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Attacking BDS From The Left

Academics counter ‘Orwellian’ linkage of Israel protests with other progressive issues.

Staff Writer
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“We’re not just cheerleaders,” says historian Kenneth Waltzer.
“We’re not just cheerleaders,” says historian Kenneth Waltzer.

As the BDS movement continues to roil college campuses around the country, the focus of attention in the Jewish community has largely been on students. High-profile and big-money efforts — $50 million from Las Vegas billionaire and Republican mega-giver Sheldon Adelson, $100 million from the Jewish National Fund — are underway to help arm Jewish students in fighting the campus wars aimed at delegitimizing Israel.

Missing in the loud and troubling debate in any significant way has been the voice of Jewish faculty.

That seems poised to change as fast-moving events on the college green are pulling Jewish faculty members off the sidelines of the BDS controversy and into the fray.

“Until this academic year, most of my concerned colleagues felt that not responding to every provocation was the best strategy,” said Sylvain Cappell, a math professor at New York University and a longtime critic of academic boycotts. “We were not interested in giving the cause free publicity or stoking the already confrontational atmosphere.”

But growing efforts to link Israel with a host of other hot-button issues on campus, including racial injustice and sexual assault, caused Cappell to re-evaluate. He referred to the current campus climate as a “turning point.”

“Promoters of BDS have been working overtime to embed themselves in the matrix of progressive concerns and student movements on campus,” said Cappell, who has argued against academic boycotts of Israel on CNN and public radio in the past. “We are at a point where we can no longer ignore the issue.” (See Opinion piece on page 41).

That strategy on the part of BDS supporters — “intersectionality,” it’s been called — is fueling a new counterpunch, as some well-known academics, many of them Jewish, are joining forces to press the case against boycotts.

The just-launched initiative, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), aims to unite academics around the country to facilitate constructive dialogue about Israel. Led by Mark Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California system, and Kenneth Waltzer, former director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, the AEN hopes to combat “Orwellian efforts to link Israel with a multitude of issues, from the shootings in Ferguson to high levels of student tuition,” according to a statement announcing the network released at the end of last month. So far, a “couple hundred” people have signed on, Waltzen said.

Unlike previous right-wing groups that have organized efforts to combat BDS on campus, AEN stands on the left side of the spectrum — “center, liberal and progressive,” Waltzer told The Jewish Week Monday.

“I wouldn’t blanche at being called ‘pro-Israel,’ but we’re not just cheerleaders — we’re academics, we’re people who have critical perspectives. What we want is robust conversation,” he said. That conversation does not shy away from criticism of Israel, he said.

“We think, quite frankly, that if we’re going to make any headway on campus, we have to use a language that appeals to academics. We’re not interested in ‘safe spaces’; we’re interested in universities as free and open spaces for intellectual engagement.”

Though the majority of AEN members are Jewish, Waltzer said the network aims to engage faculty members from different traditions. Current board members who are not Jewish represent the “multicultural front” the network hopes to present.

Waltzer also stressed that the network is not just planning on becoming a “faculty listserv.”

“We’re interested in drilling down [to foster] active membership on campuses.” Those who sign on are expected to write, speak and intervene in administrative decisions of concern, he said.

“In the face of activities aimed at vilifying Israel, AEN members will facilitate robust and civilized discussions relating to Israel on campuses, promote academic freedom and freedom of expression, stand for human rights for Arabs and Jews, and engage colleagues and students to better understand these complex issues,” Yudof, the network’s chair, said in the statement. AEN is currently finishing up a manual entitled “Academic Freedom and BDS: A Guide for University Presidents and Administrators,” which they expect to disseminate soon.

Though some well-known academic organizations began embracing academic boycotts of Israel in recent years — notably the Association for Asian American Studies in April 2013 and the American Studies Association in December 2013 — last weekend the American Historical Association firmly rejected a resolution targeting Israel. The measure, defeated by a 111-50 vote, accused Israel of restricting Palestinian academic activities in Gaza and the West Bank. Jewish institutions lauded the defeat as a step forward.

Justin Cammy, associate professor of Jewish studies and comparative literature at Smith College, a private liberal arts institution for women in Northampton, Mass., joined the AEN because he believes boycotts run counter to the core academic principle of engagement. Though he considers himself on the political left, he finds the BDS movement’s resolution to boycott Israeli “institutions but not individuals” spurious and hypocritical.

“Every scholar is embedded in an institution,” Cammy told The Jewish Week. “Once you say you’re going to boycott an entire country worth of people, that goes beyond political decision making. That borders on bigotry.”

At Smith, like at several other liberal arts institutions, a “fair share” of professors signed on to an academic and cultural boycott of Israel, Cammy said.

“There are colleagues of mine who simply don’t understand that there is no place for illiberal strategies in liberal American education. Once you go to boycotting scholars or institutions of higher learning, you have transgressed the fundamental idea of what education is all about.”

Miriam F. Elman, associate professor of political science at Syracuse University and member of AEN, stressed the importance of an organization geared towards faculty, rather than students.

“Students are transient — faculty and administration are here for the long-term. We’re the ones setting the tone and ultimately driving student activism,” she said.

At Syracuse, which has the sixth largest population of Jewish students at a private university, according to HIllel International, the problem is largely faculty “steering students in an anti-Israel direction” and an administration that has “refused to intervene,” said Elman. Prior to the launch of the AEN, she and five other tenured professors — her untenured colleagues are “absolutely not willing” to take a pro-Israel stance for fear of retribution, said Elman — formed an ad-hoc committee to deal with individual events they found disturbing.

In one such incident, Josh Ruebner, a vehement critic of Israel who has been flagged by the Anti-Defamation League for his rhetoric, was invited to speak at the university on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Though Elman tried to organize a protest, the speech went on as planned. In another incident, Steven Salaita, an American scholar whose allegedly anti-Semitic tweets during the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict caused the University of Illinois to withdraw its offer of employment, was invited to speak on campus. The speech was sponsored by nine academic departments. According to Elman, she spent over 100 hours organizing a response; on the day of the speech, a few students manned a protest outside the packed auditorium. Norman Finkelstein, the virulent critic of Israel who was banned from entering the country in 2008 was invited to speak on Israel Independence Day.

“I feel overwhelmed by what I’m required to do to keep up a healthy discourse about Israel on this campus,” Elman said, describing the throng of Jewish students who file into her office every semester seeking counsel on how to deal with professors who assign what they think are offensive readings or “shut them down” for voicing differing perspectives. Most students end up dropping the courses, she said.

“Professors need support just as much as students, if not more,” she said, a note of weariness in her voice. “We’re in the trenches here.” 

Correction: A prior version of this story said that the speech by American scholar Steven Salaita was cancelled due to a resolution drafted by pro-Israel faculty members. The speech was not cancelled. A group of pro-Israel faculty members were able to withdraw a resolution put forward in favor of Salita by the University Senate. We regret the error. 


Last Update:

01/25/2016 - 09:23
Academic Engagement Networ, BDS movement
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"we’re interested in universities as free and open spaces for intellectual engagement.”

Ok if you can handle hearing it from a fellow tribe member:

Israel is an Apartheid State .

This is a civil rights / human rights issue.

I applaud these faculty members taking a position and standing up against BDS. But as long as the play defense, i.e. defending Israel and responding to BDS activities rather than offense i.e. exposing that BDS is the continuation of Nazi policies against Jews and that those who support BDS today will support the eventual expulsion and/or extermination of Jews in Israel tomorrow, AEN will not be successful in stemming BDS on campuses. If Jewish faculty who are not tenured are hesitant to join AEN, does that not indicate that supporting BDS has now become a litmus test and casts a shadow on the future of the careers of faculty who do not fall in line with the BDS movement? AEN and others who oppose BDS will only be successful if they address BDS as they would address a movement by neo-Nazis. If you white-wash this movement as a movement that is simply advocating for Palestinian rights, you are missing the point of the goals of the movement. The movement is for the destruction of Israel. What does that mean other than the expulsion and extermination of the Jews of Israel?

It is precisely your kind of extreme, paranoid characterization of BDS that will destroy any attempt to fight BDS on campus. Many BDS supporters are well-meaning, though, in my view, totally misguided. Characterizing them as Nazis will rightly be seen by them as absurd and offensive. It will make it impossible to engage in serious conversation. Your position is exactly the kind of thing that the most extreme BDSers would like to hear from pro-Israel people. Then they will say, "see? these people are crazy! they call any criticism of Israel, Nazism!" So, if you want to help BDS, you should adopt the strategy in your post. In fact, if I were a supporter of BDS, I would pay you to pursue your strategy!

Boycott Divestment Sanctions - Nothing friendly about the intentions of this movement. No one is 'paranoid' when BDS really is out to get you.
How can BDS supporters be 'well meaning'? Are you referring to the useful idiots?

This is an incredibly important for faculty in the trenches, As a long time anti-BDS advocate who has worked against BDS since 2003 in various academic capacities, I welcome this important initiative to fill in the gaps that I had hope organizations I started would, but since I have left haven't. It is my hope the organization will be a "big tent" and "grass roots" and try to engage all faculty, not just parts of the spectrum as others have. It is a challenge, but I believe AEN is off to the right start and wish them every bit of luck and success.

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