Last fall, Robert Jones, the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, issued a commendable statement on anti-Semitism. He wrote in the wake of two incidents, the painting of a swastika in a school building and the presentation of what a student complainant, with some justification, called “anti-Semitic content” during a training session for residence hall staff. That presentation, run by a student “multicultural advocate,” was entitled “Palestine & Great Return March: Palestinian Resistance to 70 Years of Israeli Terror.”
Appropriately, Chancellor Jones spent most of his statement on the latter incident because it concerned a training program which, though run by a student, was sponsored and mandated by the University. If the complaint was warranted, then the University of Illinois itself had effectively engaged in anti-Semitism. Chancellor Jones was right to assure his community that he took the matter seriously.
He had already been compelled to explain, two years earlier, that “anti-Semitic attacks hidden under the guise of anti-Zionist rhetoric are all too common.” That was in response to a post, by U of I’s Students for Justice in Palestine, which spoke of an unholy “union of American fascists, white supremacists, and Zionists,” against which violent resistance is warranted.
The student government at the University of Illinois also responded rapidly last fall—by denouncing the Chancellor. On the strength of dictionary definitions, and ignoring their lone Jewish fellow legislator, who walked out, student senators voted to condemn the “constant conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.” The hundreds of Jewish students in the audience who felt otherwise also left, refusing to be schooled by non-Jewish undergraduates in what is and isn’t anti-Semitic.
Now, matters have come to their natural conclusion. The same student government has passed a resolution urging the University to divest from “companies that profit from human rights violations in Palestine and other communities globally.” Despite the nod to “other communities” and a gesture toward immigration issues at home, the resolution focuses on Israel. Erez Cohen, director of U of I’s Hillel, says that it “refers to Israel 11 times more than any other country mentioned.”
The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign is not an anti-Israel campus. Given the opportunity to participate in referenda on related resolutions in 2017 and 2018, the student body rejected them by wide margins. There is good reason to believe Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, co-director of U of I’s Chabad, when he says that “this vote does not represent the values and beliefs of students and faculty at the University of Illinois.”
In 2017, proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel succeeded, after years of failure, in passing a resolution at the University of Michigan. It was the norm then, and remains the norm now, not to try to reverse these resolutions. That’s a sensible strategy on some campuses, where, after a resolution has passed, anti-Israel activists can struggle to find a new campaign with the same propaganda value as divestment. Resources are often put to better use educating students and faculty on matters distorted by BDS propagandists, such as anti-Semitism, Zionism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But I thought then and think now that, at places like the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois, where BDS has struggled to win victories and has won those only by swaying small numbers of student legislators, it’s worth mounting a campaign to repeal or otherwise respond to anti-Israel resolutions. Anti-Israel activists benefit from a fight in which their forces return to the field after a battle is lost, confident that, if BDS ever wins, its campus opponents will retire from the field.
It is a challenge for campus BDS campaigns to find their footing after a win. But it’s also a challenge, as campaigners against BDS know from experience, to go back year after year, even after overwhelming victories of the sort they’d won at the University of Illinois, to hold the ground.
On some campuses, BDS activists, too, should be put to that test.