Shushed Palestinians: My reflections on the UW’s BDS experience

By Nurit Asnash, Special to the Jewish Sound

I had never heard about BDS (the boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel) until about a year ago when I attended an “Israeli Diversity Week” at Antioch University in Seattle. These three-day, 1-1/2-hour sessions were initiated by a courageous Israeli student as a response to the “Israel Apartheid Week” that has been hosted at Antioch in the past seven years and is organized by an Antioch faculty member who is also an international leader at the BDS movement.

What went on during those sessions was a life-changing experience. Surprisingly, it occurred not because of a clash between the Israelis and Palestinians at the Seattle campus but because of some loud folks who presented themselves, one as an Israeli and the other as a second generation to Holocaust survivor Jews. These two ladies accused the Israeli speaker of being like a Nazi propagandist, accused him of lying, and told him to go back to where he came from — meaning to the Arab countries from which his grandparents were expelled. That was the day I first heard about BDS and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Why was this a life-changing experience for me? Because my grandparents had to flee post-World War II, Nazi-infected Europe as well as from an Arab country. What was then Palestine under the British Mandate was the only safe place they could go — America was not an option — and I never expected an attack like this to come from my own people, Jews!

This experience led me to inquire more about BDS, especially what BDS does on campuses. What I found horrified me. On U.S. campuses where BDS supporters are active:

  • There has been bullying and violence against students who think differently from the boycotters’ agenda, at times to the extent it has required police intervention and investigation.
  • They limit the freedom of speech, freedom to travel, and hatefully target any person who shows any interest in learning about Israel besides what BDS supporters tell them.

In short, this movement is hijacking U.S. campuses with its hate-driven campaign against Israel and is forcing American universities to become a new battleground to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

This is why I was worried when I heard that BDS is coming to town, this time to the Universiy of Washington campus. It troubled not only the Israeli, Jewish and American parts of my identity, but also the mother in me. I was, and still am, concerned what would happen in the future when it’s my kids’ time to go to college. What will happen on U.S. campuses if BDS is left unchallenged to roam free? That is why I traveled to the  UW on May 20, the night the students senate heard arguments for and against UW divestment from Israeli companies, and voted on it.

That night I was not surprised to see American Jewish students unleashed against Israel — I was ready for it. But there were two other surprises.

First, I was surprised that the majority of Jewish students who spoke against the divestment did not have too many, if any, good things to say about Israel or Israelis. While they sympathize with the Palestinians, hardly anyone mentioned what life is like for Israeli Jews who live under constant, existential threats of wars, terror, missile attacks, Intifadas. Hardly anyone spoke about the many beautiful things that exist in Israel, and all the good that Israel is contributing to the world. As an Israeli, I felt abandoned.

The second surprise was actually even bigger. The students who supported the divestment opened with a speech by a Palestinian student who was born in Seattle (but had never set foot in Israel or the West Bank) and followed by non-Palestinian speakers, although other Palestinians awaited their turns to be heard.

SUPER UW (the group sponsoring the resolution) was so obsessed with the ethnicity of their speakers that they chose to let a Mexican student and a Native-American student speak on behalf of the Palestinian cause, but not the Palestinians present in the room. Those students introduced themselves based on their ethnic affiliation as the “minority,” the underdog, and validated their “facts” and justified their hate for Israel as well as their support of the Palestinians based on their supposedly mutual background. And then, of course, there were a handful of American Jews unleashed to attack with more “facts,” again validated by their Jewishness. But what about the Palestinians who waited in line for their turn to talk?

I wanted to hear what they had to say because I don’t have many opportunities to listen to Palestinians speak. This is when I noticed that they were being pushed back in line, over and over again. They started at the fourth and fifth places in line but others were chosen to present the Palestinian cause instead. Then, time was over. The senators had had enough and decided to vote and those Palestinians never got to say a word!

At the end of the night, I couldn’t help but wonder, what was that all about? Why did those passionate students, many of them Jews, who so fiercely fight for Palestinian justice and Palestinian rights, not let their fellow Palestinians be heard?

I don’t know the answer. Nonetheless, I found it surreal and absurd. As much as I was relieved that BDS lost this battle, at the end of the day, what I saw at the UW was Jews fighting against Jews.

Nurit Asnash is a local producer of Israeli cultural events who believes that through our culture we can connect between Israel and the Jewish community.