The University of Southern California, my alma mater, has never been known as a bastion of liberalism. From fraternities openly endorsing Mitt Romney to the university President giving George W. Bush a hero’s welcome at his Distinguished Lecture series, USC has been a square mile of conservatism in the otherwise progressive city of Los Angeles.
Yet despite its reputation, USC was nothing short of open-minded throughout my four years as an on-campus progressive activist. The school provided me with important resources to mobilize students as President of USC College Democrats, and professors with whom I vocally disagreed still gave me good grades and write me letters of recommendation. More importantly though, students didn’t silence people with whom they disagreed. Those who tried were viewed as crazy. Period. This isn’t a big breakthrough though—it’s academia 101.
College is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas. Liberal open-mindedness is essential to the university experience because it empowers students to encounter new ideas and rethink their world views.
But for some reason unbeknownst to me, students at many of America’s leading liberal institutions employ tactics that they would otherwise associate with Karl Rove when it comes to Israel, demonizing their opponents and intimidating dissenters. Traditionally, anti-Israel activists legislate symbolic boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) resolutions through their student governments. These resolutions have no teeth but nonetheless express (misguided) student interests in disassociating with Israel because of its policies in the West Bank and Gaza. Troubling enough as that is, things just got a whole lot worse at UCLA.
In their recent student government elections, a majority of candidates signed a “Joint Statement on Undergraduate Students Association Council Ethics” in which they agreed to not go on educational trips sponsored by AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and Hasbara. In other words, a majority of candidates have agreed to close themselves off from the pro-Israel perspective.
The declaration’s authors, who were all interestingly leading organizations in UCLA’s failed attempt to pass BDS through their Student Council earlier this year, claim that they drafted the statement to prevent conflicts of interest within student government. The authoring organizations, led by Students for Justice in Palestine, the Muslim Student Association and Jewish Voice for Peace, correctly note that several student council members who voted against last year’s BDS bill indeed went on trips sponsored by these organizations.
Don’t let this charade fool you though—this has nothing to do with corruption. This is an attempt to purge pro-Israel perspectives from campus discourse.
The threat that this statement poses to open discourse on campus is obvious: some views are welcome while others are not. Traveling to a Palestinian refugee camp with an anti-Zionist organization? A-Okay! Meeting an Israeli-Arab with the Anti-Defamation League? Corruption most foul!
If these students were actually concerned about corruption, they would have circulated a statement condemning all sponsored trips—be they Hasbara trips to Israel, civil rights missions to Washington, DC, or religious service trips to Africa. Wouldn’t student leaders flown around the world by a religious organization be just as influenced to impose that group’s religious agenda onto their campus as these students are to impose a pro-Israel one? And if the Israel issue bears special sensitivity at UCLA, it would seem logical for BDS groups to condemn all sponsored travel relating to Israel, be it with AIPAC, J Street, Olive Tree Initiative, Amnesty International, or anyone else. True liberal discourse would welcome any of these perspectives, but UCLA’s BDS community would have at least created a believable anti-corruption façade if they circulated a statement condemning all Israel-related travel.
But they didn’t. BDS groups have instead pressured UCLA’s student government candidates to intellectually divest from their opponents. They are literally lobbying for a close-minded campus. So much for being liberal.
I normally don’t let myself get outraged by BDS’s guerilla tactics. I have a background in politics and know that letting this nonsense get to my head will bog me down, especially since UCLA’s elections ultimately yielded similar results to previous years and university officials condemned the statement. I also understand this is just a political strategy BDS is testing at a prominent campus. But BDS’s purge on pluralism will only spread. Their tactics always do. And that makes me sad.
Academia is about empowering people to reach educated conclusions after engaging as many perspectives as possible. But things are changing. When the majority of students running for office at one of America’s leading academic institutions agree to stifle the process of self-exploration, the liberal tenets of a university education begin to wither away.