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Shhh. Don’t Tell Anyone We’re Bashing Israel at NYU

William Jacobson has been a close follower of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement affecting our colleges and universities. He has drawn our attention to a conference that just took place at New York University, “Circuits of Influence: the U.S., Israel, and Palestine.”

A look at the program confirms that what took place was a pro-boycott organizing session disguised as an academic conference. So the flyer advertising the conference promises an inquiry into the question, “what can we learn from the record of using a boycotts as a tactic?” But consider who was on the panel that addressed this question.

Robin Kelley of U.C.L.A. is a member of the Advisory Board of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Salah Hassan of Michigan State is a member of the USACBI’s “Organizing Collective.” Riham Bhargouti is a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

For balance, I suppose, the organizers included two participants who are not major figures in USACBI or PACBI. Maria LaHood is an attorney at the forefront of efforts to defend the right of organizations like the American Studies Association to boycott Israel. La Hood’s views can be gleaned from the description of a panel she served on last September at a conference put on by the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, one of whose primary purposes was “strategizing around boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns.” The panel, entitled “Joint Struggle Against Israel’s Role in Repression,” explained “why joint struggle is a necessity for Palestine solidarity activists, its challenges and how we can incorporate the intersectionality of different struggles to strengthen our education and BDS efforts.” We do not know what Sean Jacobs of the New School thinks about the boycott, though his opinion about the analogy between Israel and South Africa, on which BDS depends, is not hard to guess.

The panel was “moderated” by Lisa Duggan of NYU, incoming president of the American Studies Association and a leading supporter of its Israel boycott. Duggan has made herself ridiculous by accusing one boycott critic of homophobia and threatening to report another to the organization’s national council for his nonexistent connections to the “ultra right press.”

One can only imagine the dialogue that ensued at the panel.

And comically, as Jacobson reports, we will have to imagine it because Duggan did everything she could to keep the conference a secret. Although Duggan posted the conference flyer on her Facebook page, she asked friends not to “post or circulate” it, since she and other organizers were looking to “avoid press, protestors, and public attention.” When Elder of Ziyon reported on her posting, Duggan promptly took it down.

In one way this ridiculous episode is good news. Although BDS frequently boasts of turning the heat on Israel and of forcing a dialogue, the heat is evidently on BDS. The widespread disgust with which the ASA boycott was met has them fleeing the public attention and dialogue they claim to want.

But it is disappointing that an academic department sponsored an extended BDS rally s and centered it at NYU, including the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Department of Social And Cultural Analysis (both its American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies programs). Since the conference featured workshops, run by activists, all engaged in the effort to delegitimize Israel, on movement building, student organizing, and engaging the public, it’s fair to say that academic departments at NYU now directly sponsor anti-Israel activism.

It is a shame that NYU’s president John Sexton does not see this sponsorship as a problem. An impressive group of student leaders wrote to him, observing that holding secret conferences that “unequivocally reject and refuse to acknowledge dissenting opinions is an appalling gesture of intolerance” that just might run contrary to the spirit of “debate and dialogue” that the university teaches. Sexton pompously responded that “the invocation of academic freedom is not a one-way street” and that he stands behind “the rights of our faculty to pursue their scholarship.”

I suppose that it is heartening that some of NYU’s students have a firmer grasp of the difference between a scholarly conference and a political rally than NYU’s president does. But these students could use some help from NYU’s alumni, who whether or not they are Jewish should be concerned that the leaders of their alma mater, who barely spoke up against the ASA boycott and are silent about the attempt to pass off an anti-Israel activist conclave as a scholarly conference.

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