BDS and the Jewish Studies Trap

February 8, 2013 2:15 am 13 comments

Omar Barghouti. Photo: usacbi.org

The recent boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) event at Brooklyn College featuring professional Palestinian Omar Barghouti and celebrity anti-Israel academic Judith Butler was true to form. A dual purpose was served. For one, students and staff were treated to calls for the destruction of Israel, conducted in a quasi-academic setting, with the implicit endorsement of the institution. Second, as always, a trap was sprung on opponents of such campus abuses. Having successfully planned the event and represented it as an intellectual exploration of the one state solution, in which Israel is made extinct, the inevitable complaints regarding its one-sidedness and borderline antisemitism were met with the usual howls of censorship and demands for academic freedom. Politicians became involved on both sides. City Council members were opposed to the campus and tax dollars supporting an anti-Israel recruitment rally. Mayor Bloomberg then came out in favor, and with characteristic tact and insight, condemned the event’s content and scolded the presumably close-minded opponents, wittily telling them to apply to school in North Korea.

Never mind that any event promoting a parallel desire to eliminate Palestine would not be able to schedule a room at a university, much less garner faculty support. And never mind that anti-Israel voices are omnipresent on American campuses, and regularly shout down supporters of Israel, sometimes, as Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren found at the University of California at Irvine, quite literally. Lost in the accusations and counter-accusations is how the BDS movement has been relentlessly successful at politicizing American campuses and implicating Jews in its efforts.

The trap works like this. An outside group such as the “International Solidarity Movement,” a group of students, or an individual faculty member sponsors a BDS event, usually without the knowledge of the administration. Then someone, usually from the Jewish community, catches wind and protests, and the administration either plays dumb about having rented a room to haters or is forced to defend the event under the guise of “academic freedom.” More perniciously, the college or university’s Jewish Studies program is then asked to participate in the anti-Israel rally for the sake of “balance” or to develop a counter-program. Sometimes this is baked in from the beginning by BDS organizers. If Jewish studies faculty members go along, then there is “balance” and the event cannot be attacked. If not, then “balance” has been sought but the resulting lack is the fault of the Jewish Studies program.

Jewish Studies at American colleges and universities are almost wholly apolitical in the sense that they were created and are maintained – largely by the Jewish community rather than the institutions themselves – as means for placing serious scholarship and teaching about Jewish history and culture into the academic environment. Individual faculty members have a wide range of political viewpoints, most of which they keep to themselves. The programs often offer courses on Zionism and Israel, not as institutional endorsements but as serious treatments of important historical and cultural phenomena. In fact, most such courses take pains to be “fair,” unlike many of their counterparts in political science or history departments, which privilege the “expertise” of Norman Finkelstein, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and others.

Seriousness and fairness are the trap when dealing with the BDS movement. Few Jewish Studies faculty are activists in any way; in fact, the majority of American faculty members are not activists either, another fact counted on by the hard core of deeply political faculty – mostly in the humanities and social sciences – who are bitterly opposed to Israel.

Specialists in medieval Jewish history, Yiddish culture or Biblical Archaeology are thus compelled to participate or not in the kangaroo courts and to debate individuals who spend their entire lives devoted to the destruction of Israel. Most cannot knowledgeably discuss the Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915 or Palestinian politics since the creation of the PLO in 1964, or a hundred other details that are thrown up as factoids to discredit and dismantle Israel. The implication in asking Jewish Studies faculty is that as specialists on the Jews, or as Jews themselves, they should somehow should know everything; the reality is that most do not. This too is a trap. Untenured faculty members rarely take the bait; there is too much at stake, while tenured faculty risk their relationships with colleagues and being forever targeted by professional Palestinian supporters.

Most Jewish Studies faculty members are quiet teachers and scholars, who also know that the prevailing winds on campus blow against Israel and Zionism. Promotion and tenure, grant money, leadership roles in departments and colleges, and the ability to get along on a daily basis, are often shaped by attitudes toward Israel. The BDS movement turns these undercurrents into an outright litmus test.

By putting Jewish Studies faculty in the position of being the “balance” against BDS, proponents of destroying Israel successfully put faculty on the defensive, forcing them to either speak out in rigged settings with packed audiences ready to shout them down, or to remain silent. “Good Jews” speak out against Israel, while pro-Israel Jews are cast as favoring the “colonialist-settler” state. Either way they and the university as a whole are implicated and sullied by the sordid pseudo-intellectualism of BDS, which pretends to present alternative viewpoints and arguments regarding the current existence of Israel and its relationships with the Palestinians, by demanding Israel’s extinction.

Exploiting the idea of human rights that is worshiped as a secular religion on campus, relying on spineless administrators and witless politicians who gladly mistake anarchy and hatred for academic freedom, and supported by a hard core of faculty members and students who passionately hate Israel, BDS professionals like Barghouti and their famous faculty enablers like Butler move from campus to campus largely unopposed. Without loudly exposing their game at every stage, they will continue to win.

Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is currently a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow of the Middle East Forum and a research associate of the Institute for Community and Jewish Research. His web site is alexanderjoffe.net.

13 Comments

  • http://www.thejc.com/blogs/jonathan-hoffman/what-happened-inside-middlesex-universitys-closed-doors-1

    At this recent BDS event in London, interested members of the public were excluded altogether

  • Another “Trap”

    University students are funded to meet with the International Solidarity Movement and the leaders/ architects of the global BDS movement.
    See: www. Ha-Emet.com

  • He is a big antisemite based on everything we definitely no about him, but also most certainly insane.

  • As a part-time teacher at UC Irvine, I have been attending as many of these events as possible to document the absurdity of the speakers and their sponsors. Barghouti spoke Feb 4 at UCI before about 30 people and two campus cops outside the room. Of course, he will not answer hostile questions as I learned in the q and a, when I attempted to bring out the fact that this hypocrite is getting his education (at age 49) from Tel Aviv University.

    http://garyfouse.blogspot.com/2013/02/omar-barghouti-at-uc-irvine-februry-4.html

    If you can sit through 45 minutes of his monotone, my exchange with him begins at about 8 minutes into the third tape.

    Thank you for pointing out this problem on university campuses. I have cross-posted your article with appropriate attribution.

    Gary Fouse
    adj teacher
    UCI-EXT

    • Bathsheva Gladstone

      Hi Gary,

      First off thanks for that informative taping on your site. I found it pretty hard to stomach, and if I’m not mistaken within the first six minutes there were no less then five lies spouted by that cretin. I’m not really sure how quoting a bunch of people who made statements not regarding Israel and using it to promote his agenda, is tolerated in Academia. He lacks evidence and truth.

      He states that the three Palestinian Rights
      are Ending Apartheid, Ending Occupation, and Right of Return, unless I’m missing something
      the palestinians are guilty of Apartheid, because they are allowed to travel where they want, which isn’t true of Jews traveling to Palestine. Not that anyone would want to anyway. The Right of Return is preposterous because it negates the reason for a Jewish state, and Occupation of what?, isn’t the West Bank really Judea and Samaria? They have no claim to the land as far as I understand. I know you know all this but I’m curious, your take on the particulars.

      Also, I find it very interesting that he declines to say where he was educated and where he comes from–I would think that with that kind of oily secretiveness, one would be inclined to mistrust any and every word that would come out of his maw.

  • The claims of the Palestinian Arabs (Palestinians) is absurd and ridiculous; the more they stick to the positions of “one Palestinian state” from the Sea to the River, they prepare the claim for the Israelis to re- take control of the West Bank and annex it to Israel to be “one Israel state” between the River to the Sea. In that case Jordan, Trans-Jordan, will be the Palestinian Arabs state along side Israel. Then there will be Two Palestinian states, one Jewish and the other Arab sit next to each other while the Jordan River is theborder in between.

  • Edward Alexander

    Alex Joffe’s essay is by far the most astute that has been provoked by the Brooklyn College debacle. (Its only flaw is, perhaps, an excess of charity in the direction of Jewish Studies faculty, whose ranks include not only the usual academic careerists and time-servers, but also a large representation of anti-Zionists, post-Zionists, and latter-day explorers of [non-Zionist]“roads not taken.”)

  • It would be so cool if Newt Gingrich was invited to the school to speak about the Palestinians being a made-up people, invented after 1948. Would the school allow him to speak on that subject? Would the Political Science department co-sponsor it in the name of academic freedom?

  • Instead of relying on every Jewish Studies deaprtment/professor to debate Jew haters why don’t we have a team of debaters? A SWAT team if you must, who follow them throughout the country and and either get themselves invited to debate or if refused stage pro-Israel events at the same time.

  • Instead of realying on every Jewish Studies deaprtment/professor to debate Jew haters why don’t we have a team of debaters? A SWAT team if you must, who follow them throughout the country and and either get themselves invited to debate or if refused stage pro-Israel events at the same time.

  • Thank you for your clear analysis of how the Jew haters are
    waging and winning the war for the hearts and minds of
    the next generation on college campuses.
    Instead of allowing them to continue their poisonous lies unopposed, why don’t we teach and train our people to know every truth, historically, curently, morally and to share
    present and prevail wherever they go.
    Is there such a teaching training going on? The Israeli government, Jewish Organizations, Philanthropies, Individuals could fund programs in Israel and abroad. In Synagogues, schools, Jewish centers etc.
    The need is obvious. Is something being done ?
    We need to start training our own army of truthtellers
    to counter the unconscienable BDS’rs. We Can Do This. We Must.

    • How about copying a technique outlined in a little booklet published by the David Horowitz Freedom Center–wherein hecklers, dressed as Ku Klux Klan supporters and carrying supporting signs, visibly attended ‘public’ forums such as the BDS-touting campus events discussed above. Chances are the KKK “perps” would be summarily hounded off the site but should get some attention from media–and the opportunity for stating the correct facts to the media….

    • Bathsheva Gladstone

      I think that is a good idea, but aside from a few self haters, most Jews are for Israel, from lackadaisical to ardent supporter to crazy armchair Meir Kahane fan–the problem is our views on reaching outside the community. I think we need to figure out a way to do outreach and incorporation without proselytizing etc…Nothing wrong with letting everyone else in on the secret of how wonderful we all are…

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