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November 10, 2016 1:00 am

BDS and Radioactivity: Alumni Confront Anti-Israel Rhetoric on Campus

avatar by Mark Banschick

Vassar College, site of the first chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness. Photo: Wikipedia

Vassar College, site of the first chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness. Photo: Wikipedia

You may remember the story of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB officer who fled Russia for asylum in Great Britain. In 2006, while living in England, Litvinenko was hospitalized with acute radiation syndrome and died shortly afterwards, murdered from polonium-210 poisoning.

Litvinenko was silenced for his political views.

The power of labels

Most American college campuses are not places of politically based violence, at least not yet. Nevertheless, students are being effectively silenced by poisoned language.

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Anti-Israel activists employ a simple diversionary tactic: they often use inflammatory adjectives and terms to make the reputations of Israel and its supporters radioactive. It is a way to silence critics and avoid civil academic debate.

After all, if the opposition is too terrible to talk to, there’s no need for conversation. The proponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement call this approach “anti-normalization,” a tactic that is both self-serving and undermines the essence of the academy.

Shutting down civil debate

Along with Susan Julien Levitt and Laurie Josephs, I recently helped found a group called Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), which works to promote an intellectually vibrant college experience while identifying and countering the antisemitism that has infected many campuses, often in the form of anti-Zionism. While Israel’s right to exist is a given, in our view, we strongly support open and civil exchanges on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues related to the Middle East. It’s important for the university to give ear to Palestinians and their concerns, of course—but for the university to do its job, we need a free marketplace of ideas, as well.

Sadly, the fine values of the academy may no longer be taken for granted.

In some academic spaces, we are seeing a shutdown of open debate and civility, in the name of social justice. It’s an intellectually dishonest strategy advanced with little subtlety by the BDS movement, as promoted by its campus wing, Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP).

The approach of shutting down your opposition by making it effectively radioactive is a propaganda device that requires psychological sleight of hand. Whether Jews have been criticized for being capitalists in control of the press, or communists and radicals, or of being godless — or too religious — we are tragically accustomed to antisemitic slander in all its permutations.

As Ecclesiastes put it over 2000 years ago: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

In future blogs, I will discuss how each of these false labels (as well as the ones anti-Zionists use) takes a piece of truth and distorts it in order to alienate otherwise fair-minded people. After all, as anti-Zionists well understand, no one wants to be labeled a racist, a supporter of apartheid, an occupier, an elitist, a cynical manipulator of the LGBTQ community or a supporter of ethnic cleansing.

Namecalling carries power. Let’s consider a few examples.

The privileged label

Without question, there are many folks who either feel disenfranchised or have actually been disenfranchised. I can understand the urgency behind the Black Lives Matter movement, contemporary feminism and the need for the Supreme Court ruling in favor of gay marriage. History requires oppressed voices to be heard.

Yet, if a person has made it in society, or was born into privilege, that fact alone does not invalidate his opinions and arguments. To make someone’s opinions illegitimate simply because others have been oppressed may feel good, but it is a silencing technique that ultimately perpetuates the wrong.

Still, on many campuses today, you are radioactive simply because you were born into a particular family.

The racist label

“Israel Apartheid Wall” got my attention a few years ago, when SJP promoted it at Vassar College and elsewhere. It is deeply insincere, and in fact dishonest, to reduce the complex dynamics behind the construction of Israel’s security fence in the face of suicide bombers and the second Intifada to just those three words.

We are not talking about the street, remember, we are discussing the academy. Anti-Israel faculty often falsely portray Israel as an apartheid state whose Jewish population discriminates against Arabs and persons of color. Thus, by extension, those who support Israel are labeled racist, as well. Give me a Jewish college student who doesn’t cringe at the possibility of being leveled with such an accusation. I don’t blame such students for not wanting to have anything to do with this rigged discussion, and instead stick to their studies.

SJP and BDS have figured it out. Their relentless and cynical verbal offensives successfully marginalize many prospective Jewish defenders of Israel.

The pinkwashing label

You may be aware that Israel has a vibrant LGBTQ community, and that it is a truly liberal nation on gay rights. Yet, in an effort to court favor with disenfranchised groups everywhere, BDS has cunningly turned this apparent positive into a negative.

It goes like this: Yes, Israel is good on LGBTQ rights, but don’t let that distract you from its cynical use of this fact to distract the world from its human-rights abuses against the Palestinians. Israel’s efforts to promote its liberal, gay-rights agenda is then dismissively labeled as “pinkwashing.”

A recent event at Vassar College vividly illustrates this tactic. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bret Stephens had been invited to speak by the administration on the topic of why he supports Israel. (The administration was moved to action by the efforts of Vassar’s ACF alumni group). That appearance provoked Joshua Schreier, a Vassar professor of Jewish Studies, to write an open letter in the student paper warning that Stephens’ support for Israel and its LGBTQ community should not deflect attention from the fact that, in his opinion, Israel is an “oppressive and racist regime.”

Perhaps we need to look at how BDS and its supporters cynically demonize Israel as a way to avoid being criticized for their own problematic claims? Whoever points a finger, points four back at himself.

The colonialist label

According to the anti-Israel activists, Israel is an interloper on the international stage; simply an extension of European colonialism. This approach flies in the face of the ancient and enduring Jewish connection to and presence in the land of Israel, and the early Zionist’s correct sense of urgency to save European Jewry, in anticipation of the holocaust that was to come.

I see no love of truth here.

It is simple: the Jews belong in the land of Israel.

There is an understandable conflict between Zionists who expanded a Jewish population that was already there, and the largely agrarian society of Palestinians that lived in the same local. Two states have been offered on multiple occasions. Anti-Zionists prefer to have no Palestinian state at all rather than admit a Jewish state in the land of Israel. And so they attach the colonialist label on Israel in order to delegitimize it.

Overcoming radioactivity

To present only one thread in the complex history of the Middle East, such as the suffering of those Palestinians who believe that they lost their homeland to Israel, and ignore the many facts that led up to the current moment (such as the persistent Arab rejection of a two-state solution that has resulted in decades of violence), surely does not bring academic honor to a campus. We can all do better.

BDS and SJP represent a small, but loud, voice on college campuses. Let’s work together to mobilize students, professors, college presidents and alumni to call for meaningful, open and fair conversation, devoid of name-calling.

Most of us want peace between these two peoples. If there is no place for invigorating dialogue, we have no chance.

Consider joining us at Alums for Campus Fairness.

Mark Banschick, MD is a co-founder of ACF, a partner organization with StandWithUs. This editorial reflects the author’s opinions alone.  

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