Submitted by Mark Yudof on December 14, 2015 - 3:00am
George Orwell remarked in 1984 that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell’s aphorism describes the strategy of today’s proponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on college campuses against Israel. They see their movement as a way of protesting Israel’s alleged mistreatment of Palestinians, its efforts to defend itself in a dangerous neighborhood and its purported colonialism. Yet their rhetoric corrupts the language of human rights and expropriates the words historically used to demean the Jew, focusing instead on the Jewish state. The strategy, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has stated, is to accuse “Israel of the five cardinal post-Holocaust sins: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide.”
Part of that strategy -- though apparently not the goal, which is to delegitimize Israel -- is to root BDS on campuses in a progressive coalition. If you are opposed to homophobia, if you are concerned about events in Ferguson and Staten Island, if you favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the party line is that you also should perceive Israel as an illegitimate colonial-settler nation. If, in the endless student government debates over BDS, the occasional 19th-century blood libel surfaces, those calumnies are ignored for the cause is just. For example, at the University of California at Berkeley, a professor who attended the BDS debate reported to me that Israeli soldiers were accused of deliberately killing women and poisoning wells. In age of exquisite sensitivity on some campuses to microaggression, or language that subtly offends underrepresented groups, the ironic toleration of microaggression against Jews often goes unnoted.
The fact is that, despite the hallowed traditions of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry, many campuses today are hostile to genuine conversation and debate. Freedom of expression is viewed by a vocal minority as a ploy to preserve privilege. There is a fear of listening to those with whom one disagrees. Campuses are viewed as “safe” only if they are ideologically pure. In the words of Santa Barbara Hillel Rabbi Evan Goodman: “At a university, of all places, there must be space for legitimate political discourse and analysis. This includes legitimate critiques of Israeli policy …. But when the one Jewish state in the world is obsessively singled out for condemnation, Jewish students recognize that their own religious and cultural identity is being called into question.” This corruption of facts and history must be rebutted.
Words do matter. The Jewish people have a long memory for the vituperative words and vicious pogroms of the past, most recently in 20th-century fascist Germany and Austria. Not surprisingly, however, people on campuses robustly debate whether BDS is itself anti-Semitic. Logic and history dictate that it is certainly possible to be highly critical of Israeli policies and yet not to be a Jew hater. Allegations of anti-Semitism against the speakers should not insulate the Israeli government from criticism. Many Jews and non-Jews alike are troubled by Israeli government policies on settlements and the West Bank. They embrace a two-state solution. Many back the agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons.
In what sense then, can BDS appropriately be described as anti-Semitic?
There are four reasons to be apprehensive. First, as former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has urged, the impact if not the specific intent of the BDS movement is anti-Semitic. Why focus solely on the world’s only Jewish state? While nations like China, Iran, Russia, Syria and others get a pass on campuses, Israel is the sole object of BDS. There are many displaced peoples around the globe, many conflicts and many settler nations. The double standard for Israel yields suspicion about the real agenda. Or, as Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law professor and leading defender of civil liberties, frequently challenges critics of Israel: “Name a single country in the history of the world, faced with threats comparable to those faced by Israel, that has a better record of human rights, compliance with the rule of law or seeking to minimize civilian casualties.”
Second, as Pope Francis recently noted, challenges to the right of Israel to exist smack of anti-Semitism. If one reads the writings of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and related groups, it is my impression that the ultimate aim is one state and not a Jewish state. The official ideological line of SJP is it is nonpolitical. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) insists “the BDS movement is consistently and completely neutral on the question of the political solution to this colonial conflict.”
But Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of BDS, has said that “definitely, most definitely we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine.” Other BDS leaders by their words and actions also seem to oppose a two-state solution.
At bottom, BDS is a challenge to the legitimacy of the state of Israel and not just its policies; it is a disestablishment movement. No doubt, in the view of many people, controversial Israeli policies fan the flames, but the ultimate objective is not policy reform or redrawn boundaries.
Third, the narrative surrounding advocacy for BDS is often anti-Semitic. Jews are privileged and powerful; they block efforts to expose Israeli misadventures; they are too influential with Congress, the news media and the corporate sector. Perhaps that is why a group of student leaders told me when I was president of the University of California that the First Amendment should protect only marginalized peoples and not privileged folks like me (and presumably other administrators, Israelis, Zionists, etc.). I had the temerity to object to students trying to prevent the Israeli ambassador from speaking on one of the UC campuses. In recent protests at the City University of New York, SJP protesters screamed “Zionists out of CUNY.”
Fourth, whether deliberate or not, whether outliers or mainstream BDS advocates, the epiphenomena of BDS are anti-Semitic incidents -- swastikas painted on Jewish fraternities and other campus sites at Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, the University of California at Davis and elsewhere, and questioning of Jewish candidates for student government posts on their likely positions on BDS (Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles). The distinction between the Jewish people and Israelis is often completely lost. As in parts of Europe, Jews are likely to be considered unreflective auxiliaries of Israel. Hence questions are raised about the suitability of Jewish students for student government service if they are active in Jewish organizations or have visited Israel. No wonder that the most common question I am asked when addressing Jewish audiences is, “Where is it safe to send my children and grandchildren to college?”
As I write, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) estimates that dozens of campuses are at high risk of a student government pro-BDS votes; as many as another 100 universities show signs of significant BDS activity. In the last few years most University of California campus student governments have embraced a version of BDS, as have those at Northwestern, Stanford and other esteemed institutions.
What is to be done? Outraged emails and letters signed by Jewish leaders will not alone turn the tide, although I applaud the effort. Some off-campus Jewish organizations (I choose not to name them) have demanded the silencing of pro-BDS voices, a violation of free-speech principles in public universities (and most often voluntarily adopted in private institutions). There have been a handful of cases where the local pro-Israel community tried to "ban" SJP from campus. Such approaches violate democratic norms and will fail. An effective response requires less heated rhetoric, more truth telling, more organization and more tenacity, staying power, resources and planning. The BDS movement is an organized political campaign; only the tools of politics and committed opposition will defeat it.
A primary focus should be on the students, particularly the undergraduates who bear the brunt of campus BDS contretemps. They need support, including mentoring, which requires empathy -- understanding their needs and perspectives. It will not do for outside groups to helicopter in with ideologies that do not resonate with them; it will not do to offer to accomplish things they don’t want done.
Students also need better access to professionals who can help them organize, assist in reaching out to other student groups and in recruiting candidates to run for student government, and in fashioning tactics and strategies. Only the students can carry out these things, but others can empower them.
The role of faculty is crucial, but much work needs to be done to galvanize them. A subset of all faculty, including Jewish faculty, strongly endorse BDS. Most faculty members, however, stand apart from the fray; they are scholars and teachers who largely avoid controversies that do not immediately impact their important academic work. Most Jewish faculty tend to be unaffiliated and not necessarily strong supporters of Israel.
But it is vital to cultivate faculty voices that will fill the void. If only a dozen faculty members and administrators out of the many hundreds on a campus will educate themselves and others on the hurtful symbolism of BDS, write op-ed pieces to explain the complexities of the Jewish state, stand up for robust campus debates on Middle East policies, eschew the ideology of “antinormalization” of Israel and nonengagement by its critics, and take the time to mentor students, much can be accomplished. Who better than savvy faculty to put a stop to the Orwellian logic and corruption of language, facts and history in the BDS debate?
The path to success in all of this is an end to ad hoc and often amateurish responses. It is best to think of anti-BDS initiatives as a campaign and not just a series of one-off incidents requiring evanescent responses. Certainly the BDS proponents think in these terms. Faculty members and administrators from various campuses have formed a national network. They will meet periodically to test messages, devise communications strategies, research the issues, produce fact sheets, mobilize community groups, provide support and training, and bring together colleagues to share views and best practices. Such expertise should be available to students, staff and faculty on affected campuses, including the availability of speakers well versed in the issues, campus field teams and microgrants to campuses in crisis. The campaign should include a digital strategy, websites and video production.
Most important, people on campuses and in the larger Jewish community should strive to establish a new narrative based on universal values and not on the distortions and linguistic corruptions of the BDS movement. That narrative should emphasize democratic participation and civil rights; tolerance; equality for people of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations; human rights; freedom of expression and academic freedom. If Israel or its neighbors fall short of these expectations, criticism is quite warranted and legitimate and should be a part of the narrative. No hypocrisy, no double standards.
A crucial part of this effort should be to repair relationships between Jewish students and other groups, especially communities of color. More than 50 years ago, Abraham Joshua Heschel marched in Selma, Ala., with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel walked only a few feet from the great civil rights leader. Jewish people overwhelmingly supported civil rights for African-Americans. Most Jewish leaders appreciate the plight of immigrants and object to homophobia and other virulent forms of discrimination. Whatever other differences may or may not exist among these groups, they should walk arm in arm, as King and Heschel and others did in 1965, unified in pursuit of equality.
In the long run, education is the key. Israel studies programs, professorial, administrator and student exchanges, administrator and faculty leadership trips to Israel and the like are vitally important. So too, research collaborations with Israel, already extensive, should be expanded. If exposed to the realities on the ground, including the genuine issues for Israeli Arabs and those in the West Bank, unfettered by Orwellian prose and distortion, I trust people to make up their own minds. Better personal observation and reflection than the corruption of language and events offered by the BDS movement.
The stakes are high. It is not so much that BDS will have an immediate economic impact on Israel, nor is it that boards of trustees and regents will ban investments from their endowments. They will not. (In fact, not a single board of regents or trustees at American campuses has yet embraced the boycott.) Nor is it my principal fear that American universities will withdraw from collaborations with the many outstanding Israeli educational institutions.
My concern focuses more on the underpinnings of BDS that challenge the legitimacy of the Jewish state. In the coming decades, today’s university students will become leaders of America -- in public service and in the academic, corporate, military and nonprofit realms. What will be their understanding of Israel and its history and culture? Will they comprehend the relationship between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism? Will the historic friendship and mutual support between the United States and the Jewish state be imperiled? Will they perceive Israel as part and parcel of white privilege and colonialism?
And what will be their attitude toward violence in Israel? Today’s BDS leaders defend the recent intifada and stabbing of civilians in Israel as an appropriate means of resisting the occupation of the West Bank. How will future American leaders view such terrorism against Israelis? What happens on campus never stays on campus.
Most of all, I worry that the spirit of democracy may be withering on college campuses. Those who seek to silence campus speakers -- as occurred most recently at the University of Minnesota, when pro-Palestinian protesters tried to shout down Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal -- argue that they have a First Amendment right to drown out opponents. Another Orwellian twist of language and law.
American colleges and universities should affirm their commitment to robust debate and discussion of public issues and to the human capacity to reason and to educate and to address the perplexities of the human condition, including the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East. Campuses should never be “safe” from ideas and disagreement. They should be safe from ideological constraints on what may be expressed.
Mark Yudof is chair of the advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network, a new organization that brings together faculty members and administrators to address issues related to Israel, and president emeritus of the University of California.
Protest forces a board meeting to move; physicists challenge chief justice; a clothing company offers sweatshirts imagining colleges named for black leaders; medical students join protest movement; university bans Confederate flags and swastikas.
The Citadel has announced that it will move to suspend cadets found to be involved in an incident that looked like they were posing in Klan-inspired sheets. Photographs of the students circulated widely Thursday, prompting an outcry. A statement from the Citadel said preliminary reports indicate that the students "were singing Christmas carols as part of a 'Ghosts of Christmas Past' skit." Regardless of intent, the statement added that "these images are not consistent with our core values of honor, duty and respect."
A report released today by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation examines inequities in education of African-American students across the country. While the report mainly focuses on kindergarten through 12th grade, it also examines racial differences in graduation rates and the rates of college readiness.
The report takes a state-by-state approach in its examination of graduation rates, ACT scores, Advanced Placement tests and college remediation rates. In partnership with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the report found a mismatch between high school graduation rates and college readiness.
"Graduation rates for African-American students range from 84 percent in Texas to 57 percent in both Nevada and Oregon," according to the report. "But, according to the ACT, the percentage of African-American students who are college ready in all four tested subjects (English, math, reading and science) ranges from 17 percent in Massachusetts to only 3 percent in Mississippi."
The report acknowledges that the ACT isn't the perfect barometer for measuring the discrepancy between the numbers, because not every high school graduate is planning to attend college.
"But college preparedness rates that equal only one-tenth of the graduation rate seem extreme," the report states, adding that the information will better help states, school systems and colleges address educational shortcomings that disproportionately affect black students.
Each year, college presidents, provosts, deans and other senior administrators hire researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, where I serve as executive director, to spend three to four days on their campuses conducting what feels like nonstop focus groups with students of color and their white peers about the realities of race on campuses. Sometimes campus leaders ask us to focus our climate studies on faculty and staff. We also collect statistical reports from offices of institutional research that typically show racial disparities in enrollment, academic performance, graduation rates, promotions and salaries, and a range of other metrics.
Over the past decade, center researchers and I have done this work at dozens of predominantly white institutions across the United States, including community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, large public research universities and Ivy League universities. When their top administrators call us, we presume it is because they seriously want to know more about how people from different racial and ethnic groups experience their institutions -- and that they are going to use our findings and recommendations to finally deal with longstanding racial problems on their campuses. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that this assumption is at times erroneous.
For example, senior administrators at one university paid the center $25,000 to conduct a climate study two years ago. They didn’t like our findings. The person who commissioned the research wrote me an email in which she commented, “My colleagues and I think your findings are too harsh.”
My response was, “The findings are what they are.”
She replied by asking if I could somehow tone down what we found. I refused, as doing so would have been academically dishonest.
What she and her colleagues failed to realize is that several students cried uncontrollably in their interviews with us. As was the case at the University of Missouri and Yale University, black students, most especially, were tired of having white administrators ignore their concerns about the campus racial climate. They were frustrated that campus officials did nothing about the blackface party a predominantly white fraternity recently hosted. They were sick of being so underrepresented in their classes, having their white professors and peers so routinely stereotype them, finding so few courses taught by faculty of color, and encountering so little of their own racial histories and selves in the curriculum.
Yet these realities were too much for the administrators to handle. They were not ready to hear the truth. Hence, the report we furnished the institution was never publicly disseminated, as originally planned. Several students of color whom we interviewed contacted us months later asking where the report was because they never saw it.
The sad reality is that the administrators at this university paid us an enormous sum of money to remain in denial about its racial problems. This had happened to us before and has occurred again since.
In fact, students of color recently launched a protest that has garnered tremendous national news media attention at an institution where we did racial climate research this past spring. Campus leaders there did nothing with the report for which they paid my center $30,000. Perhaps they could have saved themselves from the public shame they are presently experiencing. We told them the truth and gave numerous recommendations for institutional change. They hired us to ultimately ignore us, a choice for which they are now paying a significantly higher price.
Eight years ago, prior to the launch of my center at Penn, the University of Missouri-Kansas City hired me to conduct a campus racial climate assessment. On the final day of my visit, I publicly presented my preliminary findings. The event was well publicized. People who had participated in focus groups over the three days of my study knew I would talk about what I heard across the interviews. Thus, almost all of them came to my presentation. One (or possibly more) of them alerted The Kansas City Star. Unbeknownst to me, a reporter was in my audience.
The next day, this headline appeared in the city’s major newspaper: “UMKC Gets Poor Racial Report Card.” Administrators here, unlike their counterparts at many other predominantly white institutions at which I have done climate assessments over the past 10 years, acted swiftly and aggressively -- most likely in large part because their university was publicly shamed. Top administrators there had no choice but to act on my report’s recommendations.
I really want campus leaders to stop wasting their money and our time on climate studies they will never use. Nine of my center’s 11 staff members are people of color; most of our 22 faculty affiliates are professors of color from across academic schools and departments at Penn who study race and education. For us, this work is deeply personal. We don’t want to spend our time doing research for leaders who aren’t seriously committed to equity, campus climate change and institutional transformation. We never exaggerate our findings; we instead commit ourselves to truthful representations of insights that people generously offer to us about the realities of race on campuses.
Choosing to ignore these realities won’t make them less real. Eventually, colleges and universities will have to pay a much higher price for racism should their leaders choose to ignore our findings, no matter how harsh they seem.
Students of color will continually drop out in higher numbers (lost tuition dollars), faculty and staff members of color will keep leaving through a revolving door (higher turnover costs), and alumni of color will be considerably less likely to contribute financially to an institution they know to be racist (forfeited donations for institutional advancement). At the University of Missouri, unresponsiveness cost the system president and chancellor of the flagship campus their jobs. Indeed, maintaining an institution’s good reputation, authentically enacting diversity-related commitments espoused in mission statements and elsewhere, and leading with integrity is priceless.
Shaun R. Harper is founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Harper is author of the forthcoming book Race Matters in College (Johns Hopkins University Press) and president-elect of the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
Bluffton University, a Mennonite institution in Ohio, has become the latest Christian college to announce that it will hire gay and lesbian people. The university recently amended its antibias rules to state that they apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bluffton characterizes this as a clarification, not a change in policy. In a related move, Bluffton announced that it would end its membership in the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.
In September, two other Mennonite colleges -- Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College -- left the CCCU several months after they changed policies to permit the hiring of some gay and lesbian people. Some CCCU members had said that they would not remain in the organization if other members recognized same-sex marriages and hired gay people. The CCCU said it was forming a task force to consider how to handle future situations related to these issues, and that members moving to allow the hiring of gay faculty members would have their status reviewed by the task force. A spokesperson for Bluffton said that the university did not want to have its status reviewed or altered in this way, and so opted to leave. The decision was voluntary, the Bluffton official said.
The CCCU issued this statement: "The CCCU and Bluffton have been in collegial conversations during the fall. The CCCU is a voluntary association. Bluffton knew that clarifications in their nondiscrimination statement would result in a change of membership status while the CCCU task force on membership finished their work. Bluffton preferred not to accept a change of membership status in the interim and so withdrew. We wish Bluffton the best as they offer their excellent educational opportunities to the world."
Threat against black students at Kean turns out to have been hoax; Harvard drops use of title "master" for leaders of residential colleges; 12-day Brandeis sit-in ends; a Kentucky legend defends mural that was covered up.