My Students Are Considering Boycotting Israel. That Would Be a Serious Mistake

Isolating Israeli academics from their counterparts overseas only weakens their efforts to combat the hyper-nationalism of the Israeli right.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in New York, July 9, 2014.
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in New York, July 9, 2014. Credit: AP
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

By day, I’m a professor: I teach graduate students at the City University of New York (CUNY). Last Friday night, those students - via the Doctoral Students Council that represents them - almost voted to boycott universities in Israel.

It’s worth reading the boycott resolution. Paragraph fifteen says the Doctoral Students Council opposes “ethnic or religious discrimination.” How reassuring. For the Council, evidently, holding a debate on boycotting Israeli universities over Shabbat doesn’t constitute “religious discrimination.” (Last Friday in New York City, Shabbat began at 6:51pm. The debate lasted until 9:30pm). Nor, presumably, would holding a debate on disability rights on the seventh floor of a building with no elevator.

Thankfully, the resolution’s opponents - those of whom who weren’t at home or synagogue observing Shabbat - convinced the audience on Friday night to postpone the vote.

But the resolution’s problems go beyond timing. Paragraph three declares that “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights.” That’s true. They also incubate some of the most passionate opposition to those policies. “Israeli professors and students at Israeli universities who speak out against discriminatory or criminal policies against Palestinians are ostracized and ridiculed.” Yes, sometimes. Yet many Israeli professors and students do speak out against their government’s policies, because compared to most students and faculty in the world, they enjoy considerable freedom of speech. Does isolating them from their counterparts overseas really strengthen their efforts to defend liberal, cosmopolitan ideas against the hyper-nationalism of the Israeli right?

But the core question is: What is the Doctoral Students Council boycotting Israeli universities for? What outcome does it desire between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Paragraph three endorses the BDS movement’s call to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel as long as it “violates international law and Palestinian rights.” As the BDS movement defines it, that means “ending its [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.”

Let’s unpack that. For the BDS movement, “all Arab lands” doesn’t just mean the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It doesn’t even just mean all of East Jerusalem, including the Western Wall. It also includes the Golan Heights. That’s nuts. Yes, a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines is a moral imperative, and the Israeli government has disgraced itself by refusing to publicly support one. But does it really further human rights to demand that Israel return the Golan to whichever of the monstrous forces now contending for power in Syria might claim it?

The BDS call also demands “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” If “full equality” means equal access to government services, absolutely. If it means ending Israel’s de facto exclusion of Palestinian-Arab parties from government coalitions, absolutely. But if it means ending Israel’s right of return for Jews, that’s an entirely different matter. Many European democracies maintain preferential immigration policies for their dominant ethnic groups. A Palestinian state would presumably do the same for Palestinians.

If you interpret “full equality” as erasing Israel’s Jewish character, then you’d be better be prepared to boycott a Palestinian state, when one is born, too. Article Four of the Palestinian Constitution, after all, says that although “respect and sanctity of all other heavenly religions shall be maintained,” “Islam is the official religion in Palestine. The principles of Islamic Sharia shall be the main source of legislation.” If a Palestinian state can privilege one nationality and one religion while also seeking to ensure the rights of religious and national minorities, then a Jewish state can do the same. To be sure, Israel must do a far better job of reconciling that tension than it does now. But it doesn’t deserve to be boycotted until it abandons its Jewish character, and it’s easy to read the CUNY resolution as suggesting it should.

Finally, for the BDS movement - and the CUNY graduate students who want to endorse it - “international law and Palestinian rights” requires “Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.” This, too, poses a problem. There’s no question that Palestinians deserve public recognition of the trauma they experienced during the Nakba, substantial compensation, and some return, especially of original refugees, to their homes.

But many countries were created, as Israel was, by dispossessing large numbers of people. Very few allow the dispossessed - and especially their descendants - to fully reclaim the property they lost. A Muslim from Bombay now living in Pakistan cannot, of her own volition, cross into India and reclaim the ancestral house in which Hindus now live. Nor can a Croat forced from her home in Belgrade. Nor can a Jew forced from her home in Baghdad. The point of partition is to ensure that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are no longer a stateless people, denied citizenship in the country in which they live. Demanding that Israel stop thwarting that effort is legitimate. Demanding that Israel undo the historical wrongs committed at its founding, by contrast, means holding it to a standard few other countries could meet.

Unlike many critics of the BDS movement, I don’t think boycotting Israel is anti-Semitic. (Though holding BDS votes on Shabbat may be). I don’t think boycotting Israel requires also boycotting every country that abuses human rights more. After all, some Jews boycotted the Soviet Union when it was oppressing its Jewish population in the 1970s without boycotting Idi Amin or the Khmer Rouge. And I appreciate the fact that the BDS movement - unlike Hamas - practices nonviolence.

But I disagree with the movement’s goals. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the story of a powerful state oppressing a stateless people. But it’s also the story of rival, equally legitimate, nationalisms. In the BDS movement’s call to action, that second story is simply absent. The BDS call to action speaks of the “Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination” without any reference to a similar Jewish right. The proposed CUNY boycott resolution mentions the Palestinians killed in the recent Gaza War without acknowledging that Israeli Jews died too.

If Jewish nationalism is no more legitimate than Palestinian nationalism, then the converse is also true. The BDS movement, sadly, does not recognize that. I hope CUNY will.

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