The Devil’s Advocate: After Divestment

Categories: Personal Stories of Zionism, Israel and Progressive Identity
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The ASUC Senate’s deeply misguided vote to divest UC funds from companies affiliated with the Israeli military is, in one sense, utterly irrelevant. Despite its best efforts, the coterie of far-left activists that dominates student politics rarely influences university policy — Chancellor Birgeneau helpfully reminded us that the regents’ investment portfolio will not change. Or, to use the melodramatic language of the divestment bill, the University of California will continue acting as “a complicit third party” in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And this chapter of anti-Israel theatrics has been largely ignored by the media — at least compared to Students for Justice in Palestine’s failed 2010 bid for divestment.

For the record, I should say that I have been quite critical of the Israeli right’s suicidal push to expand settlement construction in the West Bank. I believe Israel’s future as a democratic Jewish state will be in jeopardy if it cannot reach a two-state solution in the near future.

But I was appalled by the degree of radicalism — and venom — on display at the senate’s marathon meeting last Wednesday, during which divestment advocates took control of the night. Frenzied speakers charged Israel with unspeakable atrocities as their supporters roared. Residents of Israel were smeared as European colonialists. The Holocaust was brushed aside. Some speakers defended terrorism against civilians as legitimate resistance, and the pro-divestment audience appeared to endorse the odious chant — “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — that implicitly negates the Jewish State’s right to exist. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me, seeing as the Cal Students for Justice in Palestine website calls for “struggle against the apartheid regime that has consolidated itself” not only in the West Bank or Gaza, but in “1967 Israel.”

I was also surprised that pro-Israel students, who were clearly on the defensive, failed to affirmatively defend the Middle East’s only democracy on its merits — perhaps because the sense of hostility toward Israel was so palpable they considered it a lost cause. With some exceptions, arguments against the divestment initiative centered on campus climate. The only reason not to cut ties with Jewish State, an uninformed observer might think after attending the meeting, is that it would hurt the feelings of UC Berkeley’s Jewish students.

Like many political debates that take place in the ASUC Senate chambers, divestment doesn’t register in the rest of the country, where popular support for the Jewish State has risen substantially over the last decade and now matches its all-time high. Still, I found myself wondering whether what I saw at the senate meeting reflects any emerging fractures in Israel’s traditionally deep and durable coalition of American supporters.

There are some indications that it does. A report released earlier this year by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies found that support for Israel in the United States is weakest among young people, social progressives and the nonreligious. Chemi Shalev, a columnist for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, notes that these are the very groups that are ascendant in the culture wars. Meanwhile, support is strongest among older, religious and more conservative Americans, whose influence in U.S. politics is on the decline. “Given the speed with which American attitudes are changing on other issues,” a realignment of U.S. opinion toward Israel “may be lurking just around the corner,” Shalev warns.

I would not be surprised if Millennials’ support for Israel proves to be more qualified and conditional than my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. After all, we don’t remember World War II or the Cold War and therefore don’t have as deep a sense of moral commitment to promote and defend American values abroad. One of our formative experiences was the disastrous Iraq war, which discredited neoconservatism as a foreign policy.

And then there are Middle Eastern politics. Decades ago, Israel was the underdog, perpetually under siege from powerful Arab armies seeking its annihilation. Today, thanks to Israeli ingenuity (and generous American aid), the Jewish State’s military dominates the Middle East. And as of late, hard-line Israeli leaders, empowered by Hamas terrorists, are seriously damaging Israel’s reputation — and endangering its future — with their uncompromising stance toward the Palestinians.

A generational shift in attitudes toward Israel would be welcome if it meant that America would do more to pressure Israel to make the painful territorial concessions that will be necessary to any peace agreement. This would be an act of friendship.

But Israel supporters of all political stripes must continue to do all they can to make sure that our generation isn’t won over by the destructive attitudes expressed in the senate chambers last week, where divestment activists chose militancy over moderation and demonization over dialogue.

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