Faculty and BDS

In my article, “BDS Money Trail Suggests Opaque Funding Network,” I described the pernicious influence of funding for student organizations promoting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). That investigation, however, did not take into account the less visible, but more insidious influence of faculty who support the BDS movement.

“They help sustain and feed support for the campus movement in a way that would impossible without them,” noted Max Samarov, a senior researcher, and Brett Cohen, director of campus affairs for StandWithUs. “For example, at University of Texas at Austin, the divestment resolution was written by Professor Snehal Shingavi. The student activists who introduced the resolution this year will leave, but he will stay and be in a position to ensure that the campaign continues.”

While students come and go, faculty are nearly permanent fixtures who shape departments through hiring and tenure decisions, influence the profession through their associations, impact the campus environment through their public activities and sway and sometimes harass students in their classrooms. Roughly 1,500 professors have signed petitions condemning Israel and/or supporting BDS, three professional associations voted to boycott Israel and an untold number of faculty engage in academic malpractice by using their classrooms to advance their personal anti-Israel agendas.

Asaf Romirowsky, Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, observed that “most academics who support BDS fall into the category of scholar-activists, a phenomena that has been growing in North America since the 1960’s, where individuals focus more on political theater rather than enduring scholarship.” He adds that it is difficult for most faculty to respond to BDS advocates because they are dealing with polemicists rather than serious scholars. These Israel deniers “have increasingly retreated away from serious engagement of issues surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict and replaced it with anti-intellectual demonology of Israel and its supporters.”

Not surprisingly, supporters of the BDS campaign see it differently. Marc Pilisuk, Professor Emeritus from the University of California, notes that some activists believe “academic and cultural activities indicate an acceptance of the occupation as normal while others believe that such activities are helpful to conciliation and focus instead on economic pressure.” He believes that universities should make “ethical investing decisions” and divest from “companies that are complicit in Israel's occupation.”

While Pilisuk sees the prospects for a two-state solution dimming, he does not hesitate to state that “Israel exists” with the caveat that Israel “will not be viable if its existence relies upon the suppression of its non-Jewish residents by military means and by the usurping of land for all-Jewish settlements.”

When asked what has been accomplished given the failure to achieve the goals of BDS, Pilisuk says “public recognition.” One example he cites of a success is the specious claim of BDS activists that Hampshire College divested from Israeli companies in 2009; however, Ralph J. Hexter, President of Hampshire College and Sigmund Roos, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said in a letter to the ADL that, “Hampshire College did not divest from Israel.” Furthermore, the college had invested in hundreds of companies that do business in Israel, and in at least three actual Israeli companies.

Dr. Richard Landis acknowledges that it doesn't matter if they succeed or not to get divestment, “their main focus (and here they succeed admirably) is to spread poison about Israel and to shame and bully anyone (i.e., the vast majority of Jewish students and profs) who supports her into silence.”

The anti-Semitic BDS campaign is now infecting academic associations. “The anti-Israel activists employed as professors who led the fight at the American Studies Association to pass the academic boycott of Israel in December 2013, have been patting themselves on the back ever since,” according to William A. Jacobson, a clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School. “Forget that over 250 university presidents and the major academic organizations condemned the move as a gross violation of academic freedom. Even the New York Times called the ASA a ‘pariah.’” Moreover, he adds, “no major academic group has adopted the boycott and no university is even considering a boycott.”

The pro-Israel community has largely neglected the role of faculty in the battle for the hearts and minds of students because anti-Israel activities outside the classroom receive more publicity and because they have created the false impression that campuses across the country are unsafe for Jewish students.

Meanwhile, the Arab states and their supporters have focused on what takes place inside the classroom and they have invested heavily ($1.4 billion since 1986 according to the Department of Education) in universities with the goal of influencing future generations of American voters and leaders. Not surprisingly, the recipients of this largesse are among the worst purveyors of politically driven coursework, lectures and publications.

To effectively counter the BDS movement on campus, more attention must be paid to supporting sympathetic faculty: funding chairs, programs and centers in Israel Studies; training teachers to teach about Israel; bringing visiting Israeli scholars to American campuses; taking American professors to Israel; and supporting and encouraging the next generation of Israel scholars by providing scholarships to graduate students pursuing degrees in Israel-related fields and postdoctoral fellowships for new PhDs in Israel Studies.

Over eight years, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise successfully responded to this challenge by bringing more than 100 visiting Israeli professors in 23 different fields to 72 campuses, including the most elite universities, where they introduced 145 new courses related to Israeli history, politics and culture. They were also the catalysts to the creation of permanent chairs, centers and programs at a dozen universities, including Berkeley, UCLA, Maryland, San Francisco State and Ohio State.

In addition, 20 AICE postdoctoral fellows engaged in research and teaching at major universities such as Harvard, Princeton and UCLA. Perhaps, most important, AICE’s Israel Scholar Awards have helped 40 graduate students pursue advance degrees in Israel-related fields. Currently, of those who have completed their doctorates, 13 have teaching positions, 3 have postdoctoral fellowships and 1 received a Fulbright award to study in Haifa. Among the universities that have hired our award winners are Oxford, MIT and Princeton.

To make lasting change on the campus, Jacobson correctly concludes: “We need to take back the campuses from the anti-Israel professoriate.” He acknowledges that this will take many years. We cannot afford to wait any longer. The time has come to spend less on buildings and more on people; direct duplicative and ineffective funds now going to students to organizations working with faculty; and hold universities responsible for ensuring their professors uphold rigorous standards of scholarship and not be allowed to hide behind the veil of academic freedom to commit academic malpractice.