In recent weeks and months, I have watched academics, students, major donors and Israel advocacy organization leaders in Israel and in the Diaspora try to counter the growing menace of both overt and silent academic boycotts. Several well meaning, but misguided, efforts are apparent to me, as one who had significant success in helping Israeli scholars and academic institutions thwart academic boycotts from Europe, Canada, South Africa and elsewhere the mid-2000s, long before American Jewish leaders believed there was a crisis.
I would like to share some successful strategies based on successes of the past, prior to BDS reaching America’s shores, to the relative newcomers to this struggle, since this has been an ongoing international struggle since 2003 when a UK faculty union first started boycott campaigns against targeted Israeli universities. My suggestions fly in the face of the way most big donors and mainline Jewish groups operate, but these are ways which have deflated academic BDS before and could once again be successful.
1) Develop anti-academic BDS strategies around academic principles and not ideological pro-Israel strategies. There is precedent for this from such prestigious groups as the American Association of University Professors whose anti-academic boycott position is articulate and clear as well as the statement crafted by Alan Dershowitz, myself, Nobel Laureates Steven Weinberger and Roger Kornberg and a committee of distinguished academics serving the now-defunct, but very successful, SPME BDS Task Force which was signed by 44 Nobel Laureates.
These documents serve as bedrock documents in cutting through the ideological and political issues are committed to the core values of academic freedom, academic integrity and academic excellence which serve as the basis for countering academic boycotts. In doing this take an interdisciplinary, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, “big tent” approach. This should not just be a fight by Jewish academics and Jewish students and Jewish studies or Jewish student affinity groups or Israel advocacy groups. This is a battle for all who purport to support academic freedom, freedom of speech, the free exchange of ideas, academic excellence and freedom from discrimination on the basis of national origin.
2) ALL anti-BDS voices need to be heard if your goal is to affect permanent change against academic BDS, not just the voices you want to hear. A strategy cannot be effectively mapped out until all voices are heard and have a stake in the action. This isn’t about one party defeating another, it’s about unifying the many voices on campus to defeat anti-intellectualism, discrimination and threats to academic freedom. This is not a business deal or an election; it is reversing toxic educational and cultural practices. It is about winning minds and hearts in a “big tent”. It is important to stop the incessant noise of right and left bashing as it delegitimizes the effort in the minds of most academics and students, whose hearts and minds you are trying to effect.
3) When dealing with on-campus BDS campaigns, let the students and faculty do the hard work and heavy lifting and provide quiet behind the scenes support in the background without turning it into a fundraising opportunity.
Know and understand the academic college and university culture. Regardless of how much money the community throws into pro-Israel advocacy and how much community advocacy organizations take credit, there is little or no academic gravitas or leverage with most students and everyday faculty. These organizations can play a support roll, but the louder they are, the more the resident stakeholders resent their involvements. Administration may be listening and even politely responsive, but it’s primary purpose is to keep the calm and grow the institution and not pick sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
At the end of the day, it is the faculty who make the rules that govern what happens in the classroom and in academic societies and conference while the students what happens in the quad. Also know that rarely do administrations carry out student-led boycott referendums, even if the pass. Rule of thumb…students come and go, administrators come and go; but faculty are the major stakeholders in the institution when it comes to academic policies and they should be targeted. Organizations, donors and organizational professionals must put their egos aside for the cause and allow the main stakeholder to emerge as victorious.
4) Know that academic BDS of students and professors could, in any given country, state or jurisdiction could constitute some violation of ethnic discrimination laws based upon issues of discrimination by national origin. It is a well-known and well documented fact that in the UK after years or a faculty union’s trying to institute an academic boycott against Israel, its own attorneys advised them to cease because such actions violated their anti-discrimination laws.
5) Work to convince faculty to work with their professional academic associations and certification bodies to introduce anti-boycott policy statements. In this age of program and professional certification accreditation and certification, gold standard groups of faculty, such as the American Public Health Administration Association have taken anti-BDS positions. Simply put, faculty in as many professional disciplines as possible need to say that their academic and professional associations will not engage in academic boycotting for academic reasons and that programs at institutions that are engaging in boycotts could be subject to de-certification. This would require major efforts in all major academic disciplines.
6) Anti-BDS require sustained resources to support faculty and student career-advantageous efforts. The fact is that monies would be best spent enhancing Diasporan-Israeli legitimate, mutually career enhancing research and other academic pursuits rather than “missions.” Permanent relations between Diaspora faculty and students enhance the person and professional relationship that can grow and become strong and are permanent and not momentary.
7) Diaspora faculty need to declare solidarity with Israel faculty by saying, “If you boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions, you are boycotting me.” In the mid 2000’s Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg during the early UK faculty union boycott campaigns declared if you boycott Israeli academics you’d be boycotting him and that he would not come to the UK. That declarative statement lead to a massive effort of Diaspora faculty members working with Israeli universities to become faculty affiliates at Israeli universities to declare solidarity with Israeli academics. At the time Haifa University issued affiliate appointments to several hundred Diaspora faculty who because affiliated with an major Israeli University being targeted for boycott.
8) Remember that most institutional politics are local: A common mistake made by many groups dealing with anti-BDS campaign groups is that they believe one size fits all in terms of combating institutional strategies. It is important to carefully diagnose and strategize around the local campus culture and not make any assumptions in advance. Institutional communities vary significant. They are frequently targeted for BDS campaigns because they have been perceived as being receptive for such a struggle by BDS forces. So in response it is important to identify the within institution pockets and anti-BDS strength and properly assess what can and can be done and provide the appropriate support. It is important to identify governance and administrative leaders who are anti-BDS and are willing to serve locally to provide both leadership and reconnaissance. Community groups frequently feel that they know better about the dynamics than the people who are stakeholders in the community. Both communities have intelligence and resources that can and should be used collaboratively, but it the generals in the anti-BDS should always be from the stakeholder communities because at the end of the day, they have to live on campus. Community groups come and go, but stakeholders live within and identify with the institution. They are looking to resolve the issue on their campus and not deal with public shaming and negative publicity.
9) Advocacy organizations need to provide quiet support, and leave their egos, PR fundraising and rhetoric off-campus. Campus stakeholders do not want to feel bullied or exploited by outside groups when grappling with the very thorny issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech and academic excellence. Opportunistic outside interference is usually met with resistance and rejection and can have a negative effect. Advocacy organizations would be well served to provide the resources for the anti-BDS faculty to develop the in-house strategies and strength they have from within to fight their own battle with the understanding the cavalry can always be called in internal efforts are faltering. Lao Tzu once surmised that leaders lead best when at the end of the fight and with the win, those fighting said, they did it themselves. When stakeholders win the battle it is far more meaningful and inspirational to stakeholders at other institutions than if non-advocacy organizations go around bragging how they were responsible for the victory.
Each of these is an essential plank in a sustained campaign against academic boycotts. These are designed to reflect strategies for permanent change and not putting out fires. All must be implemented or there will be the continued starting and putting out of fires. Peer review and collegial support is the currency of the academic realm and once the change starts to occur, it will be adopted by more and more and thus effect younger generations. A return to core values in academics is the mission and these strategies are key ingredients to success.