BDS and Campus Politics: A Bad Romance

People on campuses should strive to establish a new narrative that emphasizes democratic participation and civil rights, tolerance, and freedom of expression, argues Mark Yudof.

December 14, 2015

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.


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