The boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is the biggest Israel-related problem on American college campuses, Hillels of Georgia head Rabbi Russ Shulkes believes, so Emory Hillel took action this fall.
Over the recently ended semester, Hillel organized and presented a four-part lecture series to educate Emory University students on the BDS movement, created by anti-Israel activists 10 years ago to delegitimize Israel by any means possible.
The Hillel course, which required an application process, covered topics such as the history of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, anti-Semitism, college campus support and the defense of Israel at the International Criminal Court.
The lecture series also explored how media portray Israel and how to understand that portrayal from a practical perspective, as well as what students can do if anything happens on college campuses.
Ken Stein, professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history, political science and Israeli studies, spoke about BDS from a historical viewpoint. Mark Goldfeder, an Emory Law School senior lecturer and senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, spoke about BDS from a legal perspective. Also contributing to the series were Rabbi Shulkes, lawyer David Schoen and Hillel Israel Fellow Moran Shabo.
About 35 students applied to take the course, and 20 students were selected to participate. The series was open to anyone on Emory’s campus, and several non-Jewish students took part. The course was free and included dinner at each session.
Although many states, especially California, have issues with BDS votes and anti-Israel organizations at universities, Rabbi Shulkes said Hillel launched the course as a proactive measure because most Georgia campuses do not face a large BDS threat.
Emory, the University of Georgia and other campuses do have Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. The SJP chapter at Oglethorpe University, which has a Jewish president, Lawrence Schall, but few Jewish students, in April became the only college campus in Georgia to pass a BDS resolution, but the university’s investment committee refused to implement it.
“Oglethorpe was able to pass a BDS vote underneath our noses because we just don’t have Jews there. We don’t have a Hillel professional who works there,” Rabbi Shulkes said.
Emory Hillel also decided to hold the lecture series because students lack knowledge of what BDS stands for.
“While it’s not something that’s impacting our students on a daily basis, it’s definitely something that we want our students to know about, how to combat it and how to talk educationally about it,” Rabbi Shulkes said.
Emory Hillel wanted students to take away a lot of good information from the lecture series, but one fact in particular.
“The most important thing I would say is that BDS is an attack on Israel,” Rabbi Shulkes said. “It’s not a small issue. It’s not something that is about trying to make sure Israel suffers economically. The BDS program and ideology is about the destruction of Israel.”
Based on feedback from surveys after the course, the lecture series was successful; students had only positive comments.
The lecture series was a purely local initiative. Emory Hillel was not responding to any national push by Hillel.
Goldfeder said Rabbi Shulkes made the right move by bringing the lecture series to Emory.
“He’s doing a good job of making sure that Emory people can become educated about these issues and become a school people can turn to,” Goldfeder said. “I think he did a good job of getting ahead of the game and making sure people are educated and are doing this the right way, as opposed to some kind of reactionary way. Education is really important on all sides of the equation.”
Hillels of Georgia plans to repeat the series in the spring semester at Emory and to add a course through the University of Georgia Hillel chapter.