The Pressure on American Academics to Conform to BDS

Israeli academics are being quietly ostracized by their U.S. peers, not out of principle, but out of fear of pro-boycott colleagues. I hope our challenge to BDS-by-stealth at Syracuse U will encourage more campuses to take on their boycott bullies.

A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.
Stealth boycotts by definition operate under the radar, hidden from view. Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons

Back in July, Ben-Gurion University President Rivka Carmi expressed concern about a “growing and worrisome phenomena”: informal boycotts of her faculty. BGU scholars were telling her of being quietly shunned by colleagues – excluded from conferences, getting their research proposals and manuscripts summarily rejected, and finding it difficult to place their graduate students into post-doctoral appointments

Such stealth boycotts by definition operate under the radar, hidden from view. Unlike the shout-downs  of Israeli guest speakers, there are no videos of intimidating behavior to post on YouTube, and it’s often hard to prove that the ostracism is occurring. But if the offenders leave an incriminating paper trail and happen to target a well-connected Israeli academic who has the wherewithal to expose the discrimination, then stealth boycotting can get the kind of media exposure that this insidious denial of rights to Israeli academics deserves.

That’s what recently happened on my campus, when Shimon Dotan – an award-winning Israeli filmmaker at New York University’s graduate journalism school – was disinvited from a Syracuse University (SU) international conference on “The Place of Religion in Film” because its SU organizer feared that by hosting him she’d be subject to “ideologically motivated retaliation” from her anti-Israel, BDS-supporting colleagues.

The broad outlines of the incident were covered last week in The Atlantic, subsequently causing a social media maelstrom and garnering local, national, and even international headlines.

A brief recap: Dotan was invited by a University of Nebraska colleague to screen the film at SU. A tenured professor in SU’s Religion Department, M. Gail Hamner, then rescinded the invitation on account of warnings from colleagues that the “BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant” for her and Dotan if he came. Bottom line: Hamner was reluctant to bring Dotan to the conference because she felt intimidated by a faculty caucus who wouldn’t be happy about the screening of a well-received Israeli film.     

SU responded admirably by reasserting the university’s commitment to free speech and its opposition to “any boycott of Israeli academic institutions or faculty.” An invitation to Dotan to present his film at a later time this year was also extended. On her part, Hamner issued an apology and reaffirmed her own support for academic freedom. To my mind, this rings hollow. A true defender of campus free speech actively solicits diverse viewpoints, and doesn’t surrender to peer pressure to conform. Still, Hamner’s expression of regret seems sincere and heartfelt.

All’s well that ends well? Not quite. Lingering questions remain: did Hamner have to “vouch” in the same way for other films in the conference – or was it just the product of an Israeli national that required special scrutiny? Are a group of anti-Israel colleagues exercising subtle veto power when it comes to academic programming related to Israel?   

To get answers to these questions, and assess the magnitude of the problem, I and other SU faculty are now urging the administration to undertake a comprehensive and transparent investigation. Supported by the Academic Engagement Network, a new national organization committed to opposing BDS on campuses and to preserving academic freedom and free speech, we believe that only a full exploration as to why Dotan’s invitation was withdrawn will both lay this incident to rest and ensure that something like it won’t happen again. 

This inquiry shouldn’t be construed as a witch hunt, nor is it likely to reveal a campus awash in anti-Israel animus. SU is generally a welcoming place for Israeli scholars and students. An exploration of the matter may also show that Hamner panicked unnecessarily and that her fears of the “BDS faction” were overblown. But it’s possible too that the inquiry will uncover more evidence of stealth boycotting.   

Three lessons about these silent boycotts and how to defeat them can be learned from my university’s “Dotan Affair.”

First, administrators need to recognize that just because their schools are on record opposing academic boycotts of Israel doesn’t mean that individual faculty members are adhering to that institutional policy in their personal instructional practices. Administrators must make school policy crystal clear, but they also have to institute mechanisms to ensure that faculty members comply with it.  

Second, the case highlights that successfully confronting silent boycotting ultimately depends on whether individual faculty are willing to take a stand. Like all bullies, stealth boycotters get away with their bigotry and intimidation because most faculty aren’t as honest and forthright as Hamner was about the pressures they’re facing, and because the vast majority of professors prefer to do their research and teaching and hesitate getting involved in "campus politics." The now multiplying anti-BDS organizations operating on campus are going to have to figure out a way to incentivize more faculty to engage proactively – and get those feeling cowed by BDS harassment to go public.

Lastly, the “Dotan Affair” shows that BDS, which bills itself as a human rights movement aimed at ending the Israeli "occupation," is in fact pure racist hatred, from which even famous anti-occupation, progressives Israelis – like Shimon Dotan – aren’t immune. To put a stop to stealth boycotting on campus and prevent more Israeli scholars from being privately shut out of academia, Zionists from across the political spectrum – left, center, and right – will need to fight together to ensure that all their voices can be heard on campus.   

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, where she also serves as a research director in its Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC). She frequently writes and speaks on BDS, and blogs on the topic for the website Legal Insurrection. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman