On December 22, 2014 The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) hosted a panel discussing the bookThe Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm.
In addition to Professors Nelson and Brahm, the panel featured a number of guests.
As already reported, the edited volume included chapters on issues ranging from BDS and academic freedom, to specific case-studies.
The panel discussion and the questions from the audience expanded on the issue and raised additional question not covered in the book.
Professor Cary Nelson (Emeritus, English, University of Illinois)
Nelson asserted that BDS should matter to Israel because of its ideology and the social network that underpins it. BDS activists are socialized to fight Israel’s supporters on campuses, they are highly motivated to the point that BDS has become their professional identity.
Nelson noted that BDS supporters have penetrated academic associations, organize rallies that pretend to be academic. They thrive in the social sciences where many academics believe that classrooms should be used to teach about “justice” and “equality” and utilized for political recruitment.
The anti-Israeli animus is widespread and in some cases paradoxical. For instance, the Jewish Studies programs in NYU, Columbia, Berkeley, California State U, and Toronto University do not offer courses on Israel. Going to educate the next generation of elites.
Political events influence BDS movement. Omar Barghouti, Judith Butler nothing will satisfy them except dissolution of the Israeli State.
Gabriel Noah Brahm (English, Northern Michigan University, Philosophy & Religion, HUJ)
Brahm suggested BDS is anti-Semitic to the core and that “BDS people” have an “Israel fetish.” Jewish BDS supporters like Judith Butler have a simple formula: "Zionism is the problem" – the solution is the Right of Return to the Diaspora where Jews have lived happily and thrived.
Brahm pointed out that Zionism was also scrutinized from a philosophical perspective as well. For instance, Michael Marder & Gianni Vattimo Deconstructing Zionism: A Critique of Political Metaphysics stated that, unlike other nationalism that managed to adopt to twenty first century, Zionism was tethered to nineteenth century nationalism that focused on the state.
On a less lofty level, there are academics like Steven Salaita who was rejected by the authorities of the University of Illinois after being offered a position. As Brahm put it, to “the anti-Semitic unconscious Salaita, Israel is an expression of “racism, colonialism, neoliberalism and sexism.“
Zvi Ziegler, (Emeritus, Technion and the head of the Forum to Counter Academic Boycotts)
Ziegler presented a brief history of BDS. He noted that the Defensive Shield Operation triggered by the Natanya Park Hotel massacre in 2002, promoted the “propaganda machine” of anti-Israeli academics and first calls for boycott. Ziegler recalled that, the Israeli academy took sporadic steps to fight the growing BDS sentiments. It was only in 2013, after a number of professional associations in the United States called for academic boycott that the academic authorities decided to set up his committee. The professor listed four argument in fighting academic BDS; principal, fair play, utilitarian, and exposing false arguments (that the Israeli academics are not agents of the government).
Professor Ilan Troen (Chair, Israel Studies Program at Brandeis University)
Troen spoke about the paradigm shift in the academy triggered by Edward Said’s book Orientalism that depicted Israel as a colonial state and Jews as an artificial, inauthentic people created by the European colonialists in order to dispossess the indigenous Palestinian People. He added that the Durban conference, where Zionism was declared to be racists and Israel an apprehend state, provided the organizational impetus for the BDS movement. Troen predicted that BDS can become a big phenomenon in the future.
Professor Galia Golan (School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya)
Golan focused on the critical question of whether BDS should be considered is anti-Semitic. She suggested that opposition to settlements, house demolitions, and the occupation, constitute a legitimate form of criticism. Golan also noted that from the standpoint of international law and BDS is a legitimate activity on two counts – it is nonviolent and is covered by the United Nations practices of providing a platform for a multitude of nongovernment organizations and movements.
This said, Golan offered a few reservations. First, the BDS rhetoric is highly problematic- it challenges Israel’s right to exist, it is anti- Semitic, and it is anti-political. Second, BDS is counterproductive in the sense that sanctions have a poor success rate. Sanctions worked against South Africa and Iran, but did not work in other cases. Third, BDS helps the Israeli right; the threat of sanctions generates fears in Israeli society and a national solidarity backlash. The rhetoric tends to prove Prime Minister Netanyahu correct when he warns against of Israeli destruction. In this scenario, the leftist BDS and the rightist Likud government feed off each other- a fact that Omar Barghouti acknowledged when he declared that “Netanyahu’s polices are great for the BDS movement.”
Israeli academy is the wrong target for a BDS because it empowers right wing groups on campus. For instance, Im Tirtzu made a name for itself by protesting alleged left-wing radicalism on campus and even prompted the Knesset education committee to request information.
BDS has no place on campus; it stifles debate and imposes censorship in a place that should be devoted to the exchange of ideas and intellectual freedom. Dictatorships have no place in a university, nobody benefits from shutting off of mikes.
Golan added that Hillel in the United States would ban her appearance because she is too critical of Israeli policy.
Select Comments from the Audience
Mr. Michael Gross- a member of the Board of Governors of Ben Gurion University
Gross spoke about Israeli academics who are involved in BDS, an issue that the book did not deal with. Gross focused on the leading role of some radical Israeli scholars in using their academic writings to justify BDS. He mentioned that many radicals are based in the Department of Politics and Government at BGU. He pointed out that the Department was censured by an International Evaluation Committee in 2013 on the grounds of heavy presence of left-wing, activist faculty. Gross commented that Professor Galia Golan was the only member of the Committee that issued a dissenting statement in support of the Department.
Dr. Dalit Baum - formerly from Haifa University, a BDS Activist in the United States
Baum explained that Israel Studies in the United States are highly politicized and no critique of Israel is allowed. Groups like Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) are all about policing the discourse and silencing the critique, in her opinion. Baum stated that the decades-old occupation of Palestinians lands drives BDS and creates problems for Israel. She noted that students need to hear the truth about the occupation and asked why there was no one on the panel to discuss the BDS resolutions.