Commentary Magazine


Who Cares About Penn BDS?

Yesterday, the organizers of an upcoming boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) conference at Penn published an op-ed in the university’s Daily Pennsylvanian explaining their effort, which promotes the economic isolation of the Jewish state. In this, they will near-undoubtedly fail.

They may succeed, perhaps unintentionally, however, in another way: by attracting the attention of campus Israel advocates toward them and away from the more subtle and far-reaching problem Israel faces at American universities.

In a decade of efforts, BDS campaigners have practically zero victories at American universities. Only the student governments of Evergreen State College (the alma mater of anti-Israelism’s poster child, Rachel Corrie), Wayne State University, and University of Michigan-Dearborn have passed divestment resolutions directed against Israel. Because they are passed by students and not administration, they have no practical impact on their schools’ finances. The schools’ administrations have also pointedly not followed their students’ advice that they cut whatever slight financial ties they may have to the Jewish state.

Practical effects, of course, aren’t really the intent of BDS, since even an effective divestment of Israel by every American university would likely have little effect on the country’s bottom line. The point is the symbolism of the thing.

But the schools in question are marginal to local and national conversation, the refusal to accept the calls by university administrators has a symbolism of its own, and even these small successes have little chance of being replicated at Penn or any other school. Last year, a laughably watered-down student referendum at Princeton that called only for the dining hall to provide alternatives to Sabra hummus was soundly defeated.

Just as it would be a mistake then to worry too much about campus BDS, though, it would be a mistake to take this record of failure as a sign all is well at America’s universities when it comes to Israel. For while students may not be lining up to sign off on divestment petitions, they are in many cases receiving the clear message the Jewish state is uniquely flawed.

The content of the critique or even its stated aims don’t matter as much as its ability to create, in many places, a campus environment of pervasive negativity toward Israel. Students at most schools these days don’t come away learning much. But many do pick up the idea that to be a member in good standing of the political left positive concern for the Jewish state is beyond the pale.

That is why the ongoing Center for American Progress affair should not be surprising. Many educated in a milieu negative to Israel are now finding themselves increasingly with something to say about the direction of the core institutions of the mainstream political left, and are turning them in a direction less sympathetic to Israel.

This, not BDS, is the true fight on campus. Turning the atmosphere in a more positive direction toward Israel will be a generational effort. It is also an essential one for those who hope to maintain the longstanding bipartisan consensus on the Jewish state.