Point: What work must be done on our college campuses?

Over the past few days, I have done a great deal of soul-searching, and would like to share with you some of my feelings and in a public way reintroduce myself to you. 

I will start by saying my interview with Haaretz was a mistake. Haaretz ran a headline that distorted what I was saying and enraged many readers, and the article missed the context of my comments. Combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been and continues to be a priority of mine and of our Federation. We work closely with our partners on college campuses, at City Hall, in Sacramento and across our city and country to do this critical work. We have and will always support a strong and safe Israel.

My interview never intended to criticize the government of the State of Israel. Rather, I was asking that this newly public government initiative consider that our campus leaders know our campuses and our students and their challenges best.

I talk to my colleagues a great deal about “context,” and clearly “context” was missing from my interview. I rarely make our very important work about me, but the results of this interview have done exactly that. This has become about me, and clearly without context the concerns that I tried to express have become lost by many.

I took this job more than 6 1/2 years ago because I am deeply committed to Israel and the Jewish community. I believe that from my first interview, the leadership of our Federation saw that commitment and also saw that I am passionate and that I have a voice. I have loved and supported Israel and been a highly committed Jew my entire life. Permit me to tell you a little about myself so I can put my personal commitment in context.

My father died unexpectedly before my fifth birthday, and my very strong mother moved us to be closer to my grandparents. Until I graduated from high school, we lived as the only Jewish family in a rough housing project outside of Boston. My grandparents were immigrants from Russia and Hungary. They were religious, so I had an Orthodox upbringing. As you can imagine, I was not a popular kid in my neighborhood. I experienced anti-Semitism in a very real way almost every day of my adolescence, and not long after my bar mitzvah, three older kids dug a hole and buried me alive. I laid there screaming for many hours until finally someone heard me and saved my life.

My rabbi thought that I needed to find a new way to feel good about the Judaism that had become so challenging for me to express, and so I received a scholarship from the Boston Federation. I was accepted on a Jewish Agency-sponsored high school trip to Israel. On the trip, I realized that not only did the community take care of me, but the Jewish Agency softened the rules and allowed me to participate even though I was a year younger than the required age.

My first trip to Israel changed my life. For the entire summer, I felt free as a Jew, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was home. One morning, four of the hundreds of kids from around the world were chosen to have breakfast with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. I had never felt chosen before and was overwhelmed by being selected. As we were leaving our breakfast, I felt an arm pulling me away from the group. It was him. He looked at me and said, “Take care of Israel for me.”

Several years later, I was a college student at Syracuse University. I, like many of my friends, was focusing on everything but Judaism. I tried Hillel but just couldn’t connect. As a film student, I learned about a nearly completed documentary, “The Palestinian,” produced and narrated by actress Vanessa Redgrave. It was 1978 and I felt like I needed to do something, so I started a group called Israel on Campus. With a dozen students, we began an organization that set up student-led picketing of the film on campuses across the country.

There are many who believe this was the first pro-Israel advocacy effort on college campuses.

In 1984, I found a way to combine my media experience and my love for Israel and became the head of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) and JTN Productions. I created hundreds of hours of television and web content seen by millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world. During the summer of the Second Intifada, I lived in Israel, spending weeks with families whose lives were shattered by suicide bombings, and produced a powerful documentary, “No Safe Place.” I also produced the PBS series “The Jewish Americans” and the film “Worse Than War,” which put an exclamation mark on “never again” by documenting genocide in our time.

Six years ago when I began here at Federation, I made combatting BDS both a local and a national priority. I am proud of my leadership role in the creation of the Israel Action Network, a national grass-roots initiative. I’m equally proud of the work my staff is doing locally, especially at UCLA after the incident last spring, engaging and empowering the students on that campus to be leaders.

So now that you know me and my “context” a little better, you understand how this work is deeply personal to me.

I have found it very challenging to be a Jewish leader and have a voice during this increasingly polarizing time. I understand the issues now surrounding my recent Haaretz interview and take full responsibility for the concerns it has raised.

I know that both those who have commended me and those who have challenged me share a deep love for and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.

For me, the last paragraph was what I truly want us to grapple with. It relates to an ongoing conversation I am having with my 22-year-old daughter, a recent college graduate. She, like me, loves Israel, but she does not feel considered or heard, and worse, she, like thousands of her contemporaries, feels alienated.

We need to take a step back and look at the whole campus picture as we do our anti-BDS work. There have been great successes on college campuses led by highly impactful organizations even as the battles rage on. What will we accomplish if we don’t prioritize our young people and their individual and collective Jewish journeys? Can’t the growing number of organizations doing this work sit together and look at how we can consider those young people as we do this work in a more collaborative, strategic way?

I never intended to criticize any advocacy organization or minimize the challenges posed by the incendiary BDS movement. I believe we can bring our young people closer to us and to Israel if we do a better job of listening to them and considering engaging their Jewish journeys with Israel as a key component, but not the only component. We can bring them closer to us and truly ensure Israel and our Jewish community’s future.

I continue to be committed to this work. Thank you for your understanding and continued support. 

Jay Sanderson is president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

OPINION: On Iran, Auschwitz is relevant

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to the Holocaust in his March 5 speech at AIPAC for the same reason that President Shimon Peres referred to it in his speech the day before and President Obama alluded to it in his news conference the day after: Because in the debate over Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Auschwitz is relevant.

Peres, in his remarks about the Iran problem, described how the Nazis “forced my grandfather, together with the remaining Jews [in his village], into the wooden synagoguge and set it on fire. No one survived. Not one.”

The next day, Netanyahu in his AIPAC speech said that some opponents of Israeli action against Tehran’s nuclear sites claim “that it would provoke an even more vindictive response by Iran.” He recalled that similar claims were advanced by Roosevelt administration officials in 1944, when they rejected requests to bomb Auschwitz.

[Read the Counter-Point to this column:
Seeing the world through an Auschwitz lens amounts to Jewish and Israeli PTSD]

Netanyahu read from a letter by Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy, who claimed it was impossible for U.S. planes to reach Auschwitz and that attacking the mass-murder camp “might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans.”

What, the prime minister asked, could possibly have been more “vindictive” than Auschwitz?

Obama evidently had those comments in mind at his news conference when he said, “I am deeply mindful of the historical precedents that weigh on any prime minister of Israel when they think about the potential threats to Israel and the Jewish homeland.”

Some of Netanyahu’s political rivals in Israel challenged his reference to the Holocaust.

“Not every enemy is Hitler, and not every problem is Auschwitz,” one asserted.

That’s true. But even if two people or situations are not absolutely identical, there may still be some points of comparison. That is why many previous Israeli leaders cited lessons from the Holocaust era in their remarks on policy matters.

Golda Meir when she was foreign minister, explaining to the United Nations in 1956 why Israel felt compelled to strike at Egypt, called Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser a “disciple” of Adolf Hitler. She said the fact that the international community ignored Nasser’s military buildup was comparable to the world’s meek response when Hitler “informed the world in advance of his bloodthirsty plans.”

Meir’s successor, Abba Eban, told the 1972 World Zionist Congress that Arab propaganda against Israel “would have done justice to the loathesome Goebbels and Streicher.” According to Eban, the Arab media’s depictions of the Jewish state “as a caricature, hook-nosed with tails, horns and monstrous attributes” demonstrated that “Nazism is deeply embedded in the style and content of the Arab war against Israel.”

When Knesset member Shevah Weiss of the Labor Party used the term “Gestapo 1985” to characterize the killers of Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly American tourist in a wheelchair, or when many Israelis made similar comparisons concerning the Arab terrorist who murdered 4-year-old Einat Harav on the Nahariya beach in 1979 by smashing her head against the rocks, they were not saying the terrorists were identical to the Nazis in every respect. They were pointing out, legitimately, that Nazis sometimes used similar methods against Jews.

For Netanyahu and many Israelis, the failure to bomb Auschwitz is particularly relevant because they fear that if they depended on the international community to aid Israel against Iran, they might find themselves abandoned as the Jews were in 1944.

Recall Eban’s description of the tense days preceding the 1967 war: “As we looked around us, we saw the world divided between those who were seeking our destruction and those who would do nothing to prevent it.” Those words bring to mind Chaim Weizmann’s statement in 1937: “There are in [Europe) 6 million people for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter.”

Netanyahu, the son of a renowned Jewish historian, has a keen sense of history. So does Barack Obama. He invited 43 members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black units of World War II pilots, to attend his presidential inauguration. The juxtaposition of 1940s segregation and the election of an African-American president in 2008 was striking.

Perhaps Netanyahu should have invited those pilots to his AIPAC speech because on Aug. 20, 1944, just days after that War Department letter claiming U.S. planes could not reach Auschwitz, a group of 127 U.S. bombers approached Auschwitz escorted by 100 Mustang fighter planes piloted by—Tuskegee Airmen. They dropped more than 1,000 bombs on German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers. Those targets were regarded by the Roosevelt administration as worth hitting. The mass-murder machinery was not.

To what extent Israel should risk seeing history repeated is for Israelis to decide. But surely the historical record should be part of that conversation.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and co-author, with Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the forthcoming book ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”

POINT/COUNTER-POINT: How Best to Support an imperfect Israel


Caveat Conlator: Funder beware

by David Eisner

The entire Jewish community should applaud the recently announced plan by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and several major Jewish federations to invest millions of dollars over the next few years to fight the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. READ MORE


Boycott the boycotters?

by Michael Berenbaum

What a wonderful idea. Let us counteract a boycott by engaging in a boycott of our own; let us boycott the boycotters who in turn can retaliate by boycotting the boycotters of the boycott.

There are several problems with the arguments advanced in this resolution. READ MORE