Decades ago, while serving on the faculty at Yeshiva University, I publicly voiced my dismay that the late Meir Kahane, a rabbi known for his ugly racism and hatred of Arabs, had been a featured speaker on campus.
Some faculty colleagues disagreed, arguing that students had invited Rabbi Kahane and not the university itself. In turn I responded that my dismay related to his reprehensible ideas and not to his right to express himself.
This long-buried memory resurfaced in recent weeks. The aftermath of the unfortunate event at Brooklyn College featuring prominent advocates of the movement to boycott Israel leaves Israel’s supporters rightfully dismayed. The event became an international news story, extending far beyond the Brooklyn College campus through widespread media coverage and diverse published opinion pieces. As a result, far many more Americans today have heard of BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) than did so only very recently. More problematically, many may now believe that BDS functions primarily to critique existing Israeli policies and as a pressure group for changing them.
Put another way, the controversy and hoopla over the event masked the stark nature of the BDS movement. Far from being one fairly innocuous pressure group among other dissenting voices critical of Israel, BDS, in fact, works to delegitimate Israel as a nation-state by invoking the false and malicious analogy with apartheid South Africa.
One of the speakers, Omar Barghouti, received a standing ovation for decrying a purported rising tide of Israeli racism, which he compared, perversely, with European anti-Semitism in the 1930s. Moreover, BDS advocates the Palestinian “right of return” to Israel proper. Israelis strenuously reject this “right” as connoting the end of Israel as a Jewish state. After all, Palestinian right of return threatens to create demographically two Palestinian states rather than two states for two peoples. Indeed, one of the speakers at Brooklyn College, the feminist philosopher Judith Butler, has advocated a one-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Even as outspoken a left-wing critic of Israel as Nation contributor and Brooklyn College professor Eric Alterman charged in the Daily Beast that “the purpose of the BDS movement, plain and simple, is the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state.”
Barghouti similarly states that the purpose of BDS is to end the “occupation,” while not so subtly suggesting that all of Israel equals “occupied Palestine.” By delegitimizing Israel and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, BDS denies Jews the right to be themselves. Statements such as these skirt dangerously close to the age-old poison of anti-Semitism in contemporary guise.
Yet beyond exposing BDS for what it is, Jewish leaders and university officials would be well advised to draw additional lessons from this sordid affair. First, in such a heated climate university leaders themselves have a responsibility to speak out and set forth their own views on BDS and related issues, as did Brooklyn College President Karen Gould. The right of academic freedom, as University of California President Mark Yudof has forcefully argued, extends also to university presidents. Clear and unequivocal statements by university officials in condemnation of BDS are necessary to help inform campus climate and opinion.
Second, at the event itself there have been reports that Jewish students with previously reserved seats were prevented from entering and four students were forcibly escorted from the hall. The president of the college and the chairperson of the political science department in fact had encouraged BDS opponents to attend the forum, participate and pose the difficult questions. For such students to have been forced to leave the hall, in plain view of one college official, is intolerable. CUNY Chancellor Matt Goldstein’s call for an inquiry into precisely what occurred is both necessary and welcome.
Last, a word must be said about the public reaction of the Jewish community. In her speech defending BDS, Judith Butler had one thing correct: She noted that she had anticipated, as had been the case at other universities, “a conversation with a few dozen student activists.” Instead she encountered an overflow crowd, national and even international media coverage, and her detractors became branded as censors. A more positive outcome for BDS proponents could hardly have been imagined.
Jews themselves, who have known the evils of censorship, must realize that the price of living in a free society entails the presence of obnoxious ideas that must be repudiated. The answer to bad speech is more speech. Conversely, efforts at censorship generally attach only greater credibility to the ideas under attack. For example, the surest way to stimulate readership for a book is to have it banned. In this context, the cause of Israel only suffers when pitted against the values of academic freedom. Not only are Jews perceived as censorship advocates, which they clearly are not, but the debate itself becomes diverted from one over the wrongs of BDS to one over the wrongs of suppressing freedom of expression.
Among public officials, Mayor Bloomberg said it best: He correctly defined university education as stimulating discussion around controversial and even “repugnant” ideas, and added that the alternative was to seek out a university in North Korea. But he also unequivocally stated he “couldn’t disagree more violently” with the BDS movement. A wise statement, which Jewish leaders and other public officials, including, yes, some university leaders, ought take to heart.
Steven Bayme is national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee.