Put BDS on the Defensive

Addressed appropriately, it is indeed possible to reverse the trend of the intimidation directed against active pro-Israel Jewish students on American college campuses.  By all accounts the current situation is getting worse, often in the form of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement.  A new approach is therefore as necessary as it is imperative.  The new strategy must be a combination of public and private pressures brought on the national universities.

There are precedents that serve to drive this need.  I was part of an effort that successfully employed this strategy in the past and it can be successful now in the present.

It was more than 20 years ago when Arizona State University law student, David Don, responded to an article in the State Press, the school newspaper, describing an outrageous blood libel against the Jewish people.  The former editor of the school newspaper, Mary Summerton, penned an article falsely claiming that Orthodox Jews assaulted and then murdered a paraplegic at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, ostensibly because he was using an electric wheelchair on the Jewish Sabbath. The story was obviously false.  Apparently the real story was a philosophical debate about the use of an electric wheelchair on the Sabbath at the Western Wall. That nothing happened to the paraplegic seemed unimportant to a writer in search of a story.

David and I planned a two-pronged response employing both public and private pressure.  We requested a meeting with the administration at Arizona State University while at the same time contacting David Bar Ilan at the Jerusalem Post.  The Bar Ilan article about the outrageous blood libel coupled with the outcry by students quickly led to Summerton admitting she made up the story. Arizona State University was then compelled to decide what action to take against Summerton. Moreover, it needed to consider if any action was required against ASU’s Cronkite Journalism School’s Professor Bruce Itule who had approved the article for publication – claiming he did not think to fact check the information.

We met with the administration (I as a law school alumnus) and we put pressure on them to take action and reiterated how serious we considered this incident. The pressure led not only to a retraction by the school newspaper but to an investigation by Arizona’s major newspaper, which found that Summerton had lied on her school transcripts. She was then expelled from the University.  We do not believe Professor Itule was reprimanded but a new mechanism was put in place to fact check articles for the school newspaper.  Professionally, Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism suffered a serious black eye.

True, while the problems on campuses today are much beyond defamatory articles in school newspapers – with a full-scale assault through the intimidation of Jewish students – the same responsive methods would work today as well. Here’s how:  Jewish students need to realize that every university has a code of conduct for students on campus; and harassment of Jewish students violates that code.  Such harassment of Jewish students, as a violation of that code, could lead to a student’s probation, suspension, and/or a possible expulsion depending upon the seriousness of the actions.

Accordingly, Jewish students need to report to the school any inappropriate conduct and ask for a meeting with the school administration concerning the conduct.  Further, such conduct needs to be publicized, placing pressure on the school to act against such harassment.  If the harassment occurs publicly, it should certainly be recorded and documented.  Even if it is private, in most states one can record the harassment without the other’s knowledge. Understandably, each student should know the law in their state before any recording to make sure it is legal. If it is public, it is then important to publicize the names of those committing the harassment.  If the perpetrators know their actions will become public, it should serve as a deterrent to prevent future harassment.  Universities certainly care about their reputation and the environment on their campuses, and, if pressured privately and publicly, they would be wise to take action against those doing the harassing.

Looking at the campus scene today, it is important to realize that most of the questionable conduct comes from pro-Palestinian Arab students and despite being far outnumbered by Jewish students on campus, they seemed well financed and professionally directed. Their actions have crossed both the lines of civility and the legal restrictions against such actions. Once they start getting punished for crossing these lines their effectiveness will be limited. Once pro-Israel students will cease to fear expressing their views on campus, the battle for public opinion on college campus will start to change.

A recent incident at Harvard Law School showed a good application of this approach.  When a Harvard law student, Mr. El Qoulaq, who led the Harvard Law School Justice For Palestine, asked former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipy Livni if she was “smelly,” the anti-Semitic question was not criminal, but it did violate the student code of conduct.  Mr. El Qoulaq was forced to apologize or face a severe penalty.  Harvard tried to keep his name secret but Mr. El Qoulaq’s name became public and all of a sudden 11 left wing Harvard Jewish law students and alumni rushed to his defense claiming he called a Palestinian Arab speaker a “smelly liar” but that “his aim was more mischief than malice”(what a bizarre defense of a person).  I am sure that Mr. El-Qoulaq will likely now be reticent to engage in outrageous conduct in the future.

The harassment and bullying of pro-Israel students on campus must end.  This harassment and bullying, even if it does not rise to the level of a legal violation, does rise to a level of a school’s code of conduct violation.  In order to stop these actions, it must be publicized and meetings must occur with the administration to take action.  This combination of public and private pressure will help limit such harassment and thus allow the pro-Israel students to freely press the rightness of Israel’s case.  Combating BDS on college campuses is a battle that can be won because we are right and they are wrong.  We just need to be as free to express our views as they are.  With a change of strategy as proposed, it is more likely this will occur.

About the Author
Farley Weiss is the president of the National Council of Young Israel, a member of the Conference of Presidents that represents around 25,000 Orthodox Jewish families and around 130 synagogues across America, the president of the intellectual property law firm of Weiss & Moy, P.C. with offices in Scottsdale, AZ, Boca Raton, FL, and Las Vegas, NV. He has authored opeds in the Arizona Republic, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, and Hamodia, and has spoken around the country on political issues affecting Israel and American Jewry.
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