Over the last decade, the numbers of Chinese and Indian students at American universities have substantially increased. At the same time, faculty and students have campaigned to boycott China and India over the status of Tibet and Kashmir, to reject Chinese and Indian funding, and to shun collaboration with individual Chinese and Indian researchers. There have been organized assaults upon Chinese guest speakers and propaganda campaigns inciting students to purge universities of Chinese or Indian “influence,” including that of American citizens with a Chinese or Indian background. When students of Indian background object, they are informed that, wittingly or not, they are part of a global Hindu conspiracy.
Of course, none of this has happened. It is almost inconceivable that any of it would happen. All of this, however, has been directed against the State of Israel, and against American Jewish students, since the inception of bds, the campaign for “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” against the Jewish state. This dubious selectivity is one unique aspect of bds. Another is the scale of its ambition. Generally, the introversions of Social Justice stop well before the water’s edge. There are global issues, most notably and vaguely the environment, but bds is the only form of campus activism to attack a single state internationally—and a single group domestically.
bds activists seek to curtail the freedom of others.
bds seeks to transform the atmosphere of university intellectual and social life, in order to effect changes in government and business policy. bds activists seek to control the intellectual environment, to create a “safe space” for the indoctrination of a biased and often false view of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, the practice of bds tends towards the abuse of free speech, in that bds activists frequently seek to curtail the freedom of others.
bds uses strategies of exemplary stigmatization, intended to demonize the State of Israel and its supporters. Inevitably, and often by design, such intimidatory strategies include charging American Jews as complicit with the “racist” and “colonialist” Israeli state, or with “neoconservative” policies at home. While the freedom of speech of Jewish and pro-Israel students is bds’s primary target, its strategies aim to curtail the freedom of speech of all students and faculty.
The bds campaign models itself after the Anti-Apartheid Movement against white minority rule in South Africa. The bds Movement was initiated at Ramallah in July 2005, in a joint appeal by some 170 Palestinian unions, political groups, professional associations, and “popular resistance committees.” The Palestinian groups called, in an artfully vague wording, for Israel to withdraw from “all occupied Arab lands”; to recognize the “fundamental rights” of Arab Israelis, who are purported to live under apartheid; and to comply with U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 of December 1948, which called for the “right of return of Palestinian refugees” to what is now Israel, and which, as a non-binding resolution, has no legal weight.
The July 2005 declaration emerged from a rash of local calls for boycotts during the Second Intifada. In September 2000, the Palestinians launched a war of suicide bombings after Yasser Arafat had refused the offer of a Palestinian state at the Camp David talks. The Palestinians lost their war. By Arafat’s death in November 2004, the Israel Defense Forces were once more in military control of the West Bank. The Palestinian defeat was confirmed at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit of February 2005, where the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, reaffirmed the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to a negotiated two-state solution.
President Abbas, incidentally, has refused to endorse bds.
Throughout the Second Intifada, Palestinian leaders of all factions appealed for external support, frequently by outright lies; for instance, in the claim of a massacre of civilians in the fighting at Jenin in 2002. Like terrorism, this propaganda was a form of asymmetric warfare, intended to draw the conflict onto a battlefield more amenable to Palestinian claims. Since 2005, it has continued as part of a longstanding effort to offset political weakness and military defeat by “internationalizing” the conflict.
The strategies of internationalization include calling for military intervention by the UN or nato on human rights grounds; the pursuit of binding resolutions against Israel from the UN Security Council; the multiplication of non-binding resolutions from UN committees and the General Assembly; the prosecution of the State of Israel, and Israeli political and military leaders, in foreign or supranational courts; and the pursuit of economic and cultural boycotts. These strategies were always part of the Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian struggle to undo the defeats of 1948 and 1967. They have become known as “lawfare”: war by means of law.
bds is the informal wing of “lawfare.” It seeks to isolate and attack Israel’s political legitimacy, economy, and cultural links with other states, by changing the rules of civil institutions, and the customs of acceptable behavior, including what can and cannot be said in a university.
In the liberal democracies of the West, organizations sympathetic to bds include Islamists of all stripes, Protestant churches with a liberation theology streak, trade and academic unions, and some members of the extra-parliamentary Left and the left-of-center media. There is little organized bds activism among parliamentary conservative parties, or civil organizations associated with conservative parties, or the more traditional churches, or right-of-center newspapers. On the Anglophone Right, support for bds remains a personal eccentricity, as in the case of British Conservatives like the erstwhile oil consultant Alan Duncan, who is now a Minister of State in Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office. Generally, and especially on campus, bds marches through the institutions with its left foot forward.
Efforts to boycott Israel are older than the Israeli state. In 1945, one of the founding objectives of the Arab League was to “frustrate further Jewish development in Palestine by means of a boycott against Zionist products.” After 1948, the Arab Boycott extended to economic and diplomatic pressure against foreign governments and the shunning of private businesses trading with Israel. The Boycott, and the unified Arab “rejectionist” front against Israel, collapsed after the Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1980. Since 2000, a new rejectionist front has arisen, largely sponsored in the Middle East by Iran, and largely supported in the West by the hard Left.
Efforts to boycott Israel are older than the Israeli state.
We understand acts of terrorism as the propaganda of the deed, but lawfare is also that kind of propaganda. It is perhaps harder to detect, too. Although Western supporters of bds are de facto allies of the homophobes and head-choppers of fellow rejectionists like the Iranian regime and Sunni Islamist groups, bds speaks the language of liberal tolerance, universal law, and human rights. And who could be against that?
In Europe, support for bds has manifested both in street protests and on campuses. During the Second Intifada, there were large and often violent protests against Israel in European capitals, organized by “red-green” coalitions of hard Left and Islamist groups. There was also an increase in assaults upon European Jews. A contemporary development, the errors surrounding the invasion and occupation of Iraq, saw a sharp increase in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In cities across Europe, trade unions and town councils declared their anti-Zionism and support for bds. Meanwhile, there were repeated calls for bds from faculty and student groups. British universities have led the way.
All this reflects local conditions in Europe: the endurance of the hard Left and indigenous traditions of popular anti-Semitism, and the rise of Islamists as the spokesmen of broadly intolerant and often unassimilated Muslim populations. In the United States, however, bds is primarily a phenomenon of the campus, and of certain departments on the campus. We must be fair here. In the department of chemistry, they do experiments. In the business school, they teach business. But in departments like Middle Eastern Studies, Anthropology, and English, they teach the politics of virtue. This too reflects local conditions.
The ideological foundations of bds are no different from those of other campus groups which seek to restrict other people’s liberties and expression for their own good, and for the collective good that is “social justice.” This ideology can be traced to 1968, the Year Zero of the modern Left. This was the year in which the intellectuals of the Left, turning from the politics of class war to the politics of collective identity, ditched the Western working classes, and sought new allies at home and abroad. At home, the New Left embraced Black nationalism and turned on the Jews, who had only recently become White, as bourgeois capitalists. Abroad, the New Left lauded any “anti-imperialist” who promised to replace the perennially disappointing Western workers as the foot soldiers of international revolution.
Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year in which the New Left turned on Israel in the wake of the Six-Day War. It is not clear if Israel’s conquest of the remainder of the Palestine Mandate caused the breach, so much as aggravated the New Left’s hostility to capitalism, bourgeois society, and imperialism. At this point, Israel still had a socialist government and economy, and was not especially bourgeois in habits. But, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained, the destruction of the Jewish state was a price worth paying for the rise of proletarian Arab consciousness.
The New Left was quite Old Left when it came to Jews and Zionism. The New Left talked up its anti-Soviet stance and its rejection of the polarities of the Cold War, but the language of the New Left’s anti-Zionism was of 1950s Soviet origin. Israel was a “Nazi” or “fascist” state, a “racist” outpost of American “imperialism.” This cant, with the sole novelty of the “apartheid” slur, survives intact in bds, like a vintage slice of Crosby, Stills & Nash vinyl, still in its original wrapper.
Where do our young people learn this foul language? From their teachers, of course, especially the significant minority that George Orwell called “Bolshy professors.” The faculty-led U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel formed after the 2008–09 conflict in Gaza. In April 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies voted to boycott Israeli universities. In December 2013, the American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association joined the boycott.
Since then, the boycotters have both won and lost ground, but the net result has been the normalization of bds as a respectable, even obligatory, topic for debate. The Modern Language Association condemned Israel in June 2014, but the organizers of its 2015 meeting persuaded the sponsors of a pro-bds resolution to drop their proposal before it went to the vote. The American Anthropological Association joined the boycott in November 2015, but changed its mind in a narrow second ballot in 2016. In the same year, the American Historical Association voted down a proposal to censure Israel brought by a pro-bds group, Historians Against the War. Meanwhile, the “intersectional perspective” of the National Women’s Studies Association led to a pro-bds vote in late 2015.
bds has beeen normalized as a respectable, even obligatory, topic for debate.
The methods of bds are also as familiar as revivals of Hair. The troops are rallied and indoctrinated by social media, rather than mimeographed handbills. But bds works by what used to be called Happenings, a kind of Situationism in which planned eruptions of disorder are designed to reveal the fictitious nature of bourgeois liberalism. Consider, for instance, the Die-In, a pantomime revival of the Vietnam-style protest, in which people lie in the street and pretend to be dead Palestinians. Or the Apartheid Wall, the highlight of the annual theatrical that is Israeli Apartheid Week, in which pro-Palestinian activists erect a mock wall, and force students to pass through a mock checkpoint on their way into a lecture hall. Or the posting of mock eviction notices on the doors of rooms in student dormitories.
What about that old classic, storming the offices of the university administration, like the New York University students who accused their university’s board of being on a “Zionist payroll”? Or the return of Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” in the disinviting of guest speakers suspected of Zionist sympathies, and the sabotage of free exchange with those guests who do make it to campus? Most nostalgic of all, in 2016 we saw the revival of the romance between the New Left and radical Black movements. The Black Lives Matter (blm) activist Frank Leon Roberts, who has complained on Twitter about the “monopoly” of influence wielded by “Jewish elites,” now teaches America’s first blm course. He is on the Zionist payroll at nyu.
In 2015, Black Solidarity With Palestine republished an open letter from 1970, originally a New York Times advertisement by the Committee of Black Americans for Truth about the Middle-East. The “solidarity rhetorics” of 1970 are identical to that of bds. Israel is “the outpost of American imperialism in the Middle East.” Zionism is “a reactionary racist ideology.” Israel, along with Rhodesia and South Africa, is one of three “privileged white settler-states.” The “world Zionist movement” is “big business.” The Palestinian groups are “progressive.” Israel practices “Jewish supremacy,” and must be “de-Zionized.” But the campaigners are, they insist, “not anti-Jewish.”
Some of the signatories to the 1970 letter were still capable, if not of critical thought, then of clicking a mouse in 2016. They include Angela Davis, who was perhaps Herbert Marcuse’s most successful pupil, providing that success is measured by useful idiocy.
The internationalist aspect of this old romance is rekindled in Judith Butler’s mad interpretation of Hamas as “part of the global Left.” So too the current phrase “no-platforming” will be familiar to anyone who studied in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. Trotskyite and Maoist groups tried to recruit supporters with the slogan “No platform for fascists”—and by an anti-Zionism which characterizes Israel as the platform of America’s fascist imperialism. At home, the fascist who must not be platformed today is, as in the old Stalinist propaganda, a “Zionist Jew.”
In September 2016, City University of New York (cuny) released a twenty-four-page report, commissioned following bds-related disorder and alleged anti-Semitic behavior by bds activists on cuny campuses. The authors were Barbara Jones, a retired federal judge, and Paul Shechtman, an ex-prosecutor.
One of the events considered was a November 2015 rally at Hunter College, co-sponsored by the faculty union and the Professional Staff Congress. Jewish students were heckled with shouts of “Jews Out of cuny” and “Death to Jews.” Another occurred at Brooklyn College in February 2016. bds activists invaded a faculty council meeting which was addressing budgets for diversity-related issues. When the chair of the council asked the activists to desist, he was derided as a “Zionist Jew.”
The First Amendment clearly permits statements advocating bds. The Israeli-Arab conflict can be construed as a consequence of European imperialism, a religious conflict, a national conflict, a civilizational conflict, or a civil war. Any full and thoughtful analysis might refer to all of these perspectives. There is, however, a difference between shouting “cuny Out of Israel,” and shouting “Jews Out of cuny.” That difference, as Lawrence Summers observed in 2013, is the difference between bds program and its implementation. The objectives of bds, Summers argued, are “anti-Semitic in effect.” Perhaps because the means of bds propaganda are malicious and false, its ends tend towards intimidation and violence.
Jones and Shechtman conclude that a publicly funded university can intervene against speech acts only if they are part of “a course of conduct so pervasive or severe that it denies a person’s ability to pursue an education or participate in University life.” The premeditated and violent disruption of guest speakers clearly impedes the free exchange of ideas on which education and university life are supposed to rest. But do other forms of bds activism meet the “pervasive and severe” criterion?
In early 2016, the amcha Initiative, which was founded by two Jewish professors in the California university system, surveyed Jewish undergraduates at the 113 U.S. undergraduate schools with the largest proportion of Jewish students: 57 percent of respondents reported the “targeting of Jewish students for harm, anti-Semitic expression, or bds activity.” Confirming the perceived linkage between bds and intimidatory behavior towards Jews, a larger and more detailed 2016 survey by the Cohen Center at Brandeis University found a high correlation between anti-Semitic expressions and acts and the presence on campus of Students for Justice in Palestine (sjp), one of the leading bds groups.
Overall, 15 percent of the Brandeis respondents felt that their campus was a “hostile environment” for Jews. There was, however, considerable variance within this response at the state universities of New York and California: 43 percent of Jewish students at ucla felt that their environment was in some degree hostile, and 41 percent at cuny-Brooklyn—both responses which suggest “pervasive and severe” damage to free speech. But only 2 percent at usc and 10 percent at cuny-Queens agreed. The causes of this variance remain to be clarified. The possible link between disruptive bds activism and propagandizing in the classroom by pro-bds faculty might be a place to start. At cuny-Brooklyn, where an English professor called Israelis “assassins” and “baby killers,” nine professors wrote to protest disciplinary proceedings against the activists who attacked the faculty council meeting.
This is one of several areas in which more information is needed. Do significant numbers of non-Jewish students also believe that their education is being impaired and their rights of speech restricted by bds activism and the related phenomena of biased curricula? What of universities without a significant cohort of Jewish students?
Intimidation does not require a plurality of support.
There is also the question of how bds socializes students into university life, and its relation to wider patterns of thought. What of the apparent correlation between bds and elite universities, public and private? In the taller pinnacles of the ivory tower, the rites of the campus must be performed with more than usual enthusiasm. Is bds a subsidiary ideology, one of many strands of campus radicalism or, like precursor anti-Zionist and anti-Judaic ideologies, does it function as the “intersectional” unifier of a range of illiberal ideas?
Jonas and Shechtman also concluded that a public university has no right to “mandate civility or sanction isolated derogatory comments.” Perhaps not, but universities, public and private, devote much effort to mandating civility through speech codes, and sanctioning faculty and students accused of derogatory comments, often without proper process. When the speech codifiers extend the mandate of civility to some groups, but place one group beyond the pale of respect, they admit that their real motives are political.
The bds Movement’s website claims that bds is “an inclusive, anti-racist human rights movement that is opposed in principle to all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” Such falsehoods can only pass for the truth in a closed and carefully policed intellectual system—an artificial environment, like that of the campus. And it can only grow if the corrective to falsity, the free and equal exchange of ideas, is suspended.
We must remember that the vast majority of faculty and students are not active in bds, and that the American public’s sympathy for Israel has risen since the Second Intifada, while its sympathy for the Palestinians has fallen. Unfortunately, intimidation does not require a plurality of support, only a plurality of intimidated people. The strategies of disinvitation, demonization, and physical intimidation have raised the cost of dissent from the bds line.
What to do? So far, institutional action against bds has resembled the construction of a firewall against the spread of bds into American society. Several state legislatures have passed laws banning state employees from annulling contracts due to bds pressure, or from giving contracts to pro-bds businesses. Civil liberties organizations have claimed that these laws infringe the free choice of state employees.
The simple alternative, appealing to the ruined ideal of campus civility, has demonstrably failed. In 2007, some 300 university presidents denounced bds as inimical to the academic spirit. This did not stop the scholarly organizations from endorsing bds. If anything, such statements allows faculty to indulge their paranoiac claim that they are being censored by a vast Zionist conspiracy.
A more productive strategy might attack bds in the classroom on the grounds of academic fitness. By the standards of the academy, someone who cannot read Arabic is unqualified to pronounce on documents from the Palestinian Authority. Someone who cannot read Hebrew is unqualified to analyze documents relating to land zoning in East Jerusalem. It is the responsibility of university administrators to maintain such standards, for the benefit of both faculty and students. It damages the credibility of all faculty members if some of them moonlight in other fields without proper qualification, and with blatantly partial motives.
The college disco was more important than the struggle with colonialist imperialism.
The students should be treated like wayward children. Their broad ignorance and deep sentimentality are being exploited by bds advocates. At Vassar in 2016, the administration warned that if the student body voted to endorse bds, the administration would cut funding for student social activities. The bds supporters withdrew their motion. The college disco was more important than the struggle with colonialist imperialism.
University administrators may be afraid of alienating their faculty, but they are more afraid of alienating their alumni donors. Vassar has also reported a 6 percent decline in alumni donations. At Oberlin, Jewish alumni have also organized and withheld donations. Private colleges are businesses. Rather than censor bds advocacy, it is better to talk to the administrators in the real languages of the academy, professional and financial. Until then, bds will remain the intersectionality of fools.