Debating BDS At Princeton (Updated)

Update: As promised, I have posted J Street U director Daniel May’s complete opening statement here. That means that virtually the entire debate is online, minus a few minutes of closing arguments and audience responses.

On December 15 I participated in a debate at Princeton University on the “ethics and efficacy” of BDS. The debate was held as a bookend to the battle over a resolution calling for adding an alternative in the campus cafeteria to Sabra Hummus, an Israeli brand produced by a company which has sponsored the IDF’s Givati and Golani brigades (the resolution was defeated). In my opinion, though the students from the Princeton Committee for Palestine who initiated the effort to sideline Sabra were not successful, they won anyway by forcing an open and honest discussion about Israeli war crimes, occupation and discrimination. And the students who voted against the alternative hummus resolution were simply stupid, not necessarily because they obstructed a campaign targeting a military unit that has been implicated in hideous crimes, but because they resigned themselves to a brand of hummus that contains the preservative known as sodium benzoate, which has been directly linked to everything from cancer to Parkinson’s to a variety of degenerative diseases.

The debate was not only an opportunity for Princeton to hear the arguments for BDS, which me and Jewish Voice for Peace Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson introduced, but to see the supposedly “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street showcase its opposition to the BDS movement, which it has labeled on its website as “a convenient mantle for thinly disguised anti-Semitism.” The group dispatched Daniel May, who serves as director of J Street’s campus wing, J Street U, to argue against BDS at Princeton. He was joined by a Princeton senior also named Daniel May, who filled in as the second debater against BDS because none of the major pro-Israel organizations invited by Princeton’s Whig-Clio debating society were able to, or were willing to, participate. (I have heard rumors from multiple sources that AIPAC has adopted an official policy of refusing to engage in public debates on BDS).

I have embedded two videos here: the first is my opening statement, and the second contains highlights of each speaker’s presentation. While Rebecca focused her arguments on rights and results (see her excellent presentation here), I tried to outline the history of how Israel engineered its “Jewish and democratic” system through force, and why it relies on increasingly horrific levels of force to ward off the encroaching threat of real democracy. Daniel May of Princeton hammered on the notion that there are much worse human rights violators in the world than Israel, and that Israel is a longstanding ally of the U.S. that “doesn’t deserve to be boycotted.” I thought he did a pretty good job of presenting his case, though of course I disagreed with him, and said so.

The presentation by Daniel May of J Street was the most significant of the evening, simply because it revealed how far J Street is willing to go to stop BDS. I have nothing personal against May. In fact, I know him and like him a lot. He is a decent, enormously talented guy. But he is also an employee of J Street and that means that he had to recite the talking points that Jeremy Ben-Ami and his inner circle had crafted for him based on their own focus groups and polling.

Tragically, May’s case — and by extension, J Street’s case — against BDS boiled down to the Bible and the Holocaust: BDS undermines the 2000-year-old dream that Jews supposedly have of “returning to Israel,” he said, and it denies the persecution Jews have suffered “everywhere they went,” especially in Europe during the Holocaust. Aside from a few token nods May made to the Palestinian popular struggle (which ironically is linked the BDS movement), his case against BDS seemed contrived to trigger the most base emotional responses from Jewish-Americans, especially those who had been subjected to sustained Zionist conditioning. What that says about J Street’s long term political strategy and the case against BDS will be the subject of a much longer piece I plan to post in the coming days. And I will be posting complete video of (J Street U director) May’s entire opening statement as well.

21 thoughts on “Debating BDS At Princeton (Updated)

  1. occupyresist

    Remember the Holocaust!

    Always trumps any argument you hold, especially with the paranoid sheeple.

  2. Pingback: BDS Comes to JStreet | Joseph Dana


  4. walt kovacs

    as usual, max edits a vid to allow you to see only what he wants you to see

    post the entire debate max

    and if your idea of success is loss….i hope your side has many more successes

    now im going to the supermarket to buy out all the sabra humus

  5. Rose

    Hey Walt Kovacs (or whatever your real name is, though I like the idea of you using the name of a psycho right-wing comic book character, really fits you), that is more or less the whole debate. Unlike you, not everyone has the time to sit down and watch footage of people walking back and forth to the podium and saying their mandatory introductory words.

    Also, it’s nice to know that you have self-destructive tendencies! PLEASE buy out all the sabra (and Tribe) hummus that you can get hold of and eat it all. In addition to giving you diarrhea the chemicals in it will kill you slowly thus saving us the trouble of having to deal with one more right-wing nut case. Sodium benzoate, as the smart comments in the article you linked to explain, is poisonous on the long run.

    Also, stop equating Zionist with Jewish, if you think both are one and the same you clearly know nothing.

  6. observer3121

    as someone who attended the debate, this isn’t close to the whole thing and is clipped to make it look like a win for the BDS side. In reality,the debate went on for more than an hour and the anti-BDS side made extensive arguments about the ineffectiveness of BDS both in pushing Israel to make concessions and in achieving dialogue on campus. These arguments (which were about half of the anti-BDS case) were essentially unresponded to by the pro-BDS participants. I found those arguments highly persuasive and they are given exceedingly short-shrift in these videos. please post the whole thing. It’s the intellectually honest thing to do even if it’s not best for your cause.

  7. Rose

    Well, as someone who attended the debate, that was basically what was said and the anti-BDS side had no real arguments to make other than the ones posted here. Walt Kovacs and friends, please go lie somewhere else.

  8. walt kovacs

    hey rose, do you have a problem with reading comprehension? observer states that he attended, and saw the exact opposite of what you did

    so again…let max post the entire vid and allow others to make up their own mind

    dont post a vid that makes sure that max has the first and last word

    btw, i do not equate zionist with jewish

    i do equate jewish with jewish…and one who denies the existance of god, denies the jewish people’s connection to the land of israel, denies the torah…that person cannot use his/her accident of birth as a banner when attacking other jews and the state of israel

    and dummy…not one study shows that sodium benzoate is dangerous to your health…unless combined with other things (not found in humus) or taken in extremely large quantities

    and since bds has been around in some form since the formation of the state of israel….care to note one real success you idiots have had?

    btw, justing bieber is performing in tel aviv soon…you are about to lose the tweener crowd

    but if you hurry…maybe you can get max’s daddy to stand with you….then you will get all the drunks to join the bds movement

    and what is it with you attacking my nic? think it hurts me?

    you are a silly, deluded, angry little woman

  9. andrew r

    Kovacs, some people might interpret the Torah as against Zionism. For one, it violates the 6th, 9th and 10th commandments on a regular basis. Or can they be violated in the name of reclaiming Eretz Israel? That seems to be the majority opinion of Zionists. Personally, I think you just invented a new religion.

  10. andrew r

    “that person cannot use his/her accident of birth as a banner when attacking other jews and the state of israel”

    Not only was attacking other Jews typical of the early Zionist ideologues, most Jews were indifferent or disdainful to the idea of a Jewish state, including the chief rabbi of Vienna circa 1897.

  11. andrew r

    Observer wants to hear the whole JStreet argument. After one of the Daniel Mays said, “You can’t go through the West Bank without meeting someone whose relative was imprisoned” vs. “You can’t go through Israel without meeting someone who lost a relative in a terrorist attack…” What a load of chutzpah. Counterpointing the aspects of Israeli oppression that aren’t immediately lethal, with the overall picture sanitized of Palestinian deaths, against Israelis who’ve been killed by Palestinians sends the message that Palestinian deaths don’t matter. Does he make any less mendacious arguments we should hear?

  12. walt kovacs

    andrew r

    love it when jew haters attempt to lecture jews about their religion. jews have 613 commandments, the majority of which cannot be observed unless residing in israel.

    i will not debate an ignoramus on the meaning of the commandments you list, but would love to hear you explain how israel “bears false witness” (the 9th commandment)

    and why just use the commandments to prove your point…why dont you do like lynn gottleib, who takes a page from the numerous jew hate and neo nazi sites, and misuse talmudic dissertation?

    and why go back to the late 1800s to find a rabbi who was against the jews returning to the land of israel? why not quote rabbis from poland during the early 1900s? btw, what happened to those great centers of judaism…you absolute tool

    better yet…why not quote from the neturei karta?

    and i do not attack other jews. i attack those jews who turn their backs on their identity and their people and only identify themselves as a jew, when attacking other jews or israel. i attack the jew who is in reality no more jewish than you.

  13. andrew r

    Bearing false witness: Palestine was empty. The Palestinians left their houses and furniture behind because they were told to. The Palestinians were Nazi supporters. The Palestinians don’t exist. The Palestinians immigrated to their country so they could work in the settlements. They don’t want peace. And so on and so on…

    The Torah says do not oppress the stranger. It doesn’t say, carry on as Pharaoh when you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. Do any mitzvot cover demographic threats? The first chapter of Exodus certainly does.

    Moritz Gudemann was against nationalism in principle. I agree with his views in general (He’s quoted at length in pp 60-62 in ‘Whither Zionism’) as opposed to Neturei Karta. And he wasn’t against Jews returning to Israel, per se… He just knew creating a nation-state would turn Jews into persecutors.

    If you want me to read a pro-Herzl rabbi from then, point him out. Using the Holocaust is not going to make me feel bad about calling out the unsavory.

    Had the early Zionist leaders been the arbiter of Jewish identity, no Jews would be observing any mitzvot.

  14. observer3121

    @Andrew r –
    1. It’s not clear what you find “mendacious” about May’s argument. It sounds to me like May is drawing equivalence between victims of suicide terrorism and rocket attacks and victims of the Israeli occupation. Even if you disagree with his interpretation, he’s clearly not lying about the facts involved, which is what “mendacious” means. He’s right that you’d be hard pressed to find an Israeli who doesn’t know a victim of Palestinian violence. I agree that his implication of moral equivalence between the two sides is suspect. But it’s wrong of you to accuse him of lying when he hasn’t done so, and you can’t show any evidence that he has.

    2. As to your question: “Does he make any less mendacious arguments we should hear?” I’ll refer you to the second half of my original comment in which I requested that the whole video be posted.

    “the anti-BDS side made extensive arguments about the ineffectiveness of BDS both in pushing Israel to make concessions and in achieving dialogue on campus. These arguments (which were about half of the anti-BDS case) were essentially unresponded to by the pro-BDS participants. I found those arguments highly persuasive and they are given exceedingly short-shrift in these videos.”

    Even if you’re right that Daniel May’s arguments are unpersuasive, what’s the harm in posting the whole video? Nobody’s obligated to watch it, but some might choose to if they’d like to see the full content of the debate. You seem like someone who has made up his/her mind on the issue, so for you and others unwilling to consider arguments that disagree with their preconceived perspective, watching the rest of the video may be a waste of time. But for people who haven’t made up our minds on the issue, it might be interesting.

  15. andrew r


    Now, restricting myself to deliberately false statements, there’s one big whopper from the first Dan May: Israel is a country that respects the rights of its Arab minority. Only if you accept they have the right to have their unrecognized homes demolished and moved to a shanty town is that not mendacious.

    I might be inclined to give Daniel May the benefit without fluff such as, “Those who dismiss the aspirations of Jews to control their own political destiny, dismiss a history of persecution that goes back 2000 years, those who dismiss the Jewish connection to the land of Israel, dismiss 2000 years in which Jews longed for return to that land.”

    I wasn’t aware the BDS movement is for stripping Jews of their right to take part in politics or creating a political system where Israelis would be disenfranchised. What he really should have said, and can’t, is that BDS doesn’t allow Israel the right to engineer a demographic majority where such does not exist. Here he misrepresents the positions of his target.

    “Labeling Israel as the criminal and the Palestinians as the victim dismisses the tragedy and the loss suffered by both.” Again, to acknowledge the criminal behavior of Israel does not necessarily mean ignoring Israelis have suffered from the conflict. However, May is saying both sides are equally responsible and that is mendacious. If he’s going to slip into highlighting Israeli deaths and Palestinian imprisonment, it’s hard to believe he even thinks both sides are equal.

    I would watch the rest of the debate but I don’t buy into the pretense of being reasonable when it favors the aggressor.

  16. walt kovacs


    i dont enjoy discussing the torah with the ignorant….you can put me in the camp of shamai (google it) for that…but the 9th commandment has nothing to do with perception…it deals with a court of law….one cannot change the commandments meanings to fit ones world view

    saying that…your need to lie to bolster your argument shows the weakness of your side

    where were the major cities before 48? nablus had what….3000 residents? tel aviv didnt exist…jerusalem was the old city…haifa was not the bustling metropolis it is today

    do you deny that arab commanders told the people to leave? had your argument been that some of the population had been chased out by idf forces, that i could agree with…but when you make a blanket statement and say that all the arabs were chased out (thereby neglecting that israel to this day has a large arab minority) your entire argument falls apart.

    and im sorry, but long before the state was established…jews did start returning to the land….but with no state, they had no protection…leading to pogroms and massacres….rav gudemann never took that into account….and the vast majority of rabbinic leaders of today (the majority of those, not zionists) support the current state, only because it guarantees the safety of the jews who reside in the area

    but never mind….i want you to keep supporting bds…really

    bds, has been in affect since 67….started with the arab boycott on different products

    so here we are going into the 43rd year of this attempt to make change using economics….and where is your side?

    trumpeting a loss as a win…because people are talking….how silly

    give up….you cant win

    and lying about the health risks of a brand of humus aint gonna help your side at all

  17. welch

    When I was a first year student at the University of Chicao, we argued that UC should ask its bank, Continental Illinois, to withdraw from a ten-bank consortium that had stepped in to save South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre, or that UC should pull its endowment.

    Hans Morganthau, an international policy specialist, told us that we were too young to have a respectable opinion. Jamie Redfield, a popular professor, told us that pressuring the University to boycott the bank was like “boycotting Heinrich Himmler’s landlady’s hairdresser”.

    Respectable or not, my “age-cohort” helped to stop the War in Vietnam, and, in twenty years, many universities felt shame in having investment portfolios that profitted from apartheid.

    BDS works. Maybe nothing else can work.

    What would be a persuasive argument against BDS? Perhaps that the Separation Wall does not exist? Perhaps that the Wall plus the settlements plus the link-roads do not strangle the Palestinian economy? Since I have seen the Wall, seen the settlement of Har Homa, seen the Wall-plus-road-plus-barbed-wire-plus-gun-towers, since I have seen the map, I suspect that the Israeli government truly intends to drive the Palestinians out of what remains of their land.

    Is there evidence that the government of the state of Israel plans anything else?

  18. walt kovacs


    please…keep on going with bds and attempting to compare israel with south africa

    its gone nowhere for the past 10 years…it will go as far the next 10

    again…if a lost vote is something to crow about…what exactly have you accomplished?

  19. welch

    Walt, the bigots won Plessy / Ferguson. How is that going?

    Human Rights Watch plays with the catch-phrase of Plessy, in naming a report “Separate and Unequal”:

    This report consists of a series of case studies that compare Israel’s different treatment of Jewish settlements to nearby Palestinian communities throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It describes the two-tier system of laws, rules, and services that Israel
    operates for the two populations in areas in the West Bank under its exclusive control, which provide preferential services, development, and benefits for Jewish settlers while imposing harsh conditions on Palestinians. The report highlights Israeli practices the only discernable
    purposes of which appear to be promoting life in the settlements while in many instances stifling growth in Palestinian communities and even forcibly displacing Palestinian residents. Such different treatment, on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin and not narrowly tailored to meet security or other justifiable goals, violates the fundamental prohibition against discrimination under human rights law.

    It is widely acknowledged that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, violate international humanitarian law, which prohibits the occupying power from transferring its civilian population into the territories it occupies; Israel appears to be the only country to contest that its settlements are illegal. Human Rights Watch continues to
    agree with the nearly universal position that Israel should cease its violation of international humanitarian law by removing its citizens from the West Bank. This report focuses on the less-discussed discriminatory aspect of Israeli settlement policies, and analyzes serious and ongoing violations of other rights in that context.

    Full report at:

    (Walt, it appears that you agree that Israel does these things. You believe that Israeli action is unlike that of South Africa in that the white South Africans seem to have hoped only to imprison blacks; the Israeli government appears to be driving Palestinians out of the occupied territory. Is that it? Does that moral disctinction make you happy?)

  20. poyani

    I love how walt kovaks openly admits that his support for the Israeli government’s racial engineering policies are based on religious fundamentalism.

    Way to make Bin Laden look sane walt! Fundies say the darndest things!

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