Jewish Professors Across America Launching anti-BDS 'University'

Israel and the Academy website, going live at the end of the month, aims to provide more 'nuanced' understanding of Middle East conflict.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A pro-BDS student on a U.S. campus.
A pro-BDS student on a U.S. campus.Credit: Gili Getz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In the latest initiative aimed at countering the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel, a group of Jewish-American university professors has created an online database of materials and resources designed to help academics obtain a more “nuanced” understanding of the Middle East conflict.

The website’s most notable feature is being billed as “the world’s largest public library of course syllabi in Jewish studies and Israel studies.”

“Our aim to go beyond the usual debate about whether Israel is the greatest country in the world or the most wretched country in the world,” said Cary Nelson, former president of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) and the driving force behind the initiative.

“By gaining access to all this material, we hope people will start to think about Jewish culture, Jewish history and Jewish politics — not to mention Israeli culture, Israeli history and Israeli politics — in a much more nuanced way than they are presented by the BDS movement.”

The new online database, which will be free of charge, is set to launch at the end of the month.

According to Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, more than 450 syllabi have already been uploaded to the site, called “Israel and the Academy”.

Nelson, who served as president of AAUP for six years, has been at the forefront of the U.S. fight against academic boycotts of Israel. At the same time, he has often spoken out against the Israeli occupation and expressed sharp criticism of the Israeli government.

In recent years, a number of professional academic associations have passed resolutions to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. They include the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association. A resolution to boycott Israel by the much larger American Anthropological Association was rejected in June, but only by a very slim margin.

Speaking with Haaretz by phone, Nelson said the new project has not received any money from the Israeli government or any Israel advocacy organizations, and is largely the fruit of volunteer work.

According to its mission statement, Israel and the Academy “aims to educate, inform and empower those who believe in the existence of a secure and democratic Jewish state, and who are convinced that goal can only be secured by providing for the aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

“To make that possible,” the statement continues, “we must bring an end to efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state and to prevent the mutual empathy and dialogue that is necessary to negotiate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The project was conceived in May 2015 during a brainstorming session attended by a group of Jewish-American professors concerned by the growing impact of the BDS movement on academia.

“The main catalyst was that the BDS movement was starting to make far more detailed claims against Israel, and we needed to find a way to address them,” said Nelson. “Also, we found that the debate about Israel was happening within academic disciplines, with historians talking to historians and anthropologists talking to anthropologists. We thought it was important to provide a platform to enable discussion of these issues across disciplines.”

On its website, the BDS movement justifies the academic boycott of Israel on the grounds that “Israeli universities are major, willing and persistent accomplices in Israel’s regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.” The website claims that “thousands of international academics” support this boycott.

In addition to the database of course syllabi, the new website will also feature more standard Israel advocacy material, including flyers and video links, as well as updates on developments in BDS campaigns, both in academic associations and student government organizations.

Although the project was initiated by American university professors — almost all of them Jewish and most of them from campuses in the Midwest and East Coast — the advisory committee also includes Israeli academics.

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