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Academic Activist Network Finds Success Promoting ‘Inherently Connected’ Pro-Free Speech, Pro-Israel Causes

avatar by Rachel Frommer

A pro-BDS demonstration. Photo: FOA / Facebook.

A young academic activist organization has found success helping faculty members on campuses across the US promote what founders see as the “inherently connected” causes of supporting freedom of speech and Israel.

Kenneth Waltzer — the executive director of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN) — told The Algemeiner on Friday his organization has taken a lead in aiding academics who are combating the “new reality of illiberalism on campuses” by guiding them on how to be vocal opponents of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Waltzer said many faculty are “bothered by the aggression of BDS and its simplistic, one-sided history of Israel,” but that some academics require guidance through the unfamiliar world of activism.

“They find the organizational infiltration of departments and professionals associations by BDS thugs intolerable,” he said of AEN’s members, the number of whom has grown to more than 400 faculty at over 170 campuses since the organization launched in 2015. “There are many groups working with students, but there was no one working with faculty to address these problems.”

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Waltzer said AEN members often as act as advisers to students facing BDS campaigns, acting as liaisons in the joint efforts of student campus groups, local Jewish organizations and university administrators. He said AEN members also volunteer to speak at open forum debates on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to offer a perspective on the issues that was was absent from many university conversations.

“The more Israel gets on campus — through events, speakers, courses — the more the conversation becomes real, and moves away from this fantasy, cartoonish character of Israel as the fount of all evil that BDS presents it as,” he said.

When a pro-BDS campaign was launched at Montclair State University (MSU) in New Jersey last month, Professor Jaime Grinberg — the campus Hillel adviser and an AEN member — was instrumental in achieving a sweeping defeat of an anti-Israel motion that was brought to the student government. After an intense campaign that ran through Passover, the motion failed, with only one vote in favor.

Grinberg cited AEN’s support as vital, both to organizing anti-BDS efforts, as well as serving as a crucial ally when colleagues launched personal character attacks against him.

“I had [AEN’s] support, experience, and savvy to help me act wisely in these circumstances,” Grinberg said, noting that Waltzer was prepared to reach out to MSU leadership if necessary.

(According to MSU student Avidan Rothman, other organizations involved in the student defeat of the MSU pro-BDS campaign included Hillel International, the Federation of Greater Metrowest and the Israel on Campus Coalition.)

Mark Yudof — the former president of the University of California and chair of AEN’s National Advisory Board — explained that “these problems are not going away anytime soon,” but pointed out “it only takes a few motivated and energetic faculty members on a campus to make a difference.”

The AEN’s second annual national conference will be taking place later this month in Chicago. Attendees will hear from speakers, including former Knesset member Einat Wilf, about how to oppose BDS and support free speech.

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