A new way to respond to BDS, without resorting to Bullying, Deceiving, and Smearing: Part I

It’s nearly everywhere now. Barely a week goes by without the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement cropping up on yet another campus. In many institutions the movement is headed by local chapters of nationally organized and funded groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP). At other institutions it is driven locally, by individuals or other groups. But when you read through the many statements, posters, resolutions, you hear the same messages coming across repeatedly. In the name of human rights, in the name of social justice, Israel is to be punished and marginalized until ….

Until when?

Typically, until Israel withdraws from the “occupied territories.” But what does that mean? Some apply that phrase only to territories Israel captured in 1967, while others apply it to the entire State of Israel. But this is a distinction without a difference. Many who claim to apply it only to 1967 territories also openly admit that they support not a two-state solution to the conflict but a two-step solution: first recover the 1967 territories, then recover the rest. As for those who sincerely apply it only to the 1967 territories, they are, in my opinion, simply deluded in thinking that the conflict would stop there. Israel without the 1967 territories would be in an impossible security situation, and would not last long. If you have doubts about that, look at what happened to Gaza after Israel withdrew and then imagine the entire West Bank, and East Jerusalem, went the same way.

To support the BDS movement then is, de facto, to support the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.

So what to do?

Much good work is being done, by many groups. But as I argued last summer, much of this work is defensive in nature: it is responding to the BDS attacks, to the bullying, deceiving, and smearing, which actually leaves us conceding the main point they are trying to put forth. Even where BDS fails, it makes the question of Israel’s very legitimacy itself a legitimate question. The vast majority of students and community members who don’t know better, and even we ourselves who do, lose sight of the very outrageousness of the question itself. The BDS vote may fail this year, but the seeds have been planted—and it will come back the next.

In addition to this defensive work, then, we must also go on the offense.

There are at least two forms this could take. I prefer the first form, the one I will develop here, since it better fits the ideals appropriate to a university environment. But I also think the second form, to be published in the near future, is necessary as well.

The campus BDS movement focuses on student governments. After plastering the campus with posters and holding public events, it then proposes resolutions to student governments demanding that their institutions boycott Israel and/or Israeli academic or cultural institutions, and to divest from companies they claim support or profit from Israel’s “occupation.”

“Offense Mode #1,” then, aims to head them off at the pass.

Let us encourage student governments to do what they clearly ought to be doing: focusing on the immediate needs and concerns of the local student population. What student governments ought not to be doing is devoting hours and resources debating very complicated, decades-long international conflicts going on half a world away. It’s not merely a waste of resources, but the idea that a student government could get any fair and accurate grasp of the relevant history and politics is absurd. If universities are to stand for genuinely objective and reasoned pursuit of truth, then little could be more at odds with that than student governments adopting opinions after a few hours of debate on matters of complex foreign policy.

This point has, happily, cropped up on occasion. Students at McGill made it last year while dealing with the BDS movement, as evidenced here and here. You also needn’t be a pro-Israel partisan to accept this point. That student governments should stick to student business should seem obvious no matter where you stand. If anything, it’s those on the anti-Israel side that regularly ignore this obvious truth in order to push through their divisive agenda. For that they should be resisted, not rewarded.

So here is Proposal #1. Let us spread as far and wide as we can the following template for a resolution, to be submitted to as many school governments as possible, preferably before the BDS crowd has jumped into gear on that campus. I hereby relinquish any copyright claim to the text below (though I would appreciate an acknowledgment if you use it), and of course I license anyone to edit as she believes would be most useful at his or her institution.

Whereas, the primary purpose of student government is to address matters of immediate relevance and urgency directly affecting the campus life of the general population of students attending this institution;

Whereas, the many very complex and long-standing political, military, economic, and civil disputes going on all over the world simply are not matters of immediate relevance and urgency directly affecting the campus life of the general population of students attending this institution;

Whereas, it would require long and intensive study before anyone could expect to have an appropriate, fair, and well-informed opinion about such complex and long-standing disputes;

Whereas, those volunteering their time on student government do not have the time or resources to undertake such long and intensive study on matters not directly pertaining to campus life;

Whereas, those interested in the noble pursuit of activist causes concerning such disputes are perfectly free to pursue them elsewhere on campus, and already have many resources available to them to support their pursuit (such as the ability to form special interest groups, sponsor lectures, and hold other events), not to mention take relevant classes;

Whereas, it is simply not appropriate for a student government, aiming to represent the interests of all students, to take official positions on complex issues on which the student population is deeply divided and as a result of which many students may feel disenfranchised as well as personally targeted;

Whereas, the introduction of student government resolutions on such matters, and in particular on the century-long conflict between Israelis/Palestinians/Jews/Arabs/Muslims, has on many campuses proved extremely disruptive and divisive to normal campus life;

Whereas, the introduction of such resolutions has often produced very hostile environments in which many members of the campus community felt isolated, marginalized, dehumanized, under attack, and unsafe;

Whereas, such environments are not at all conducive to the proper academic study of the disputes in question and can have long-term negative consequences on the civility of campus life, as well as damage the mutual civility and respect necessary to ensure genuine freedom of speech;

Be it resolved, that

(1) This student government reaffirms its commitment to freedom of speech, to the free exchange of ideas, to the safety of all who express their ideas and in particular to those supporting minority opinions, to the mutual civility and respect parties must show to those who disagree with them, and, overall, to the careful and objective and fair and rational pursuit of truth in all such exchanges;

(2) This student government urges all those interested in the noble pursuit of activist causes concerning complex, long-standing, and far-away disputes, to whole-heartedly pursue their activism by means of the many other resources available on campus;


(3) This student government shall restrict its discussions and activities to matters of immediate relevance and urgency directly affecting the campus life of the general population of students attending this institution.












About the Author
Andrew Pessin is Professor of Philosophy at Connecticut College, Campus Bureau Editor at The Algemeiner, co-editor of "Anti-Zionism on Campus," and author most recently of the novel, "The Irrationalist," based on the tragic life and mysterious death of the famous philosopher, René Descartes. For more information, visit www.andrewpessin.com.