New U.S. Group to Enlist pro-Israel Faculty to 'Catalyze Campuses'

Joining a list of like-minded groups, the Academic Engagement Network aims to engage academics on 50 to 100 campuses, to counter the rising tide of vocal supporters of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

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A New York protester calling for a boycott of Israel.
A New York protester calling for a boycott of Israel.Credit: AP

NEW YORK – Enlisting faculty members at American colleges and universities as allies in the fraught battle against the BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement is the main objective of a new organization that is being launched on Wednesday.

The Academic Engagement Network seeks "to preserve and defend freedom of expression on university campuses,” said Ken Waltzer, its executive director – especially at a time when students are protesting against and preventing pro-Israel presentations and debates on campuses around the country.

“We want to promote a sane middle ground of support for a two-state solution, and embrace uncompromising support for human rights for Arabs, Jews and others," Waltzer, emeritus professor of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, told Haaretz. "[We] are adamantly opposed to the BDS movement, and want to catalyze campuses in robust debate in matters regarding Israel, Palestine and the Middle East."

“We’d like to have five to 15 faculty members [affiliated with the AEN] on each of 50 to 100 campuses,” said Mark Yudof, chairman of the organization's national board of advisers.

“We’re well-connected with the leadership of higher education in America. There are strong relationships," he said. However, he added, “We don’t delude ourselves. Most faculty don’t want to be involved."

A constitutional law expert who, among other roles, served as president of the University of California system and also of the University of Minnesota, Yudof told Haaretz he would like to offer academics the kind of support he wishes he had when running those large universities. “When I had matters of BDS or controversies about Jewish studies, I had almost no outside help,” he said.

"It’s not enough to just express outrage or write letters of condemnation to administrators you’ve never met [when issues arise]," Yudof explained. “It’s much better to be constructive and prevent these things from happening.”

Swygert, a member of the AEN advisory panel. "Most of the voices on most of the campuses are either flat-out anti-Israel, vaguely anti-Israel or silent," he says.Credit: Howard University Office of Communications

The situation on American campuses is growing increasingly fraught for faculty members supporting Israel and other causes, say some of those involved.

“It is a new phase. This kind of violence and aggression is [part of] a larger trend of what’s happening on college campuses,” said Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, another organization that works with academics. He cited as examples the current friction between black students, their allies and university administrators.

Campuses are increasingly hostile to anyone who identifies as pro-Israel, but to bring about long-term change in this situation, Romirowsky asserted, lecturers and professors must be involved.

“Students are transient and faculty are forever And the faculty feel as marginalized as students [do],” he told Haaretz. “Faculty are not very willing to speak out [for or against BDS] for fear of not getting tenure, and not being invited to faculty parties."

'Forthright action'

Lead funding for the AEN's $2-million budget is coming from The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and from another donor who wants to remain anonymous, said one source who is involved in the effort but did not want to be named.

“We will encourage and persuade university presidents, boards of trustees, regents, as well as other administrators, to speak out against proposed boycotts and also to endorse forthright action against efforts to disrupt and deny free speech to others,” said a letter sent by the group on Wednesday to the approximately 200 college and university faculty members who have signed on to the project thus far.

Waltzer, AEN's executive director. “We want to promote a sane middle ground of support for a two-state solution" on campuses," he says.Credit: Kurt Stepnitz / MSU University Relations

“We will also provide support, advice, and backup to faculty and students as they confront anti-Israel or anti-Semitic movements on campus," the letter continued. "We seek also to illuminate the menacing shadows of anti-Semitism that too often accompany BDS efforts on campuses, and which catalyze deep inter-group suspicion and social division.”

The AEN will hold small regional gatherings in the coming months and a national conference next May, said Waltzer. It also plans to offer grants of $2,000-$5,000 to enable faculty members to organize events on their campuses – for example, a discussion of Israel and Palestine beyond the conflict. “We’re interested in promoting conversation," he added, "not shutting it down.”

Confrontations with anti-Israel elements on American campuses isn’t a new phenomenon: In 2010, then-Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was shouted down repeatedly at the University of California in Irvine, by Muslim protesters.

On November 3, Israeli legal scholar and ethicist Prof. Moshe Halbertal was heckled at the University of Minnesota, and about two weeks later, at the University of Texas in Austin, Palestine Solidarity Committee protestors chanting “long live the intifada” demonstrated before a planned talk by Dr. Gil-Li Vardi of Stanford University on “The Birth of the IDF’s Military Culture.” During that event, a verbal and near physical confrontation erupted involving Prof. Ami Pedahzur, director of the Institute for Israel Studies at the Texas university. Pedahzur reported that he subsequently received death threats.

Debating Gaza

“I taught constitutional law. I’m really pro-free speech and academic freedom,” AEN's Yudof told Haaretz. “My No. 1 aim is to have more robust conversations on campus where you can debate issues of Gaza or the settlements. But what’s happening on many campuses is that they’re increasingly closed [to that]."

Each campus, he continued, "will have its own set of circumstances and decide what members of the network want to do. We will encourage them to meet with provosts and deans to advise them if BDS or anti-Semitic issues arise. We’ll put out some educational materials.

"You may be a brilliant chemistry professor but not know the history of the whole Middle East,” said Yudof. “We want to be responsive to what they [the faculty members] need.”

The AEN's 14-member advisory council features an impressive array of veteran university and college administrators and experienced faculty, representing a variety of ethnic and religious communities. They include longtime Jewish community leaders Rabbi David Ellenson, formerly president of the Reform movement’s seminary and now associated with Brandeis University; Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University; and Lawrence Summers, president emeritus of Harvard – as well as two others associated with that institution: experimental psychologist Prof. Steven Pinker, Prof. Gabriella Blum, an expert in international law. Also on the advisory panel is H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus of Washington's historically all-black Howard University.

“It’s important that academics of some notoriety be a focal point for folk who stand for academic freedom and also for persons who are demonstrating a commitment to the State of Israel,” Swygert told Haaretz.

Swygert, a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University’s law school each summer between 1981 and 1990, recently returned to Israel as a member of the Central Intelligence Agency’s external advisory committee.

“Right now, truth be told, most of the voices on most of the campuses are either flat-out anti-Israel or vaguely anti-Israel or silent when Israel is being bashed. That’s a fact,” said Swygert. “Hopefully we can get people, faculty, presidents, chancellors and provosts to speak to this issue.”

Many other players are already working to confront pro-BDS sentiment on American campuses. Some focus their efforts on lecturers and professors, while others – including projects sponsored by a spectrum of groups, ranging from the American Jewish Committee to the Zionist Organization of America – try to bolster efforts by pro-Israel students.

Alphabet soup

The expanding alphabet soup of anti-BDS groups on campus includes: AIPAC; Amcha Initiative; the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise; Hillel; the Israel Action Network; the Israel Institute; J Street U; The Third Narrative; The David Project; Stand With Us; and the Louis D. Brandeis Center.

For his part, Romirowsky, of SPME, noted that his organization has 40,000 dues-paying members on 3,200 campuses in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia. Established in 2002, it has an annual budget of approximately $700,000, and among other things, takes groups of 15 to 20 deans of law and medical schools on specialized summertime trips to Israel, to help them develop relationships with their counterparts there.

SPME – which Romirowsky describes as bipartisan, although it tends to work most closely with groups on the conservative end of the political spectrum, like the Committee for Accuracy in the Middle East – also produces a publication that monitors BDS activities and runs monthly conference-calls to update university faculty and administrators around the country.

Already there is a whiff of competitiveness in the air between these various groups.

“We know that there are organizations doing some of this stuff, but we’ll be newer and better,” AEN's Waltzer told Haaretz.

“I don’t think other groups are as well resourced [as the AEN]," Yudof said. “Often they’re mainly a listserve.”

Countered Romirowsky, “You have a lot of groups coming to the scene and some are ‘johnny-come-latelies.’ In my own biased opinion, we’ve been doing this since 2002, and there is success in that [AEN] model but not enough support for faculty initiatives.

"I would like to hope there’s room for everybody and to share resources and be effective,” he said. “We are stronger in numbers.”

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