Commentary Magazine


Topic: BDS

Jewish Voice for Peace Takes Off Its Mask

Jewish Voice for Peace was a major force behind Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 2014 divestment from companies, like Caterpillar, said to profit from Israel’s activities in the West Bank. They provided a useful Jewish fig leaf for the Church, who could assert that some of divestment’s best friends are Jews. JVP has also eagerly made itself useful to Students for Justice in Palestine, which seeks to promote divestment, among stronger measures against Israel, at our colleges and universities.

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Jewish Voice for Peace was a major force behind Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 2014 divestment from companies, like Caterpillar, said to profit from Israel’s activities in the West Bank. They provided a useful Jewish fig leaf for the Church, who could assert that some of divestment’s best friends are Jews. JVP has also eagerly made itself useful to Students for Justice in Palestine, which seeks to promote divestment, among stronger measures against Israel, at our colleges and universities.

JVP’s position has always been merely tactical. As the organization explained in a 2005 statement, “we face a more hostile environment than our European comrades, and thus we cannot uncritically adopt” direct sanctions against Israel. In a 2011, statement, JVP again affirmed its preference for the tactic of selective divestment, but fully endorsed the overall goals of the BDS movement, including the right of return, or, in effect, the end of Israel as a Jewish state. JVP never really so much distanced itself from BDS as reluctantly concluded that only BDS-lite was possible in the U.S. for the time being. Yet in both the Presbyterian debate and the Stanford debate over divestment, at least some advocates insisted that a vote for divestment was not, in fact a vote for BDS.

It is therefore refreshing that JVP has finally come out and joined the BDS movement, openly endorsing not only the goals but also the strategy of that movement, complete isolation and demonization of Israel as an apartheid state.

The fact is, it’s not necessary to point to the right of return to show that BDS has never acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Although one version of the BDS call asks, as JVP claims to be asking, only for an end to the Israeli presence in the territories disputed after 1967, the original call, never disavowed, distinguishes not at all between 1967 and 1948 Israel. The call condemns what Israel has done “since 1948” and demands an end to Israel’s “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” This studied ambiguity helps keep both those who merely would like Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and those who would like Israel to withdraw from the face of the Earth in the same camp.

That is the camp that Jewish Voice for Peace has always belonged to, and the camp it has at last openly joined. In joining up at this particular time, Jewish Voice for Peace also declares that it is ready to lead the charge to catch up with its “European comrades” who have contributed to the anti-Semitic environment that has many European Jews contemplating emigration. Perhaps JVP, which has now openly allied itself with a movement that refuses to concede their right to live in Israel, will help drive them into the sea.

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Will Britain Do the Right Thing on Boycotts?

There is something fundamentally Stalinist about the notion of a cultural boycott of Israel. The idea that even the free exchange of ideas and expression should be censored by the strictures of ideology is a total affront to all the usual virtues associated with the arts. And unlike the economic boycott of Israel, which can at least claim to have practical objectives—albeit completely indefensible ones—the cultural boycott appears to be aimed at doing nothing more than alienating and ostracizing Israelis by any means possible. So it’s deeply troubling that a group of British artists are now leading just such a new boycott initiative. And yet, there are also encouraging indications that mainstream British society will not stand for this.

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There is something fundamentally Stalinist about the notion of a cultural boycott of Israel. The idea that even the free exchange of ideas and expression should be censored by the strictures of ideology is a total affront to all the usual virtues associated with the arts. And unlike the economic boycott of Israel, which can at least claim to have practical objectives—albeit completely indefensible ones—the cultural boycott appears to be aimed at doing nothing more than alienating and ostracizing Israelis by any means possible. So it’s deeply troubling that a group of British artists are now leading just such a new boycott initiative. And yet, there are also encouraging indications that mainstream British society will not stand for this.

Around a hundred allegedly prominent cultural figures have released a letter pledging not to travel to Israel on an official invitation, nor to accept funding from Israel or organizations that are associated with the Israeli government. In addition, this campaign claims to have the supporting signatures of a further 700 artists (almost all entirely unknowns). And naturally along with a few celebrities who are now notorious for their obsession with bashing Israel—such as Roger Waters—there are also several notable Jewish individuals who have been pushed to the forefront of the campaign.

Two Jewish directors who have evidently played a particularly leading role in promoting this boycott are Mike Leigh and Peter Kosminsky. Their involvement gives a pretty clear indication of precisely what kind of movement this is. When asked about Gaza, Leigh once dismissively retorted “I don’t want to know about rockets. What I am concerned with is humanity.” Humanity? Then in what category does Leigh place the people the rockets are aimed at? And then there’s Kosminsky, a remarkable figure to be boycotting Israel when much of his own acclaimed television drama The Promise was shot in Haifa. That by the way was a British TV mini-series that was not only viciously anti-Zionist but in which Jewish characters were without exception either overtly unlikable or ultimately untrustworthy. The non-Jewish characters, through whose eyes Israel’s story was told, were repeatedly let down, manipulated, or betrayed by every single Jew they came across.

These are the luminaries leading the cultural boycott against Israel.

The website of the campaign is also particularly revealing. Most bizarre is the section in which the campaigners insist that they will not be censored. What is boycotting Israeli arts if not censorship? Indeed, the activists pledge their solidarity with London’s Tricycle Theatre, which last year announced that as part of an Israel boycott it would no longer host the Jewish Film Festival. So the last thing that these people can claim is principled opposition to censorship.

Then there is the part of the website that advises artists on how they should implement their boycott in practice. Tellingly, artists are assured that they should not let the boycott prohibit them from collaborating with Palestinian artists and organizations. When it comes to Israelis, however, it seems that exceptions might only be considered for those who support the Palestinian cause. So once again we see the boycott working along ethnic lines. No investigation into the politics of Palestinian artists, but when it comes to Jewish Israelis, they must pledge allegiance to the cause before being redeemed of the crime of being born an Israeli Jew.

The one glimmer of hope in all of this is that there does seem to be an increasing recognition of just what a dangerous turn BDS represents. On the whole senior British politicians, including Prime Minister Cameron, have stressed their opposition to boycotts. But it was particularly noteworthy that the Times of London ran an editorial on the Copenhagen attacks and rising anti-Semitism that stated plainly, “The egregious campaigns for a cultural boycott of Israel are stoking ugly, atavistic movements in Europe. These need to be confronted by civilised opinion.” More remarkable still was that even the Guardian (a paper usually transfixed by the business of attacking Israel) printed a whole series of letters condemning the boycotts under the heading “Peace Not Promoted by an Israel Boycott.”

One senses that Britain’s liberal establishment is suddenly catching itself and pulling back at the last moment from the precipice. They have seen Paris, they have seen Copenhagen, they have seen anti-Semitism go off the chart from Brussels to Malmo. They have seen where all of this is leading and are now reconsidering their own responsibilities.

Of course the British establishment can only be expected to correctly identify boycotts as a form of racial discrimination if the Jewish community is unequivocal on the subject. And it must indeed be the Jewish community, and not the boycotters, who determine what is and what isn’t anti-Semitic. As it happens, a survey on anti-Semitism released in January found that 84 percent of British Jews consider boycotts to be a form of intimidation. Laura Marks of the Board of Deputies (Anglo-Jewry’s primary representative body) has also stressed that such a cultural boycott of Israel is racist.

The anti-Israel artists-turned-activists insist they won’t be silenced. Very well. But then the rest of us cannot afford to stay silent either about the racism inherent in what these people are doing.

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ISIS Is a Zionist-American Organization, Says BDS Heroine

Last month, I drew attention to Leila Khaled’s tour of South Africa under the sponsorship of BDS-South Africa. Khaled is a member of the “Political Bureau” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP has claimed credit for murdering four worshippers and a policeman at the Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue in Jerusalem in November. Khaled, who made her name as a hijacker and remains an advocate of violent resistance, is out raising money for the supposedly nonviolent boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel.

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Last month, I drew attention to Leila Khaled’s tour of South Africa under the sponsorship of BDS-South Africa. Khaled is a member of the “Political Bureau” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP has claimed credit for murdering four worshippers and a policeman at the Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue in Jerusalem in November. Khaled, who made her name as a hijacker and remains an advocate of violent resistance, is out raising money for the supposedly nonviolent boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel.

So far, the trip is going quite well. Khaled has been welcomed by the ruling African National Congress, scoring a seat at President Zuma’s State of the Nation Address. People seem to be responding to her pitch. For example, as I wrote last week, the student government of the Durban University of Technology, a day after a visit from Khaled, called for the expulsion of Jews (the student government has since apologized: “oops, by ‘Jews’ we meant ‘people funded by the Israeli government.’”). BDS South Africa has proudly reported on the tour, including its finale in Soweto. Rebecca Hodes, who was on the scene in Soweto, gives this remarkable description of Khaled’s remarks.

According to Hodes, toward the end of her speech, Khaled said: “ISIS, I tell you, is a Zionist, American organization. Boko Haram is another Netanyahu. [Its leaders] are more Zionist than the Zionists… Beware the imperialists. They are vicious and they are collaborating with the Zionists to control the whole world….”

You may think that BDS-South Africa, just for the sake of damage control, would distance itself from Khaled’s remarks, or at least avoid mentioning them. Instead, they repeated them on Twitter. After the speech, Khaled “was presented with a gift as dozens of audience members vied for a decent angle for a cell phone snap.” But not before the crowd sang “one more revolutionary song” for, as BDS-South Africa put it, the “freedom fighter.”

Although Khaled has made similar statements in the course of her tour, not one supporter of BDS, as far as I know, has seen fit to distance himself from her. Wouldn’t want to alienate the base.

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Radicals Strap Suicide Belt on MESA

The membership of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has now passed a resolution taking the organization well down the road to endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. The resolution, which passed by a 561–152 margin, urges “MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA Board of Directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume.”

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The membership of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has now passed a resolution taking the organization well down the road to endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. The resolution, which passed by a 561–152 margin, urges “MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA Board of Directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume.”

It isn’t too difficult to imagine just what sort of campaign the Israel-haters will launch during this “sustained discussion,” or where it’s likely to lead. And the overwhelming margin in favor of the resolution suggests that this is just where most MESAns want to go.

The vote constitutes a stunning defeat for MESA’s old guard. They invested decades in building MESA as the world’s preeminent professional organization for Middle Eastern studies, and they did it by maintaining at least a façade of scholarly neutrality. That MESA might blow itself up in a suicidal attempt to inflict some (marginal) political damage on Israel is a danger they repeatedly warned against in the closed online members’ forum that preceded the vote.

Consider these examples of arguments made by some of MESA’s past presidents. Zachary Lockman (2006–7), professor of history at New York University, is a strong critic of Israel with whom I’ve had the occasional run-in. He’s also signed a letter insisting that “those who support boycotts ought not to become subject to retaliation, surveillance, or censorship.” And he’s backed a divestment campaign directed at the firm which manages many university and college retirement funds. Yet Lockman doubted the wisdom of the resolution:

MESA has its own history, culture and vulnerabilities. What might be right for other associations will not necessarily serve MESA well. So we need to weigh the concrete difference MESA’s endorsement of a boycott resolution might make against such action’s potential downsides for the association, including the likely loss of some of its membership as well as of some affiliated organizations and institutions, but also possibly legal action, stepped-up attacks on MESA and Title VI by hostile organizations, legislative bodies and media, and conceivably even the loss of MESA’s home base at the University of Arizona.

Endorsing an academic boycott, wrote Lockman, “would seem to be inconsistent with MESA’s long-standing self-definition” as “nonpolitical” according to its own bylaws. He urged MESA members to step back and ask whether “abandon[ing] the association’s historically nonpolitical character” was “worth the potential costs.”

Fred Donner (2011–12), professor of Islamic history at the University of Chicago, is another occasional critic of Israel, whom I once took to task for his charge that the Iraq war was a “Likudniks’ scheme.” He’s also personally pledged to boycotting Israeli academe. Yet he described the MESA resolution as “utterly irresponsible,” for these four reasons:

  1. For MESA to take a political stand will lead to a loss of membership, as those who do not support what becomes MESA’s official position will no longer feel welcome within it.
  2. A stand on BDS will open the door to MESA being asked take a stand on the dozens of other political issues related to the Middle East, further fracturing its membership.
  3. For MESA to take a stand on BDS will endanger its tax-exempt status and therefore its long-term viability as an organization, since MESA’s 501(c)3 tax exemption depends on it remaining non-political.
  4. MESA’s endorsement of BDS will hand MESA’s enemies, who have persistently (but, until now, wrongly) claimed that MESA has been politicized, exactly the evidence they need to make their case against us—which they will not hesitate to do, to our representatives in Congress, to the I.R.S., and to the University of Arizona, whose support of the MESA Secretariat is vital to the organization’s well-being.

Yet another former MESA president, Jere Bacharach (1999–2000), in whose honor MESA has named its service award, argued that the resolution,

irrespective of its careful wording, is a step toward MESA making a political statement as an organization. Thus the resolution risks leading MESA to take a political stand at odds with its bylaws, mission statement, and history…. Other than making some temporarily feel better, passage of this resolution will only significantly put pressure on us to have MESA make a real political statement and, in the process, bring about its demise.

These reasoned and pragmatic arguments were of no avail. That’s because MESA has been invaded by hundreds of radicals, many from the Middle East, who can’t imagine a professional association that isn’t thoroughly politicized. In Cairo, Damascus, and Amman, the main function of such associations is to pass resolutions condemning Israel or anyone suspected of “normalizing” relations with it.

The radicals see MESA not as an American association for Middle Eastern studies, but as a Middle Eastern association for influencing America—that is, a kind of auxiliary of the Arab lobby, focused on the Palestinian cause. MESA has always been an arena for advocacy posing as scholarship, in panels and papers. But it’s the nature of such advocacy to push the envelope ever further. Those who silently accepted spurious scholarship under the guise of “Palestine studies” now find their own institutional legacy at risk—and there’s little they can do about it.

Now that MESA has embarked on a “sustained discussion of the academic boycott of Israel,” it’s time for others to start a sustained discussion of the boycott of MESA. I’ve already flagged the areas that deserve deepest exploration. (They’re precisely those that have the old guard worried.) Until now, the options have been discussed behind closed doors. Now it’s time to begin to talk of them openly, and to do what’s necessary to minimize the damage to Israeli academe and maximize the damage to MESA—if and when MESA’s members push the button on the suicide belt they’ve strapped around their collective waist.

If MESA self-destructs, the aftermath will create a huge opportunity to revamp the organized structure of Middle Eastern studies along completely different lines. I’ve already emphasized the existence of an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, which is well-positioned to pick up many of the pieces. It’s easy to imagine still more initiatives. For MESA’s critics, such as myself, its “demise” (Bacharach’s word) isn’t a catastrophe at all. It’s an opportunity. MESA’s embrace of BDS will make no perceptible difference to the Middle Eastern equation, but it could shake the foundations of Middle Eastern studies in America.

Years ago, I tried to jolt Middle Eastern studies by writing a critical book, and achieved only limited results. Now MESA is about to inflict far more damage on the organized field than I inflicted. Who would have thought it?

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BDS Youth Speak Out: “Expel the Jews”

The campus boycott, divestment, sanctions movement depends on two myths of purity. One concerns South Africa. Ignoring South Africa’s alliance with human-rights violators like Russia and China, the BDS movement draws at every opportunity on statements of support from South Africa to demonstrate its bona fides: these people know a little something about apartheid, they suggest, so our assertions that Israel is an apartheid state must also be taken seriously.

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The campus boycott, divestment, sanctions movement depends on two myths of purity. One concerns South Africa. Ignoring South Africa’s alliance with human-rights violators like Russia and China, the BDS movement draws at every opportunity on statements of support from South Africa to demonstrate its bona fides: these people know a little something about apartheid, they suggest, so our assertions that Israel is an apartheid state must also be taken seriously.

The second concerns students. Ignoring signs that young people are at least as capable of prejudice and stupidity as their elders, the BDS movement suggests that the young are on “the right side of history” and that, consequently, BDS’s occasional successes at colleges and universities demonstrate the essential rightness of their cause. As the anti-Israel activist Anna Balzer has put it, BDS will benefit from “a generational shift, driven by young people, who have become allies to the cause even as their parents repeat the same tired arguments.”

So you would think that in South Africa’s students, you might find the quintessence of the boycott movement’s forward-looking strategy. Indeed. As InsideHigherEd reports today, the “student government of the Durban University of Technology, in South Africa, has called on the institution to expel Jewish students.” They have also asked for more financial aid. They are joined in their demands by the Progressive Youth Alliance (I am not making this up).

When I read the headline, I admit that, in spite of my experience with BDS, I assumed it must be an exaggeration. On the contrary, the secretary of the student government, rather than taking the opportunity to issue a denial, said “We had a meeting and analyzed international politics. We took the decision that Jewish students, especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle, should deregister.” The vice-chancellor of the university has acknowledged receiving a memorandum from student protesters demanding the “deregistration of Jewish students” and has firmly rejected it. But Mr. Vice-Chancellor, they “analyzed international politics”!

Charmingly, according to the Daily Vox, a South African site that features young journalists, “students that desisted from the strike were explicitly threatened.” It is no doubt a coincidence that Leila Khaled, under the sponsorship of BDS-South Africa, had visited campus the day before the memorandum was issued. I have written about Khaled’s advocacy of violence here.

So far, I haven’t seen any coverage of this incident from those who favor BDS. That makes sense. It wouldn’t do to criticize the moral center of one’s movement.

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Campus Incitement Proves Anti-Zionism Still Equals Anti-Semitism

Supporters of the effort to isolate Israel have tried to argue that their BDS—boycott, divest, and sanction—campaign is aimed only at the State of Israel and not Jews. But just as the demonstrations throughout Europe protesting Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism were conducted in a manner that is indistinguishable from traditional anti-Semitic incitement so, too, have the pro-BDS crowd at universities and colleges often quickly descended into expressions of Jew-hatred. This unfortunate truth was demonstrated again last week at the University of California, Davis when a debate about a BDS resolution led to anti-Semitic activity.

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Supporters of the effort to isolate Israel have tried to argue that their BDS—boycott, divest, and sanction—campaign is aimed only at the State of Israel and not Jews. But just as the demonstrations throughout Europe protesting Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism were conducted in a manner that is indistinguishable from traditional anti-Semitic incitement so, too, have the pro-BDS crowd at universities and colleges often quickly descended into expressions of Jew-hatred. This unfortunate truth was demonstrated again last week at the University of California, Davis when a debate about a BDS resolution led to anti-Semitic activity.

On January 29, the UC Davis student government voted to recommend the school’s Board of Regents divest from companies that “aid in the illegal occupation of Palestine,” which is to say, by the Palestinians’ own definition, all of Israel. This prejudicial measure, aimed at seeking the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet, passed by an 8-2 vote.

It is to be hoped that the school’s board will reject this specious argument as almost every other major institution of higher learning in the country already has done. But the really significant aspect of this event was what happened during the debate prior to the vote.

As the Washington Free Beacon reported, when pro-Israel students tried to speak, pro-Palestinian and Arab students did their best to shout them down. As a tape of the event shows, the anti-Israel mob chanted “Allahu Akbar” when divestment opponents had the floor. No action was taken by the school to prevent this incitement or to allow speakers to be heard.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Days later, students at the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity awoke the following Saturday to discover that swastikas had been spray painted on their house.

Taken together these incidents illustrated that the campaign for divestment had created what can only be described as a hostile environment for Jewish students on campus. A place where students cannot speak up in defense of Israel without fear of being heckled and shouted down by Islamist chants or of having anti-Semitic vandalism committed is not a place where Jews can feel safe to study or to live.

Nor is this an isolated incident. A study of the problem issued by the Israeli government last month showed a marked rise in anti-Semitic activity on American campuses in the past year. This was particularly true during Israel’s most recent war with Hamas as terrorist missiles rained down on the Jewish state’s cities. During this period there was a 400-percent increase in anti-Semitic activity over the previous year. In the majority of those cases where violence was reported, the perpetrators were identified as being of Muslim or Arab descent.

The point here is not to silence those critical of Israel or to outlaw BDS. Those who seek to wage rhetorical war on Israel in the United States have the same rights of free speech as its defenders. But when, as invariably happens, their actions cross over from criticism of Israeli policies to overt acts of anti-Semitism, the pretense that their anti-Zionist agitation is not an act of prejudice against Jews cannot be sustained.

Those who would deny to the Jews the same rights of sovereignty and self-defense that are never questioned anywhere else on earth are not merely engaged in politics. Treating Israel in a way that no other country is treated and ignoring real human-rights abuses elsewhere shows they are engaged in an act of bias. Bias against Jews is called anti-Semitism and it is long past time for all decent persons, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, to call BDS by its right name: hate speech.

The line that supposedly exists between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is an imaginary one. As events at UC Davis proved, this debate has ceased to be theoretical. Those who claim to oppose anti-Semitism must no longer treat BDS as merely an issue on which reasonable persons can agree to disagree. Those who are neutral about BDS or who treat it as a merely a difference of opinion are not promoting a fair debate about a topical issue. They are aiding and abetting hate.

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Harvard’s Moment of Veritas

Last week, Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and president emeritus of Harvard University, and former Secretary of the treasury, delivered a lecture on “Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism” at Columbia University. He recalled that in 2002, when a petition circulated among the Harvard and MIT faculty and students, calling on universities to divest from companies doing business in Israel, he labeled the initiative “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.” Last week, he said his 2002 assertion “seems to me to have stood up rather well,” and warned that the situation has gotten even worse: “It is my impression that there are more grounds for concern today than at any point since the Second World War”:

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Last week, Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and president emeritus of Harvard University, and former Secretary of the treasury, delivered a lecture on “Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism” at Columbia University. He recalled that in 2002, when a petition circulated among the Harvard and MIT faculty and students, calling on universities to divest from companies doing business in Israel, he labeled the initiative “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.” Last week, he said his 2002 assertion “seems to me to have stood up rather well,” and warned that the situation has gotten even worse: “It is my impression that there are more grounds for concern today than at any point since the Second World War”:

We live in a world where there are nations in which the penalty for homosexuality is death, in which women are stoned for adultery, in which torture is pervasive, in which governments are killing tens of thousands of their own people each year. But the proponents of Israeli boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions do not favor any form of pressure against countries other than Israel.

Summers asserted that the recent boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association (ASA) was “anti-Semitic in effect and quite likely in intent” (emphasis added), since it applied only to Israel, sought to demonize the Jewish state, and was “unrelated to the expertise” of the ASA. When you reach out, beyond your area of competence, to delegitimize the Jewish state–and none other–both the effect and intent of the action seem reasonably clear. Summers said that university presidents should have responded to the ASA by saying something like this:

“The decision of the American Studies Association supported by a majority of its membership to single out Israeli institutions and Israeli scholars for selective boycott is abhorrent. The University believes it is very dangerous for scholarly associations to insert themselves into political issues outside of their range of competence. While individual members of the faculty are free to do as they wish, the University is withdrawing its institutional membership in the ASA. We will withdraw from any scholarly association that engages in similar boycotts with respect to Israel or any other country.”

Summers also wrote an op-ed published in yesterday’s Harvard Crimson, expressing his growing concern about what he has seen at Harvard. Unlike many universities that withdrew from the ASA in response to its boycott, Harvard remains an institutional member. Summers’ concluding paragraph suggests that this is a moment of truth for Harvard, whose official motto is Veritas:

Harvard’s example has never been more important. If Harvard is to lead on academic freedom it is essential that we all feel free to assert our views but that our University protect with ferocity its reputation by preventing views demonizing Israel or any other country from being bestowed with its good name.

More than a decade ago, Summers’ description of advocates of divestment as “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent” generated more controversy than any other academic freedom issue during his entire five-year Harvard presidency. In 2015, it is not clear whether his Columbia lecture and Crimson op-ed will elicit any response at all from Harvard’s administration.

What does it bode for the future if things have declined so far that America’s oldest university (and once deemed its most prestigious) not only fails to lead, but chooses not even to follow the example set by other educational institutions–and continues to lend its imprimatur and prestige to an academic association whose action was not only anti-Semitic in effect but likely in intent as well?

(Hat tip: Ira Stoll, editor, Future of Capitalism.)

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Jewish Voice for Peace Disrupts Auschwitz Liberation Commemoration

In an act of stupefying disrespect, a coalition of New York groups, including the New York City Branch of Jewish Voice for Peace, disrupted a meeting of New York’s City Council on Thursday. The disruption began as the council was “concluding a vote on a resolution commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.” The coalition demands that the New York City Council respect the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Fifteen Council members plan to travel to Israel next month on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the UJA Federation of New York.

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In an act of stupefying disrespect, a coalition of New York groups, including the New York City Branch of Jewish Voice for Peace, disrupted a meeting of New York’s City Council on Thursday. The disruption began as the council was “concluding a vote on a resolution commemorating the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.” The coalition demands that the New York City Council respect the call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Fifteen Council members plan to travel to Israel next month on a trip sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the UJA Federation of New York.

I suppose that Jewish Voice for Peace can claim to be more politically savvy than the other still more marginal groups (Marxist-Leninists? Really?) with whom it has allied itself. At least it has occurred to JVP that it may have been bad optics to be observed yelling at council members as they attempted, as Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito put it, to “honor the memories of millions of Jews and other persecuted minorities who were so senselessly slain, and … the strength and fortitude of the survivors who endured in the face of such terrible pain and loss.” So not long after the protest, JVP-NYC issued this statement on its Facebook page: “We are proud to be part of a coalition organizing for Palestinian rights and strongly oppose the City Council’s JCRC-sponsored trip to Israel. We were not aware that the action organized by the #‎DontTourApartheid‬ coalition would coincide with the introduction of a resolution on Auschwitz liberation; this was a mistake and extremely unfortunate.”

This hedged statement, which does not say whether others in the coalition were aware of what would be going in at the council meeting, which does not explain why they went through with the protest anyway, and which does not really apologize, cannot be taken seriously. The boycott-Israel movement of which JVP is a part has long trafficked in the odious comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany. From that deranged perspective, when Melissa Mark-Viverito votes to honor victims and survivors of the Holocaust, it is our right, indeed our duty, to yell “Melissa, you hypocrite!” because she is willing to set foot in Israel.

The completely unapologetic stance of the New York branch of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, another member of the coalition, was therefore more honest than JVP’s half-hearted admission that a “mistake” that was “unfortunate” had been made by someone or another. In response to the revelation that the protesters had disrupted the council as it was voting to commemorate the liberation of the freeing of prisoners from Auschwitz, QAIA snarked “Oh the irony,” by which they meant that a council morally compromised by the intent of some of its members to take a trip to Israel has no business moaning about the Holocaust. But perhaps even QAIA felt they’d been caught at something, since they also claimed that the council agenda was a secret, which isn’t true; however, they also suggested that their action would have been appropriate, even if they had known (“Still:”).

Today’s protest was disgusting, but it was not an aberration. It is what the boycott movement stands for.

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BDS Hasn’t Hurt Israel’s Economy, New Report Shows

Yesterday, Jonathan Marks dissected the lie of the BDS movement’s alleged commitment to nonviolence–a lie underscored by the South African chapter’s launch of a “fundraising tour” starring Palestinian airline hijacker Leila Khaled. But another lie about the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement was also exploded this week: the lie that it is having an increasing impact on Israel. The truth, according to a new study released yesterday by the Knesset Research and Information Center, is exactly the opposite: Not only has BDS not dented Israel’s economy overall, but Israeli exports have surged even in places where the movement is most active, like Europe.

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Yesterday, Jonathan Marks dissected the lie of the BDS movement’s alleged commitment to nonviolence–a lie underscored by the South African chapter’s launch of a “fundraising tour” starring Palestinian airline hijacker Leila Khaled. But another lie about the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement was also exploded this week: the lie that it is having an increasing impact on Israel. The truth, according to a new study released yesterday by the Knesset Research and Information Center, is exactly the opposite: Not only has BDS not dented Israel’s economy overall, but Israeli exports have surged even in places where the movement is most active, like Europe.

Overall, the study reports, Israeli exports rose by 80 percent from 2000 to 2013, with exports to Europe rising even more sharply, by 99 percent. But the bulk of this increase has taken place since 2005–i.e., in the years when BDS was most active. From 2005-2013, despite a sharp drop during the global financial crisis of 2009, annual exports to Europe averaged $15.6 billion. That’s almost double the preceding decade’s annual average of $7.8 billion.

Foreign direct investment in Israel has also risen steeply, posting an increase of 58 percent over the last four years alone–precisely the years when BDS was supposedly having its biggest impact.

Most surprisingly, exports from the West Bank and the Golan Heights, which are the primary focus of boycott efforts, rose even faster than exports overall. Consequently, they constituted 3.1 percent of total exports in 2013, up from 0.5 percent in 2000–and the overwhelming majority of that increase also stemmed from exports to Europe. A handful of industries, like Jordan Valley date farmers, have taken a hit, but the impact on Israel as a whole has been negligible.

As the report acknowledged, this is largely because “A major portion of Israeli exports are intermediate products, like electronic components, that sit inside the final products of well-known global companies.” That makes them hard to boycott: How do you boycott the insides of your computer or cellphone?

But it’s also worth noting that even in Europe, where BDS has gained most traction, the movement’s strongholds are found among academics, trade unionists, and unelected EU bureaucrats–i.e., people with no responsibility for the performance of national economies. In contrast, BDS has few champions among elected politicians in national governments, because these politicians are responsible for delivering economic growth to their constituents and view Israel’s innovative tech sector as a potential contributor to this effort.

Consequently, while BDS was making noise in the press, European governments were quietly working to deepen economic ties with Israel. A particularly notable example is the British Embassy Tech Hub, brainchild of British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould. Founded in 2011, the Hub essentially functions as a matchmaking service between British and Israeli firms, giving the former access to Israeli high-tech and the latter access to partners who can help them grow their businesses and enter new markets. It’s been so successful that other ambassadors in Israel are now consulting Gould on how to replicate his model at their own embassies.

The bottom line is that for all the hype about BDS, its efforts to strangle Israel have been a total failure. BDS may be thriving in the media and on college campuses, but out in the real world, what’s thriving is Israel’s economy.

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The “Nonviolence” of the BDS Movement

Among the strategies the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement uses to disguise its extremism from unsuspecting potential converts is to insist on its nonviolence. As Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, a leading American academic advocate of BDS explains, “the Palestinians have tried four decades of armed revolt, three decades of peace negotiations, two intifadas, and seven decades of waiting. They have taken up BDS as a non-violent tactic.”

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Among the strategies the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement uses to disguise its extremism from unsuspecting potential converts is to insist on its nonviolence. As Corey Robin of Brooklyn College, a leading American academic advocate of BDS explains, “the Palestinians have tried four decades of armed revolt, three decades of peace negotiations, two intifadas, and seven decades of waiting. They have taken up BDS as a non-violent tactic.”

Tactic is the key word. It is hard to claim that nonviolence is at the center of one’s movement when your foremost spokesperson is Ali Abunimah, whose support for Hamas is well-documented. But no one has been more explicit about the relationship between nonviolent BDS and violence than Leila Khaled. BDS-South Africa is now advertising her “fundraising tour” on its behalf (h/t Haaretz). Khaled, a member of the “Political Bureau” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is still living off of the vapors of two hijackings, one successful, she participated in 45 years ago. An old glamor photo of Khaled, machine gun in hand, graces the BDS-South Africa ad. Although Khaled insists she was instructed not to hurt anyone during the hijackings, the PFLP has been committed to violence, including violence against civilians, not only in Khaled’s youth, as in the Lods Airport Massacre, but also more recently, as in November’s murder of four worshippers and a policeman at a Jerusalem synagogue, dubbed a “heroic operation” by the PFLP. But if you find yourself in South Africa next month, you can have dinner with, as the ad put it, this “wife, mother, hijacker, and Palestinian freedom fighter.”

However that may be, Khaled reveals to anyone who cares to listen exactly how she understands the role of BDS. BDS “of course, on the international level [is] very effective. But it doesn’t liberate, it doesn’t liberate land. If there’s BDS all over the world, and the people are not resisting, there will be no change.” In apartheid South Africa, she claims, boycotts “helped the people who were holding arms. But if they were not holding arms it may have affected them politically, but it would not have liberated, not on the ground.” BDS is a way of supporting an armed resistance. As Khaled sees it, BDS is the propaganda arm of groups like her own PFLP.

Rather than distancing themselves from Khaled and the terrorist organization for which she continues to labor, the purportedly nonviolent BDS-South Africa celebrates what they plainly regard as her praiseworthy legacy. Rather than denying that they happily march arm in arm with the likes of PFLP, they quote approvingly an unnamed source that calls Khaled the “poster girl of the Palestinian struggle,” and invite us to dine with her.

You might almost think that they are auditioning for the role—of propagandists to ease the way for the people with guns—Khaled has assigned them.

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A Big Loss for Anti-Israel Academics

It wasn’t even close. At Sunday’s business meeting of the American Historical Association’s annual conference, AHA members present voted overwhelmingly against considering two resolutions sponsored by Historians Against the War, both attempting to draw AHA into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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It wasn’t even close. At Sunday’s business meeting of the American Historical Association’s annual conference, AHA members present voted overwhelmingly against considering two resolutions sponsored by Historians Against the War, both attempting to draw AHA into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The resolutions accuse Israel of the usual crimes against the right to education and academic freedom. But the content of the resolutions, though objectionable, as usual disguised the actual goal of those proposing them. As Van Goss, a historian at Franklin and Marshall and a member of HAW’s steering committee, explained at a roundtable on the resolutions, “I know the AHA. If we bring in a BDS resolution, we’ll get blown out of the water. That’s not a tactically smart thing to do.” Having conceded that the resolution is a “politically and tactically sensible move” on the part of people whose purpose is to get the AHA to boycott Israel, Van Goss goes on to deny that the resolution is an “in any shape or form” an “entering wedge” for the boycott movement. Sure.

Van Goss may have been right about the likely fate of an actual BDS resolution. Such a resolution was submitted for consideration at the meeting but rejected in part because it did not have the required 50 signatures. As AHA executive director James Grossman said in explaining the decision, this “bar is quite low,” since AHA has more than 13,000 members. Of course, a more competent effort would have netted more than the required 50 signatures, but the incompetence of this year’s effort is itself heartening.

Indeed, HAW submitted its own two resolutions late, which is why the vote was about whether to suspend the rules so that the resolutions could be considered rather than about the resolutions themselves. Claire Potter, via Twitter, reported on the debate. Opponents of suspension for the most part agreed with the AHA Council, which could have put the resolution on the agenda but declined to do so for two reasons. First, timing: “A complex issue should not arise [without] time for research and reflection.” Second, fairness: putting the item on the agenda late would be unfair to those not in attendance who “might have attended had they known the resolutions [would be] on the agenda.”

Those in favor of suspension argued, strangely, that abiding by the rules was undemocratic since the rules were made to “suppress and curtail debate.” They also argued that even if the procedure were unfair, that unfairness could somehow be wiped out by a full membership vote, though such a vote was not guaranteed to occur and, if it did occur, would do so in a context of an unfairly secured endorsement. No one explained why there was such a hurry to pass a resolution, perhaps because it is “not a tactically smart thing to do” to say out loud that the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement needs every anti-Israel statement it can get, whether it directly calls for a boycott or not, to create the appearance of momentum. That propaganda beast needs feeding.

The members present weren’t buying it. The resolutions’ supporters needed two-thirds of the votes. They got not even one-third. In a defeat the History News Network called stunning, the activists won just 51 votes. 144 voted against suspending the rules, and 3 abstained.

The History News Network is right to call the magnitude of defeat stunning. Proponents of the resolutions had more time to organize than did their opponents, and the AHA has not been shy about taking political stands before. Historians like David Greenberg of Rutgers University, Sharon Musher of Richard Stockton College, and Jeffrey Herf of the University of Maryland, who have defended the integrity of AHA against attempts to use it as a political weapon, deserve a lot of credit. But they and their allies will soon enough have to be at it again. Incoming AHA president Vicki Ruiz has decided to devote three of six presidential sessions at next year’s conference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is disappointing that Ruiz thinks that the AHA staking out its foreign policy is worth half of the time she controls at the conference. But Ruiz has once before stood against the anti-Israel boycott movement, and it is to be hoped that the discussions she organizes will be fairer than has been the norm. Certainly, BDS opponents are not afraid of such discussions. Alice Kessler Harris of Columbia University, a boycott opponent, rose to urge the AHA Council to design a program of education so that if it should come to a vote next year, the vote might actually be informed by knowledge of the issues at stake.

The activists of Historians Against the War tried to interrupt her. I guess they think ignorance is good for their cause.

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New Harvard Doctrine: Palestinians Matter More than Jews

Some, but by no means all, Palestinians, think that SodaStream, a company that does business in the West Bank, should be boycotted on the grounds that it profits from the “occupation.” I say some but by no means all because the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement does not represent all Palestinians. Not all Palestinians, for example, balk at the prospect of Israelis and Palestinians cooperating. But the BDS movement views such cooperation, unless it is explicitly anti-Israel, as “normalization.” An observer from Reuters describes Sodastream’s West Bank factory this way: “Inside the plant, assembly lines buzz to the mixed voices in Hebrew and Arabic of its employees — a rare example of people from the two sides working and talking together.” That’s the kind of thing BDS cannot tolerate, especially if it means that Palestinians are able to earn a higher wage than they could elsewhere.

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Some, but by no means all, Palestinians, think that SodaStream, a company that does business in the West Bank, should be boycotted on the grounds that it profits from the “occupation.” I say some but by no means all because the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement does not represent all Palestinians. Not all Palestinians, for example, balk at the prospect of Israelis and Palestinians cooperating. But the BDS movement views such cooperation, unless it is explicitly anti-Israel, as “normalization.” An observer from Reuters describes Sodastream’s West Bank factory this way: “Inside the plant, assembly lines buzz to the mixed voices in Hebrew and Arabic of its employees — a rare example of people from the two sides working and talking together.” That’s the kind of thing BDS cannot tolerate, especially if it means that Palestinians are able to earn a higher wage than they could elsewhere.

Some, but by no means all, Jews consider the BDS movement anti-Semitic because, among other reasons, it calls for an end to the only Jewish state. This group includes some Harvard University students.

Nonetheless, Harvard University has apparently chosen to stand with BDS. According to a Harvard University Dining Services spokesperson, the HDS has agreed “to remove SodaStream labels on current machines and purchase machines from other companies such as American firms EverPure and Crysalli in the future.” Although BDS has a history of claiming victories prematurely, and although HDS has not said why it is removing SodaStream labels from the machines, it is hard to imagine any justification other than the one set forth by Rachel J. Sandalow, a student leader in the pro-BDS Open Hillel movement: “These machines can be seen as a microaggression to Palestinian students and their families and like the University doesn’t care about Palestinian human rights.” The HDS action followed a meeting which included Harvard professors and administrators, and representatives of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee.

Let’s set aside whether Harvard should make policy based on perceived “microaggressions.” What’s striking here is that Harvard cares only about the “microaggressons” perceived by certain groups. One participant at the meeting apparently pointed out that wiping out SodaStream’s name may be perceived as an endorsement of anti-Israeli politics. That participant wasn’t wrong, but insofar as BDS also represents, for at least some Jewish students, anti-Semitism, it could also be perceived by them as an endorsement of anti-Jewish politics. If Harvard is serious about rooting our microaggressions, then they should take the concerns of those students seriously.

Of course, there is no action Harvard could have taken that would not have offended someone, which tells us something about the wisdom of enacting policies simply to avoid offending people. In the end, you have to choose whom you’re going to offend. Harvard shamefully judged it safest to offend the Jews.

Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, has recognized that academic boycotts against Israel are unacceptable. She should also recognize that this mini-boycott is unacceptable and reverse the decision.

UPDATE: Harvard’s provost Alan M. Garber strongly suggests that this decision will not stand. “Harvard University’s procurement decisions should not and will not be driven by individuals’ views of highly contested matters of political controversy,” Garber wrote in an emailed statement in response to the report of the decision shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday. “If this policy is not currently known or understood in some parts of the University, that will be rectified now.” President Faust has requested in investigation.

 

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Librarians for BDS: When Librarians Burn Books

Much has been written here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere regarding the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement, its hypocrisy, and the anti-Semitic attitudes which too often seem to motivate some of its most vocal supporters.

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Much has been written here at COMMENTARY and elsewhere regarding the boycott, divest, sanction (BDS) movement, its hypocrisy, and the anti-Semitic attitudes which too often seem to motivate some of its most vocal supporters.

That too many academics conflate scholarship with politics, and believe free speech trumps academic rigor is old news. There is nothing wrong nor intimidating about outsiders shining the limelight on professors who abuse their positions or on any scholarly ideas that those scholars put forth. After all, if professors’ research has been conducted with rigor, it will withstand criticism. But if it has not, then it should be subject to ridicule. Only in an Orwellian world is free speech synonymous with affirmation. And only to the immature or unprofessional must speech codes or stacked panels prevent disapproval.

Professors should be judged by their research and their teaching. University librarians should be held to another standard entirely. A university librarian’s purpose is to accumulate books, journals, and archival materials ranging the gambit of the field irrespective of their own personal politics, or the popular political directives of the day. Once they acquire those resources, a librarian should organize and ease access to it.

And yet, with this statement released by Middle Eastern Studies scholars and librarians endorsing the BDS call and seeking the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, librarians at some major universities are effectively embracing the notion that they will filter acquisitions according to their own political predilections. What librarians such as Mastan Ebtehaj at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University; Blair Kuntz at the University of Toronto; Mahmoud Omidsalar at California State University, Los Angeles; and Anais Salamon at McGill University are effectively saying is that they will not consider acquiring, cataloguing, or making available titles published by such Israeli scholarly presses such as Tel Aviv University Press, or the Truman Institute’s press. That may not literally be burning books, but how shameful it is for university librarians to do the figurative equivalent, filtering knowledge by whether or not they agree with the author or, as BDS demands, whether or not they like his or her nationality or that of the scholar’s publishing company. How ironic it is that librarians—those who should dedicate their professional life to protecting access to knowledge—have read so few of the history books they supposedly guard, for if they did, they might not be comfortable with past parallels to their present actions.

And while librarians might justify affixing their signatures to the statement cited above in being true to their political conscience or even free speech, they should recognize that free speech does not trump or excuse professional responsibility, any more than free speech would absolve a doctor who refused to touch an Israeli patient or who, because of their own personal beliefs, decided to treat cancer patients only with crystals and aromatherapy. Librarians should write what they want, sign what they want, and preach what they want. Professional competence and responsibility are not endlessly subjective. If a librarian at California State University—a state institution—for example, declares openly that he will not fulfill his duty, perhaps then the state should not entrust him with such responsibility. Under no circumstance do librarians who ban books embrace free speech.

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Putting Lipstick on the BDS Pig

The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement targeting Israel has had more success in the Kafkaesque confines of the modern American university than in the real world. Yet even in the academy, where both the rule of law and basic constitutional rights are heavily curtailed and anti-Semitism is tolerated if not fostered, it has begun to lose battles. That’s because a few principled American academics still support academic freedom, and make their argument convincingly. Yet now another group of leftist academics is offering a way to target Israel while maintaining a façade of academic integrity.

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The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement targeting Israel has had more success in the Kafkaesque confines of the modern American university than in the real world. Yet even in the academy, where both the rule of law and basic constitutional rights are heavily curtailed and anti-Semitism is tolerated if not fostered, it has begun to lose battles. That’s because a few principled American academics still support academic freedom, and make their argument convincingly. Yet now another group of leftist academics is offering a way to target Israel while maintaining a façade of academic integrity.

The group is a leftist organization called the Third Narrative, which seeks to replace the prevailing anti-Israel narrative on the left with their own anti-Israel narrative, which they consider morally superior. It’s as though one Illinois governor is claiming to be less corrupt than one of his predecessors. Fine, but let’s remember just how relative your morality is here.

The Third Narrative’s mission statement criticizes the overheated anti-Israel rhetoric of the left, but still wants the left to take aim at Israel:

The Third Narrative initiative is our response to this situation. We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. When it comes to this conflict, the truth is rarely black or white; it resides in a gray area where advocates on either side typically don’t like to venture. That is where we try to go with The Third Narrative.

In theory, it sounds good. A less hateful left is still thoroughly intellectually dishonest, but still an improvement. (It’s a low bar.) Once fiercely opposed to BDS, the organization now seems to have been opposed to the form the mainstream BDS movement was taking, especially the anti-Semitic umbrella BDS organization. The Third Narrative apparently thinks there’s a third way between BDS and no BDS, as it explained in an open letter titled “A Time for Personal Sanctions”:

That response, we believe, should not take the form of generalized boycotts and other sanctions that indiscriminately target Israeli society and Israeli institutions. Such measures are both unjust and politically counterproductive. In particular, campaigns for boycotts and blacklists of Israeli academia attack the most basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.

Moreover, a response to Israel’s settlement and annexation policies should not suggest that Israel bears exclusive responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, or that, if pressured, Israel could solve it unilaterally. Achieving a just and durable negotiated solution requires constructive efforts by actors on all sides of the intertwined Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts. However, if the door is to be held open to the possibility of a just, workable, and peaceful solution, one requirement is to prevent actions that would sabotage it. For this reason, we propose targeted sanctions to focus on political actors engaged in such sabotage.

Although they single out four Israeli figures to sanction, the point is really to attack Naftali Bennett, the first politician on their blacklist and a rising star in Israeli politics, on the eve of a national election. (Uri Ariel, Moshe Feiglin, and Zeev Hever are the others.)

Signatories to the letter include Michael Walzer (Princeton), Todd Gitlin (Columbia), Alan Wolfe (Boston College), Michael Kazin (Georgetown), and Gershon Shafir (UC San Diego) among others. As you can see from the names, they are not only academics but also writers. And as you might expect from American academics and left-wing journalists, they have no idea what they’re talking about. A read-through of their open letter shows them to be ignorant of basic international law and deceitful about Israeli actions.

They want to sanction Israelis whose opinions they disagree with, but since those Israelis are not professors at Tel Aviv University they can convince themselves they are better than those other BDSniks. This is their version of a kosher BDS. It is nothing of the sort.

Since their concern about political figures getting in the way of the two-state solution is surely genuine, I eagerly await the follow-up open letter detailing the Palestinian figures they’re also sanctioning: figures who support or encourage terrorism, those involved in Palestinian media who fuel incitement; etc.

And why stop there? As they must know, the political figures who do the most to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian peace sit in Tehran. Which Iranian government officials–obviously President Rouhani, but there must be others–will Third Narrative advocate personal sanctions for?

What’s dangerous about the Third Narrative’s supposedly kosher BDS is that it offers the legions of thought police throughout academia an outlet for their anti-Israel fervor that also flatters their unearned sense of academic integrity. But they can put all the lipstick they want on this pig, it won’t make it kosher.

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BDS Is About Israel, Not Settlements

The campaign to boycott Israel–the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement–is undoubtedly a fringe campaign. But where this small band of anti-Israel extremists have experienced some traction is among those whom they have been able to convince that BDS is only against settlements. The argument goes that a boycott of Israeli settler produce will somehow persuade the Israelis to abandon their security concerns and bring an end to their so-called occupation of the West Bank. Yet one only has to look to how BDS conducts its campaigns in practice to see that this alleged concern with the “occupation” is just one of many disingenuous claims from what is, at its heart, an entirely disingenuous movement.

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The campaign to boycott Israel–the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement–is undoubtedly a fringe campaign. But where this small band of anti-Israel extremists have experienced some traction is among those whom they have been able to convince that BDS is only against settlements. The argument goes that a boycott of Israeli settler produce will somehow persuade the Israelis to abandon their security concerns and bring an end to their so-called occupation of the West Bank. Yet one only has to look to how BDS conducts its campaigns in practice to see that this alleged concern with the “occupation” is just one of many disingenuous claims from what is, at its heart, an entirely disingenuous movement.

Listening to the words of BDS leaders such as Omar Barghouti you soon realize that the end goal of BDS is nothing less than the total elimination of the Jewish state. But unlike Barghouti, most of the BDS movement has the common sense not to state this so publicly. As such, BDS efforts have been ostensibly focused around boycotting settlements; although in practice this still allows campaigners to attack most Israeli companies by making flimsy arguments about guilt by association. So for instance the Israeli national theater company Habima was targeted on the grounds that it had previously performed in settlements. In Europe this argument is beginning to take hold. Supermarket chains, churches, city councils, and now EU diplomats are all coming round to the idea that boycotting the Jewish state outright may be going too far, but boycotting Jews who dare to live on the “wrong side” of a defunct armistice line is perfectly acceptable.

For BDS, SodaStream was the ideal target. This high-profile company, with its popular products and Super Bowl commercials featuring Scarlett Johansson, had one of its factories just to the east of Jerusalem in the West Bank. The fact that SodaStream boasted of being the largest commercial employer of Palestinians in the world did nothing to dissuade BDS from its efforts. Indeed, just a few months back when it was announced that SodaStream would relocate its factory from the West Bank to the Israeli Negev, BDS expressed no remorse for the Palestinian workers losing their jobs, but only exuberance at their own apparent victory.

Still, now that SodaStream is relocating from the West Bank BDS will be dropping the boycott, right? Wrong! As if proof was needed that fleeing the settlements will do nothing to appease those who simply hate the Jewish state in its entirety, BDSniks have said that they will continue to boycott SodaStream. Now the pretext for boycotting is the allegation that the new factory will be based “close to” a town being built to provide local Bedouin with housing. And supposedly this renders SodaStream “implicated in the displacement of Palestinians.” One can scarcely believe that the movement’s leaders believe such claims, but then these are the feeble excuses of bigots trying to hide and justify their unacceptable agenda.

The true character of BDS is becoming increasingly apparent as the boycotters shift their attention toward targets that even they can’t bracket in with settlements and “stolen land,” except of course for the fact that BDS clearly considers all of Israel stolen land and any Jewish enterprise on that land to be a pollution. Israeli-Arabs are of course exempt from boycotts. Because at its core BDS is a movement that makes ethnicity the dividing line that determines who is to be boycotted and who isn’t. As such, it comes as no surprise that BDS activists in the UK have launched action against Sabon, an Israeli cosmetics company that has always been based within Israel’s pre-1967 borders.

Sabon opened its first luxury cosmetics store in London at the beginning of November and BDSers were demonstrating outside within just four days of its arrival. Over the weekend activists staged a particularly aggressive gathering, in which one of the ringleaders was heard employing the most shameless blood libel language, barking coldly down the megaphone: “you don’t want to be going into this shop, buying beautiful smelling lotions to smear over your body, because if you do you will be smearing yourself in the blood of Palestinians.” And yet this particular Saturday morning protest appears to have been spearheaded by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, the extremist fringe of an already extremist sect.

As can be seen in the video, the activists are few in number and their efforts have consistently failed to persuade consumers to reject Israeli products. Yet by standing in front of the entrance of Israeli owned stores, intimidating shoppers from stepping inside, it only takes a handful dedicated fanatics to get a stranglehold on a small store. Just a few streets over from the new Sabon outlet is the storefront that was once home to London’s Ahava Dead Sea spa. But in 2011 BDS activists succeeded in hounding Ahava out, not by persuading customers with their arguments, but rather by creating so much noise and disturbance on the salubrious Covent Garden street that–under pressure from surrounding businesses–the building owner eventually discontinued Ahava’s lease. The protesters now seek to do the same to Sabon simply because it, like Ahava and SodaStream, is owned by Israeli Jews.

A few years ago the fierce critic of Israel Norman Finkelstein attacked some on his own side, calling BDS “a cult.” It is a cult, but more than that, it’s also a fundamentally racist movement, and that is what the world needs to be hearing about BDS.

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An Insider’s Account of Open Hillel

Holly Bicerano is no friend of ours. In her Times of Israel blog, she has defended the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.’s) indefensible divestment vote, denied that Israel’s most recent Gaza incursion was “self-defense,” and complained that Israel is sabotaging Palestinian democracy. It therefore is telling that, for this former member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee and Jewish Voices for Peace, Open Hillel is too dishonest and malicious to command her allegiance.

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Holly Bicerano is no friend of ours. In her Times of Israel blog, she has defended the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.’s) indefensible divestment vote, denied that Israel’s most recent Gaza incursion was “self-defense,” and complained that Israel is sabotaging Palestinian democracy. It therefore is telling that, for this former member of the Open Hillel Steering Committee and Jewish Voices for Peace, Open Hillel is too dishonest and malicious to command her allegiance.

Open Hillel was founded in 2012 at Harvard University. (Aiden Pink’s account of the organization is worth reading in its entirety.) Harvard’s Hillel had refused to co-sponsor an event with Harvard’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee, which supports the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. According to Hillel International’s “Standards of Partnership,” a Hillel will not “partner with, house, or host” organizations that support BDS. The Open Hillel movement encourages campus Hillels to defy that standard.

Because Open Hillel claims to stand for “inclusivity and open discourse,” and it is hard to be against those things, it has attracted some support. Vassar College and Swarthmore’s Hillel organizations have officially rejected the Standards of Partnership and declared themselves Open Hillels. But Jonathan Tobin and Ben Cohen have warned in these pages that Open Hillel’s talk of inclusiveness is a ploy. The intent of Open Hillel is a hostile takeover of as many Hillels as its members can gain influence over, with a view to turning Hillel, the central Jewish organization in American campus life, into an instrument of the campaign to turn Israel into a pariah state. Bicerano, an insider, says that Open Hillel’s critics are absolutely right.

“While Open Hillel’s stated aims are open dialogue and inclusiveness,” Bicerano explains, “the organization in actuality has something else in mind. The people who claim that Open Hillel’s main objective is to garner support for the BDS movement may not realize just how right they are.” First, leaders of Open Hillel voted to form a committee to explore an “anti-normalization” campaign “to end joint discussions and programs between Jews and Palestinians unless they subscribe to the BDS movement.” Although the committee allegedly was created to foster “open discussion” about anti-normalization, it has in fact, according to Bicerano, stacked discussions in favor of the campaign.

Moreover, Open Hillel never publicly announced the formation of the committee, presumably because any fool can see that one does not “create open dialogue by empowering people who are against it.” Bicerano concludes, based on her experience on the steering committee, that Open Hillel “has fallen into the hands of anti-normalization activists.”

Second, Bicerano has apparently just noticed that students involved in the BDS movement have no interest in inclusiveness or dialogue. “Bringing pro-BDS groups into Hillel,” she has realized, “will not mean more open dialogue and inclusiveness. From disrupting pro-Israel events to blocking Birthright tables, these groups regularly employ tactics that create a hostile atmosphere for pro-Israel students.” Bicerano even concedes that “anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism often go hand in hand.”

Hillel International’s Standards of Partnership are not perfect. For example, Hillel will not host speakers who hold Israel to a “double standard.” This maddeningly vague guideline would seem to rule out liberal Zionists who adamantly oppose BDS but think that the Jewish state should indeed abide by higher standards than most states. But as Bicerano points out, this guideline has been applied in such a way that advocates of a settlement boycott are “already permitted to speak at Hillel.” It is tolerably clear to a fair-minded observer that what Hillel seeks to prevent is not criticism, even harsh criticism, of Israel, but the use of its name to further the destruction of Israel. Bicerano’s insider confirmation that Hillel is, if anything, understating the extent to which Open Hillel is out to destroy it, is welcome.

Note: Legal Insurrection’s account, of which I just became aware, is here and worth reading.

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MESA Resolution Shows What’s Wrong with Academe

Martin Kramer has already written about his experience at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), both past and present. This year’s meeting ended with members voting on a resolution which:

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Martin Kramer has already written about his experience at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), both past and present. This year’s meeting ended with members voting on a resolution which:

Affirms that 1) calls for institutional boycott, divestment and/or sanctions are protected free speech and legitimate forms of non-violent political action; 2) the right of MESA members to engage in open discussion of the BDS movement at the Annual Meeting and other forums and 3) the right of the membership of other organizations to discuss, debate, and endorse or not endorse the BDS campaign;

Deplores intimidation directed against organizations who have adopted BDS resolutions, such as the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies;

Urges MESA to organize discussions at its Annual Meeting and for the MESA Board to create opportunities in 2015 to discuss the academic boycott and consider an appropriate position for MESA.

So rare it is that such a short resolution says so much about an organization. Academics love to embrace free speech in order to defend their work. And, certainly, free speech should be sacrosanct. But MESA members, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of this resolution, misunderstand free speech in two very important ways.

First of all, free speech was never meant to be a substitute for professional competence. Steven Salaita may be provocative; racists, anti-Semites, and anyone who expresses hatred for a class of people usually are. But provocation is not synonymous with path-breaking research. If a tenured professor of astronomy declared the world flat, or if a biologist claimed oxygen had no role in life on Earth, they might claim it to be their right to say what they want, but that doesn’t mean that they can say bluster without having done the work to prove their case. Salaita, of course, wrote an entire book on Israel without speaking or reading Hebrew, and penned a book on Palestinian literature without discussing poetry, arguably the most important element of the Palestinian literary canon. The scandal isn’t so much that the University of Illinois rescinded its preliminary tenure offer after learning about Salaita’s incitement on twitter; rather, it’s that he was seriously considered in the first place.

More importantly, however, the MESA resolution reflects the mindset and thin skin of the academic community. It declares discussion of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning (BDS) Israel to be a right of academics. Honestly, I have no problem with academics discussing whatever the heck they want. But then it continues to suggest that criticizing academics or organizations for embracing the BDS movement is out of line. That is what the statement “Deplores intimidation directed against organizations who have adopted BDS resolutions” means.

Criticism is not intimidation, and false cries of intimidation in order to avoid defending arguments are dishonest. Perhaps MESA members don’t like the fact that some donors might withhold funds. But donations are not an entitlement. Avoiding true diversity of opinion and intellectual challenge really has become the norm rather than the exception in academe. When Salaita brought his tour to Brooklyn College, Professor Corey Robin effused about the quality of the resulting conversation, never mind that Salaita, his fellow panelists, and Robin himself were all of the same mind. In academe, “conversation” and, for that matter, “teach-ins,” have become synonymous with one-sided declarations; debate is shunned as intimidation.

The MESA resolution confirms the narrowing of the academic mind, the prioritization of politics above competence, and the shunning of real debate in favor of group affirmation of the politics of the day.

Academics often complain policymakers do not listen to them. This is not true. What academics say is heard loud and clear. They scream free speech, but have forgotten what free speech was meant to protect: a desire to improve and advance knowledge; not limit and confine it to conform to the precepts of the day.

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Philosophers Behaving Badly: Brooklyn College BDS Edition

Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

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Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

More than a year ago, Brooklyn College made news because its department of political science sponsored what amounted to a rally for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. So faculty members there have had a long time to reflect on the question of whether academic departments should sponsor anti-Israel activism. The philosophy department of Brooklyn College, presumably using the tools acquired in the course of many years of philosophic training and practice, recently delivered an answer: absolutely!

Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy at BC, has described the arguments that won over his colleagues. First, the event would be good for students. They’d get to hear a “debate” about academic freedom and other issues raised by the Salaita case. Salaita, after all, did not have the stage to himself, but shared it “with a law professor” and a moderator, a “political theorist” (who also teaches Constitutional Law).”

Chopra does not mention that the “law professor” in question, Katherine Franke, is a boycott advocate, a leader in the effort to reinstate Salaita, and an adviser to Salaita’s legal team. The political theorist and “moderator,” Corey Robin, has “turned his blog into a Salaita war room.” One Salaita advocate adds that “we’ve all looked to him as a central source of information about new developments.” That advocate’s name, by the way, is Katherine Franke. I am sure the debate over who loved whom more got heated.
Say what you want about Students for Justice in Palestine. At least they forthrightly admitted that students were being invited to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.” It’s not strange that the SJP, which is engaged in a propaganda campaign against Israel, would try to draw as many people as possible to an event that would further their delegitimization efforts. But it’s remarkable—and suggests that their department possesses not only philosophical acumen but also pedagogical creativity—that the philosophers of Brooklyn College saw SJP’s event as a great learning opportunity, worthy of support.

Just in case his colleagues, being professional philosophers, were not floored by his first argument, Chopra made another. He “analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion of a reading on a class syllabus.” Now I am a long way from my philosophy degree. But although I was not surprised when a professor had us read excerpts from Mein Kampf in our class on Western Civilization, I would have been surprised had I learned that he voted to sponsor a panel of neo-Nazis. Yet the philosophers voted with Chopra. Perhaps they deferred to him because—drum roll please—he began his academic career as a logician.

In many academic free speech cases, we defend the principle and distance ourselves from the speaker. You would think that even those who believe Salaita’s speech was not grounds for withdrawing his job offer would take this stance about a man who said, in response to news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” especially in the face of evidence that this statement was not an outlier.

But Salaita’s sponsors, including the trained philosophers of Brooklyn College, aren’t distancing themselves. They’re holding Salaita close, quite as if they like what the man has to say.

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Best Boycott Ever

Many readers will know that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently rescinded a job offer it had made to anti-Israel professor Steven Salaita, after Salaita, among other things, condoned the kidnapping of Israeli teens. This episode, which has left both Salaita and his spouse out of a job, is sad, but the aftermath has not been without its share of comic relief.

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Many readers will know that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently rescinded a job offer it had made to anti-Israel professor Steven Salaita, after Salaita, among other things, condoned the kidnapping of Israeli teens. This episode, which has left both Salaita and his spouse out of a job, is sad, but the aftermath has not been without its share of comic relief.

Predictably, Salaita and his allies claim that his case is just one of many examples in which “external pressure” is used to “silence faculty and students on campuses across the country for speaking in support of Palestinian human rights.” Salaita has not only written of his silencing in the Chicago Tribune but also spoken of it at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, De Paul, the University of Rochester, and Syracuse University. In November, he has eight gigs at California universities, including UC-Berkeley and UCLA. Memo to all-powerful Israel Lobby: I am available for silencing.

But the award for inadvertent comedy goes to the graduate student planning committee for the UIUC History Department’s annual Women and Gender History Symposium. In solidarity with other academics who have pledged to boycott the University of Illinois until it hires Professor Salaita, the committee has canceled the 2015 symposium. The symposium was to be organized “around the theme of Dissent and Empire as a means to critique our university’s historical investment in empire, particularly in its refusal to eradicate ‘Chief Illiniwek’ from this campus.” The university parted ways with its mascot in 2007, but the university has failed to suppress students and alumni who want to keep the chief’s image alive. This failure, along with the Salaita affair, proves the “university’s stake in the project of settler colonialism.”

So the planning committee is punishing UIUC by refusing to hold a conference condemning it. They cannot “in good faith hold an event which would endorse, tacitly or otherwise, our university’s position.” Moreover, they “cannot and will not contribute to the university’s profits, which the trustees have proven is for them paramount above all things.” Not just paramount, mind, but paramount above all things. No doubt the trustees are feverishly trying to figure out what new cash cow they can turn to, now that the Women and Gender History Symposium, that Bruce Springsteen concert of academic symposiums, has been denied them.

In fairness, the graduate students on the planning committee are merely following in the footsteps of their elders, like Columbia professor Bruce Robbins, who refused to bring his anti-Israel road show to the University of Illinois, to strike a blow against the University’s alleged caving in to pro-Israel donors.

Vive le boycott.

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Columbia’s Slippery Boycotters

In a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?
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In a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?

I posed the question to David Stone, executive vice-president for communications at Columbia, and received this reply from him:

If an individual faculty member chooses not to participate in events involving Israel, that is a personal choice that has no effect on the programs of the Middle East Institute or the rest of the University. The Institute itself is home to a broad range of teaching and research including a number of fellowships and grants that support faculty and student research and study in Israel; and its faculty members are engaged in a variety of projects with Israeli scholars.

Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posed the same question directly to Abu-Lughod, and received this reply:

My decision does not affect the Middle East Institute where we welcome distinguished scholars and students from all over the world, fund language training for students in all Middle Eastern languages, support study abroad in all the region’s universities, and support, modestly, summer research for students in all the countries of the region, including Israel.

The Middle East Institute serves the Columbia community. It does not have any institutional partnerships with other universities, whether in the US or abroad.

I’m not surprised (or persuaded) by these answers. I think it’s telling that Abu-Lughod has not issued a public statement of her position, which might be deemed an unacceptable compromise by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) cult. After all, if you really believe that Israel is South Africa (or worse), why not demonstrably abjure any administrative role in academe that compels you to treat it equally? What’s the worth of a boycott if it doesn’t mean sacrificing your access to something to advance a cause—whether it’s a home soda maker or the coveted directorship of a Middle East center?

But that’s neither here nor there. The taxpaying public has the right to expect that every signatory of the boycott pledge who runs a Title VI National Research Center issue an assurance that the boycott doesn’t apply during working hours. And the public has the right to expect an equal assurance from a university’s higher administration. Anything less than that should be automatically suspect, because it’s the bare minimum, and because it’s obvious that even these assurances don’t mean that there isn’t a stealth boycott underway.

A Title VI federally-funded National Research Center is committed by law to making sure that its programming will reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the program, has failed even to define what this means. Consider this test case. On September 19, Columbia’s Middle East Institute co-sponsored (with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) a panel entitled “The War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons.” (Notice the title, as though there wasn’t a war on Israel too.) It included three Palestinian-American boycotters: Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and legal activist Noura Erakat. And that’s it. Read the live tweets from the session, and judge the tenor of the proceedings yourself. Did this event offer “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” and was it structured to “generate debate”? No. So just what must the Middle East Institute do now to assure that it meets its obligation?

My own view is that there’s nothing that a bureaucrat in Washington can do to assure that it does. No Department of Education official is going to detect a stealth boycott or do any serious follow-up on whether taxpayer dollars are going to political activists in academic guise. That means that the reform of Title VI, a creaking holdover from the Cold War, is impossible. If you think that Title VI, on balance, does more good than harm, you’re just going to have to accept that some of your tax dollars will go to agitprop for Hamas. If you think that’s totally unacceptable, you should favor the total elimination of Title VI from the Higher Education Act, now up for reauthorization. There is no middle ground.

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