In an October 2015 essay on BDS in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, distinguished historian and UCLA chair of Jewish Studies David N. Myers offered that not all Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) supporters are anti-Semitic, but some indeed are.
He found the single-minded focus by BDS on Israel in a world filled with numerous radical aggressions against human rights deeply troubling. ISIS? Syria? Russia? He also argued it’s not enough to fight BDS but opponents of BDS must also fight the ongoing Israeli occupation. “We need a new campaign,” he wrote, “ that makes clear that we stand with Israel and its right to exist, but can no longer tolerate the occupation and settlement-building.”
David N. Meyers was taking to task those who rightly see anti-Semitism in some of the BDS movement and its activities and yet neglect that Israel’s actions in denying and blunting Palestinian national rights to self-determination are also part of the picture. Myers proclaimed that we increasingly confront on campus and among youths in the U.S., including Jewish youths, an unwillingness “to buy the hasbara refrain of Israel’s unblemished virtue.”
I am executive director of a new initiative, the Academic Engagement Network, to organize faculty on American campuses to promote robust discussion of Israel on campuses, to oppose BDS and other efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state, to support human rights for Arabs, Jews, and others in the transforming Middle East; and to help defend academic freedom and free intellectual exchange on campuses.
Our network seeks to work with a range of university and college faculty to generate reasoned discussion about Israel, to offer advice and support to faculty and administrators who must deal with BDS’ demonization efforts, and resolutely to stand for academic freedom and free speech. Our view is the appropriate antidote to unreasonable free speech is more free speech, better reasoned. We trust most colleagues and students to respond positively over time to presentations of the facts and complexities and to hearing a sharply different narrative or narratives than BDS offers. Our intention is also to work with university administrators tasked to maintain order and freedom on our campuses.
We think that organizing faculty to oppose BDS is best done around academic principles and truth claims about Israel and the Middle East. We know we can show the shortcomings of BDS’s radical caricatures of the Jewish state and its history. We also aspire to get all voices against BDS on board and cooperating, including those like David N. Myers opposed to BDS and also to the occupation, as well as those who may seek to sustain or promote Israeli-Palestinian engagement to work for incremental democratic change. The more robust the discussion that we can help stir, we think, the better.
Our vision of the university is one that was once described by the late A. Bartlett Giamatti – the university as a place of rich ideas and “conversations.” Like Giamatti we desire that the American university or college be “a free and ordered space.” We do not think in terms of the reigning idea of “safe space,” if by that is meant socially engineered inhibitions on the range of ideas and “conversations” to be encountered. Our view of the academic community too, is that it should be a world without borders, with unfettered intellectual exchange. Hence, we worry at the signs that cumulative BDS agitation and activities are changing some realities for faculty work and speech on some campuses, effecting the range of speakers and visiting fellows permissible to be brought in to campuses, and — whether intentional or not — stirring anti-Semitic currents that widen social and racial divisions among students. We worry too about people who defend and cry out about their own academic freedom and at the same time seek actively to blunt that of others.
Particularly upsetting are antics by a vocal minority to turn campuses into sites of potential repression and disruption. The BDS movement has turned Zionism into a polemical slogan meaning “racist,” “apartheid,” and “colonial” pariah state, describing no real state or movement that has ever truly been. BDS also puts the subject into a frame where, arguably, it does not accurately belong. Migrants and refugees from among minorities at the periphery of empires were not the same as imperial colonialists. Holocaust survivors and postwar refugees from Europe and the Middle East were people seeking a homeland and safe haven. Forced migration in Europe and Palestine must be seen in a broad view of multiple kinds of forced migrations that took place before, during, and after World War II.
We also see increasing BDS faculty efforts using classic organizational weapon tactics to push BDS orthodoxy in selected professional associations; there are also worrying signs of more and more surreptitious, insidious efforts to influence hiring and promotion in selected fields. We see the growing corruption of academic standards regarding teaching in classes with numerous cases on numerous campuses of one-sided presentation of history about Palestine or the use of maps of the Middle East which omit the Jewish state. Most upsetting are signs that under BDS influence activist students seek to demonize some individual professors or bar some Jewish students from student governance, overtly threatening academic freedom and non-discrimination in the here and now.
Our organization, led by Mark Yudof, distinguished president emeritus of the University of California system, and by a similarly distinguished board, wants to awaken faculty to participate in this struggle. We think faculty members comprise the missing link in the fight against BDS. For whatever reasons, many faculty who might make a difference on campuses promoting reasoned discussion, combating lies and unveiling canards, have been relatively silent. Most are busy researching, teaching, and practicing, and in their important specialized pursuits are removed from involvement in these debates. But enough is enough, and our campuses are increasingly diminished places of learning and exchange influenced by the BDS movement and its falsehoods.
We face our own challenges to organize faculty on a broad rather than a narrow basis, to appeal not just to Jewish faculty but to faculty from many diverse backgrounds and identities. W e must organize across disciplines, and we need to reach out and create alliances with faculty concerned about other issues on campuses. We need to join with groups committed to minority well being and interests and rebuild minority alliances. At the same time, we need also to work with university leaders and administrators to keep universities free and ordered – and inclusive — spaces.
The time is now. Not later. The need is now. If faculty members on American campuses are interested to participate in the Academic Engagement Network, please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org