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Attacking BDS From The Left

Attacking BDS From The Left

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

Hannah Dreyfus is a former staff writer at the New York Jewish Week.

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.

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