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June 5, 2016 6:31 am

Two ‘Historic’ Conferences Mark the Start of the Battle Against BDS

avatar by Andrew Pessin

Mark Yudof, Chair of the Advisory Council to the AEN. Photo: University of California.

Mark Yudof, Chair of the Advisory Council to the AEN. Photo: University of California.

At the United Nations this week, a large group of Israel-supporters convened to “Build Bridges, Not Boycotts” at an “International Summit” sponsored by the Israeli Consulate — and a dozen major organizations — whose purpose was to help train “Ambassadors Against BDS.”

More than one speaker at the highly publicized event suggested that the meeting was “historic.” At the very least, it was impressive, particularly in its scale: 1,500 attendees — including celebrities, politicians, business leaders, heads of major organizations, and even international recording star, Matisyahu, whose moving rendition of his song “Jerusalem” left not a dry eye in the house  — all meeting right in the lion’s den (some would say), in the “Hall of Shame” that is the United Nations (as one speaker did say).

Meanwhile, a few days earlier, another conference quietly took place at a modest hotel in Washington, DC. Far less extravagant, with far fewer famous and powerful people (if any), featuring no musical entertainment, it may eventually prove to be at least as “historic” as its splashier cousin 225 miles to the north.

On May 25-26, the newly launched Academic Engagement Network (AEN) held its first national conference. Organized by Advisory Council Chair Mark Yudof and Executive Director Kenneth Waltzer, the conference brought together some 100 or so academics to strategize about dealing with the crowning issue of our day on college campuses: the increasing hostility to Israel and Jews, as both fueled and epitomized by multiplying campaigns to boycott and divest from the Jewish state.

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In the way of academics, of course, it wasn’t just about creating practical strategies; there was also a fair dose of theoretical analysis. Todd Gitlin, of Columbia University, gave a talk analyzing what fuels the “hothouse politics” of BDS. The University of London’s David Hirsh attempted to delineate the precise relationship between BDS and antisemitism, stressing the ways that antisemitism, as a form of racism, can be both institutionalized and masked as a concern for universal human rights. (He subsequently published some points from his talk here.) In what was perhaps the stand-out phrase of the conference, he labeled the BDS movement as it manifests itself on liberal campuses these days as the “antisemitism of the mensches.” And American Jewish Committee General Counsel Mark Stern spoke about “The First Amendment on Campus Today,” sketching the legal intricacies of dealing with offensive or objectionable speech, while also being sensitive to the scope and limits of academic freedom.

These talks all were high quality — and essential, since you can’t fight back against something if you don’t understand it properly. Nor did they fall prey to the danger to which academics are particularly vulnerable, namely that of over-theorizing without producing anything of any practical value. Happily, the AEN conference navigated that concern successfully, with a significant emphasis on the practical details.

There were sessions devoted to strategizing against the anti-Israel movement’s diverse operations in student governments, in scholarship, inside the classroom and within professional organizations. (The latter include the Modern Language Association, which has been grappling with boycott resolutions for several years; the American Anthropological Association, whose own boycott vote will be announced June 7; and the American Studies Association, whose 2013 boycott resolution has left it the defendant in a recently filed lawsuit.) There were sessions devoted to studying some of the more widely reported incidents of campus disruptions and targeted attacks. And there was a terrific session featuring students sharing their experiences battling Israel-hostility on their own campuses, and strategizing about how students and faculty can better work together.

Perhaps equally important to the practical was the opportunity to make personal connections. On many campuses these days, to be pro-Israel, to be openly pro-Israel, is to be very much in a minority position, one that risks social and political ostracism, if not outright harassment. Indeed, a good deal of talk at the conference referred to a “stealth boycott,” the shunning that is already going on in several academic quarters. Spending a couple of days in a conference like this one, filled with like-minded academics with similar experiences, reminds faculty who may feel rather lonely on their campuses, that they are not in fact alone. The psychological boost, combined with all the resources generated and shared during the sessions, just might make the difference between being able to stand up and fight back and staying silent and inactive.

Make no mistake: the United Nations conference was important and valuable, too, as a statement, as a psychological boost and as a resource. But the work ahead is to be done primarily on the campus front, and it will have to be done by the individuals who live and work on those campuses. The AEN conference was a major new step toward organizing and training the individuals who will have to lead that battle. It may not have received the attention and the publicity, nor the appearance by an international recording star, but after several years of steady growth of the campus BDS movement, the AEN conference accomplished something at least as “historic” as the U.N conference.

The struggle against BDS in all its manifestations is clearly being taken to the next level.

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