The argument for a savvy response that mixes pressure with pragmatism.
At first glance, the movement on university campuses to delegitimize Israel via academic boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) appears to have gained considerable ground and long-term traction. Although many had expected that the movement was doomed to failure, at least in the United States, three scholarly associations have now adopted resolutions calling for boycott, with the prospect of more to follow. Well-organized BDS proponents within university faculties in effect “turned out the votes” at the meetings of groups like the American Studies Association, while others who had at most passing interest in the issue either failed to counter-mobilize in time or remained on the sidelines out of general indifference.
In terms of tangible outcomes, however, the effect of these resolutions has been decidedly limited. No university — either in America or in Europe — actually supports BDS. To the contrary, over 220 American university presidents condemned the American Studies Association for adopting its pro-boycott resolution. Israel’s academic exchange programs as well as her economic activity abroad remain at all-time highs. For example, Israel’s trade with the United Kingdom, in effect ground zero for the BDS movement, exceeded 5.1 billion pounds ($8.6 billion) in 2013, signaling virtually a 100 percent increase in trade volume over the past three years.
Rather, the effects of BDS are less tangible, albeit no less real. First, BDS gives birth to considerable anti-Israel rhetoric and sentiment, delegitimizing her as a nation-state by invoking the pernicious apartheid analogy with pre-Mandela South Africa. In turn, Jewish students on campus, particularly those willing to make the case for Israel, often experience intimidation by a BDS-driven campus climate. Finally, by calling for a total boycott of Israel, BDS legitimates the idea of a “partial” boycott of Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
In countering BDS efforts to transform the climate regarding Israel, Israel’s supporters need to uphold and disseminate several principles and facts: First, academic boycotts — limiting the freedom to teach and do research in particular countries and regions — in themselves violate academic freedom. Second, the logic of BDS is dismantling Israel as a Jewish state in favor of a one-state solution. Two states for two peoples remains the fair and just solution, arguably the only solution, to the long-running Middle East conflict. By delegitimizing Israel as a nation-state, BDS supporters in effect are advocating her replacement with the “secular democratic Palestine” long-demanded by Israel’s enemies. Third, by singling Israel out for boycott among the myriad of nation-states whose human rights records fall well short of Israel’s, BDS proponents are applying a double standard to Israel — with the lame excuse provided by the president of the American Studies Association that “one has to start somewhere.”
It is on these grounds of undermining the two-state solution and applying a transparent double standard to Israel that BDS supporters cross the line into becoming obstacles to a peace process, and move from protesting particular Israeli policies to expressing outright anti-Semitism.
Last, the actual data concerning Israeli Arabs demonstrate the enormous distance between Israel and a state based on principles of apartheid. For example, 22 percent of all medical students in Israel are Arab, matching almost precisely their share of the general population. At the Technion, Israel’s analogue to MIT, 19.5 percent of the students are Arab Israelis. At the University of Haifa, one-third of the students are Arabs. And the Technion currently is launching the first long-distance course in Arabic (MOOC), with over 4,600 students already registered throughout the Arab world. As Brandeis University Israel Studies Professor Ilan Troen has argued, the Palestinian population benefits from Israeli higher education and generally has no wish to engage in boycotts, as demonstrated by the fact that the numbers of Arab students enrolled continues to increase.
To be sure, as noted, BDS is spreading and cannot be ignored. But what does lie ahead and what ought be done? Jewish communal confidence and trust in the university campus as a vehicle for upward mobility and the realization of American dreams historically has been great. That means, however, that when university administrations fail to condemn BDS unequivocally, Jewish communal disappointment in particular campuses, including elite ones, has been grave. We need to step up the pressure on campus leaders to articulate the fundamental unfairness of BDS and its threat both to academic freedom and to long-term peace and stability in the Middle East.
Moreover, some very well-intentioned people have advocated legislation calling for punitive measures against campuses that may support BDS. However appealing on the surface as they may appear, AJC has opposed such initiatives as constituting a violation of academic freedom in that those who are boycotted become the boycotters. More importantly, still, such action is likely to be counter-productive. Many universities retain their memberships in scholarly associations for the benefits such associations bring to their faculty — scholarly conferences that provide opportunities to present papers and academic journals in which to publish them. These are critical to achieving academic tenure. Legislation barring state funding for universities who retain such memberships could well trigger a backlash among many who otherwise have “no dog in the fight.”
Sadly, some Jewish students and groups have lent their support to BDS, thereby providing the movement with a Jewish “cover.” For example, at SUNY-Binghamton reportedly 80 percent of the leadership of Students for Justice in Palestine are Jews. In contrast, to be sure, at the same campus, the Muslim Student Association is cooperating with Hillel in planning activities for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence.
Generally, Jewish students who support BDS claim that they intend only to protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Nevertheless, they gloss over the risks posed by BDS to any serious peace process and the prospects for a two-state solution. More fundamentally, they ignore the great sea-change that has occurred in Israeli politics over the past two decades: Israeli public opinion, excluding, to be sure, the extreme right wing, favors a Palestinian state and is prepared to make the necessary albeit painful territorial concessions to make it a reality. In other words, Jewish proponents of BDS, although innocent of anti-Semitism, fail to acknowledge that the reason a Palestinian state does not exist today owes far more to continued Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state than it does to alleged Israeli intransigence.
Put simply, the Jewish community needs to expose BDS for what it really is: a formula to end Israel as we know it, a violation of academic freedom and a movement that at times crosses the line from protesting Israel’s policies to demonizing her. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that pro-Israel Jews do not stand alone and that fundamental fairness continues to operate within American society, where pro-Israel opinion trumps pro-Palestinian opinion by margins of 4- and 5-to-1, where 97 percent of pro-Israel sentiment emanates from gentile sources, and where no leader of higher education has endorsed boycotting Israel. The arguments against BDS are compelling. What is needed is the commitment of concerned students and faculty to engage this high-stakes debate with knowledge, savoir-faire and passion. Jewish indifference to Israel facilitates intellectual space in which pro-boycott expression may thrive.
Steven Bayme serves as the American Jewish Committee’s national director of Contemporary Jewish Life.
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