Opposing BDS at CUNY

During October, 2014, a resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israel failed to attract majority support in the Doctoral Students Council (DSC) at the City University of New York. This week, April 15, 2016, BDS forces once again are seeking to get the DSC to commit to shutting off contact with Israeli academic institutions and scholars. There are numerous reasons to oppose their effort.

Academic boycotts undermine core values of academic freedom, harming not only the institutions targeted but the individual scholars who teach and research at them. In January 2016, the Association of American Universities (AAU), speaking for 62 major research universities, stated unequivocally (renewing an earlier stand from 2013) that academic boycotts “directly violate academic freedom, which is a fundamental principle of AAU universities and of American higher education in general.” The AAU further stated that any such boycott also “clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it.”.

Such statements however do not impress the proponents who are undisturbed about violating core standards in American higher education, reading Israeli academics out of the global scholarly community, and indeed barring their own CUNY colleagues and fellow graduate students from creating relations or exchanging ideas with Israeli academic institutions and scholars.

Are you a CUNY graduate student interested in environmentalism, advances in nanotechnology, water desalinization and production, urban planning and development, or peacemaking and conflict resolution? Tough luck – you must shut your ears to what Israeli academic institutions are doing and steer clear of any and all contact with Israeli academics. Are you a graduate student interested in international business? Tough luck, again: CUNY must shut down relations with Israeli institutions.

Are you like Professor Sara Berger of the College of Staten Island doing path-breaking research on the relation between infant sleep and child development with an Israeli colleague at Haifa university? Are you like Professor Laura Rubel of Brooklyn College who does important work on math education and is a senior Fulbright Fellow to Tel Aviv University? They should cease and desist. Do you want to study health care or education in a multicultural society that is filled with intergroup tensions? If so, wipe Israel off your map – despite the reality that Israeli institutions generate Palestinian health professionals, high tech experts, and engineers in significant numbers.

Are you interested in scholarship on comparative genocide? Super tough luck – you must steer completely clear of Yad Vashem, Israel’s national institution on Holocaust studies. You must shun all institutions Israeli. Everything about Israel and Palestine is known, there is no need to learn further: Palestinian civil society urges it, justice demands it, so it is okay to shut your eyes and ears.

But what sort of signal does embracing boycott, and aligning with the local Students for Justice in Palestine, whose members have demanded all “Zionists” out of the university, send about the intellectual curiosity and openness of CUNY grad students? What contribution does it make to the political games going on in New York State and City related to the appropriate funding of the City’s public university? CUNY has been underfunded for years, its faculty and graduate students forced to endure scarcity. How will this self-destructive step help with that situation?

The resolution should be rejected for additional reasons.

  1. It paints Israel in unrelievedly dark and evil tones — settler colonialism, apartheid, racism. These concepts are contested ones yet are put forward un-examined and un-argued. Israel is conceived not as a state and society with multiple currents and a complex politics worth studying; it is instead a place which it is declared should not be studied, compared with a range of other similar states and societies. Israel is rather a singularly evil state that generates one-sided ethnic cleansing, “systematically” violates rights, defies international laws, bars education.
  1. The resolution puts CUNY grad students in the embrace of a position that discriminates against individuals based on nationality. Contrary to claims by BDS proponents, academic boycotts amount to a form of shunning and blacklisting of Israeli scholars: those who are affected, denied admission to university programs, removed from editorial boards, prevented from speaking in academic settings or participating in conferences, are selected based on their nationality.
  1. The resolution picks selectively from recent history, noting some professional associations in North America that have embraced boycott but omitting the larger more established associations that have rejected boycott, including the American Historical Association, the International Studies Association, and the Modern Language Association. The effort to persuade CUNY grad students that BDS is the “wave” in the professional associations mistakes the margins for the mainstream.
  1. Israeli academics represent one of the most progressive groups in Israeli society, but by choking off their ability to collaborate with American scholars, the resolution seeks to undermine their ability to pressure Israeli policy or help bridge divides. This entails siding with one nationalism against another, a politics of camps, rather than supporting elements committed to peace and two states which exist on both sides.
  1. Finally, the resolution must be rejected because it offers a simplistic one-sided view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is out of sync with the traditions of a great university, where scholars probe conflicts and explore multiple causes, study complexity in international affairs, treat evidence carefully, give agency to historical actors instead of substituting reified concepts as subjects, and seek above all to promote dialogue and expand knowledge. CUNY grad students can affirm these traditions by voting no to boycott.
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 directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.