Although I’ve been a member of a secular Jewish organization in Baltimore for almost 20 years, I’m not religious, and I’m critical of many Israeli policies. I didn’t seem to fit in the mainstream.
Last fall, I decided to dip my toe into a mainstream Jewish activity and attended “New Frontiers in Confronting the New Anti-Semitism,” sponsored by the Darrell D. Friedman Institute for Professional Development and a host of local Jewish organizations. The series would help me “to question, to articulate ideas and stimulate conversations.”
The first three sessions were informative. I was pleasantly surprised that speakers differentiated between anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel. One could be critical of Israel, at least in theory, without being anti-Semitic.
Things fell apart for me during the fourth session, “The Battle on Campus and What BDS Means.” The speakers argued that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and most Palestinian activism were largely motivated by anti-Semitism. The focus of the program was how to confront these movements. The lines between anti-Semitism anti-Zionism and anti-Israel suddenly dissipated.
Although there was mention of “conflicting narratives” among Arabs and Jews in earlier sessions, I said, during a question-and-answer period, only the Jewish narrative was presented here. People misrepresented what BDS called for, I continued. Often, for example, BDS calls for boycotts and disinvestment from companies doing business in the West Bank, not all of Israel. Why wasn’t a BDS supporter, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, represented to defend BDS? What about dialogue? I was very polite.
One of the speakers, a Hillel rabbi, responded in a polite tone. He talked about how Hillel had created a broad “Jewish tent” that encompassed diverse parts of the Jewish community. JVP, however, was not allowed in the tent as an organization because it didn’t promote a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
I’m fairly certain that any pro-BDS group would also be banned from the tent.
The rabbi’s comments were stunning in their clarity and directness. Suddenly, I felt like an alien who had wandered into a meeting of Jews where I didn’t belong. I believe in a two-state solution, but I also believe in BDS as a tactic to end the occupation of the West Bank. Debate was useless since I didn’t belong in the tent.
I learned a lot from the anti-Semitism series, but my foray into the mainstream confirmed my previous skepticism. I shall continue to be active in my secular Jewish organization, outside of the “official” Jewish community.
Fred L. Pincus is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Although he is a member of the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah, the views expressed in this article are his personal views, not those of the BJCC.