Late in March, I wrote about an “open forum” at Vassar College, at which 200 Vasserites gathered for the purpose of denouncing a planned trip to Israel. The trip was organized by two professors with impeccable liberal credentials and included a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp. But its purpose was not the delegitimization of Israel, so representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine found it unacceptable. Perhaps it did not help that the organizers were named Schneiderman and Friedman. As William Jacobson has reported, members of the Vassar community, in the presence of the dean of students and acting dean of the college, heckled and laughed at Jewish students who attempted to speak.
Jill Schneiderman and Rachel Friedman have since written of the “climate of fear” that has “descended on campus” over the “past several years,” a climate that has stifled dissent. Parts of their letter are irritating. For example, they claim that they have been denounced by both the right and the left, even though their critics come almost entirely from the left. But they make one important point convincingly: the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that ran them over wants to make people think less, not more.
That is why their trip, which had students meeting with “Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, Christians, Muslims and Jews working together towards justice through nonviolent solutions” was so offensive to the BDS crowd at Vassar. The students who took part ran the risk of learning about the “complex realities of [a] conflict-ridden place.” What’s worse, they may have learned to question the BDS story, according to which the whole problem of the Middle East will be resolved once the Israelis are bullied into agreeing that they treat the Palestinians just like the Nazis treated the Jews, and do penance by giving up on the idea of a Jewish state.
Because this story is delusional and vile, it is no surprise that those who wish to tell it must try to shut up anyone who objects. But the fight against them is consequently a fight for the free, truth-seeking soul of the university. If we are to win that fight in higher education, we will need people on the left to take it up. Fortunately, Schneiderman and Friedman are not the only ones who have noticed and spoken or written against a growing anti-liberalism in whose eyes, as Michelle Goldberg puts it in the Nation, “old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system.” Consider the founding statement of the new Academic Advisory Council for the Third Narrative, a left-leaning organization that favors a two-state solution and opposes BDS. These “progressive scholars and academics” reject “all attempts to undermine or diminish academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.” They single out the academic boycotts that have been a favored tool of BDS because they are “discriminatory per se and undercut the purpose of the academy: the pursuit of knowledge.”
I understand why some friends of Israel are hard on people like the members of the Academic Advisory Council who, in the name of evenhandedness, feel compelled to blame both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for “rhetoric … which demonizes and dehumanizes the other,” without acknowledging, as A.J. Adler complains, the “institutionalization of anti-Semitic rhetoric within organizations and concerns run or funded by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.” This “pox on both your houses” line, which the Council also applies to the debate in the U.S., is a little hard to take when one of the houses in question seeks to delegitimize Israel while the other merely seeks to defend it. Nonetheless, many of the scholars in question, including Cary Nelson, Sharon Ann Musher, and Kenneth Waltzer have been tireless, courageous, and effective opponents of BDS and champions of the principles that ought to animate our colleges and universities. I do not see a path to victory against BDS in higher education that does not involve an alliance with them.
Alliance does not imply agreement about everything, and we can look forward to debating such allies about how best to pursue peace. We will have plenty of time to do so, since our BDS opponents have no interest in debating. Two weeks ago, Jacobson, who will be at Vassar on Monday, issued a challenge to 39 professors there, who have signed a letter in favor of an academic boycott of Israel. Would any of them be willing to debate him publicly?
Not one of those professors, who work for a college whose mission statement speaks of “respectful debate,” took him up on it.