Calm On The Israeli Campus

Israeli professors not feeling a chilling effect in push to freeze them out, but they caution about need for vigilance.

Israel Correspondent
The American Studies Association voted in favor of a boycott of Israeli universities. Wikimedia Commons
The American Studies Association voted in favor of a boycott of Israeli universities. Wikimedia Commons

Jerusalem — At the end of last year, the battle over the Middle East conflict on U.S. college campuses seemed to reach a milestone when the American Studies Association became the first professional organization of university academics in the U.S. to endorse a boycott of Israel.

Taken together with the recent collapse of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a renewed push by the Palestinians to seek statehood recognition with international groups, might the ASA decision be the harbinger of a rising trend of boycott and de-legitimization activities on campus?

The consensus among experts in Israel seems to be a resounding no. Despite occasional surges in media coverage of campus showdowns over Israel boycotts, the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement has had little success in severing ties between Israeli universities and academic institutions abroad, experts say. (Collaboration between Israeli and foreign academics is routine, whether through joint research projects, sabbaticals or conferences.) They claim that the boycott push is still confined to the margins and hasn’t made inroads into the mainstream.

And while the boycott by the American Studies Association was taken up by two other professional groups (The Association for Asian American Studies and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association), the view in Israel is that the decision actually backfired; it prompted statements by a list of about 100 major universities condemning the notion of boycotts against Israel. 

“No one should get worried by the fact that Israel is being boycotted academically; academics like coming to Israel, even if they are critical of Israel’s policies,” said David Newman, the dean of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. “In the big picture, the academic boycotts are marginal compared to the other activities of the BDS movement.”

In the United Kingdom, where academic boycott efforts on campus have been pushed for the last decade, British universities and the government have been pulling in the opposite direction, toward developing ties with Israel, Newman said. As proof, he cites the award he was given by the British government at the end of last year — the Order of the British Empire — for promoting academic ties between Israel and Britain.

“The British government was making a statement: that cooperation is important and [that] they don’t support boycotts,” he said. “At the formal level of governments and universities, and the institutions, there’s opposition to boycotts. In the U.K., the noise is coming from the academic trade unions, and they only represent one-third to one-half of the faculty.”

Newman said he believes that universities across continental Europe share the same approach. That said, Newman and other officials said that boycott and delegitimization efforts on campus need to be closely monitored, and that pro-Israel organizations need to be present as watchdogs. 

The BDS movement merited special attention in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address at the most recent policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby in Washington. In his March speech, Netanyahu likened the BDS movement to a modern form of the anti-Semitic canards prevalent in medieval and even Renaissance Europe. The response, he said, should be to “boycott the boycotters.”

“Some of history’s most influential thinkers and writers — Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, T.S. Eliot, many, many others — spread the most preposterous lies about the Jewish people,” the prime minister said.

“Today the singling out of the Jewish people has turned into the singling out of the Jewish state. So you see, attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism. Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot.”

But Newman said he’s uncomfortable with the approach of the government, explaining that it’s over-simplistic and risks alienating people with criticism against Israel. He said that branding Israel critics as anti-Semites runs counter to the liberal ideals of a university being a place for open debate. Still, the professor said that Israel’s government and pro-Israel groups plan to invest considerable financial resources in the anti-delegitimization campaign.

“By giving blanket statements, and saying anyone critical of Israel is anti-Semitic, you destroy the possibility of engagement,” Newman continued. “With this sort of government we have, it’s all black and white — which makes it difficult to engage with people in the middle. You can’t throw everyone into the same category. If you don’t allow for a balanced debate, then you are opening the back door for the anti-Semites to walk in.”

At the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Amir Sagie, the ministry’s director for civil society affairs, also seemed to take a less alarmist view of the threat the BDS movement poses on campus. Such a movement does not figure as an existential threat to Israel, as would the situation with Iran, for instance, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Sagie, who monitors BDS movements worldwide.

“We do see it as a threat, but we try not to exaggerate it. As a professional who is following this, we are trying to put it into the right context … to make sure we don’t see it as something that is an existential threat — and not dismiss it like a fly.”

When it comes to those initiating boycotts, Israel needs to be concerned mostly with governments and businesses — and so far the damage has been relatively minimal, say experts. The most serious threat to Israeli academia occurred last year when Israel and the European Union got into a spat over a $700 million research-funding program that underwrites Israeli research at universities and companies. The EU wanted to ensure the money did not reach the settlements; the demand made Israel’s government bristle. Ultimately, however, Jerusalem was forced to accept the condition for the funding — underlining how critical the EU’s research-and-development funding is to Israel’s economy.    

Israel’s government and other pro-Israel nonprofits have stepped up their game in countering boycott activities on campus in the last few years, says Jonathan Rynhold, a professor at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University who has been involved with counter-boycott activities for most of the last decade. Despite that, there’s still the fact that elite and liberal students will be exposed to anti-Israeli messages.

“The problem is a generational thing: you get a generation of liberals growing up with ideas that are hostile to the Jewish state, and Israel is the sole problem: that should be a concern,” Rynhold said. “As Americans become more liberal, it’s important that they understand Israel.”

Sagie argued that the decision by the American Studies Association has actually backfired, spurring many more statements by universities against the boycott. No university in the U.S. or in Europe, for that matter, has opted to boycott Israel. Israel’s Foreign Ministry official argued that the silent majority of students on American college campuses are apathetic toward the Israeli-Palestinian debate, so the boycott issue itself has only a limited audience.

Michael Dixon, the director of Stand With Us, an organization that promotes pro-Israel activism on campuses, said the ASA decision has prompted many “passive” pro-Israel academics and previously indifferent professors to take action against the boycott movement. 

When asked about the fallout from the collapse of peace talks, the experts played down the notion of a linkage between cycles of conflict in the Middle East and the effectiveness of the boycott movement. Sagie noted that fears of rising boycott activities did not materialize after the international uproar over Israel’s deadly interception of a Turkish ship carrying pro-Palestinian activists to challenge the army’s maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Dixon, the Stand With Us director, concurred.

“It’s been the same for over a decade: BDS efforts are unrelated to current events and are unrelenting, even if they are mostly unsuccessful,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Ben-Gurion’s Newman said he did think that there might be an uptick in the boycott discussion on campus going forward as liberal groups blame Israel as being responsible for the collapse of peace talks.

“Even though [the BDS movement] is harmful and uncomfortable, it’s never going to have the same major impact like it did in South Africa,” he said, referring to the academic and cultural boycott of that country’s apartheid government. “But that doesn’t mean you’re silent about it. You have to know how to act.”