Jewish and pro-Israel students soon heading to universities this fall are invariably wondering about more than living arrangements and course loads. Will students and faculty take real steps to rehabilitate the politicized campus climate? What will be the next steps and targets of the BDS movement against Israel?
In the past few years, campus BDS success seemed to stagnate a bit. During the 2018-19 academic year, only two campuses passed BDS-inspired legislation while eight other attempts failed to earn sufficient support. Even when divestment measures do pass in student government, university administrators have moved quickly to block their implementation, as happened last year at Swarthmore College and Brown University.
While no major university in the United States has ever implemented divestment from Israel, the collegiate BDS movement has managed to inflame tensions among student groups and damage campus climates across the country.
BDS activists are relentless, open to shifting their strategy to use campuses to try to punish Israel while vilifying Jewish students in pursuit of their cause. And this year, students should expect to see an uptick in attempts to introduce academic boycotts against Israel.
In the last year alone, three American campuses were rattled by attempts to sever ties with Israeli academia. At New York University, more than 50 campus groups and an academic department pledged not to affiliate with NYU’s Tel Aviv academic center (never mind that the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis had nothing to do with NYU Tel Aviv). A pair of instructors at the University of Michigan declined to write letters of recommendation for otherwise qualified students to study abroad, simply because those students planned to study in Israel.
Perhaps most concerning was how close Pitzer College in California came to becoming the first American campus to end a study-abroad program in Israel due to BDS pressure. After the faculty called on Pitzer to suspend the school’s agreement with the University of Haifa, and a mixed student/faculty decision-making body endorsed that plan, only decisive action by the college president averted insanity when he blocked the move with a rare veto.
Academic boycotts are dangerous because they circumvent the need for buy-in from an entire administrative or student body. By pursuing boycotts of Israel at the individual or departmental level, anti-Israel policies are easier to implement and can start negatively affecting student life and academia much sooner.
Of course, like divestment campaigns, the academic boycott movement will do little in the way of harming the State of Israel or affecting its standing on the world stage. The real victim of this, or any academic boycott, are the students who hope to engage in the free exchange of ideas that the university space promises.
In some cases, the principle of academic boycott is of greater concern than the direct impact on students. At Pitzer, fewer than a dozen students have participated in the Haifa program since 2007. The idea that a university should institutionally sever access or collaboration with international partners is not only antithetical to the very idea of a university, but can actually have tangible adverse effects on student course enrollment and even school choice. No student should have to consider an individual professor’s political agenda when registering for courses or choosing a major. Students should be able to pursue any degree, any course or any study-abroad destination without fear that someone else’s politics will limit their own educational journey.
Anti-Semitic ideology will pose threats to healthy campus life this year in other vehicles besides academic boycotts. Already, a pair of Israeli student athletes at the University of Indianapolis found a swastika on the wall as they were moving in to their dorm. Graffiti incidents are increasingly commonplace on campuses and other forms of harassment, including mock eviction notices, continue to disenfranchise Israel-supporting students. On the eight campuses where divestment failed last year, there’s likely to be some attempt to revive a traditional BDS push in the next year. Students will also undoubtedly see a continued campus presence from white-nationalist groups, which have increased their college activities.
While other concerns are sure to pop up this year for Jewish and pro-Israel students, the academic boycott against Israel has the most potential for coordinated activity. An entire section on the BDSMovement.net website—run by the Palestinian BDS National Committee—serves as an instructional guide to launching start-up chapters to promote the boycott. Anti-Israel activists across the country are sure to attempt to capitalize on the near success of the Pitzer campaign and pursue boycotts against Israeli institutions at whatever levels they can.
Supporters of Israel, democracy and the free exchange of ideas must recognize the threat that academic boycotts pose to the health of the university environment and make clear that these attacks on academic freedom are not welcome on any campus.
Zev Hurwitz is the American Jewish Committee’s director of campus affairs.