A message from American Jewry: BDS is a real threat, not paranoia

Employees at a SodaStream factory (photo credit: REUTERS)
Employees at a SodaStream factory
(photo credit: REUTERS)
From early December 2014 through this January, American academic associations representing about 100,000 professors met to discuss or vote on resolutions that urged a boycott of Israeli universities.
They include the American Anthropological Association, Middle East Studies Association, Modern Language Association, and the American Historical Association. BDS (Boycott/Divestment/ Sanctions) was also voted on by a California graduate student association and by a graduate association at the City University of New York. The final consequences of these actions are not yet clear.
BDS was intensely examined in Israel during this same period. Sessions were held to discuss the causes and significance of BDS in VERA (the Committee of Heads of Israeli Universities), the Israel Academy of Sciences, at universities and colleges from Haifa to Beersheba and at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies. The issue was also addressed in a host of less formal meetings with groups of intellectuals and public figures and in the media, including “Roim Olam,” a weekly review of news on Israeli TV and in newspaper articles. The key presenter on these occasions was Cary Nelson, a professor of English from the University of Illinois and immediate past president of American Association of University Professors, with 50,000 members. Nelson was sent by the American Jewish community to alert and inform Israelis of the seriousness of the challenge from BDS. His calling card was a book of essays sponsored by an agency of American Jewish federations: The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, of which he is co-editor.
Nelson argues that BDS must be seen as a growing long-term threat to Israel as a whole and to Israeli academia in particular. There is unfortunately abundant evidence that this is indeed the case, especially in the humanities faculties as opposed to engineering, the sciences or professional schools like medicine.
As Nelson pointed out in his speaking tour, over the past decade BDS has made serious inroads into Europe and is now actively rearing its ugly head in the US. He is in a position to know.
Nelson explained, offering chapter and verse, that because the attack is concentrated in the humanities, if this movement continues unchecked within a few years a whole generation of congressional aides will have been educated with the view that BDS is entirely legitimate and within a decade elected officials and senior bureaucrats will accept this position without question. The same instructional bias would inevitably affect the future leaders of the American Jewish community who, like public officials, typically begin their education with a BA in liberal arts. The threat to Israeli national security, as was made clear at the INSS, is that national strength depends on international legitimacy, and is not limited to the size and quality of the weaponry of Israel’s armed forces.
It appears that Nelson’s message has been heard.
VERA has established a national committee to monitor BDS and assist in a campaign to counter it. The INSS has established a working group to address it.
Additional ideas are being floated on how to present accurate views of Israeli higher education and its value to the entire citizenry of Israel as well as to our neighbors.
The Israeli response is a preliminary and belated awakening to a well-planned, wide and coordinated attack by PACBI – the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. It is yet another facet of “lawfare” working to delegitimize Israel through the International Criminal Court and in the court of world opinion. This rapid penetration of this incendiary campaign clearly reflects intentional arson, not spontaneous combustion.
A pocket of resistance to this analysis within Israel claims that concern over BDS is instigated by the political Right to squelch criticism from the Left over Israeli policies within and beyond the Green Line. There is even a charge that Nelson’s visit was a Machiavellian charade sponsored and paid for by a branch of the Prime Minister’s Office. This critic has even labeled Nelson’s visit as a plot to spread “Boycott paranoia” (David Newman, The Jerusalem Post, January 12, 2015).
The role of American Jewry in this wake-up call should be welcomed. Rather than viewing American Jewry as ignorant of Israeli realities and thereby gullible, critics might ask why the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not see the danger coming and allocated so few resources to rebuff this new form of lawfare. The insistence on the serious threat of BDS is an expression of the solidarity of American Jewry with Israel.
This bond takes many forms from philanthropy and the education of the American public concerning Israel to this new initiative: alerting the Israeli academy and public of yet another danger lurking in a relentless war against the Jewish state. The failure to acknowledge a growing campaign designed to isolate and demonize Israel is myopic, clearly misinformed and perhaps also disingenuous.
A. Mark Clarfield is a professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and adjunct professor at McGill University, Shimon Glick is emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Ilan Troen is emeritus professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.