Anti-Semitism Is on the Rise and the College Campus Is the Battlefield

By Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Published November 21, 2014, issue of November 20, 2014.

There has been a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents on campuses across North America. A main culprit is the large group of professors abusing their university positions to promote the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Unfortunately, it is Jewish students who are caught in the crossfire.

The BDS campaign was established in response to a call by Palestinian organizations, including terrorist organizations Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to facilitate the elimination of Israel.  Omar Barghouti, founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has publicly described his desire to “euthanize” the “Zionist project.”

Calls for an academic boycott of Israeli universities and Israeli scholars have been subjected to scathing criticism by more than 250 university presidents, prominent academic associations, hundreds of state and federal legislators, and virtually every mainstream Jewish organization. These groups rightly argue that a boycott of Israeli universities and scholars violates the tenets of academic freedom and is discriminatory. Many agree BDS is the newest form of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Yet, the movement continues to gain momentum across North America. More than 1,000 scholars on more than 300 college and university campuses have endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.

Predominantly hailing from the humanities and social sciences, many of the academic boycotters are involved with the study of Race, Gender, Class or Empire, ideological paradigms which divide the world into oppressed and oppressor and are linked to social movements which pursue social justice for the oppressed by combating the perceived oppressor. This makes it a short ideological leap for these academic boycotters to see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the same binary terms, casting the Palestinians as the oppressed and the Israelis as the oppressor.

Academic boycotters have found multiple points of entry for advancing the boycott of Israel on their campuses, including in the classroom, conference hall, and campus square, on the university website, and through the academic senate. Faculty boycotters have also created advocacy groups to defend the right of faculty to continue using university resources to promote BDS. 

The boycotters’ efforts have been facilitated by the activist focus of some departments in the social sciences and humanities, the lack of clarity about (and misrepresentation of) academic freedom, and the unwillingness of administrators to enforce university policy and state and federal laws that would curb the behavior of the boycotters. The net result is that many universities are at risk of becoming bastions of political hatred directed against Israel, and inhospitable to Jewish students who identify with the Jewish state.

Faculty members’ unbridled use of the university for promoting the boycott of Israel has had dangerous consequences:

• Corruption of the academic mission of the University: The political nature of the campaign to promote a boycott of Israel damages the educational endeavor that is at the heart of a university. When the focus of a professor or department is political advocacy, the quality of teaching and research is severely compromised. One-sided partisan teaching limits the access of students to vital information and violates their fundamental right to be educated, not indoctrinated. 

• Creation of a hostile environment for Jewish students: Professors who use their official positions and resources to promote campaigns to harm or dismantle Israel and who encourage students to do the same, contribute to the creation of a hostile and threatening environment for many Jewish students, who report feeling emotionally and intellectually harassed and intimidated by their professors and isolated from their fellow students. Unfortunately, Jewish students report feeling afraid to come forward and confront the professor or complain to an administrator because they are concerned about potential retaliation.

Giving academic legitimacy to global campaigns to harm Israel: The language and imagery used to demonize Israel and portray it as worthy of destruction, as well as the BDS campaigns intended to be the first steps towards that end, have caused significant harm to Israel’s reputation. When anti-Semitic tropes and campaigns are promoted by faculty, a cloak of academic legitimacy attaches to them, considerably enhancing their ability to flourish and contributing to the growth of global anti-Semitism.

What can be done?

Public Pressure — Infor­mation about faculty who endorse BDS should be published and circulated widely. Then, students, prospective students, alumni, parents, donors, and taxpayers should express outrage at the university’s collusion with an anti-Semitic campaign. Potential loss of student or donor revenue and the erosion of goodwill of the taxpaying public send a compelling message to university administrators.

Legal Pressure — When the behavior violates state or federal law, legal action may prove effective.

Legislative Pressure — Virtually all universities are beholden to state and federal legislators for funding. To date, legislation which would withhold public monies from universities that engage in anti-Israel boycotts has been proposed in five states, as well as in the U.S. Congress. Such legislation could go a long way towards curbing the behavior of academic boycotters.

In the 1930’s, thousands of Jewish professors were kicked out of German universities because they were Jews. Shamefully, today, Jewish professors are threatened with being thrown out of scholarly conferences, prevented from publishing in scholarly journals, and denied research or employment opportunities, simply because they are citizens of the Jewish state.

This time around, Jewish students, regardless of their personal beliefs on Israel, are suffering as well. Although the problem is a global one, it must be fought locally, on each and every campus where the anti-Semitic boycott of the Jewish state rears its ugly head.

Rossman-Benjamin is the co-founder and director of AMCHA Initiative, a non-profit organization that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses.

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