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Stuart J. Dow
Stuart J. Dow

Teaching with passion, allowing dissent…

...and Why I Oppose Anti-BDS Laws
PD-via wikecommons
PD-via wikecommons

I’m a proud Zionist. I’ve been teaching about modern Israel for the past 20 years. I’ve lead countless trips to the country, lived there a short time, and have a brother, close friends, & family that still do. I love the place — a passion that is obvious to my students. However, even though kids will say they appreciate when teachers genuinely care about their subject, when it comes to one like Israel, strong feelings have to be carefully managed in a classroom. The reason, of course, is because in an academic environment, students should be encouraged to question, be critical thinkers, and form their own opinions — even if the subject is Israel in a Jewish school.

This approach is not only the best practice in terms of an intellectual principle, it’s also smart strategically — because if graduates later realize, or even just perceive, that they weren’t taught in an academically honest way, they’re likely to resent it and respond accordingly. In fact, we know from recent studies that’s exactly what has occurred with some Israel education. So, at the outset of the modern Israel course I teach to high school seniors, I share my “bias” — that I am a Zionist — and I assure them that they will not be graded according to what they believe. They must, however, make well-founded & well-reasoned arguments.

In terms of curriculum, this approach requires that we acknowledge and discuss Israel’s historical shortcomings and current imperfections — whether it’s all the causes of Palestinian refugees, or all the implications of settlement expansion in the West Bank. But this is no different than how we’d expect a United States history class to be taught today — by including things such as treatment of Native Americans, slavery of African Americans, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement.

Admittedly, a large part of the course is designed to prepare students for the virulent, often one-sided, frequently anti-semitic treatment that Israel receives on college campuses across the United States today. As such, the Boycott, Divest & Sanction (BDS) movement is a necessary part of this conversation — a movement I oppose, despite my ongoing longing for a two-state solution and peaceful co-existence. There are many reasons why I oppose BDS, including:

The movement’s refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist; the movement’s refusal to acknowledge indigenous Jewish roots in the land; the movement’s refusal to acknowledge Jewish refugees forced from Arab lands; the movement’s refusal to acknowledge the number of times Palestinians have been offered a state; the movement’s gross mischaracterization of Israeli democracy for Arab citizens; the movement’s negative impact on fostering genuine dialogue between those committed to understanding the other side’s narrative (such as artists & academics); and the movement’s negative, economic impact on actual Palestinian lives.

And yet, all of that said & my personal feeling aside, in a marketplace of competing ideas — such as an academic environment or a free society — the right to argue, disagree, and dissent are paramount. Which is why I also oppose American laws designed to penalize US companies for not opposing BDS.

In recent years, over 30 states have enacted various forms of legislation that require businesses to pledge that they will not boycott Israel in order to qualify for various things, such as government contracts. Technically speaking, some of these laws may pass Constitutional muster — they’re still being litigated, so the proverbial jury’s still out — but that misses a larger point. Regardless of their legality, I worry that these laws are actually bad for Israel. Here’s why.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, the editor of a small town, Arkansas newspaper lamented why he & his company had to sign an anti-BDS pledge. For a moment, leave aside the complicated legal arguments at play here; instead, consider the understandable perception of this otherwise disinterested businessman: that he’s being strong-armed. And regardless of the possible correctness of the law’s well-intentioned goal — that BDS is biased, intentionally deceitful and actually counter-productive — the method employed here upsets folks because it aims to stifle political expression, a right considered sacrosanct in America.

Proponents of these laws argue that curbing commerce in light of national foreign policy goals is permitted & that individuals’ First Amendment Rights have not been compromised by the legislation. Theoretically, that may be true — but practically, it’s far less clear. I urge you to read the op-ed referenced above and look up the numerous lawsuits filed by individuals who have been impacted by these rules. Optics matter and these optics aren’t good.

This isn’t a firm doing business with a terrorist state. This isn’t a company propagating domestic insurrection. This isn’t a store refusing to serve a protected class. These are Americans who may want to “protest” by not buying from another country.

Worse yet, this tactic isn’t strategic. How does Israel actually benefit from this, especially in the long run? In fact, the heavy-handed approach may re-enforce a sense that Israel (and Zionists and Jews) are disproportionately empowered — manipulating levers of influence in crafty, undemocratic ways. (Ideally, the ACLU lawyers opposing these laws will have Jewish-sounding last names!)

In the end, the battle for public opinion feels perpetually uphill for those of us who support Israel. The astonishing ignorance of history, the baseless intersectionality on unrelated social issues, and the subtle, but pernicious double-standards imposed on the world’s only Jewish State all conspire to make our work Sisyphean. There will always be detractors. And yet, for the fair-minded middle — whether those are students in a classroom or citizens in our communities — my preference is to win on the merits and rely on moral right, not political might.

About the Author
Stuart is Founding Head of The Emery/Weiner School in Houston -- one of the fastest growing and largest per capita schools of its kind in the country. Before entering education, Stuart practiced law at Susman Godfrey, a boutique litigation firm. Stuart graduated with honors from Yale College, where he won the Cogswell Award for Outstanding Leadership; he earned his J.D. from The University of Texas School of Law, where he garnered several speaking awards, and in 2014, Stuart received his MBA from the McCombs School of Business at UT Austin. He's the proud father of three wonderful children (and a great dog), and loves salty & spicy foods.
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