Pro-Palestinian demonstrators display signs outside of New York City hall, where a pro-Israel rally was organised.
(photo credit: LUCAS JACKSON / REUTERS)
NEW YORK – A group of faculty and administrators from dozens of colleges and universities across the United States launched the Academic Engagement Network this week to address issues relating to Israel.
Many US campuses have faced controversies in recent years related to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement including attempts to silence or disrupt Israel studies scholars, Israeli guest speakers or intimidating Jewish students.
The goal of the network is to “serve as a resource, anticipate and address anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities as they arise, counteract the BDS movement, and maintain constructive ties with those on other campuses who are confronting similar challenges,” the group said in a statement.
In practice, network members will advise presidents, provosts, deans and other university administrators on issues related to Israel, BDS or anti-Semitism. They will also push to enhance US-Israel academic relations.
“College students as well as faculty and administrators are often uncertain how best to respond to BDS efforts,” AEN’s executive director Ken Waltzer said. “Network members will have access to advice, materials, resources, and best practices elsewhere to assist them to respond constructively to BDS and related initiatives on campus.”
Mark Yudof, president emeritus of the University of California, who also chairs the AEN board of advisers, told The Jerusalem Post
that BDS has managed to infiltrate “a whole range of progressive causes on campus”.
“If you’re concerned about police officers inflicting harm on African- Americans, if you’re concerned about immigration policy, whatever the cause is, every student organization that represented students of color or gay students and so forth, has been aligned with the pro-BDS position.”
The AEN called this linkage an “Orwellian effort to link Israel with a multitude of other issues, from the shootings in Ferguson and elsewhere, to issues of campus rape, to high levels of university tuition.”
Yudof was president of University of California in 2010 when then-Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren was interrupted by Muslim students while trying to deliver a speech on US-Israel relations.
“My concern is that these people are going to lead America in 10 or 20 years, and what will they think about Israel? What will the policies be?,” Yudof said. “We have to do something to have a more intelligent conversation on campus and not have campus as a sort of ideological enclave.”
“You don’t see ‘Boycott Syria’ or ‘Boycott China’ or ‘Boycott Venezuela,’ or any other country whose human rights records are, I would argue, considerably worse,” he told The Post
. “Why is that?” Yudof said faculty on campuses and pro-Israel students are often outmaneuvered by the BDS movement.
“In the United States, we have such a strong free speech tradition,” he said. “You can’t just shut down people who say anti-Semitic or anti-Israel things. I think it is hard for universities to diffuse the situation.”
To counter this, Yudof and other AEN members have pledged to “educate students, faculty, administrators, and the public” as well as “facilitate intelligent, reasoned discourse about Israel on campuses, while protecting and nurturing the exercise of academic freedom and freedom of expression,” the statement released by the group said.
The AEN plans to issue its first resource in early January, as the second semester begins, titled “Academic Freedom and BDS: A Guide for University Presidents and Administrators.”
National advisory board members include faculty from such universities as Harvard, Tulane, Stanford, Brandeis, Emory, Northwestern, Howard and George Washington, as well as the University System of Maryland, UCLA, University of Texas, and the University of California Berkeley.