Commentary Magazine

When BDS Wins, the University Loses

(AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

In 2016, the University of Minnesota Student Association amended a bill that targeted Israel and passed a more general bill on socially responsible investing.

Not surprisingly, this bill, which did not single out Israel among all the nations of the world for special condemnation, did nothing to satisfy the anti-Israel activists of UMN-Divest at the University of Minnesota. So this year, they gathered enough signatures to put a referendum on the student government election ballot. The referendum asks, “Should the students of the University of Minnesota demand the Board of Regents divest from companies that are 1) complicit in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights 2) maintain and establish private prisons and immigrant detention centers, or 3) violate indigenous sovereignty?” The full text became available, according to the editorial board of The Minnesota Daily, shortly before March 5th. Voting, too, began on March 5th.

As the editorial board pointed out, whatever your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you should agree that having virtually no time for debate or discussion is no way to handle a controversial issue on a university campus. You don’t have to agree with UMN President Eric Kaler that, “the inclusion on the ballot of a non-binding referendum that names Israel is exacerbating tension and fueling discrimination toward Jewish students.” If you care at all about discrimination against Jewish students, however, you should agree that a resolution of this magnitude ought not to be adopted without reflection. Those who blithely voted for the resolution as in the same cavalier manner that they voted for this year’s homecoming festivities organizing committee do not, perhaps, bear most of the blame for the resolution’s narrow passage. As is so often the case with BDS, though, the organizers of the referendum effort have covered themselves with shame, and all for a half-day news story and the pleasure of being ignored by the Board of Regents.

It is reassuring that some faculty members at UMN were moved to sign a letter in opposition to the resolution. I agree with the signers, of course, that although the resolution also concerns indigenous rights and prisons, the main intent of the activists leading the referendum effort is to “delegitimize Israel.” But only fourteen faculty members signed. Perhaps others were uncomfortable signing on to a full-throated attack on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), about which most of them presumably know almost nothing. Those faculty members might have at least indicated that most of the voters, too, presumably know almost nothing about BDS, and it runs counter to the spirit of the university to rush such a vote. If professors are unwilling to stand for Israel, they should be willing to stand against ignorance.

BDS, which according to one scorecard has had just 54 campus victories over a thirteen year period, is hardly a success (indeed, BDS, preliminary results indicate, has just taken a big loss at the University of Illinois). Narrow victories after hasty votes like these do as much damage to BDS’ reputation as they do to enhance it. The losers here are not the pro-Israel contingent at UMN. They should consider, as their opponents typically do when they lose, bringing up the issue again next year. Those Jewish students who justly feel targeted by the referendum have certainly suffered a loss. So, too, has the university itself been humiliated. In spite of the worthy effort of its president, UMN has been embarrassed by a small proportion of its student body.

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