Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


Taking a Stand against Bias on Campus

April 20, 2015
Posted by: Karen Stiller, Middle East Project Director

Recent allegations of anti-Semitism at Stanford University are the latest reminder of how challenging the campus environment has become as a result of anti-Israel activity. A Stanford Student Senate candidate, who identifies as Jewish and Latina, reported that she was asked a disturbing question about how her Judaism would impact her view on divestment from Israel. This comes on the heels of a video that showed a similar event at UCLA with another Jewish candidate for elected student office.

As a world-class university, Stanford is typically home to academic and thoughtful discourse on tough subjects. But on the topic of Israel, this is changing as there is an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere being created by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) on college campuses, including Stanford. As President Hennessy stated to the Student Senate in February:

“First, in the nearly 15 years that I have been president, and my 30 years here as a faculty member, I have never seen a topic that has been more divisive within the university community. As a university, we must remain committed to civil and rational discussion, especially when the issues are highly controversial. An atmosphere of intimidation or vitriol endangers our ability to operate as an intellectual community.”

In February 2015, the student senate at Stanford passed a resolution to divest from Israel, after two attempts this year. The atmosphere in the room (as well as on social media) as the resolution was being debated was very contentious and at the end of the night it failed to meet the 2/3 majority required to pass. After a surprise re-vote the following week where the resolution passed, BDS advocates celebrated their “victory,” despite language in the resolution supposedly distancing itself from the BDS movement. But what were they celebrating? Will this resolution bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to a peace agreement or even improved relations? Will this resolution provide any real change to the suffering of people in the region? The answer is a resounding no.

Divestment from American and global companies doing business with Israel is strictly symbolic, not aimed at encouraging both sides to come to the negotiation table. It is an emblematic way to hurt Israel and allow activists feel like they are doing something. The divisive, often offensive and factually incorrect claims made against Israel, as well as the “us vs them” and zero sum mentality being used by the pro-divestment group, only serve to harm students and the civil atmosphere at Stanford. Furthermore, the Stanford Board of Trustees has stated in no uncertain terms that it will not divest from Israel. In a statement released on April 14, the Board cited the impact on the University:

“The Board concluded that the university's mission and its responsibility to support and encourage diverse opinions would be compromised by endorsing an institutional position on either side of an issue as complex as the Israel-Palestine conflict. Therefore the Board will not be taking action on this request, nor will it consider this request further…The Statement provides that if the Trustees conclude that a specific Trustee action "is likely to impair the capacity of the University to carry out its educational mission (for example, by causing significant adverse action on the part of governmental or other external agencies or groups, or by causing deep divisions within the University community), then the Trustees need not take such action." The Board concluded that any action on this issue would clearly have such an impact.”

We look with growing concern at the atmosphere being created on our campuses by BDS that allows anyone to feel that a student’s Jewish background is fair game. We know that such a question would be seen as completely crossing the line if the student was scrutinized because of her gender, sexual orientation or race. The lines are becoming increasingly blurred between criticism of Israel’s policies with questioning Israel’s right to exist and defaming anyone who supports the Jewish state.

We are heartened by the Stanford Administration’s response to divestment and hope that it translates into real change. However, we encourage universities to take a look not only at the immediate consequences of BDS on their campus but also at the more long term effect if the poisonous atmosphere that BDS creates is allowed to go unchecked.

PHOTO: Stanford University view of the Oval by Jawed Karim.