For more than a decade, Alex VanNess has opposed the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, or BDS. Born and raised in Detroit, he ended up at a lobbying firm in Washington. After working for a couple of members of Congress, VanNess, 33, became the director of Middle East Peace and Security Policy at the Center for Security Policy.
What projects have you been working on right now?
In April, the Austrian Arab Cultural Center sponsored Leila Khaled to come into their organization and speak on BDS. Leila Khaled has a history of plane hijackings and is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is considered by the European Union, America and Israel to be a terrorist organization. They sponsored her.
It happened to be that the organization’s bank is 92 percent owned by two U.S. financial firms, so I pushed the idea, along with several other organizations, that it would behoove them to tell their European bank to divest from this entity, which eventually they did.
How did your Jewish upbringing influence where you are today?
I wasn’t raised religious. I became religious. It was through my discoveries of my Jewish heritage and my interests in my religiosity that gravitated me toward the community. I got my degree in political science and I concentrated it in near East Middle Eastern Studies because I was interested in Israel and the surrounding neighbors.
Did you get involved in fighting the BDS movement in college?
Yes, I was president of Students for Israel while on campus. I was also becoming more extensively involved in my religious faith and I was studying Middle Eastern policy at the time. The BDS movement in our college started before 2005, it started as far back as 2002. In 2003, the student government voted to divest from Israel. I remember it distinctly because there wasn’t a large Jewish population at Wayne State University. We weren’t able to attend the vote or say anything just because they planned it around Passover. There was no reason for it other than to make sure there was no opposition.
Is support for Israel or Palestine a zero-sum game?
One thing that I want people to understand is that being pro-Israel does not mean that you are anti-Palestinian. You can believe in the idea that the Palestinians deserve their own national identity without advocating the destruction of Israel. That alone should be pushed and highlight the idea that if you truly believe in a two-state solution, then demonization of one side over the other is not the way to do it. The best thing for young Jews to do, young people in general who want to be involved with Israel advocacy, is just to point out when someone is using violent rhetoric and say, “Hey, that is not OK. That is not productive in any way, shape or form — you’re misleading everybody.” You don’t even have to defend Israel as long as you are pointing out what is wrong.