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Gladstone ’18: Vote no on divest

Op-Ed Contributor
Monday, March 18, 2019

When I heard about the “divestment” campaign being waged at Brown, I felt anew the exhaustion and frustration of my years on campus. In Israel, where I am living for the year, there is a constant, lively debate over Israeli policy, extensive research into serious social problems and great opposition to the way that the Israeli government handles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Absent from this discourse is a serious constituency that seeks to destroy the country’s existence as a Jewish state. Brown Divest, which describes itself on its website as part of “a movement to Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) the state of Israel,” claims to have no position on that matter.

That is because its leaders know that disguising their opposition to the two-state solution, which accommodates and promotes the self-determination of both Jews and Palestinians, makes their cause more palatable to Brown’s voters. In doing so, they seek to hide the pernicious effects of their campaign on both the situation in Israel and Palestine and within Brown’s campus.

Although international BDS, like “Brown Divest,” claims to not support a one state or two state solution, it is in fact an outgrowth of the historical “Arab boycott” movement, which was sponsored by several states that actively sought to wipe Israel off the map militarily. Palestinian parties that reject a two-state solution (like the anti-Semitic Hamas) endorse BDS while Palestinian parties that ostensibly support a peace process (like Fatah) oppose it. BDS also advocates for a version of the Palestinian “right of return” (including for descendants of Palestinian refugees), which BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti himself has said “would end Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

Anti-occupation Israelis feel the harm that BDS causes, perhaps more acutely than anyone else. I spoke with an Israeli friend, who is a university lecturer and spends much of his time working to promote a more democratic, just Israel. As much as he opposes the settlement enterprise and the occupation, what he saw on American campuses still appalled him. While he publicly critiqued Israeli policies in Tel Aviv, he saw that what BDS called for would destroy the society in which he lived. Last month I spoke with another, anti-occupation Israeli scholar, who explained to me further how BDS hurts pro-peace and pro-justice work. She told me she was amazed to hear that BDS advocates demanded that Israelis lay down their arms and take risks for peace, while simultaneously showing Israelis why they could not trust the international community. Israelis know that every step they take toward peace with Palestine comes with new risks for a security crisis.

For instance, in 2005 when Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, the enclave collapsed into violence and Hamas took over two years later. As a result, Israelis need assurances that, if they take similar steps in the West Bank, they will not recreate the Gaza situation just meters away from downtown Jerusalem. How could I tell these Israelis that they should risk their own lives and those of their families when they know that the US is teeming with people calling for their annihilation?

That is why, as many Israeli leftists understand, BDS is such a boon to the Israeli political right. It validates the narrative that Israel is alone in the world and must therefore take every precaution to secure itself. After sustaining the collective trauma from more than a century of Zionist-Arab conflict, and a millennia of anti-Jewish oppression, Israeli anti-occupation activists face an uphill battle to convince their fellow citizens to overcome their fears. Every attempt to further isolate Israel from the outside deals a devastating blow to the internal anti-occupation movement, empowering the most extreme elements of both Israeli and Palestinian politics.

To Israelis, as to Palestinians, “the conflict” is not a distant idea. After living in Jerusalem for less than a year, I learned that every time there is an outbreak of violence I will likely know someone personally affected by it. A rabbi with whom I have been studying at Hebrew University, for example, recently mourned with his former student the death of her unborn child after she and her husband were wounded in a shooting. I am not even Israeli — just Jewish — and even I have personally known two people killed in terror attacks related to the conflict.

When I hear that BDS is launching yet another assault on Brown through Brown Divest, I could not help but think about the very real violence of this conflict. It is hard to take Brown Divest’s claim that it is not “proposing a political solution for the situation in Israel-Palestine” seriously. “Brown Divest” has done nothing to distance itself from the international BDS campaign — it openly identifies with it. Moreover, it has done little to distance itself from previous BDS activities at Brown, which is unsurprising given the overlap of people involved in past activities and those occurring today.

In past campaigns, BDS at Brown — not yet billing itself as “Brown Divest” — has been less subtle in its calls for an end to Israel’s existence. Students identifying their cause with BDS have previously pressed for an “academic boycott” of Israel. For example, they vehemently opposed the establishment of an “Israel Fund” for academic studies of Israel at Brown. Note that Brown has for years hosted an initiative called “New Directions in Palestinian Studies.”

Since arriving in Israel, I have been able to access new archival and human perspectives, especially perspectives from Jews of Color, and to better understand the challenging history of early Israel. I can now write a more thorough critique of early Israeli policies because of the resources available to me here. But BDS has no interest in such critiques, even harsh ones — ultimately, its ideology is not critical but eliminationist.

Brown RISD Hillel was another frequent target of older BDS campaigns at Brown. For example, when a Hillel group planned an event to host the intersectional justice activist Janet Mock — an event unrelated to Israel — it was met with such powerful opposition from BDS supporters that Mock decided not to attend. The campus was deprived of the opportunity to hear from and engage with Mock on issues of violence against LGBTQ+ individuals and communities.

From the record of these various iterations of BDS at Brown, we can infer the future of “Brown Divest” — certainly, it has no intention of stopping at the end of the palatable list of companies it has offered to Brown voters for the purpose of this referendum. While Brown Divest would have Brunonian voters believe that they are running a targeted divestment campaign against companies they claim facilitate human rights violations in the Israel-Palestine conflict, Brown Divest has not articulated how they differ from these older movements.

I would really like to believe that Brown Divest is radically different from both international BDS and past BDS projects at Brown. There are steps that it could take to earn some credibility: Apologizing for past calls for academic boycotts, severing ties with the international BDS campaign and declaring support for a two-state solution, with Israel and Palestine existing side by side, would be a good start. Without taking these actions, however, BDS will only hinder productive discourse about the conflict on campus and actively hurt anti-occupation movements in Israel itself.

Benjamin Gladstone ’18 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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  1. Same old Ben Gladstone. Everything under the sun except for Israeli settler colonialism. Same old, same old.

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