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Ellen Ginsberg Simon
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A university president with a principled stand on BDS

Brown University President Christina Paxson could have hid behind policy when she rejected students' divestment demands
Brown University students are assembling on the Main Green at noon daily to rally in support of BDS and the 19 hunger strikers. Photo by Jennifer Lowe.
Brown University students are assembling on the Main Green at noon daily to rally in support of BDS and the 19 hunger strikers. Photo by Jennifer Lowe.

Finally! After an exhaustive national search, a principled university president with spine and political savvy has been discovered. And nothing makes me prouder than the fact that that president belongs to my own alma mater – Brown University.

In the face of a puerile hunger strike by student protestors demanding that the University Corporation hear and consider a resolution on divestment from Israel at this week’s meeting, President Christina Paxson has – for a second time in her tenure – said no.

For those college presidents sitting in the back, currently held hostage by rabble rousing, ignorant youth shouting bigoted, genocidal slogans at passing Jewish students, that word was NO.

The basis of her refusal is further heartening. There are many rational, legal reasons to reject the students’ demands, but she exceeds expectations by doing so on principled grounds.

Yes, the resolution is procedurally and factually deficient. Yes, Brown cannot legally endorse Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (“BDS”). Yes, Rhode Island passed the Anti-Discrimination in State Contracts Act in 2016 that prevents the state from doing business with any entities that engage in BDS, thereby curtailing the University’s ability to accede to these absurd demands.

But President Paxson ensures that the student body knows the underlying reason for her denial is that BDS is antithetical to academic freedom and Brown’s very purpose as an institution of higher learning.

As she states in her letter to the protestors, “Our campus is a place where difficult issues should be freely discussed and debated. It is not appropriate for the University to use its financial assets — which are there to support our entire community — to ‘take a side’ on issues on which thoughtful people vehemently disagree.”

She does not need to delve into the weeds of why Brown legally cannot adopt a BDS resolution, although she easily can fall back on copious arguments supporting that proposition. Rather, she bases her response on why Brown should not adopt it.

In short, she refuses the demand because it is the right thing to do.

Now, how many university presidents can we say that about these days?

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This has earned her praise from significant players in the combat against antisemitism, including Alyza Lewin, President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, who told me personally last week at the Jewish Federation Fly-in in Washington, DC how impressed she was by President Paxson’s stance on BDS. StandWithUs also shared its gratitude that President Paxson consistently has stood strong against calls for BDS and anti-Israel resolutions.

BDS is inherently an illiberal movement that seeks to curtail debate, inclusion of a breadth of perspective, and academic freedom of expression and opinion. It also is drenched with connections to terror.

Organizations that promote and fund the BDS movement have direct ties to terrorism, being led by supporters and even members of Hamas and PFLP. Foundation for Defense of Democracies Senior Vice President Jonathan Schanzer testified before Congress as far back as 2016 on the ties between NGOs linked both to Hamas and BDS. In 2019, Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry released an 80-page report that further revealed connections between pro-boycott groups and Hamas and PFLP activists.

Not to mention the fact that the movement’s own founder, Omar Barghouti, expressly has stated over a dozen times that BDS’ ultimate goal is the eradication of the Jewish State. As he stated in 2014, “Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. No Palestinian, rational Palestinian, not a sell out Palestinian, would ever accept a Jewish state in Palestine.” It does not get more direct than that.

BDS and its supporters overtly deny Israel’s right to exist. Their very purpose is to delegitimize the State of Israel until its total collapse and dissolution. This rejectionist end goal has been reiterated since its inception in 2005.

Divestment as demanded by these self-proclaimed student activists thus is less about helping Palestinians and more about harming Israelis and Jews. Their alleged activism and leftover COVID masks only thinly veil a Title VI violation creating a pervasive, hostile environment on campus for Israelis and Jews who believe in Israel’s inherent right to exist and Jewish self-determination.

The University unquestionably responded appropriately by rejecting childish demands to bypass the procedure outlined by President Paxson and insist upon a Corporation divestment resolution this week. In this alumna’s personal opinion, however, the administration should go further and enforce University policies that prevent the coopting of common spaces to refuse entry to fellow students.

The University Code of Conduct enshrines respect for academic freedom and freedom of expression and inquiry (Sec. 3.1), treating one another with respect and dignity (Sec. 3.2), and respect for University resources and property (Sec. 3.4). The Student Code of Conduct prohibits disruption of community (D.4) and disruption of University activities (D.6). The Protest and Demonstration Policy prohibits obstruction of the basic exchange of ideas that crosses into censorship as well as placing obstructions that deprive others of their rights, such as access to common spaces. Lastly, the Event Disruption Protocol expressly states that, “Protests or demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to peaceful assembly, orderly protest, freely exchange ideas, or that interfere with the rights of others to make use of or enjoy the facilities or attend the functions of the University cannot be tolerated and are a violation of the Brown Protest and Demonstration Policy and the Brown University Code of Conduct.” (emphasis added.)

The hunger strikers and protesters have been commandeering public spaces such as the Blue Room, Faunce, and other University common areas, denying entry to people who refuse to denounce and renounce Israel in writing. This breach of University policies and ethics must be quelled immediately for the protection, safety, and equity of all students.

Nevertheless, a word of thanks to President Paxson is in order. She has taken a moral and correct stand against closed-mindedness and for intellectual rigor. May her example shine a light for others to emulate.

About the Author
Ellen Ginsberg Simon is an attorney and compliance professional. She has an M.Phil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University and is also a graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School.
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