It’s time to treat the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement with the scorn it deserves

We are just past the end of this year’s “Israeli Apartheid Week,” actually two weeks in the United States, from February 26 to March 12. As the very name implies, Israeli Apartheid Week seeks to persuade students and others that Israel is a pariah regime deserving of the same isolation that apartheid era South Africa faced.

No nation other than Israel has a day, much less a week, devoted to destroying its reputation. That Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) is part of the higher education landscape, largely unchallenged and sometimes supported by professors, is shocking

IAW has been around since 2005. Mock checkpoints and walls are erected and speakers brought in to present Israel as unfavorably as possible. At UC Berkeley, you can watch as actors playing Israeli soldiers sexually harass an actress playing a Palestinian woman. At Montclair State University, you can hear from this activist, Tvia Thier, of Jewish Voice for Peace, who thinks that “Israel is a monster.”

At Tufts University, Thomas Abowd, a lecturer in Arab culture, doesn’t focus on Israel alone. The United States, the audience learns, has always been an apartheid state, and, moreover, “we have apartheid right here on this campus.” Israel, the United States, and Tufts: that’s three apartheids for the price of one. Who says college isn’t a bargain?

Israeli Apartheid Week is part of a broader international campaign, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), which seeks to impose a cultural, academic, and economic boycott on Israel. Beginning with a 2005 call emanating from organizations claiming to represent Palestinian civil society, BDS demands, among other things, that Israel end its “occupation and colonization of all Arab lands.” The boundaries of those “Arab lands” are left deliberately vague; it may be that the whole of Israel is included within them. This ambiguity exists, presumably, to keep in the BDS coalition both those whose ultimate hope is to wipe Israel from the map and those who merely want Israel out of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Some academic sympathizers suggest that BDS is a kind of menu from which one selects: BDS supporters “have produced many versions of what the boycott should and shouldn’t include.” But the BDS movement does have both a general character and organizational voice. That the 2005 call that launched the movement straddles the question of whether Israel must end the 1967 occupation or end its national project altogether is just one indication that BDS is a fringe movement whose support among academics is troubling. Have they been too careless to notice that BDS dodges the very question of Israel’s right to exist? Or do they understand why BDS dodges that question, and approve?

To grasp the movement’s true character, consider BDS’s intellectual heroes. Judith Butler, an influential professor of comparative literature and rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley, has referred to Hamas and Hezbollah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.” Richard Falk, a Princeton professor emeritus was called out by Susan Rice, then U.N. Ambassador, for endorsing “the slurs of conspiracy theorists who allege that the September 11…attacks were perpetrated and then covered up by the U.S. government and media.” Independent scholar Steven Salaita (formerly a professor of English at Virginia Tech), who is now barnstorming the country for BDS, responded to the kidnapping of three Israeli teens, then feared dead, and now, of course, known to have been murdered by Hamas associates this way: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the f——West Bank settlers would go missing.”

This year, under the sponsorship of BDS, Leila Khaled traveled through South Africa to raise money for the anti-Israel campaign. Khaled is a former hijacker and present council member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which claimed credit for the brutal murder of four worshippers and a police officer at a Jerusalem synagogue last November. Khaled capped her tour with the remarkable observation that ISIS is a “Zionist-American organization.” BDS-South Africa promptly tweeted out the claim (they have evidently since deleted it but I saw it at the time and others retweeted it).

Indeed, BDS has not distanced itself at all from such heroes and heroines, quite as if doing so might offend BDS supporters. I do not deny that people have a right to spread delusions, conspiracy theories, and death wishes, but I do wonder why academics persist in treating with respect a movement that hugs such people so hard.

Since we are dealing here with a movement that traffics in extremism, it is not surprising that the BDS movement is having a nasty effect on some college campuses. At South Africa’s Durban University of Technology, right after a visit from Khaled, the student government called for the expulsion of Jewish students, apologizing only after a public outcry.

At UCLA, Rachel Beyda, a candidate for judicial board, was initially rejected for the position by the student council because of her association with Hillel, a mainstream campus Jewish organization, and with a Jewish sorority. The complaint, carrying more than a whiff of the old “dual loyalty” charge, was that a student affiliated with Jewish organizations could not be an impartial judge. Beyda’s inquisitors backed down only after being told by a faculty member present that belonging to a Jewish organization does not constitute a conflict of interest. No wonder that 54 percent of self-identifying Jewish students surveyed in 2013-14 reported “having been subject to or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campuses.”

Students and faculty who support BDS are often, in my experience, well-intentioned but refuse to face squarely the character of the movement they have attached themselves to. They have a perfect right to ignore the reprehensible words and actions of central figures in the movement. But it is past time that students and faculty members, not just pro-Israel ones but all who care about the character of their colleges and universities, treat BDS with the scorn it merits.