A new anti-BDS organization based in Rockville is pledging to combat anti-Israeli rhetoric where it says it’s most potent: on college campuses.
To that end, Alliance for Israel will do what founder Melissa Landa — a former professor in the University of Maryland’s College of Education — says other groups do not: showcase Israel’s diversity as evidence that the state is not a vestige of white colonialism.
With a website up and a launch event at George Washington University last week, the organization is small. Landa is one of just three staff members and she says the group has three volunteers. As Alliance for Israel awaits IRS approval of its 501(3)(c) non-profit status, donations are being accepted through Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a
pro-Israel academic group that Landa says is “incubating” Alliance for Israel.
“Currently we are functioning based on individual contributions,” Landa said.
The former professor hopes to build a nationwide organization with regional networks that can respond to anti-Israel speech or pro-BDS (boycott, divest and sanction) pushes on college campuses with opposing speakers and campus organizers. On its website, the group lists nine universities “for students and parents when selecting a college, and for alumni who may wish to reconsider donating to their alma mater.” The list includes Columbia University, Oberlin College, UCLA and Wake Forest University.
“We’d like a physical presence on the campuses that are most toxic and we want to build up regional groups around those campuses,” Landa said.
At the launch event on March 27, the organization tried to exhibit the diversity it hopes to use as proof that Israel is an open state that celebrates civil liberties. Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid spoke of the harm he says the BDS movement causes Palestinians, encouraging them to hold out hope for the demise of the Jewish state.
Joshua Washington of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel, Professor Jessica Emami from Marymount University (who will serve on the organization’s board of directors) and others spoke of Israel as a haven for almost a million Mizrachi Jewish refugees from the Middle East and Africa, the Arab Israeli population and the country’s active LGBTQ community. George Washington University sophomore Noah Shufutinsky, who raps under the name Young Gravy, helped to organize the Alliance for Israel event with a pro-Israel student group.
Asked if the organization supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, she said the group has no position. But co-founder Zachary Lewis, a real estate agent in New York, said he thinks ultimately the group will publicly support Palestinian statehood.
“We have an eclectic group of people who support different viewpoints. We want to be a part of the people who are saying that a two-state solution should happen, but you can’t say Israel shouldn’t exist,” Lewis said. “We want people to understand that being pro-Israel doesn’t mean you’re anti-Palestinian.”
Landa’s contract at the University of Maryland was not renewed in 2017, prompting her to claim that she was the victim of an education department intent on quashing her pro-Israeli advocacy. She filed a legal claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she says is still being adjudicated. The University of Maryland denied
For now, Landa handles whatever day-to-day operations exist out of her home office. In a little over a year, she hopes that the organization will have added staff and moved into permanent office space.
“Ideally we’d like to be as big as a J Street, something with real name recognition,” Lewis said.
The group will be unique, Landa says, largely because it will look different. If a common perception of Israel on college campuses is that of a white, Ashkenazi Jewish nation, Landa plans to show that that’s not the full picture.
“We’re showing and enacting the way that’s all just not true,” Landa said. “If you look at a lot of the boards of organizations, you generally see white American Jews. I’m not criticizing that but I’m saying that in order to refute a lot of these attacks, it’s important to show not just tell. We are sort of showing and enacting that that’s all just not true.”