How a BDS Panel Was Canceled - Then Reinstated - at Religion Scholars' Annual Meeting

Protests, angry fall-outs and charges of online harassment at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting in Boston - a sign of just how contentious BDS has become in academia

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FILE PHOTO - A Pro-Palestinian gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine", a beach event celebrating Tel Aviv, in central Paris on August 13, 2015
FILE PHOTO - A Pro-Palestinian gathering on the sidelines of "Tel Aviv Sur Seine", a beach event celebrating Tel Aviv, in central Paris on August 13, 2015Credit: AFP

The cancelation of a panel discussing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement at the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting sparked protests, angry fall-outs and charges of online harassment - a sign of just how contentious discussion of the issue has become in academia.

Ultimately, the protest led to a partial reversal of the decision to cancel the panel. On Sunday, it was reinstated on the program, re-billed as an “informal conversation” during which the panelists would be permitted to read the papers they had prepared for the occasion, according to one panelist.

The BDS panel had been set for Sunday afternoon - at the end of a four-day annual conference in Boston for the 9,000-member AAR, the umbrella organization for scholars of religion, whose mission is to “promote ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions, and values.”

The panel slated to discuss BDS was billed to include Hatem Bazian of Zaytuna College and University of California, Berkeley; Peter Pettit of Muhlenberg College; Brant Rosen, Jewish Voice for Peace; Laurie Zoloth, the newly named Orthodox Jewish Dean of University of Chicago Divinity School and past president of the AAR; and Stephen Zunes, University of San Francisco - as well as an unnamed “Unregistered Participant.”

The decision to cancel the session, announced Friday by the organization’s Executive Committee, was recounted and harshly criticized in a post by one of the panelists, Hatem Bazian, on the website of Islamic Human Rights Commission. Bazian charged that “the panel was scheduled for Sunday afternoon and the speakers opposing BDS withdraw the last minute thus pressuring the AAR to cancel it. The pro-BDS speakers all confirmed and made the needed plans to attend but AAR leadership caved-in and cancelled the panel and removed all names from the program. Censoring Palestine and BDS at the AAR is unacceptable, undemocratic and counter to the long history of religiously led BDS movements including Gandhi, MLK and the ANC in South Africa.”

The post on the IHRC site “urged’ readers to send an Email to Jack Fitzmier, the AAR’s executive director, “and demand the voice of Palestinian civil society and BDS be heard at AAR.” The post also published his Email address.

Another scheduled panelist, Stephen Zunes, expressed disappointment in a Facebook post that he would not be presenting the paper he had prepared, because the AAR executive committee was “apparently upset that some of the papers would reflect negatively on the Israeli occupation and illegal settlements.”

The controversy surrounding the panel’s cancellation intensified Saturday, when University of California at Irvine Professor Mark LeVine, a member of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) academic council, took to Facebook to attack Rachel Harris, Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at the University of Illinois, for her comments in an email chain discussing the AAR events.

When the panel was still set to take place, Harris, he charged, wrote to her fellow academics and “had the nerve to advise colleagues to go to the room and if pro-BDS people were there talking informally to 'take note' of who attends and make sure there are no 'ringers' brought in, one would imagine, to actually educate participants in the principles and realities of BDS.” In that email, he said, Harris had advised those on the panel and in the audience not to challenge the “set messaging” of BDS advocates because “if you debate them on their terms and have a referendum on Israel you will lose the debate and probably your self-respect.”

LeVine wrote that “this kind of cowardice by the AAR and by anti-BDS professors is indicative of the untenability of their position this is a pathetic attempt by anti-BDS forces, who know they stand no chance of winning an open argument, to shut down debate, and the AAR is pathetic for clearly supporting this ruse.”

He then “advised” his followers to write to Harris and protest to Fitzmeir, the head of the AAR, and posted their email addresses.

Harris responded to Haaretz that a private message chain had been publicly posted inappropriately. The exchange had been her advice to “a group of AAR members who realized that BDS was becoming active in their organization and wanted to begin to organize against it.”

She said she had told them to take note of those who “were allies” in fighting BDS and also to look at who was advocating for it in order to “understand whether these were BDS activists who were infiltrating the organization in order to push it into a particular political position or whether they were longstanding AAR members who felt that this was a direction their organization should move in.”

Harris accused LeVine of taking an Email “about academic grassroots activism” and “cast[ing] it as a nefarious name gathering exercise accusing me of passing on whatever info I or others gleaned in order to pass it on to Canary Mission or Stand With Us to engage in harassment. He has no evidence of me doing this now or ever.”

Canary Mission is a database that was founded in 2015 “to document the people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses in North America.” Critics charge that the group’s aim is to intimidate and blackmail professors who criticize Israel and stifle academic discourse.

Harris stressed that she opposes all forms of suppressing discourse. “I believe in academic debate. I also believe that the merits of the argument – that an academic and cultural boycott is an anathema to the values most academics hold to be integral to their profession – is a compelling defeat to BDS. It is the reason that BDS was defeated at the Modern Language Association by a margin of 2:1.”

In January, the U.S. Modern Language Association rejected a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel. In June the American Anthropological Association did the same.

Several of Harris’s friends and colleagues harshly criticized LeVine on his Facebook page for “doxxing” Harris.

“If you want to discuss the BDS movement or Israel and Palestine it is welcome but harassing and targeting one individual due to your frustration is a bullying tactic,” wrote one.

Harris, who is not an AAR member, also stressed that “there was no pressure applied by anyone external to the panel participants and I assume that I need to emphasize here - by Jewish community groups - to have the event cancelled.”

Harris’s account of the cancellation, which she said came from colleagues slated to appear on the panel, was that they had felt duped and ambushed into a confrontation with “activists who were using the status of the other panel members (including a former president of the AAR) to bolster the legitimacy of their position.”

When the panel was proposed earlier in the year, she said, they had been told they would be taking part in a “meta discussion about BDS in academia” and how it is impacting the profession in a forum with other AAR members.

Ultimately, she said the lineup of the panel was radically different, with non-scholarly participants who were not part of the organization, and a disturbingly unclear mention of an unnamed “unregistered participant’

Zunes, the panel member who expressed disappointment with the decision on Facebook, also said he didn’t believe the move should be blamed on outside pressure.

“I would caution against assuming that the decision to cancel the panel was because “the Zionists” made them do it,” he wrote. “The AAR executive committee’s decision is theirs and theirs alone, whether it was motivated at least in part by pressure from right-wing supporters of the Israeli occupation, corporate interests impacted by BDS, Islamophobes and anti-Arab racists, supporters of Trump administration Middle East policy, or others opposed to human rights and international law. The problem with the AAR leadership is not that they are a victim of some supposedly all-powerful Jewish cabal, but that they have so little regard for academic freedom that they would take this unprecedented action. This will no doubt discourage AAR members from organizing panels on controversial topics in the future out of fear that they may also be cancelled at the last minute. Indeed, this may have been in part what drove the executive committee’s decision in the first place.”

The panelists and AAR executive director did not respond to requests for comment by Haaretz.

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