Alex Joffe & Asaf Romirowsky
The on-campus boycott, divest, and sanctions movement (BDS) has benefited greatly from the normalizing of anti-Semitism in the US and around the world. The American university is now in many instances a toxic environment for both students and faculty who have an open mind about Israel. Those faculty who risk their jobs, tenure, and grant funding to speak openly on Israel’s behalf need support now more than ever.
With the normalizing of anti-Semitism comes the normalizing of BDS. Professors and academics who support and advocate for BDS feel empowered and emboldened by the belief that their actions respond to the policies of current White House. Moreover, Israel is seen today as a right-wing issue, especially on campuses dominated completely by the political and cultural left. This allows every anti-Israel voice to be treated as normal and moral.
Faculty opposed to Israel are at the forefront of BDS, hiding behind the increasingly thin façade of academic freedom to launch systemic attacks on Israel, its supporters, and on the structure of the university itself.
Examples abound, from Rutgers women’s studies professor Jasbir Puar, who published an anti-Semitic blood libel as scholarship (and received an award from a professional organization for her calumnies), to University of Michigan American Studies professor John Cheney-Lippold, who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel.
Facts and scholarship find no room in the world of BDS or identity politics. Feelings and politics shape everything related to Israel and, increasingly, related to the university as a whole. More and more, only one set of ideas is presented, in which Israel is the sole or greatest evil not only in the Middle East but the world, and which must be treated uniquely. Turkey’s jailing of tens of thousands of fellow academics does not register, much less China’s imprisonment of a million Muslims in reeducation camps. Such comparative analysis, the basis for all social science, is dismissed as mere “what-about-ism.”
Academics opposed to Israel demand not only a monopoly on the university but impunity from criticism. After the Cheney-Lippold affair, a variety of academic BDS supporters came out in his defense and decrying the University of Michigan’s tepid response. So did several academic organizations, including the American Association of University Professors and the Middle East Studies Association, along with BDS groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and local Arab American representatives. Michigan’s Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies even held a BDS event, including a “teach-in,” with support from a host of other departments.
Dozens of Michigan faculty members also signed an angry letter demanding the university not punish Cheney-Lippold and claiming that the right to deny students letters of recommendation for study in one place and one place only, Israel, is a function of their academic freedom and right to free speech. Professional responsibilities to students, or the rights of students who perform well to receive letters of recommendation from their faculty members in order to study wherever they choose, do not enter the discussion.
BDS cuts to the heart of what universities are supposed to be. Is a university an impartial platform at which students can receive an education as well as support to go on with their lives and careers wherever they choose, or is it a political platform shaped exclusively by the views of an angry minority of Israel-hating faculty? Academics who support BDS demand that their politics directly shape the world and the lives of their students while eschewing all responsibility and even criticism. John K. Wilson, the co-editor of the AAUP’s blog, “Academe,” told Insider Higher Ed that “it is morally wrong for professors to impose their political views on student letters of recommendation,” but still argues that the professor should not be punished. There are almost no consequences, except writ large, when institutions like Evergreen State or the University of Missouri, which experienced similar unhinged anger from faculty and students over racial issues, found their enrollments plummeting and state legislators questioning the wisdom of supporting their bitter politics.
Very few professors are willing to stand up against what has become a nearly monolithic campus culture of reviling Israel and its supporters. Those who are willing to speak out need our support, if simply to reestablish a balance that says Israel is not a freakish or evil entity but a state like any other. Most faculty members who choose to speak out are Jews and Israelis, and many are not specialists in Middle East studies. They do so out of a sense of support not only for Israel but for academic ideals of fairness and balance. But they have not been able to change the environment, and many more faculty members are routinely cowed into submission by BDS activists who are among their colleagues. It is not known how many are denied promotions, tenure, grants, or fellowships on the basis of their support for Israel.
Since 9/11, we have seen a significant growth in pro-Israel student empowerment through national and grassroots organizations, but this has not been enough to create long-term change. In fact, it appears that student BDS activists are increasingly successful at creating an environment in which Israelis, supporters of Israel, and even Jews at large can be ostracized and even directly threatened or harassed. University administrations, anxious to maintain quiet and keep enrollments high, have almost uniformly swept incidents under the rug. The pyrotechnics of demonstrations and “apartheid walls” speak to the spirit of intolerance that reigns on campuses in the name of “social justice.” The letter of recommendation incident demonstrates that some faculty members are ready to punish students who step out of line. Is there any doubt that the same spirit of hatred prevails inside classrooms?
Faculty members are not required to support or even like Israel, but fulminating against it and punishing those who even take an interest, like a student who wants to study there, should be beyond the pale. Academics who want to reestablish balance about Israel, as well as those who have intellectual or emotional interests there, need help. There does exist a network, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, that provides such help through shared best practices, mentoring, and guidance to students and junior faculty. (One of the coauthors of this article, Asaf Romirowsky, is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.)
The way in which Israel is treated is a measure of the health of a university. Faculty who want to see Israel addressed fairly, and not as inherently sinful, need support now more than ever. Students, parents, and alumni should also be watching carefully and making decisions about where to attend, what courses to take, and where to give their money.
Alex Joffe is an archaeologist and historian. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Center and a Shillman-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. They are co-authors of Religion, Politics and the Origins of Palestine Refugee Relief (2013).
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family