Pushing back for its own sake

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-25-10

In late October, amid much self-promotional hype, leaders of the Canadian BDS movement met in Montreal to celebrate their campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
By all reports, the BDS movement once again proved to be more virtual than real, puffing itself up on the Internet while failing to stir much excitement. The movement’s broad call to mobilize “civil society” was met with awkward silence. Apparently, barely 100 people attended the conference’s final session. It’s clear that this fall will be remembered for the glowing depictions of Israel as a profitable, thriving “startup nation,” in La Presse and other French media outlets rather than for the glowering denunciations of Israel by angry misanthropes.

With the BDS momentum proving to be more bark than bite, much of the organized Jewish community ignored the conference. Believing that you should never disturb your enemy if he or she is in the process of self-destructing, there were no major counter-demonstrations, few clarion calls to mobilize. The strategy seemed to be that shining a spotlight on the BDS movement’s flaws would give the boycotters attention they don’t deserve.

While I understand that logic, the strategy ignored the great distress that the simple fact of the conference convening in Montreal caused among many pro-Israel Montrealers. Even if the conference failed to live up to its own hype, we in the pro-Israel community needed to push back for our own sake. In fact, the conference, even if minor, provided an opportunity for a classic ju jitsu move:  taking an opponent’s energy and redirecting it for your own purpose.

Just before the conference, dismayed by the Jewish communal silence, I met with one student who was willing to stand up for Israel publicly and proudly. Following the successful “buycott” strategy in Toronto, when BDS calls backfired and a call to boycott Israeli wine led to a run on Israeli wine, and calls to boycott a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit and the Toronto film festival’s celebration of Tel Aviv’s centennial led to waves of sold-out shows, a few students sent out a call to buy Israeli products that weekend. I forwarded the call around, and echoed it in a Montreal Gazette opinion piece that ran during the conference, while blasting the boycott movement for endangering the peace process.

We didn’t have the time or resources to trigger a mass movement. That was never our intention. But the feedback we received was extraordinary. As people e-mailed to detail their purchases of Elite chocolate here or 10 israeli bottles of wine there, they also thanked us. Most moving were the thanks – from Jews and non-Jews – that celebrated the opportunity to do something personal, positive, and constructive for Israel. “What a wonderful idea,” one woman wrote. “Finally a logical way to respond to all the madness around us.”

Group responsibility and individual empowerment are essential to effective grassroots action. It’s the logic of the firing squad put to good use. Firing squads demand full participation from all assigned, while one of the shooters unknowingly fires blanks. This allows everyone to take responsibility as a group while indulging the calming and exculpating hope that their gun was the one firing blanks.

In the Torah, every Jewish citizen took responsibility for the community by paying a half-shekel. Today, the federation campaign tries to enlist as many participants as possible, even if many make token donations and most funds are raised from big givers – often in one big splashy event.

If we understand the importance of spreading communal responsibility and maximizing individual feelings of involvement when it comes to fundraising, shouldn’t we apply that same principle to supporting Israel? I’m proud of what we did to push back against the BDSers, yet I feel we missed an opportunity. The weekend could have been a chance for even more Montrealers to embrace the plucky democracy in the Middle East by acting out the Zionist and Jewish imperative to act constructively – not just believe abstractly, or even hide delightedly when your adversaries stumble.

Campus anti-Zionism is a consumer protection issue

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-24-10

A recent trip to Toronto unsettled me.  Speaking to various “Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” I heard many parents confess their fears about their children’s “safety” on campus.  They had heard too many examples of both pro-Palestinian activists and anti-Zionist professors bullying students.  They resented these hyper-politicized students and educators who pushed their points so aggressively that Jewish students feel harassed, hiding their identities or obscuring their true thoughts to avoid conflict or lowered marks. They lacked faith in the administrators whose job description should include ensuring student safety.  These discussions convinced me that campus anti-Zionism is a consumer-rights issue, not just a human rights issue.

Finding universities “unsafe” distresses me, having devoted my life to academe.  While this is a golden age for Israel-bashing this is also a golden age for Jews on campus. Never before have we had so many Jewish presidents and professors, Jewish students and Jewish studies programs. And on most North American campuses, Jews feel comfortable.  Moreover, I set the bar high before declaring a campus a hostile environment or labeling it anti-Zionist, let alone an anti-Semitic atmosphere. One or two anti-Zionist professors, a dozen anti-Zionist loudmouths, and the occasional anti-Zionist speech, are not sufficient.

Some campuses, however, have become infamous centers of anti-Zionism.  Even though universities usually are hyper-tolerant places, on too many campuses intolerance for Israel, pro-Israel students, and, sometimes Jews, festers.  There, students going about their business are assailed by shrill attacks on Israel, while students who wear Jewish stars or express their Judaism or Israel identification are frequently shouted down. There, regularly, speaker after speaker, rally after rally, demonizes Israel. On those campuses, students coming to, say, a women’s study class, unrelated to the Middle East might find themselves forced to walk through a “mock checkpoint,” in order enter their classroom, or regularly endure a math professor’s anti-Israel harangue.

For years, many of us have fought this as a human rights issue. We noted that for all other self-identified groups on campus, be it African-Americans or gays, women or Hispanics, the burden of proof is on the bigot when a group feels harassed, not on the victim. Only with Jews, it seems, is the burden of proof on us to show that it is truly anti-Semitism and not “just” anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel. As a result, Israel’s adversaries have wrapped themselves in human rights rhetoric, realizing they can be extremely aggressive as long as they claim to be defending the oppressed Palestinians (invoking false charges of apartheid and charges of racism always helps).

This remains a matter of equity, justice, dignity and civility. It is unacceptable when pro-Israel Jews feel demonized, when they feel demeaned by professors who are constantly bashing Israel, when they choose not to wear their Hebrew t-shirts or hide their Jewish  jewelry, or stop defending Israel because they fear harassment, bad grades or harm.

Framing this as a consumer protection issue universalizes it, raising important, often ignored questions, about quality of campus life. Fighting classroom harassment of pro-Zionist voices (in Israel too, alas) as an educational malpractice issue, shifts from a fight about rights, meaning academic freedom, to questions of educational competence. Any professor who fails to establish an open environment, wherein students feel safe to question, is a failure. Professors who make students uncomfortable for questioning the professors’ line are abusing the power of the podium. How can students learn in a defensive clinch? Fighting against educational malpractice might spark a much-needed campaign for classroom competence.

Learning from our feminist friends, we need zero-tolerance for casual remarks or frontal assaults fostering a hostile environment. This goes beyond the blatant heavy-handed abuses that constitute educational malpractice, and includes the campus as well as the classroom. Here, Jews and pro-Israeli activists should not ask for special treatment, only equal treatment. In these vulgar times, students have to be taught civility. I don’t want a sterile, politically correct environment wherein students fear expressing themselves.  But we need more self-imposed groundrules, and more sensitivity to the discomfort too many students – and their parents – feel.

Finally, donors, alumni and boards of governors must assess a university’s academic leader by asking if students feel safe on campus, personally, psychologically, educationally, as well as physically. If a student, let alone groups of students, don’t feel safe on campus, that campus is in crisis with a failing academic leader – no matter how much money might be raised that year.

Students and parents can take the lead on this consumer issue.  Amid the many guides to life on campus, Jewish students should compile a guide to Jewish life on campuses. The guide should assess the atmosphere for pro-Israel students, and give grades for campus “safety.” Without editorializing, the guide could also detail specific statements and incidents wherein professors and campus hooligans make Jews – or anyone else – feel unsafe on campus.

In Toronto, one gentleman said that with all the attacks on Israel in Canada, he feels safest in Israel. I know what he means.  After a session against delegitimization in New Orleans at the GA, the Interparliamentary coalition against anti-Semitism in Ottawa, and a day talking intensively about anti-Semitism and campus anti-Zionism in Toronto, I arrived in Jerusalem last week and breathed a sigh of relief. How soothing it is to deal with Israel as a real place, as a happy place, as a thriving place, not just as a problem. We need to fight for Israel on campus and beyond, but we cannot so internalize our enemies’ views of Israel, be so busy defending Israel, that we forget how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, and how much inspiration we can draw from all its wonders.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

Boycotting Israel damages Palestinian cause

By GIL TROY, Montreal Gazette, 10-23-10

Montrealers seeking peace in the Middle East should condemn the “All-Canada BDS Conference” convening here this weekend.

“BDS” stands for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions,” a toxic cocktail designed to ostracize Israel. This tactic makes it hard to achieve a two-state solution that respects the national rights of both Jews and Palestinians.

Members of the postal union CUPW and other unions should be ashamed that their dues are subsidizing a conference dedicated to making that volatile region even more unstable. Members of the academic community should regret that the UQAM campus is being used as a forum for demagogy and dishonesty.

Mutual recognition requires mutual respect. Exaggerated attacks on Israel as the world’s bogeyman feed a cycle of de-legitimization.

Boycotting Israel economically, academically, and diplomatically assumes that Israel is so reprehensible that it deserves to be quarantined. This punishment is particularly absurd considering that these activists do not advocate boycotting truly repressive dictatorships such as Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

Polls show that most Israelis now accept the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people, but Israelis will be less likely to acknowledge those rights if they feel that Palestinians are assailing Jews’ national rights and Israel’s very right to exist. Nations, like people, stiffen when besieged. Even Israelis who advocate compromise are unlikely to compromise with adversaries calling for their country’s destruction.

A peaceful future means nurturing relationships between Palestinians and Israelis, while fostering within the Palestinian national movement a culture of nation-building. But the many posters falsely accusing Israel of being an “apartheid state,” and the many sessions promoted on the conference’s website perpetuating that lie, suggest that this conference is more dedicated to trying to destroy Israel than to building a future Palestine.

Calling Israel an apartheid state is part of the New Big Lie which singles out only Zionism, Jewish nationalism, as racist. Apartheid was the system of racial segregation of the old racist South African regime. Using that ugly word to characterize Israeli policy and Israel itself suggests that Israel, like the old South African regime, cannot be reformed but must be destroyed.

Again and again, the BDS movement hides its exterminationist agenda behind a smokescreen of human rights rhetoric. Using liberal terms to hide a most illiberal agenda is an increasingly popular technique aiding the world’s terrorists and dictators. Those of us living in free, liberal democracies must expose these frauds. Calling for peace while making it ever more elusive; targeting democracies while shielding dictators; and respecting the human or national rights of some but not all -these tactics mock the universal standards for human rights that Canadians helped the world define six decades ago.

Unfortunately, this masquerade has lured some trade unionists in Quebec and elsewhere into supporting a movement which is so busy being anti-Israel it often harms Palestinians. In a world where conflicts abound, union members should ask how a simplified, stick-figure version of the complicated Israeli-Palestinian issue has been catapulted to the forefront of their collective agenda. And in a Middle East where many Israelis and Palestinians are economically interdependent, union leaders must prove that assaulting the Jewish state economically would not harm many Palestinians.

The selective obsession with Israel also makes the BDS movement vulnerable to the charge of anti-Semitism. Of course, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but too many in the BDS movement too frequently echo traditional anti-Semitism.

On campus today, we tread extra carefully to avoid offending historically disenfranchised groups. In that spirit, I challenge the participants to show equal sensitivity in distancing themselves from the historic anti-Semitism which has marred their movement. In combating prejudice, the burden of proof is on the bigot not the victim to distinguish between legitimate criticism and historic bullying. There is enough extreme anti-Semitism festering among anti-Zionists for true moderates to condemn, while still having much opportunity to criticize Israeli policies they dislike.

This weekend, Quebecers can vote against this destructive distraction by responding to calls for a boycott with a “buycott.” Buy one Israeli product -wine, cosmetics, or candy. Send an email to friends encouraging them to do the same.

Let’s see a run on Israeli products in Montreal. With these seperate acts by fair-minded individuals, we can show the BDS activists that their destructive campaign against Israel truly is counter-productive.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Buycott Against the anti-Israel Boycott


As some of you may know, there is an anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) conference taking place in Montreal this weekend (22nd-24th).

After consulting with various Israel-related activists and academics in the city, we have determined that a BUYCOTT will be organized this weekend.

The Israeli Consulate in Montreal recommends that we focus on Israeli wines and Ahava products. People should go to buy these products between the 22nd and the 24th (this weekend) at their own leisure.

Please disseminate this information to your mailing lists and post it to social media. We need your help, so please include this in the upcoming mail-outs of your organization.

Check out www.buyisraelgoods.org to find the closet place to you to BUYCOTT. Please ensure in your dissemination that, when people buy a product, that they send an email to Zach Paikin: zpaikin@hasbarafellowships.org so that we can keep track of how many purchases have been made.

This is focusing on the Montreal region, but isn’t limited to Montreal.