The Escalating Campus War on Pro-Israel Jewish Students
For many years, proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel focused their campus efforts on verbal and written calls to boycott Israeli universities and scholars. They also urged everyone on campus to avoid and isolate Jewish students who support Israel. When Jewish students complained about the verbal assaults, university administrators typically defended the BDS activity, characterizing it as an expression of free speech and acceptable political activity.
Over the last year, those actions — led by BDS groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine — have bled into policies that directly discriminate against Jewish students. The most recent form of discrimination is attacks on Jewish students who want to study abroad in Israel. We first saw this in September 2018, when University of Michigan Professor John Cheney-Lippold refused to write a letter of recommendation for a qualified Jewish student who wanted to spend a semester in Israel.
Why has this happened?
One plausible explanation can be extrapolated from The Nature of Prejudice, a book written by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport in 1954, a few years after the Nazis sought to systematically exterminate every living Jew in Europe. Allport positioned prejudice as a negative attitude that, when allowed to manifest, appears in five sequential and incremental behaviors — offensive speech, avoidant behaviors, discrimination and social segregation, physical violence/defacing property, and finally extermination/genocide.
While it would be misguided to suggest that offensive speech and avoidance of members of a particular group will inevitably lead to discrimination (and ultimately to violence and genocide), many scholars have confirmed that prejudicial behaviors do, in fact, occur in sequential gradations.
For example, they argue that without the acceptance and frequency of offensive speech directed at members of a particular group, escalation towards avoidant behavior will not occur, and so on. Accordingly, a mere 65 years after the publication of The Nature of Prejudice, we are seeing that years of uninterrupted and institutionally approved verbal assaults and avoidance of Jewish students have provided a green light for BDS proponents to increase their prejudicial behavior and engage in direct discrimination.
And unsurprisingly, just as BDS proponents defended their verbal assaults on Jewish students as expressions of free speech, they are insisting that boycotting study abroad to Israel should be protected by academic freedom.
But any attempt to claim that boycotting study abroad to Israel is not a direct assault on Jewish students can’t be entertained. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), the number of American students who chose to study in Israel increased from 1,981 in 2005-2006 to 3,317 in 2014-2015, including many American students who did so in order to strengthen their Jewish identity and connect to their Jewish heritage.
Campus administrators must reject this boycott of study abroad to Israel, and those who attempt to enact it must be disciplined, with the University of Michigan offering a fine example. In an appropriate response to Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation for a Jewish student, the University of Michigan’s administrators reprimanded him. Interim Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Elizabeth Cole wrote, “This letter is a strong warning that your behavior in this circumstance was inappropriate and will not be tolerated.”
Cheney-Lippold was also denied merit pay, lost his upcoming sabbatical, and is being denied a further sabbatical for two years. In addition, University of Michigan President Mark S. Schlissel addressed the entire campus community on the discriminatory efforts of the BDS campaign against Jewish students in particular. He wrote, “We want everyone in our Jewish community and beyond to know that we are committed to upholding an equitable and inclusive environment where everyone is given a chance to succeed and pursue the academic opportunities they have earned.”
For all American colleges and universities to be equitable and inclusive, rather than breeding grounds for prejudice, administrators, faculty, and alumni alike must ensure that study abroad programs in Israel continue. If they do not, they will become silent bystanders in the face of blatant discrimination, and — if Allport was correct — enablers of increasingly dire acts of discrimination and possibly violent acts against Jewish students on American campuses in the future.
Melissa Landa, PhD, is the President of the Oberlin College chapter of Alums for Campus Fairness, and a former Assistant Clinical Professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Melissa frequently writes and speaks about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.