William Jacobson reports that Bowdoin College’s undergraduates are in the midst of voting to support a full academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Voting closes on Wednesday. Bowdoin, located in Maine, is among the nation’s most prestigious small colleges.
As Jacobson points out, the resolution under consideration goes well beyond the more tepid, though still troubling divestment resolutions that have been considered at many colleges and universities over the past few years. The divestment resolutions target companies alleged to benefit from the suffering of Palestinians. This resolution directly targets Israeli academic and cultural institutions. And tellingly, the resolution adopts the strategically ambiguous language of the BDS movement. The boycott will continue until Israel “ends its occupation and colonization of all Palestinian lands.” This language enables the movement to take in those who think that Israel should not exist at all—“Palestinian lands” includes the whole of Israel—and those “moderates” who merely think that Israel should immediately withdraw from the West Bank, so that the West Bank can become another Gaza, then dismantle the wall that protects Israel’s civilians from people who have made no secret of their intention to kill them.
Supporters of BDS often speak as if they hope to ignite a conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This claim has always been disingenuous because such a conversation—if you consider persistent, obsessive, and often deeply misleading criticism of Israel to be a conversation—has been taking place on college campuses for a long time. In addition, the “anti-normalization” strategy that the BDS movement has adopted, considers calls for dialogue to be a mask for preserving the status quo.
But the way Bowdoin’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine is attempting to ram through this referendum, near the end of the academic year, when students are least likely to be paying close attention, shows as well as these other observations, that the movement is really about scoring a series of cheap propaganda victories to produce a phony impression of momentum and widespread support. Their undertaking is the very opposite of the Socratic spirit that ought to animate our colleges and universities: they want people who don’t know to claim that they do. To those who pretend to work toward discussion of Israel but in fact seek to manipulate students who know next to nothing about it, we can reply as Socrates did to one of his own prosecutors: they [jest] in a serious matter, easily bringing human beings to trial, pretending to be serious and concerned about things for which [they] never cared at all.”
As in the case of Socrates’s prosecutors, the claim that academic supporters of the boycott are joking is counterintuitive. They certainly seem angry, just as Socrates’s prosecutors did, and they talk about doing justice and serving humanity. But doing the just and humane thing requires an understanding and capacity for self-criticism that our zealots conspicuously lack. It is in this way that their earnest talk about justice, coupled with their blatant disregard for giving Israel and its people a fair hearing, appears ridiculous when viewed from afar.
Of course, from those who cannot look from afar, whose vocations are tied to colleges and universities understood as havens for serious inquiry, the handing over of college and university life to zealots is not altogether a laughing matter. They are making a joke out of something we hold dear.