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November 28, 2018 12:02 pm

We Must Push Back Against BDS

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avatar by Melissa Landa


A pro-BDS demonstration. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is a public relations effort to demonize the Jewish state.

In recent months, BDS tactics have intensified and diversified, with Jewish students in the crosshairs. Our community, along with concerned faculty members, must find ways to respond.

I recently spoke to a father whose son attends Swarthmore College, where he is preparing to travel on a Swarthmore-sanctioned trip through Palestinian communities in Israel and the West Bank, accompanied by BDS proponent professor Sa’ed Atshan.

Atshan is a well-known anti-Israel activist, who was recently disinvited from giving a talk at the Jewish Museum in Berlin due to his discriminatory views. The father quoted an email that Dr. Atshan sent. It read, “We will spend the first third of the study trip in Jerusalem, the second third in the West Bank, and the final third in Israel,” thus trying to delegitimize Israel’s borders and its capital by denying that Jerusalem is a part of the Jewish state.

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Having taken one class with Professor Atshan already, the father explained that his son has been indoctrinated to believe that American Jews who support Israel are complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians and the colonization of their land. As a result, and despite being raised in an observant and Zionist family, his son will no longer attend synagogue with his parents.

As I look back on this conversation and other events from recent semesters, I can identify three tactical strategies that are being implemented by anti-Israel activists in academia when they deal with Jewish students.

As we see with Professor Atshan, anti-Israel activists are bringing Jewish students into the fold by demonizing Israel and portraying the students’ own families as oppressors. As adolescents wanting to be accepted and separate from their parents, some Jewish students can be vulnerable to this strategy.

Other BDS efforts have emerged aimed at preventing students from traveling to Israel. For instance, professor John Cheney-Lippold at the University of Michigan — a self-described BDS supporter — refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student wanting to study at Tel Aviv University. Cheney-Lippold justified his refusal by explaining, “Many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.”

Following his lead, teaching assistant Lucy Peterson refused a letter of recommendation to a student who was applying for the same program in Tel Aviv. Last week, the faculty council at Pitzer College voted to end its relationship with the University of Haifa, where, for several years, Pitzer students have been spending an entire semester. Finally, the group Jewish Voice for Peace initiated a campaign called, “Return the Birthright,” which pressures Jewish students to forfeit their opportunity to travel to Israel on the Birthright Israel program. Using the mantra “no free trips on stolen land while Palestinian refugees cannot return,” the campaign seeks to humiliate students who resist that pressure.

A third tactic aims to isolate Jewish students from progressive social causes. For example, Oberlin students who refused to call for divestment from Israel were excluded from signing a petition in support of Black Lives Matter, and 51 student groups at NYU are boycotting pro-Israel student groups on campus unless they denounce the Jewish state. Furthermore, the NYU student government has penned a divestment resolution, claiming that Israel kills innocent Palestinians. That resolution has garnered support from 34 professors, whose signatures represent a hostile message to Jewish students.

Even more alarming, Duke University Press published a book by Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar, in which she purports to address concerns about the oppression of Palestinians with disabilities. Instead, she launches outrageous accusations against Israel that reflect medieval blood libels. For instance, in A Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, she absurdly claims that Israel seeks to purposefully stunt the growth of Palestinian children.

What remains in question is how those of us who are concerned about the attack on American academia will respond.

What we know from Professor Atshan’s imminent tenure and promotion, and Swarthmore’s approval of his politically-motivated trip to Israel, is that silence translates into compliance. Without public protest from his colleagues at Swarthmore, it is highly likely that Professor Atshan will continue to misinform his students with his biased political views and “spread easily refutable fabrications” about Israel.

In contrast, what we know from Professor Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation is that an outcry by American scholars can be effective. Indeed, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs at the University of Michigan rebuked Cheney-Lippold for violating faculty standards of conduct, which was followed by administrative discipline against him.

Concerned faculty members on associated campuses must address each incident of BDS activity forcefully and quickly. Responses can include writing opinion pieces, circulating petitions, organizing letter-writing campaigns, bringing in speakers to counter the claims made by BDS proponents, and establishing mentoring relationships with students.

In the face of pernicious attempts to indoctrinate American students, silence and passivity can no longer be considered appropriate responses. It is incumbent on all concerned faculty members to thoughtfully intervene in order to mitigate the deleterious effects of the continuing BDS campaign.

Melissa Landa is the Senior Associate for Membership and Diversity at AEN.

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