Fighting academic boycott efforts, one delegation at a time

Recent visit to Israel by seven American law school deans may help with public relations once Operation Protective Edge is over

Yeshiva University 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Yeshiva University 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Against the backdrop of Operation Protective Edge and at a time when Israel is back in the crossfire of human-rights criticism, a recent visit of seven US law-school deans and other top officials may help with future efforts to fight the next BDS push.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is being treated by a number of ministries as a strategic threat to the state’s well-being, and the Foreign Ministry is assisting on a number of fronts, including the recent law-school officials’ visit, with more legal officials expected to visit in August.
The visit was spearheaded by Foreign Ministry head of academic affairs public diplomacy Sylvie Sapir, College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan dean Moshe Cohen-Eliya, as well as a number of Jewish law associations.
The trip included a conference organized by Cohen-Eliya, a tour of the country and meetings with government, judicial and legal officials.
Sapir said this was the second consecutive year the ministry sponsored a trip of top law-school officials, and that the ministry runs around 15 such academic visits each year.
Research from the Foreign Ministry’s US Embassy has found that some of the deepest influence in shaping views and policy-making in the US comes from law schools, Sapir said.
This led to bringing deans, law-review editors and other groups to the country, not only to build relationships, but to directly and indirectly push back against academic boycotts and to show Israel’s side of the story in the best setting to make its case – up close.
She said that the legal officials are “very impressed with Israel’s pluralism and that in the US they don’t always fully understand the true picture, only getting a one-sided view,” which is often less favorable to Israel.
Paul Shiff Berman, the previous dean of George Washington Law School, said the conference conducted by Cohen-Eliya “discussed common issues law schools faced in Israel and the US,” including having “a global perspective on law, attracting more students from outside our own countries and the rise in online education.”
Patricia Kuszler, associate dean of University of Washington Law School, said she had “no idea how close” by the West Bank and Gaza are, adding she “knew intellectually how small” the area was, but seeing it helped her see a new “level of complexity to the issues” in the dispute.
Gail B. Agrawal, University of Iowa Law School dean, highlighted joint programs and clinics that her school and the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan are running, noting Israel’s “incredible growth,” balanced with the comfort of seeing that places like the Western Wall remained timeless and unchanged since her visit in 1985.
On BDS, Berman said that, “I don’t see the visit as part of or in opposition to the campaign,” adding that while he supports the right of individuals to decide to invest or not invest with a particular country, the issue is “entirely separate” for universities.
Though neither he nor Kuszler expressed an official position on the academic boycott on Israel, he said that boycotting academic exchanges “starts limiting freedom of academic exchange, and makes issues harder to discuss,” while Kuszler said that “more interaction” promotes better understanding in the interdependent age of globalization.
Cohen-Eliya commented on the “incredible cooperation” between Israeli and US schools, exchanges of students and professors between the countries, saying that he hopes that the trip and academia would “build bridges, not boycotts.”