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Boycotters of Israel attempt to monopolize a meeting, again

A boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.
A boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) protest against Israel in Melbourne, Australia, on June 5, 2010. Credit: Mohamed Ouda via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent California State University (CSU) Trustees bimonthly meeting took an odd turn.

Amid pressing discussions about budgets, improving student success, and other education issues, anti-Israel boycott activists at the Jan. 29 meeting interjected the subject of Jews and Israel. They made up almost a third of the speakers (seven out of 22) who had requested time to address the trustees during the allotted 30-minute public comments session.

Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that they had signed up to speak. Anti-Israel groups have repeatedly tried to hijack institutional meetings and make their hostility to Israel somehow relevant to the institution, no matter how far they have to reach to make it seem pertinent. This attempt is central to their strategy. They want to foment controversy in multiple venues so they can disseminate their defamations of Israel.

But on Jan. 29, three supporters of Israel also attended and spoke during the public comments session. The anti-Israel activists could not have known they would appear since the speakers’ names are not made public before the meeting. Israel’s supporters at least raised concerns relevant to the CSU system: Should faculty be able to use university resources to promote their personal political agendas or to promote bigotry? Tammi Benjamin of the Amcha Initiative urged the trustees to investigate whether California State University, Northridge (CSUN) math professor David Klein was misusing—or even illegally using—his university Web page to spread his anti-Israel bigotry and to advocate for boycotts against Israel. The ZOA’s David Kadosh seconded Benjamin’s request and underlined that “based on U.S. government standards, Klein is promoting anti-Semitism and using California state resources to do it.”

Roberta Seid of StandWithUs stressed that the Klein matter raised a larger issue. “If safeguards against such misuse are not reinforced, our university resources can deteriorate into battlegrounds of irresponsible misinformation and bigotry,” she said, asking the trustees to review their safeguards against such abuse. She also thanked Chancellor Timothy White and the trustees for condemning the recent American Studies Association (ASA) decision to implement an academic boycott of Israel.

In contrast, the seven anti-Israel speakers, who were mostly members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), didn’t ask the trustees to do anything. They simply seized the opportunity to create a platform for railing against Israel and its supporters. They defended the ASA boycott by excoriating Israel, apparently to prove that the boycott is “just.” But they didn’t ask Chancellor White or the trustees to revoke their condemnation of it.

SJP complained that Israel’s critics are stifled and even silenced despite the fact that their voices are relentlessly loud and clear on many American campuses, especially in California. Nor did the SJP and JVP speakers see the irony of complaining about stifling debate while supporting the academic boycott of Israel, which is designed to ensure that in any debate, Israel’s voice won’t be heard. JVP’s Estee Chandler claimed that with more than 140,000 members, her organization represents a large segment of the Jewish community (though she didn’t say that JVP has and recruits non-Jewish members), and therefore is qualified to deny that anti-Israel activity is anti-Semitic. Other JVP members also emphasized that they are Jewish.

Each of the seven recited the litany of false and often preposterous claims against Israel and many stooped to ad hominem attacks against Tammi Benjamin and her organization. Their allies clapped loudly after each one spoke, giving the appearance of a warm audience response to their views.

The experience was odd. The trustees were likely surprised and probably annoyed about engaging in questions about Israel and who represents Jews, particularly when they had more relevant matters to discuss. They may also have been uncomfortable finding themselves an audience to quarrels between JVP and other Jews. The anti-Israel speakers seemed impervious to the discomfort they caused. Or perhaps that discomfort is the very effect they seek. If they nag enough and divert enough attention to themselves—like children throwing a tantrum—their targeted audience might capitulate to their demands just to get rid of them. In either case, they would have fulfilled their objective: disrupting a meeting, creating controversy, and forcing hostility to Israel to the center stage.

The anti-Israel activists recited, as if by rote, the propaganda—the codified catechism of Israel’s sins—though many of them clearly had no idea what they were talking about. The danger is that their lies can stick and spread, especially when they are repeated often enough and when they are delivered with the air of moral outrage and superiority, and self-congratulatory courage adopted by these and other anti-Israel speakers.

The incident revealed that we do face a new anti-Semitism. It is not simply some random people who dislike Jews or the very idea of a Jewish state. This is an organized, orchestrated campaign with its own catechism. That catechism is utterly divorced from reality and context, little different from the classical anti-Semitic stereotypes applied to Israel. It is disturbing that this propaganda, with its bigotry and lies, is not challenged or denounced by campus authorities. If other groups were singled out in such a concerted campaign of dishonest, hostile stereotypes, university officials and faculty would undoubtedly act to distance themselves from it and try to educate students about its falsity and bigotry.

It is particularly troubling to see anti-Israel activists trumpet their Jewish identity, only to defame Israel. JVP speakers made their remarks with a kind of triumphant relish, as though they were bravely smashing idols or as though to say, “We are the good Jews. Those who support Israel are bad Jews, and we’re not like them.” Nonetheless, some of the trustees may have recognized that the anti-Israel campaign is of deep concern and in fact is a new form of anti-Semitism. Others may have just been confused while still others may have wanted to wash their hands of the whole subject.

Crucial principles are at stake in this anti-Israel battle on campus. Bigotry and anti-Semitism have always perverted or sacrificed fundamental values. JVP and SJP defended the academic boycott, never mentioning that such boycotts are an assault on the very bedrock principle of academic freedom, and they never mentioned that America’s most prestigious scholarly associations and more than 200 university presidents unequivocally denounced the boycott for this reason, and for singling out the Jewish state. Similarly, the anti-Israel activists never addressed whether it is appropriate for faculty like CSUN’s David Klein to use university resources to advance their personal political agendas.

One can only hope that the CSU Trustees will continue to uphold academic freedom, firm up safeguards against misuse of university resources, and take a stand against the bigotry of the anti-Israel movement.

Roberta R. Seid, Ph.D is Research-Education Director of the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs. Roz Rothstein is CEO of StandWithUs.

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