During the first week of March this year, students stood on the stairs of Columbia University’s Low Plaza with eight-foot panels calling Israel an apartheid state. In front of Butler Library was a table with the words “Boycott Israel.” On the pathway between the two were panels covered with Israel’s flag. The activists thrust flyers and words at passersby, hoping to win the rhetoric war on Israel and Palestine. This was Israel Apartheid Week (IAW).
I wasn’t surprised that IAW takes place on over 150 university campuses worldwide. I was surprised, however, that many of the protestors were Jewish, and one of the co-organizers of the week was Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization of Jewish students. I wondered why so many Jewish students were turning anti-Zionists and protesting against Israel, and how the greater Jewish community has responded.
For Christopher Godshall, co-founder of Columbia’s JVP chapter, the answer crystalized after a Birthright summer trip to Israel following his freshman year in 2012. He left feeling skeptical, not of “Israel as a country, but Zionism as an ideology.”
“Israel’s justifications for its actions is often predicated on keeping [diaspora] Jews safe and protecting us from anti-semitism,” he said, “so I felt a particular responsibility to say, ‘Well, that’s great, but you can’t do this and use me to justify it.’”
Godshall felt he had no home to voice that skepticism until he met fellow anti-Zionist student Eva Kalikoff, and together they formed JVP as a home for Jews who “think the best way to fix this issue is by actually doing things like a boycott to put pressure on Israel.”
Godshall, along with JVP, supports the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a global campaign geared at forcing Israel to end the occupation through sanctions and boycotts. The campaign has caused controversy worldwide, including at New York University, whose graduate students union passed last month a BDS resolution calling on NYU to close its campus in Tel Aviv.
Someone who voted against that resolution was Dotan Greenvald, an Israeli PhD candidate studying Zionism and Judaism at NYU. He co-founded in 2004 Breaking the Silence (BTS), an Israeli organization aiming to end the occupation by exposing the public to combat soldiers’ testimonies. He considers himself neither Zionist nor anti-Zionist, and, despite being against the occupation, doesn’t support BDS or a boycott. He views it as a passive aggressive form of protest.
“From my work with BTS, I know that change comes from talking, not necessarily from a boycott,” Greenvald said, wearing a common Israeli civilian uniform of jeans and sandals. “BTS promotes communication with the other side.” Something, he said, BDS doesn’t do.
But communication isn’t everyone’s goal. Ariella Hohl, who was active in the Jewish community in Brazil where she’s from, became involved with BDS and joined Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which stands for Palestinian civil demands. For Hohl, the issue contains no compromise.
“The goal of this isn’t to bring the community together to find a middle ground.” Ariella spoke softly in Butler library. “It’s to advocate for the political rights that we believe are right.”
Canadian-born journalist Matti Friedman, who moved to Israel in 1997 to join the military, has a different theory on Jewish BDS supporters. He says it has to do with how American Jewish kids are raised, taught that Israel is the most important country in the world while not knowing much about it. When they arrive at college campuses, they’re told Israel “is the most important country in the world because it’s the worst country in the world and represents everything that liberalism hates: colonialism, nationalism, militarism, and racism.” From there, it’s easy for him to draw a line to Israel Apartheid Week.
IAW became at one point a messaging war. Rudy Rochman protested against JVP and SJP with Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a group he founded last year. He stood on Columbia’s pathway wearing the Chai necklace and Israeli flag he carries everywhere. SSI had panels providing information about Israel’s legitimacy, along with a 12-foot Pinocchio blowup, aimed at calling the anti-Israel rhetoric a lie. The Pinocchio doll became controversial and was forced down, but Rochman accomplished his mission. “All students could talk about was the Pinocchio,” he said. “We hijacked Apartheid week.”
Rochman was born in France, raised in Miami, and joined the Israel Defense Forces before coming to Columbia to study political science. He wants to turn the campus pro-Israeli, even though he doesn’t believe in that term. “I don’t consider myself pro-Israeli,” he said. “I’m not pro-Rudy, I am Rudy.”
Hohl has found that being more fluid with her ethnicity and how she identifies has been liberating. “I feel like I can claim other parts of myself that I hadn’t claimed before because Jewish was the most important thing,” she said. “Owning that you don’t fit into the box has been very positive.”
Greenvald thinks not wanting to be boxed in while supporting BDS is contradictory. “When you say academic boycott, you’re attacking one of the strongholds that oppose the occupation only for being Israeli,” Greenvald said. “So it suddenly puts you inside a box where you’re Israeli and nothing else. When I’ll be a professor, will they boycott me because I’m Israeli or will they not boycott me because I oppose the occupation? It’s boxes that don’t work.”
The string connecting everyone is they all care about Israel. “The question,” Greenvald says, “is which Israel.” Jews have different visions of what Israel should be. It’s how Jews in the world work towards reconciling the actions of one country with their own beliefs. For some, it’s a boycott, for others, to stand in solidarity.
Another commonality is no one has a set solution, nor are the organizations working together towards finding one. Failing that, all that’s left is to prepare the signs and leaflets for next year’s Israel Apartheid Week.