(December 20, 2013 / JNS) On a virtual stroll through the website of the “U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel”—a deeply unpleasant experience, I should add—I came across an article that drew an analogy I hadn’t encountered before. Intellectually ludicrous and morally ugly, the writer compared the situation of Aida, a Palestinian refugee camp near Bethlehem, with the bombing by the German Luftwaffe of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War.
The Aida camp is not the most luxurious place on earth, yet it is far from being the worst. Its residents don’t live in tents, but in proper housing that clusters tightly around dilapidated-looking streets, a common enough sight across the developing world, and in certainly far better conditions than prevail in large parts of Africa or Asia. By contrast, the bombing of Guernica—the subject of a famous Picasso painting—was one of the true horrors of the 20th century. The destruction wrought by German bombers, wrote George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed it firsthand, was “unparalleled in military history.” Steer described the human cost of the raid in plain terms: “In a street leading downhill from the Casa de Juntas I saw a place where 50 people, nearly all women and children, are said to have been trapped in an air raid refuge under a mass of burning wreckage… When I entered Guernica after midnight houses were crashing on either side, and it was utterly impossible even for firemen to enter the centre of the town.”
Here, in a nutshell, is why Jews are so rightly infuriated by the movement to boycott Israel. In its quest to portray the Palestinians as the most oppressed, downtrodden people on the face of this earth, there are few comparisons to which Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) proponents won’t stoop, no matter how outlandish—whether that’s the parallel with Guernica, or the Holocaust, or apartheid South Africa, or the slander that what Israel has done to the Palestinians approximates a genocide.
The moral vacuum at the core of the BDS movement has again come to the fore since the American Studies Association (ASA), an academic body with 5,000 members, revealed that it was signing up to the academic boycott of Israel—the second such announcement in 2013, following the same decision by the Asian American Studies Association in April. A third academic group, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, has now also joined the Israel boycott. What has stood out, unfortunately, in the media coverage of ASA’s shameful decision is not the fact that less than 1,000 ASA members supported the boycott, in a vote that attracted only one quarter of the entire membership, or the rank hypocrisy of boycotting Israel, given the slaughter that has consumed Syria next door. Instead, we are left with the sense that the boycott is a bold new initiative that will, as a New York Times headline put it, be regarded as a “symbolic sting” to Israel.
There is, however, another way of looking at this. And that requires us to remember that the academic boycott wasn’t launched this month, but ten years ago. And while its activities have roiled universities in the U.K., Europe, South Africa and Australia, it has signally failed to become a mass movement. We should be heartened by the knowledge that Israel’s robust economy and the first-class academic reputation of its universities have easily withstood this propaganda onslaught. Moreover, the American Association of University Professors, the closest thing in this country to a representative body of academics, has roundly rejected the boycott as an assault on academic freedom.
I don’t point to those facts to make the case that we shouldn’t be worried—we should be. There is no room for complacency in the face of a movement whose worldview is rooted in the struggle against Jewish sovereignty in much the same way that the Nazis saw the Jews, or the communists saw the bourgeoisie, as the ultimate enemy. But in fighting the academic boycott and BDS more generally, we should not lose awareness of the power we 21st-century Jews have, nor our ability to wield it.
Hence, let’s by all means ridicule the pretensions of the BDS movement to be a latter-day incarnation of the movement against apartheid in South Africa. Let’s not hesitate in pointing out its failures. At the same time, let’s not permit it to mushroom because we don’t think it’s a threat. Both Brandeis University and Penn State Harrisburg have pulled out of ASA since the boycott was announced, and we should push for a similar outcome in the case of similar initiatives. Much as some Jews are uncomfortable with acknowledging this reality, we have the power to harass, frustrate, and crush the BDS movement wherever it appears. Let us do so without mercy.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.