U.S. Academics Bemoan 'Rigged’ Fight in Battle Against BDS

Liberal professors say they are becoming increasingly marginalized and threatened by the boycott movement. 'Academics have surrendered themselves to slogans on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,’ warns one.

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A BDS flag hangs off New York's Manhattan Bridge, August 2014.
A BDS flag hangs off New York's Manhattan Bridge, August 2014.Credit: AP

NEW YORK – The BDS movement is hitting home for David Rosen, a long-time professor of anthropology at Farleigh Dickinson University. Rosen’s professional group, the American Anthropological Association (AAA), is debating BDS measures at its annual conference in early December. And already, Rosen says, he can see that the process is “rigged” against those who oppose BDS.

BDS resolutions are sweeping university campuses, from student governments (where the motion to boycott and divest are mostly symbolic) to teacher unions and academic associations, where they have concrete impact. The language around the issue is frequently vituperative, with some BDS supporters making thinly veiled references to “Zionist money” and power, and both sides trading accusations that the other is stifling academic freedom.

The academic boycott movement is gaining force, even as those who view it as dangerous ramp up opposing efforts. And it is leaving many Jewish professors – who by and large identify as liberals – feeling isolated.

“The academic boycott movement is growing like untended weeds, being watered by the American Jewish establishment’s refusal to engage around Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians,” says Eric Alterman, distinguished professor of English and journalism at City University of New York’s Brooklyn College and Graduate School of Journalism. In February, Alterman cofounded the academic advisory council of the Third Narrative, a group of 100 anti-BDS, anti-occupation academics.

Rosen is an anthropologist of Africa and the Middle East who will present his study of Israel’s social protest movements at the AAA conference. He has been an AAA member for 47 years, but during some of the sleepless nights he has spent thinking about the upcoming AAA debate, he has thought of resigning.

The AAA, which has assembled a task force devoted to the organization’s engagement on Israel-Palestine, has some 10,000 members, said Executive Director Edward Liebow. Twenty-five of them have Israeli mailing addresses.

At the annual conference – running December 3-7 in Washington, D.C. – panel discussions devoted to the topic will be led almost entirely by BDS advocates, including Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel; and Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Her group played a key role in persuading the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to vote, in June, to withdraw $21 million in investments from three major manufacturing companies that sell construction equipment to Israel. While JVP does not currently work to create academic boycotts of Israel, it supports them, and is developing its own academic council, Vilkomerson tells Haaretz.

Other participants in the upcoming AAA panels have publicly endorsed academic BDS. All of them are stocked with speakers from leading American universities and the Palestinian territories, Rosen said in a letter to the AAA. Not one speaker is from a major Israeli university, and only on one panel have BDS opponents been invited to speak.

If a resolution ends the AAA’s relationship with Israeli universities for, say, accepting government funding (which most universities both in Israel and the United States do), it will marginalize Israeli – and even American-Jewish – anthropologists, Rosen says.

“They say this would not mean that individuals could not come to meetings, but they couldn’t use travel money” allocated to professors by their universities for conferences, Rosen adds. “Will Israeli scholars be able to publish articles in [AAA] journals? Will they have to show that their work wasn’t supported by the government? It could be incredibly stifling of all forms of academic speech. And who is going to want to prove that they were ‘good Jews,’ that they didn’t accept money from the Israeli government?”

The AAA requires motions to be presented a month or more before the conference, which means that none are allowed until early November, Rosen notes.

Liebow responded by email: “It is highly speculative to contemplate the implications of such a resolution. None have been proposed to date. Any implications would depend on the resolution’s wording, and the conditions set forth, both for any call for action and the conditions that must be met for such a resolution to be lifted.”

Whether or not any formal boycott resolutions are introduced, the planned BDS panels "are already like the boycott, because no Israeli anthropologist is included,” says Rosen. “Even long-term Israeli members of the AAA have been completely marginalized in this discussion. From my point of view, it’s totally rigged.”

Harvey Goldberg chairs the Israeli Anthropological Association. “Almost all Israeli anthropologists are employed in institutions that are funded by the state,” he wrote in a letter to the AAA. “A boycott would stigmatize and cause concrete harm to these individuals, whatever their political opinions.

“Israeli anthropologists – like others around the world – are not accountable for their governments’ decisions. The academic boycott movement claims that Israeli academics ‘are furnishing the ideological justification and technical means for the occupation to continue.’

“That is,” Goldberg added, “a serious misreading” which “reveals a true disconnect from knowledge of the situation on the ground.”

Academic groups like the AAA and the American Studies Association – a 5,000-member group which adopted a resolution supporting BDS last December – are key associations for those who teach at university level. The groups publish journals, post jobs and hold large conferences at which faculty members share research and forge critical relationships. Last year, the Asian American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association also voted to boycott Israeli institutions.

“Each boycott somehow gives permission to others. It would be a big feather in the cap of BDS if they could get this one to go,” Rosen said.

Anger over the Steven Salaita affair has amplified issues surrounding academic boycotts. The professor of Indian-American studies was a tenured professor at another university when he accepted a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The decidedly anti-Israel professor, who is of Palestinian origin, has written six books, the most recent titled “Israel’s Dead Soul.” During this summer’s Gaza war he tweeted, “when a majority of a state’s prime ministers were born in another country, that state is a settler colony” and “#Israel’s message to #Obama and #Kerry: we’ll kill as many Palestinians as we want, when we want. p.s.: fuck you, pay me. #Gaza.”

After those tweets, the chancellor withdrew the university’s offer of employment, a decision confirmed by the board of trustees on September 11. It sparked a wave of protest from those who say that donors pressured the university to revoke its job offer, and that the decision stifles academic freedom. Salaita has said he is considering legal action. A petition demanding “corrective action on the scandalous firing” of Salaita has garnered nearly 19,000 signatures. Salaita, who has become a cause célèbre, is shortly planning a speaking tour of the Illinois campuses.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is on leave from her job as a Hebrew lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She is cofounder of the AMCHA Initiative, which tracks anti-Israel and anti-Semitic campus activity. Her group reviewed activities of UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies, which over three years received $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Education through the Higher Education Act. More than 90 percent of its Israel-related programming in that period was anti-Israel, she said.

When she spoke with Haaretz, Rossman-Benjamin was just leaving UC Berkeley, where Students for Justice in Palestine heeded a call by American Muslims for Palestine for a day of action on September 23. That call included opposing programs to study abroad in Israel, which Rossman-Benjamin says is the newest target of anti-Israel groups. About 75 SJP supporters held a “die in” on the main campus quad, while about 50 Israel supporters held an opposing rally. “There is a movement growing from being anti-Israel to being anti-supporters of Israel – a campaign on the part of many of the pro-Palestinian groups to keep a pro-Israel narrative off campus,” she adds.

The UC student workers’ union – which has 13,000 members who work as teaching assistants in the system’s 10 colleges – has endorsed BDS in a statement that calls Israel “an apartheid system” and says “the current situation in Palestine is one of settler-colonialism.” Other teaching assistant organizations are taking up similar efforts.

The Doctoral Students’ Council at City University of New York, which has 4,700 members, presented a proposal to boycott Israeli universities at its meeting on September 12, a Friday night. At that meeting, CUNY’s Alterman spoke against the measure and objected to the discussion’s timing. The group agreed to temporarily table it.

“BDS has taken over the left and is taking over the universities,” Alterman says. “I would support a nonacademic boycott dedicated to getting Israel out of the territories. But this BDS is pining for the destruction of Israel.”

And while BDS advocates say they are anti-Zionist and disavow anti-Semitism, those who have opposed their efforts say that, in practice, there is no such distinction.

“It’s reawakened liberals like myself to the enduring reality of anti-Semitism. There is anti-Semitism in BDS – quite a lot of it of a nasty variety,” notes Alterman. “I am shocked by its vituperative character and the movement’s unwillingness to even admit it.”

He has never been so personally attacked as he has been for writing about BDS, he adds, and it saps his energy for the fight. “I am writing less about BDS and Israel in The Nation, because I just don’t need the tsuris. My students come up to me and say ‘I hear you’re a racist white supremacist.’ I’ve been in fights my whole life and have never experienced the level of personal abuse that I have from the BDS crowd.”

And it is making its way into classroom discussions. “It’s a politicization of the classroom,” says Rossman-Benjamin. “We’re seeing much more of it.”

“Academics have surrendered themselves to slogans on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” concludes Rosen. “They have just simply surrendered themselves. It’s only the beginning now. We’re going to see a lot more attempts. It’s horrible, just horrible.”

David Rosen, a long-time anthropology professor at Farleigh Dickinson University.

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