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“Shut Up,” BDS Explained: An “Open Forum” at Vassar

It will come as no surprise to COMMENTARY readers that the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement undermines the missions of colleges and universities because it wants to use higher education to advance a partisan political agenda. It may come as a surprise, however, that BDS supporters like Philip Weiss now happily concede the point.

Consider his account of an “Open Forum on the Ethics of Student Activism and Protest at Vassar,” held early this month under the auspices of Vassar’s “Committee on Inclusion and Excellence.” The meeting was prompted by an international studies course on water issues in the Jordan River valley, which included a trip to the Middle East. As Weiss acknowledges, the organizers of the trip worked with Palestinian NGOs, intended to put their students in touch with Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians, and included a Palestinian refugee camp on the itinerary. But the trip also entailed cooperation with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, long a boycott target because of its belief that the future of the region depends on cooperation between Israelis, Palestinians, and other stakeholders. The BDS movement demands that supporters refuse “participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation, collaboration or joint projects with Israeli institutions.” Moreover, the trip was “chiefly inside Israel with visits to the occupation,” and the syllabus did not explicitly discuss Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.

So members of Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine “staged an action against” the on-campus part of the class, which included picketing, urging students to drop the course, and making a lot of noise (the only dispute seems to be whether the noise could be described as “ululating” or not). Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman, two of the course instructors, complained to college officials about the protest; the protesters, most of whom were “people of color,” cried racism; and so the open forum was held.

Weiss is explicit about the character of this “open forum”:

The spirit of that young progressive space was that Israel is a blot on civilization, and boycott is right and necessary. If a student had gotten up and said, I love Israel, he or she would have been mocked and scorned into silence. Or bedevilled by finger-snapping—the percussive weapon of choice among some students, a sound that rises like crickets as students indicate their quiet approval of a statement.

In other words, at least at this Vassar forum, it was not even possible to have a debate about the desirability of BDS because the students who support BDS have no intention of engaging in a debate or even letting their opponents speak without disrupting them. But such “belligerence may be necessary,” Weiss argues, to make sure that the right side wins.

Let’s review to whom the belligerence is directed. Not right-wing Zionists, if there happen to be any at Vassar, but people with impeccable liberal credentials, like, as Weiss notes, Jill Schneiderman, who think that attention should be drawn to Israeli injustice but are wary of describing Israel as a blot on civilization and doubtful that boycott is a wise strategy.

BDS supporters, who usually say they are fighting a “taboo” against discussing Israel on college campuses, rarely concede that they actually think the taboo is against supporting Israel. But that is just what Weiss does: “Norman Finkelstein said some time ago that you can’t be for Israel on college campuses, and I was seeing this before my eyes.” Indeed, the “intellectual labors are done, the activists are moving. The public square will increasingly belong to the warriors of both sides.”

But Weiss is kidding himself if the thinks that a movement that is unpopular even on the left will win by trying to shout its opponents down. Even on our college campuses, which are much less sympathetic to Israel than the general public is, the politics of BDS can shock. Schneiderman was sympathetic enough to Weiss to invite him to the forum. After the forum, she had this to say: “last night I was knocked off-center by a belligerent academic community dedicated to vilifying anyone who dares set foot in Israel.” She says of Weiss’s reporting on the meeting: “This is only one example of how Phil Weiss uses facts flexibly only when they suit his agenda.”

Some BDS supporters claim to welcome the attention the American Studies Association boycott brought to the BDS movement, even as they try to hide their activities. I bet that publicity is going to hurt in the long term, at least in the United States where, even on college campuses, much less the “public square,” trying to shut up everyone who disagrees with you does not wear well.


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