(September 21, 2020 / JNS) The American university now more than ever has become a toxic environment for both students and faculty who express open minds about Israel and the West. Faculty who risk their jobs, tenure and grant funding to speak openly about these matters are in need of help.
First Amendment scholar Harry Kalven Jr. in a 1967 report to the University of Chicago wrote:
To perform its mission in society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry, and maintain independence from political fashions, passions and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.
With the normalizing of anti-Semitism has come the normalizing of the BDS movement. Professors and academics who support and advocate for BDS feel empowered and emboldened by the belief that their actions are supported by the campus environment and progressive consensus. Moreover, Israel is seen today as a right-wing issue, especially since campuses are dominated completely by the political and cultural left. This allows every anti-Israel voice to be treated as sane, normal and even moral.
Faculty opposed not only to Israel, but to the United States and even to Western civilization, are at the forefront of BDS, hiding behind the increasingly thin facade of academic freedom to launch systemic attacks on Israel, its supporters and on the structure of the university itself. The rise of “cancel culture” that aims to “deplatform” and ultimately expunge all heterodox discourse has spread from campus protests against pro-Israel speakers to the rest of the world. The growing list of individuals who have been canceled includes those who have transgressed the ever-shifting attitudes from LGBTQ issues to “cultural expropriation.” Anti-Semitism, however, is the only form of hate speech that cancel culture has no problem tolerating, while pro-Israel stances remain occasions to cancel those who dare express it.
“Cancel culture” is motivated in part by the sense that history is either made up for the benefit of the powerful, or that history’s uncomfortable truths necessarily compel feelings of guilt, which must then be translated into political action. Meanwhile, real historical understanding of events like the Civil War and the Holocaust are fading, or, like the history of Jewish nationalism—Zionism—they are deliberately distorted in order to damn supporters.
Original sin is key to so-called “critical” approaches, whether about the creation of Israel or the United States. The New York Times’ “1619 Project” advanced the theory that slavery is the foundation of the United States, which has shaped and corrupted America through racism ever since. Israel’s establishment and behavior are described similarly, situated not as a successful national liberation movement but within the “settler-colonial” narrative, advancing the notion that Jews and Israelis are “white” racist Europeans.
As with identity politics, facts and scholarship find no room in the world of BDS. Feelings and politics shape everything related to Israel; they are subjective, unassailable and cannot be challenged or invalidated. Israel is presented as the greatest evil not only in the Middle East but the world, and which must be treated uniquely. Turkey’s jailing of tens of thousands of academics does not register, much less China’s imprisonment of a million Muslims in re-education camps. Such comparative analysis, the basis for all social science, is dismissed as mere “what-about-ism.”
Faculty members are not, of course, required to support or even like Israel. But fulminating against it and punishing those who even take an interest in it, like a student who wants to study there, should be beyond the pale. Academics who want to re-establish balance about Israel, as well as those who have intellectual or emotional interests there, need help. The network Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) provides such assistance through shared best practices, mentoring and guidance to students and junior faculty. Further steps should be taken, such as enhancing the network with supportive Jewish, Christian and minority community members. Another is continuing to bring the problem out into the open with students, parents, trustees and faculty speaking to local and national media. Open protests on campuses, which will almost invariably elicit vocal hostility from BDS supporters, will prove the case. Lawsuits from or in support of faculty members, who, for example, find their academic organizations subject to hostile or covert takeovers by BDS supporters, or who find their promotions impeded because of their pro-Israel politics, are the final line of defense.
Students, parents and alumni should also be watching carefully and making decisions about which educational institutions to attend, what courses to choose and where to give their money. With new attitudes taking hold regarding the value of higher education, academia should be taking notice as well.
Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. Alex Joffe is a Ginsburg-Milstein Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Both are senior nonresident scholars at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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