One of the pitfalls of fighting campus anti-Semitism is having to cross paths with the various Jewish Federation chapters. Although individual chapters of this national organization operate somewhat autonomously, I have yet to see one that was truly interested in fighting back against the pro-
Palestinian activists on campus let alone support Israel. My battles with the Jewish Federation of Orange County under their hapless former CEO the unmissed Shalom Elcott, have been chronicled here on Fousesquawk. The OC Federation has been notorious for going after Jewish students at UCI and Jewish community members who got involved and spoke out on the excesses of the pro-Palestinian crowd.
Now comes Jay Sanderson of the LA Jewish Federation, who has given an interview to the left-wing Israeli fishwrap, Ha'aretz. He wants Israel to butt our of the campus controversies. In addition, he apparently wants others who support Israel and Jewish students to butt out.
L.A. Jewish Federation Leader: Israeli Government 'Stoking the Flames' of BDS Tension on U.S. Campuses
In candid comments, Jay Sanderson tells Haaretz that aggressive efforts to combat the movement repel most Jewish students and ultimately do more harm than good.
By Judy Maltz
March 10, 2016
A senior Jewish federation executive has unusually blunt words for Israeli government officials planning to take up arms in the anti-BDS struggle on U.S. college campuses: Back off, he says.
“The Israeli government needs to get out of this business,” says Jay Sanderson, president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which serves the largest Jewish community in North America outside of New York. “It should not be involved in what’s happening on the college campuses. There’s lots of ignorance about what this issue is really about, and rather than addressing it in a nuanced way, the Israeli government is simply stoking the flames.”
Last June, the government allocated $25 million to a special campaign to combat the international boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The funding was allocated to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is meant to be gathering intelligence on anti-Israel activities abroad, including on college campuses, and sabotaging them. The college campuses of California have been a particular hotbed of BDS activities in the past two years.
In an interview in his Beverly Hills office, Sanderson argued that the various divestment votes taken against Israel on college campuses in the state have been meaningless.
“None of them matter at the end of the day, and they haven’t had any impact whatsoever on the Israeli economy or on trade with Israel,” he said. “But the more money that goes into this, and the more people who make this the big issue of all time, the more fuel we’re giving the other side.”
In the past few years, several student government bodies on California campuses have passed resolutions recommending that their institutions divest from American companies that “profit from the Israeli occupation.” None of these resolutions have been adopted by university administrations.
The vast majority of Jewish students on American college campuses – about 75 percent, in Sanderson’s estimation – are “disinterested and disconnected” from Israel and belong to what he describes as ”the soft middle.”
“These are Jewish kids who could go either way,” he said. “But when the issue is so polarizing, with small numbers on the far left and on the far right – all that this loud noise does is take this soft middle and push them away from Israel altogether. And that’s the biggest problem in Jewish life and on Jewish campuses that’s getting completely dwarfed by the big BDS thing, which is not that big at all. While we’re worrying about the big BDS folks and whether J Street is a problem or not, we are leading that group of 75 percent completely adrift from the Jewish community and Israel.”
More activities and investments aimed at engaging these students with Israel, he argued, is not the solution.
“In my generation, Israel may have been the first driver of Jewish identity,” said Sanderson. “But it’s not going to be anymore in the same way. Israel’s too complicated. So our approach has to be to connect these students to Jewish life and then find a meaningful way to engage them with Israel. In other words, first feel good about your Jewish self and then learn about Israel, as opposed to what is used to be, which was learn about Israel first, and then through Israel, find out about your Jewish self. This is a major change, which we have to learn to embrace, and which is not always easy.”
Before assuming his position at the federation six years ago, Sanderson served as a film and television executive. Among other productions, he was creator of the widely hailed PBS series “The Jewish Americans.” As it is unusual for Jewish federation officials to voice public criticism of the Israeli government, Sanderson said he was aware that his comments might “get me in trouble.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision last year to try to rally Congress against the Iranian nuclear deal, in Sanderson’s view, served to alienate Jewish students even further from Israel. “When it looks like there’s a rift with a president of the United States whom most of these students voted for, that exacerbates disinterest and disconnection,” he said.
Sanderson also criticized the many pro-Israel advocacy organizations that “yell and scream” on college campuses. Without mentioning specific names, he said: “It’s not effective advocacy to act like the house is burning. Frankly, we need to quiet the noise on our end. Every single Jewish organization in the world seems to want to be on the college campuses, and while it may be helpful for their fundraising efforts, it’s not helpful to the students. It’s kind of like there’s a fight going on with water pistols, and these people come in with heavy artillery, and so it gets louder and louder and looks bigger and bigger.”
After several trips to Israel, said Sanderson, his own 22-year-old daughter had returned with concerns about where the country is heading. “If I tell her not to ask those questions or that her questions or feelings are wrong, then what is that going to mean for our relationship or her relationship to Israel?” he asked. “Instead, I listen to her, and it’s very uncomfortable for me. Her Zionism and my Zionism, we have to be able to resolve them and not push them farther away – but that, unfortunately, is not a strategy in the non-nuanced world of the Israeli government.”
Now here is my response to Mr Sanderson. This guy would have Jewish students turn their backs on every entity that stands up for them on campus against the anti-Semitic excesses of pro-Palestinian groups like the various Muslim Student Associations and Students for Justice in Palestine. The University of California system is a shining example of rampant anti-Jewish expressions coming from these groups and many of their invited speakers who rant and rail against Israel. That some of their invited speakers are Jewish themselves, like Neturei Karta rabbi Ysroel Dovid Weiss, Judith Butler, Norman Finkelstein, and other assorted characters does not change the fact that Jewish students who support Israel are under attack. The universities are not taking action, Hillel is not taking action, and it's for sure that the Jewish Federation, be it in Orange County or Los Angeles, are not taking action. So who will speak out and support those Jewish students who have the courage to stand up? I do, and so do others, but we have been met with obstruction from the Federation and Hillel.
This was the same type of advice that German Jews got from their leaders, the so-called Judenrat (Jewish Councils) who cautioned that they needed to cooperate with the Nazi government lest things get worse.
We don't want to upset anybody, you know. We all know how that turned out.
These are same bunch of weak-kneed "community leaders" that tried to stop Jewish kids and community members from waving American and US flags at the pro-Palestinian students who were disrupted the I-FEST at UCI last year. (I was a witness.)
Frankly, these people disgust me, but I refuse to let them get in my way. I will not butt out.