November 16, 2018

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.