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Building bridges? Talk to faculty!

A recent event at the UN ignored the efforts of academics who are fighting BDS on campus -- and winning

The Israel Mission to the UN led by Israeli ambassador Danny Danon sponsored a well-attended anti-BDS conference at the UN General Assembly on May 31, 2016. The conference was labeled “Building Bridges, Not Boycotts,” and sought to publicize the anti-BDS cause while highlighting the need to fight BDS more effectively.

But while highlighting the anti-BDS cause and building bridges with official Israel, the organizers of the conference mobilized a narrow band of supporters opposed to BDS, and focused heavily on student issues, ignoring the centrality and continuity of faculty in colleges and universities.

Important comments were made by Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, Alan Johnson, Senior Research Fellow for BICOM UK, and Bassam Eid, Founder of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group. Pollster Frank Lutz offered additional comments based on data about campus attitudes, calling on advocates to speak in “democratic language.”

Greenblatt emphasized that BDS must be confronted with seriousness for it is an idea that pushes out the very solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a mutual peace between two nations. He decried the continuing de-legitimization of Israel on campuses and highlighted the importance of fighting BDS thoughtfully.

But fighting BDS thoughtfully, we think, involves “building bridges” in America as well as abroad, not least with groups already fighting BDS on campuses and in the several American disciplinary professional associations. Yet, reaching out to these, especially with track records of mobilizing faculty, was not a priority of the organizers.

Lacking – save in some of the afternoon workshops — was an appreciation that spokespersons opposing BDS will have limited traction on campuses if they mainly justify official Israel or focus only on students or community leaders. Faculty knowledgeable about how colleges and universities operate and having standing on their campuses and in their academic professional organizations will have a longer term impact.

Also lacking was an appreciation like Greenblatt’s that there exists “a long tail of the BDS movement,” a considerable group of fellow travelers and supporters, who buy into portions of the BDS message without acknowledging BDS’s hidden motives or ultimate agenda. A strategic necessity in fighting BDS is appealing to these folks based on continuous statement of the true facts and realities.

Finally, missing were several faculty-oriented organizations operating on the shared belief that faculty are the missing link in fighting BDS effectively and in offering a counter-narrative to BDS teaching on campuses. None were invited. Despite important differences in outlook and methods, these organizations – the Academic Engagement Network and the Academic Council for Israel, as examples — have made important progress mobilizing faculty against BDS. The evidence is in successful faculty letter writing and mobilization campaigns on several campuses in response to BDS campaigns in 2015-16, including Minnesota, Columbia, and University of Michigan-Dearborn, a large petition drive opposed to BDS with 1,100 signatures and growing, and hopefully a close victory or close contest in the current vote on boycott in the American Anthropological Association.

BDS gives off the impression that it is everywhere on the rise and winning. But it is not. During the past two years, according to statistics developed by the Israel on Campus Coalition, BDS has mounted 77 campaigns on American campuses, 44 in 2014-15 after the Gaza War, and 33, down 25%, in 2015-16. The fact is that BDS loses as much as or more than it wins. Of 33 campaigns during 2015-2016, 17 failed outright, or the resolutions were tabled or not put up to a vote. The year before, of 44 campaigns, 32 failed outright, or were tabled or did not come to fruition.

In the past two years, with 77 total tries, that is, BDS won only 22 outright successes. This is not an stellar batting average. And these successes resulted in no tangible changes in respective institutional policies. None whatsoever. No boycott, no divestment. BDS is primarily about symbolic politics and radical gestures, and about skillful manipulation of the media. BDS’s real purpose is to cumulatively infiltrate a politically loaded teaching onto campuses about Israel and the Middle East, and to make of Israel a pariah state in the minds of members of the current student generation and future leaders; it is not to impact institutional policies.

BDS is also being confronted in the faculty associations, where the tide may perhaps be turning. After successes in the American Studies Association, Women’s Studies Association, and several smaller ethnic studies associations, BDS initiatives have encountered significant opposition this year in the Modern Language Association, American Historical Association, International Studies Association, the Association of American Geographers, and others. Even in the American Anthropological Association, where BDS views are particularly strong, we expect a close membership vote on the matter of boycott.

The best way to counter BDS is to counter its false claims directly, presenting critical speech against ideological speech, accurate historical narrative against ideological one, and aggressively and unceasingly to offer facts and counter-claims. It is to stand up against BDS disruptions of campus events, which this year have grown more frequent, and to defend academic freedom and free speech for all. We believe faculty are the best resources to do these things, and any serious anti-BDS conference should host and hear from organizations already working hard on this.

Kenneth Waltzer                Academic Engagement Network
Samuel M. Edelman          Academic Council for Israel

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He currently directs the Academic Engagement Network.
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