BDS and academia

A close look at the BDS movement shows not legitimate criticism but a racist and anti-Semitic program.

PRO-PALESTINIAN protesters hold a banner 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRO-PALESTINIAN protesters hold a banner 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A self-proclaimed National Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Conference is set to take place at the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy league institution in the heart of Philadelphia, during the weekend of February 4. Last held in 2009, according to the organizers, the BDS movement intends to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by demonizing Israel while propagating the Palestinian victimhood status in order to gain global sympathy.
They believe that if universities, companies and even countries boycott, divest from and sanction Israel it will pressure the government to change its so-called “hard nosed” policies toward the Palestinians and in addition to give up land Israel supposedly “stole” from the Palestinians in 1948 and 1967.
A closer look at the BDS movement and its methodology shows not legitimate criticism but actually a racist and anti-Semitic program. In a world where refugees have been created and resettled by the tens of millions, including over 900,000 Jews that fled Arab states, BDS targets only Israel. Its stated goals vary but all include the “right” for descendants of Palestinian “refugees” to “return” to a country they have never seen, thus bringing about the end of Jewish Israel.
The movement takes care to give the impression that ending specific Israeli policies such as the “occupation” or “apartheid” will also bring an end to efforts to ostracize Israel. Their maximalist demand – the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state – is carefully hidden but readily apparent to a careful examiner.
It is a matter of great concern that respected universities lend their space and name to such conferences in addition to the participation of their faculty and others from around the country. In North America, whatever goes on in a classroom is deemed protected by “academic freedom,” whether it is academic or not. Only sexual harassment appears exempt from this blanket protection. Gradually, campuses have become an “academic freedom” zone where protests and other activities now qualify as academic “speech.”
This freedom to critique is, predictably, directed mostly at the twin Satans, Israel and America, although efforts to curtail speech that academics find unpleasant and unacceptable have been longstanding in the form of “speech codes” and restrictions on “hate speech.” Clearly academic freedom is a one-way street; only those having the correct opinions may claim it.
As such, we commend the University of Pennsylvania for clarifying it does not support or endorse the BDS movement, as well as for its clear statement that “The University of Pennsylvania... has important and successful scholarly collaborations with Israeli institutions that touch on many areas of our academic enterprise.”
Universities which should be bastions of critical thinking and opposition to fallacies of argument have become fertile ground for myth, fantasy and lies about history. North American college campuses have been suffering from an significant increase in anti- Israelism. This new situation has demonstrated the need for a clear and inclusive definition of anti-Semitism and an answer to the question of whether anti-Israelism constitutes anti-Semitism.
The apparent dilemma has been that anti-Israelism itself is not blatantly or even necessarily anti-Semitic but rather may appear merely critical of “Zionist policies,” thus distinguishing between Jews and Zionists. This well-worn distinction has enabled the anti- Israeli camp to pose as legitimate critics. What has actually emerged, in effect, is a new form of anti-Semitism, because the state of Israel acts as a proxy for Jews at large.
To the extent that it becomes harder to make a case for Israel on campus and in the Jewish community in general, the environment has become increasingly hostile to the pro- Israel community.
All of this has lent legitimacy to those who advocate for BDS. This paradigm is unique to the debate about Israelis and Palestinians and cannot be found in any other academic discipline. No university would host an “academic” conference on whether blacks are biologically inferior to whites, but even though the BDS movement makes a similar outrageous comparison one is considered acceptable and the other not.
Moreover, the involvement of Jewish individuals in such forums has become another indicator that this “genuine debate” deserves to be explored. In the US, politicized writing and teaching have often displaced scholarship, and academic freedom has been redefined as the liberty to dispense with academic standards. In response, hiring token Israeli Jews who subscribe to the anti-Israel narrative and support the BDS movement has become common practice on American campuses, thereby eliminating debate while providing the illusion of balance and using their Jewishness as a carte blanche to criticize Israel and question it existence.
Combating BDS has become complicated and confusing especially for those who want to believe that there is room for debating the “facts” presented by the BDS movement. What makes this battle so arduous for the pro-Israel community and so attractive for the antagonizers of Israel is the umbrella of academic freedom that argues that it is legitimate to debate all aspects of Israel, from specific policies to its elimination, in contrast to racial and gender discussions where such unsupported slanders are correctly and forcefully rejected by university communities.
Many in the Jewish community in their naïveté are willing to engage in these debates precisely because they are cloaked in academic freedom, which gives them the impression of legitimate criticism rather than racism.
On a positive note, the racist nature of the BDS movement has redrawn the lines of acceptable discourse. We are now seeing a sure but steady understanding of the real threats BDS and its sympathizers represent to not just the pro-Israel community but to honest academic discourse on the Middle East. The hope is that rejection of their hateful message will catch on.
The writer is deputy director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and John R. Cohn is a professor of medicine at Thomas Jefferson University and a Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) board member.