly, Jewish students have to worry about violence and death threats. And instead of denouncing the action against them as another expression of the Muslim antipathy that produced September 11, it is disguised as a moral protest against the big bad Israelis. Those who protest the wave of economic Israel-bashing are suspect of prejudice against Muslims!

Most galling, as always, is the participation by some Jewish students and professors in the anti-Israel activities. Also worrisome is the passivity of most Jewish students, who dismiss Middle East politics as a subject that does not relate to them. They are wrong.

Stephen Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, put it best:, "Those of us who are old enough to recall World War II know that it's better to get into a defensive mode sooner rather than later."

He was one of the principal organizers of a statement issued by more than 300 college and university presidents through the American Jewish Committee, saying they feared that hostility against Israel threatened to erode the tradition of civil discourse upon which scholarship depends.

Anyone who has taken Poli Sci 101 should quickly dismiss the comparison of Israel with South Africa as absurd. Israel is the only democracy in the region. A vast majority of Israelis support giving the Palestinians their own land, and not because of the terror. Somehow, even though most Israelis hail from non-democratic countries, the commitment to one person, one vote runs deep here. This commitment to democracy has made most Israelis, whatever their political leanings, internalize the need for territorial compromise despite a strongly felt attachment to the biblical landmarks of Judea and Samaria.

This conflict is not about settlements, and occupation and checkposts.

The current violence started when the State of Israel was about to compromise on settlements, end what remained of the occupation, and dismantle the checkposts. The conflict is really about the old argument - the homeland of the Jewish people - and boycotts go beyond any attitude about Israel to feelings about the Jewish people. Those of our brethren who feel compelled to bend over backwards to support the current venomous Palestinian attempts to divest universities from companies better watch their own backs. Anti-Israel boycotts have a nasty way of sliding over into anti-Jewish boycotts.

Just visit the Web sites of the anti-Israel boycott people to sample the flavor of their accusations. (Not advised for those with high blood pressure.) Most companies listed for boycott are mainstream American businesses owned or directed by Jewish Americans.
Some of those have little more than token linkages to Israel activities.

More important, they own stores with outlets all over the United States.

Estee Lauder is on the boycott list because chairperson Ronald Lauder is president of the Jewish National Fund, whose main function "is to legitimize Israeli occupation of Palestine." But Disney is a target because it is "owned" by "Jewish Mogul Michael Eisner."

The recent establishment of Campus Watch, a Web site to make the anti-Israel proclamations on campus known, has brought protests of McCarthyism from some. But no one at that Web site is urging a boycott of classes or campuses. The site merely exposes the original speeches of campus personalities to a little light and air.

Don't potential students deserve to know the views of their teachers? A hundred or so other professors volunteered to be listed on the Web site as a protest against keeping records of what was being taught against Israel on campuses, and as an expression of their solidarity with Palestinian self-determination. Many of the names are conspicuously Jewish.

The historians among them certainly know that anti-Jewish boycotts were not unknown in the United States, even before the establishment of the Zionist state. In Indiana of the 1920s, for instance, the women's division of the Klu Klux Klan boycotted Jewish businesses. Small businesses and department stores had to shut down.

Boycotts of Jewish enterprises should be an automatic red flag for Europeans. But the lessons of yesteryear have been forgotten. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres this week convinced European Union-Israel Association Council in Luxembourg not to tax Israeli products from Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. The Council has postponed taxing salad greens from across the Green Line.

I am not saying that even countries with despicable Holocaust records are prohibited from ever criticizing Israeli policy. I am saying that they had better be particularly fastidious in checking their motives for urging economic hardships on the Jewish state.

We can do something about preparing our Jewish youth for the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish onslaught. On American campuses, praiseworthy efforts have been made by groups like Hillel and Aish HaTorah to address the inability of most American college students to answer the outrageous accusations of Israel's detractors. More of this needs to be done. And for those who plan the curriculum of American Jews in day schools and after-school programs, a solid understanding of the history and complexity of Israel needs to be provided as a priority in the Jewish education system.




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