Growing up as the child of Jewish anti-apartheid activists in Johannesburg, South Africa, I was immersed in political debates, news reports over the radio and books about both apartheid and Zionism. I was as familiar with the names Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu as I was with their Zionist counterparts, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.
As a Jew, I felt pride in knowing that in 1948 Ben-Gurion and Meir had achieved national independence for the Jewish people—my people—in our indigenous homeland, Israel. And yet, as a white South African, I knew that Mandela and Sisulu were confined behind bars on Robben Island, and that the racist Nationalist government was denying them and all black South Africans independence in their indigenous homeland, South Africa.
Later, as an immigrant to the United States, I observed with fascination as Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo became known world-wide through song lyrics, and as my own childhood memories, plagued with images of apartheid, came to life in literature. When the anti-apartheid movement swept across the globe, I had no doubt that the people of the world were heeding the call of their black brothers and sisters on the southern tip of Africa—as was I.
Today, 25 years after voting in South Africa’s first democratic election, I am hearing the term “apartheid” being used once again. Unlike the noble anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s, however, the term has been brazenly appropriated and falsely applied to Israel by the leaders of the BDS movement, who are seeking to isolate and condemn the Jewish state due to their anti-Semitic sentiments and thinly veiled Islamic extremism.
Many BDS leaders in the United States are college professors, who pursue these goals by preying on American students to recruit them into the movement. Their professional malpractice often begins when they persuade their students of the myth of “Israeli apartheid” and that they are heeding the call of “Palestinian civil society.” It continues as they replace academic rigor and critical thinking with anti-Semitic rhetoric and anti-Israel indoctrination, which, unfortunately, many of their students are ill-equipped to resist.
Despite only a generation having passed since apartheid ended in South Africa, most American students know little about it. They know even less about Israel, and, therefore, remain vulnerable in their relative ignorance. Because not all public schools are teaching critical thinking skills, students arrive on college campuses with an additional vulnerability, which makes them soft targets for indoctrination.
Indeed, students who have been taught to simply memorize information that they can access on the Internet without delay are more likely inclined to accept the words of a professor in an American classroom who says, “Israel is an apartheid state,” than to study and analyze the history of apartheid or Zionism or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rare is the professor who would encourage such study and analysis.
To encourage students to join the BDS movement, pro-BDS professors also persuade them that they are responding to a call for help from “Palestinian civil society.” According to the BDS website, the call to boycott Israel comes from “170 Palestinian unions, refugee networks, women’s organisations, professional associations, popular resistance committees, and other Palestinian civil society bodies,” who were “inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.”
However, just as there is no evidence of “Israeli apartheid,” the website provides no information on the members of these unions, networks, or organizations which are supposedly calling for the world to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel. Additionally, nowhere does the BDS movement provide the names of its leaders. And nowhere does the BDS movement provide evidence that it has done anything to help the Palestinian people.
Just as people across the world showed their support for South Africans, it is perfectly appropriate for American students to express their empathy and support for Israelis and Palestinians who are seeking peace. They should be hearing the voices of people like Palestinian human-rights activist Bassem Eid, who spent decades living in a Palestinian refugee camp and who vehemently opposes the BDS movement because it creates further suffering for his people.
They should hear him describe BDS as a moneymaking scheme and its leaders as completely disassociated from the Palestinian people, operating “out of their warm houses in New York and Los Angeles and Frankfurt,” far from the West Bank and Gaza. They should listen to him note Palestinian resentment for the BDS movement and explain that when Palestinian workers lose their jobs and health insurance due to boycotts against Israel, the BDS movement does nothing to help them.
All students have the right to learn about their world within an academically rigorous educational program that requires them to obtain knowledge from a variety of sources. All students have the right to learn how to think freely and independently and deeply, asking critical questions such as “Whose voices are we hearing?” “Whose voices are missing?” and “Where can I obtain additional information?”
And all students in American classrooms, including American Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, have the right to feel pride in their identities and to be justly represented.
However, a systematic assault on all three fronts is well underway by proponents of the BDS movement, who are using American university classrooms as their staging grounds. The result is erosion of academic rigor and analysis within American higher education, the demonization of Israel and of American Zionists, and the indifference towards the will of the Palestinian people.
American educators, particularly professors with tenure, must find the courage to address the propaganda and the other unethical tactics being employed by the BDS movement. In addition to teaching their students how to think and how to question, those who teach first year undergraduate students in particular have the additional right and responsibility to prepare their students for the political indoctrination that may be awaiting them in their next class or in the next semester.
Simply put, they should identify it as a possible occurrence, periodically ask their students if they have encountered it, and position themselves as trusted advisers who can approach the administration, when it occurs.
Academic freedom does not grant academics the right to dilute higher educate in an effort to indoctrinate students, and it is up to those “with boots on the ground” to make every effort to ensure that they cease doing so.
Melissa Landa is a former professor of education at the University of Maryland with a background in cross-cultural competence and anti-bias education. She is the founding director of Alliance for Israel, a Maryland-based nonprofit that opposes BDS activity in schools and communities, and that provides education about Israel’s multi-ethnic society.