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December 3, 2020 4:37 am

Are Universities Producing Anti-Israel Foot Soldiers?

avatar by Irit Tratt


Members of the Columbia College Student Council debate a BDS referendum on March 10, 2018. Photo: Screenshot.

The last three decades have ushered in a hostile discourse surrounding Israel on university campuses.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The Philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” If Lincoln’s statement holds true, stormy days may be in store for bilateral relations between the US and Israel.

Israel has become a convenient target for the far-left in academia. Jews were now builders and creators of the most ethical and moral country in the Middle East, no longer shrouded in a post-Holocaust victimhood status. This newfound Jewish resilience, coupled with a rise of anti-Zionist sentiments at US universities partly fueled by overseas funding, may eventually result in shifting dynamics between the US and Israel.

I can recall taking a course at George Washington University 20 years ago titled “Imperialism in the Middle East.” As part of the course curriculum, we were required to visit Georgetown University one evening to hear Edward Said speak. As he embarked on his remarks disparaging the Jewish state, I remember looking around the auditorium and being in awe of the sheer number of people who came out to hear him.

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Without a doubt, Said helped pave the way for academics such as Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer to mainstream antisemitism with the publishing of their book The Israel Lobby. He also helped elevate the careers of many professors schooled in anti-Zionist ideology such as professor Rashid Khalidi, who serves as an endowed chair in Said’s memory at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. More recently, Palestinian terrorist hijacker Leila Khaled was invited to speak at San Francisco State University. Under the guise of being a free marketplace of ideas and thoughts, it would seem that even terrorists are now being welcomed onto university campuses.

In an article titled “How Middle Eastern Governments Encourage Anti-Semitism on Campus,” which appeared online at Mosaic magazine this year, it was revealed that from 1986-2018, Middle Eastern Muslim countries “donated a total of $6.5 billion to US universities.” Qatar, for example, is one of the largest funders of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood while also providing the bulk of Middle Eastern donations to American universities (over $1 billion over the last decade) through their Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. And while Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has taken steps to liberalize Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud has pumped more than $350 million into 37 American schools over the last decade.

These spending sprees by Middle Eastern countries are often used to set up Middle East Studies departments and sponsor faculty who will propagate their own views on Israel and Western civilization as a whole. Mitchell Bard, a fellow at Campus Watch, recently cited a US Department of Education report on foreign gifts, noting, “There is very real reason for concern that foreign money buys influence or control over teaching and research.”

The synergy between the establishment of the Qatar Foundation and the rise in popularity of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has helped support and tried to implement the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, is also hard to ignore. Once a loosely formed and disorganized group, SJP now has over 150 chapters worldwide and hosts an ” Israel Apartheid Week” on hundreds of campuses.

SJP can also lay claim to a political victory. This past September, Columbia University’s student body voted in favor of a BDS referendum. Incidentally, Columbia is where Edward Said started to shape the dialogue surrounding Israel and the BDS movement, and where Professor Khalidi currently teaches.

While the framing of the conversation surrounding Israel has changed dramatically on college campuses, has it altered US policy towards Israel? Fissures in the bilateral relationship have started to emerge. We now know that former president Barack Obama quietly pushed for passage of UN Resolution 2334 in 2016, which demanded an end to Israeli settlement building east of the 1949 armistice line. The United States then refused to exercise its veto power and abstained, knowing the resolution would pass.

This is in stark contrast to the moving speech that the late liberal icon Daniel Patrick Moynihan gave on November 10, 1975, fighting back against the UN’s “Zionism is Racism” declaration. He stated, his voice laced with emotion, that America “does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”

Additionally, the growing influence of anti-Israel forces within the left-wing of the Democratic Party will also potentially damage the bond between the US and Israel. Their votes in the House carry equal weight to their pro-Israel colleagues. Their popularity has also emboldened other candidates with questionable views on Israel to run for office, as evidenced by the candidacy of Raphael Warnock for a critical Senate seat in Georgia.

Was president Obama’s action at the UN one last parting shot at Israel, or was it the catalyst for a departure from precedent regarding US policy on Israel at the UN? Are the rise of anti-Israel left-wing forces within the Democratic Party part of a passing fad, one that will lose its luster in the coming years? Or is it part of a larger movement destined for increased influence and power within a major political party in America? For those of us who care deeply about the future of the US-Israel relationship, these events should force us to start thinking more critically about the current climate on our college campuses. After all, the students now walking the halls of our universities will be the future decision-makers walking the halls of Congress.

Irit Tratt obtained her Masters in International Affairs with a focus on the Middle East from George Washington University. Upon graduating, she worked as a Legislative Assistant handling foreign affairs for several members of Congress. She currently lives in Westchester County.

A version of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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