“As always, individuals should be free to express their personal views and any healthy academic community should tolerate (and even celebrate) the presence of people with widely divergent intellectual perspectives.” This statement was given by University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank regarding the American Studies Association academic boycott on Israel. As a student of this university, and as the president of the pro-Israel organization on campus, Badgers for Israel, I am proud to say that my school is among the 226 institutions that have openly opposed the ASA resolution.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is far from a new phenomenon. Most of us, whether or not we are aware, are constantly confronted with attempts made to delegitimize the State of Israel. The unfortunate reality is that anti-Israel groups have successfully made their case to many extremist liberal organizations that subsequently adopt similar discriminatory policies and initiatives. Oftentimes, these policies are highly irrelevant and counterproductive to the groups’ mission.
Such is the case with the ASA, an association “devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history”. In recent weeks, the ASA gained international attention for passing an anti-Israel resolution that seeks to limit academic freedom and attack Israeli scholars on the global stage. This is just one example of the growing trend among liberal organizations working to demonize Israel.
Passing these resolutions is a way of shaming and pressuring the Israeli government into making often unreasonable concessions. By doing so, these organizations call for discrimination against Israeli citizens. These citizens, though, should be a part of the peace conversation, not silenced from it. In particular, scholars affiliated with Israeli academic institutions offer hope for progress by stimulating the debate and creating new realities through education. Rather than integrating these Israeli academics and making them a part of an ongoing conversation, the ASA has chosen to shut them out from their community of scholarship. All of this, “in the name of peace.”
A few months prior to the release of ASA’s anti-Israel resolution, the University of Wisconsin student government voted on whether to fund the United States Student Association (USSA), a group claiming to advocate for the student voice at a national level. Similar to the ASA, USSA operates under the veil of education to push specific political directives.
In addition to serving as a student voice at the national level, USSA holds 49 rather extreme positions papers, one of which they call “Fund Education, Not Oppression.” This policy claims to oppose U.S. military aid to countries it believes violate international law and human rights. However, beyond the first paragraph, the position paper only focuses on military aid given to Israel, ignoring human rights abuses in the rest of the world. Before the Student Government voted on this issue, members of Badgers for Israel, along with several other student leaders, joined together to voice a bipartisan opposition to USSA membership. Several students presented their argument, describing USSA’s hidden agenda and explaining how the organization is unrepresentative of the student body as a whole. The vote was close, but in the end, students voted to defund USSA, marking a victory for the pro-Israel community in Madison.
“Fund Education, Not Oppression” was no more than a manifestation of BDS on our college campus. Similar bills and resolutions, which are brought to student governments around the country, are becoming an increasingly popular way for anti-Israel groups to gain leverage. Hidden agendas allow these organizations to pass resolutions through student governments.
As a result, the priorities of all politically active pro-Israel groups on campuses are changing. Now, more than ever, pro-Israel student groups must take it upon themselves to carefully monitor all legislation considered at the student government level and create lasting and reliable relationships with student representatives.
Though crucial, political activity isn’t the only means of responding to BDS. Last fall, students of the Badgers for Israel Social Action Committee kicked off a year-long effort to raise awareness for Hand in Hand, a network of egalitarian and bilingual schools in Israel that seeks to build bridges between Arab and Jewish communities. Through this involvement, Badgers for Israel exposed the greater Madison community to successful peace efforts within Israel. This campaign allowed our members to affirm their commitment to academia as a means of achieving peace. In both regards, students at Wisconsin have ensured that our university creates and maintains ties with the Jewish state.
What we must remember is that the true barrier to peace is silencing voices, which is what the BDS movement is doing on college campuses and beyond. Limiting academic freedom or stifling conversations gets us nowhere. At universities, these issues are very real. The pro-Israel community is responsible for exposing hidden political agendas and creating a space for real, honest, educated conversation.