“Academic Terrorism”

In appreciate for the response I’ve been getting to this subject, both online and off, I’m making it a habit to answer any question posed to me in the comments section. And the most recent entry (Thuggery) threw the question I asked at the end (“What are we going to about it?”) right back at me, to which I have an answer (sort of): First off (and with apologies to Bill Clinton), it depends what we mean by “it”.

If by “it” we mean how are we going to stop the alleged Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) “movement” from hurting the State of Israel economically, there is actually not much to worry about in that regard. True, it’s no fun being treated like the Jewish state deserves economic sanction, but point of fact the Jewish State (like the American one) faces much more economic peril from its own statist folly, private-sector excess and corrupt bureaucracy (both public and private) than it does from a bunch of college students playing radical by trying (unsuccessfully) to get places like Hampshire College to switch from one mutual fund to another.

If the “it” we fear is that BDS becomes a springboard through which general acceptance of Israel as the next South Africa will become accepted wisdom (on college campuses and elsewhere), this is a more realistic threat. That said, it must take into account the fact that the “Apartheid Israel” slur has been used on-and-off since the mid-1970s (it was the hook upon which the UN’s notorious Zionism = Racism calumny was hung), yet during this same period support for Israel among the general public has skyrocketed (in direct proportion to general support for Israel’s foes plummeting).

One can make the case that the accelerated use of this slur coupled with more and more aggressive tactics on the part of Israel’s foes make the problem more acute (and brings up the specter of a generation of college kids being trained to believe this lie). But we should also be cognizant of research that shows aggressive language or theatrics (mock “walls” and checkpoints come to mind) tends to turn off the vast bulk of students who do not have a stake in the Arab-Israeli dispute. In truth, our own aggressive attacks and counter-attacks also have the effect of turning the attitude of the uncommitted to one that says “a pox on both your houses” (indifference which, while frustrating, is better than seeing them swayed in the wrong direction).

There is a threat (my original “it”) closer to the surface that needs to be dealt with immediately, and that is the possibility that campuses across the country (including in the New England area) will get infected with the virus afflicting isolated schools in Europe, Canada and certain places in the US (notably on the West Coast). This illness is one in which discourse on campus has become so poisoned that Israel haters feel they have carte blanch to use any tactics (“by any means necessary”) to maximize the volume of their message while drowning out all other voices in a sea of shouts and other forms of harassment.

We’ve only seen this in a big way recently at U Mass where those who spent week after week running Israel=Apartheid programming (with minimal protest from the organized or disorganized Jewish community) went into a frenzy once our side had its say in the form of a series of talks (one by Israeli Daniel Taub, one by Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz). The mere thought of the other side being able to get a word in edgewise made it appropriate (in their minds) to ask members of the permanent Israel-hating workforce to leave their parents basements, show up at U Mass and make sure any statement by “the other side” be greeted with wild jeers and shouts of “Free Palestine.” It is this threat to freedom of speech and civil discourse that must be nipped in the bud now.

Fortunately, we have one arrow in our quiver we have not yet made full use of and that is the excesses of the BDSers themselves. While people shouting at each other tends to convince the uncommitted that a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is far away, it is clear that most students understand who is responsible when the rules of civil discourse are being shredded.

The student organizer who moderated the Dershowitz event said it best when he celebrates controversial issues being discussed on campus, while loathing the shouting down of opponents as a form of “academic terrorism.” This behavior must not be ignored or swept under the carpet. Rather, it should be hung around the necks of those who pretend to be addressing Middle East issues from the moral high ground, but who demonstrate time and time again they couldn’t care less about human rights, free speech or academic freedom, unless those lofty goals can be perverted and misused for their own narrow political gain.

The mask fell off the Israel=Apartheid crowd at last month’s U Mass gig, and it’s our responsibility to make sure anyone else dealing with this issue on any campus gets to see their true (and ugly) face.