Opinion |

Blacklists: When Our Fellow Israel Defenders Go Too Far

We're deeply opposed to BDS. But we're also concerned when defenders of Israel, like AMCHA, embrace the very strategy – of blacklisting and boycotting – they lament and oppose

Kenneth Waltzer
Mark G. Yudof
Pro-BDS protest
Pro-BDS protest, Oakland, California. August 16, 2014Credit: Alex Chis, Flickr
Kenneth Waltzer
Mark G. Yudof

The Jewish people are not renowned for their unanimity—in yeshivas, politics, board rooms, the media and certainly the Knesset docile acceptance of a single point of view is elusive. Jews embrace a wide variety of opinions on virtually every topic.

But respect for diversity of discourse does not mean we should finesse disagreements—even when they involve colleagues and organizations whom we admire. This is certainly true for those organizations, like the Academic Engagement Network that we lead, deeply committed to opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and to promoting free speech on university campuses.

Recently AMCHA, an effective anti-BDS stalwart, has tracked anti-Semitism on California campuses, announcing it is keeping a list of faculty boycottsupporters and displaying it with interactive maps on their website. Since March 29, AMCHA has been showing the Academic Boycotters Map: Distribution of Faculty Endorsing the Academic Boycott of Israel, which lists faculty members on U.S. campuses who have endorsed statements promoting or supporting the academic boycott.

AMCHA believes that such lists are salient measures of campus anti-Semitism and a guide for discerning consumers about on what campuses Jewish students are likely to feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. In our view the AMCHA approach essentially promotes a blacklist. We believe such an approach is unwise and unwarranted.

Participants wave Israeli's flags during the annual gay pride parade in Tel Aviv, June 13, 2014. Credit: AFP

Faculty support in the form of speech or signature for boycott cannot and should not be identified as an accurate surrogate measure for campus anti-Semitism. Claims about anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, which the University of California Board of Regents has said should have no place on campus, require more substantial evidence than faculty endorsements of BDS or their offering signatures in specific BDS campaigns. While anti-Zionism may often spawn anti-Semitic statements and acts or be motivated by hate, opposition to Israel is not necessarily hatred for the Jewish people.

Some may argue that there is little that is wrong in the act of gathering and recirculating what is already public knowledge. Nonetheless there is still much that is worrisome in embracing blacklisting. Bluntly a blacklist is antithetical to core university and constitutional values. Those who oppose BDS embrace reasoned discourse about Israel on campuses and are offended by the effort to isolate Israeli universities and academics; they seek to promote open intellectual exchange. A blacklist in its nature may deter participation in campus conversations about complex issues.

AMCHA has and should continue to look at evidence beyond faculty petition signatures. It has and should continue to criticize faculty and students participating in an obsessive, anti-Semitic form of anti-Zionism that imports into today’s conversations the horrific claims and themes familiar from the long history of anti-Semitism. British writer Alan Johnson tells us: “Anti-Semitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical anti-Semitism.” A blood libel, though protected speech it may be, is entirely worthy of condemnation.

Those who support the boycott and propagate anti-Israelism on campus already work purposively to polarize and cut off discussion and push aside complex thought. They are uninterested in conversation. BDS forces work to block and narrow engagement, to substitute slogans for reason, and to highlight falsehood rather than explore complexity. Generally, they insist that there is only a single framework – a colonial settler framework – within which Israeli-Palestinian relations can be comprehended. They tell one side of the story only.

Anti-Israel protests in Paris.Credit: © Olga Besnard | Dreamstime.com

A blacklist, in historical context, may suggest to some that the defenders of Israel are embracing the very strategy they lament and oppose. We agree with AMCHA that there is something fundamentally wrong with the view so prevalent among some faculty on some campuses which identifies the State of Israel with evil and wrongdoing; but we believe that the best way to confront such ideas is through open and aggressive intellectual debate.

A final note: The Jewish Voice for Peace organization is currently circulating a petition that incorrectly identifies the Academic Engagement Network as embracing blacklists. This is not the case. Shoddy research strikes again. Even the slightest effort would show that the Academic Engagement Network stands for the defense of academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus and does not support blacklists. The answer to untruthful speech is truthful speech, not censorship. We in the Academic Engagement Network oppose BDS and JVP for precisely that reason.

Mark G. Yudof is the Chair of the Academic Engagement Network's Board of Advisors.

Kenneth Waltzer is the Executive Director of the Academic Engagement Network.

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