“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.

Thuggery

In the short time this blog has been up, I’ve tried to document the struggles those calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) directed against Israel face in trying in reaching their goal. And that goal is to get large, respected institutions to publically support their program (allowing them to position BDS as the official position of Harvard, the Presbyterian Church or the City of Seattle, rather than the cause of a minority of obsessed cranks within those places).

Simply put, these institutions have told the BDSers “No” time and time again which is why the divestment crowd has had to turn to deception (as in the case of Hampshire College) or anti-democratic political maneuvering (as in the case of the British teacher’s union) to show any semblance of progress for their unwanted advances.

To the extent that such desperate tactics are the choices of losers, this could be considered good news. The more institutions (even tolerant-to-a-fault Hampshire College) are exposed to the extremism and dishonest behavior of divestment advocates, the more inoculated they become to the BDS-crowd’s pitch that they are simply “human rights advocates” seeing “peace and justice” in the Middle East.

That said, these initiatives, even if they fail to win official support, allow the sanctions crew to continue to crow their core message: that Israel is an apartheid state, alone in the world in deserving economic and other punishment, in hope that it will become the default position on college campuses and elsewhere. The fact that such activity poisons the atmosphere of a community, making reasonable dialog all but impossible, is irrelevant to divestment advocates. For at the end of the day, the campus, church or city is just a prop for the divestors, a useful tool which can go to hell (as far as the BDSers are concerned) as soon as it has served its purpose.

And now we must add a new element into the nasty mix: violence, or the threat of violence. US anti-Israel activists have already imported British political hooliganism into the US (such as the building takeover at NYU). And as ugly political events like Israel Apartheid Week unfurled at colleges across the country, intimidation of anyone objecting to these activities has become a staple of campus life.

Stories abound about students being surrounded and howled at when they protest against anti-Israel rallies on their campuses, and their own counter-programming can end up in attempts to crush free speech by shouting a pro-Israel speaker off the stage. The most recent example of this was U Mass in Boston where, after weeks of uninterrupted campus activity denouncing the Jewish state, Alan Dershowitz paid a visit to provide (God forbid) a different opinion. Now I know Dershowitz is a lightning rod, and no stranger to being hounded both on and off a podium. But the fact that a university would allow politically extremist students and faculty to have their say for day after day, week after week, but would then allow this same group to import Boston’s community of Israel-hating shrieking heads to ensure the other side can’t be heard is a sign of real danger ahead.

BDS, like much of the anti-Israel agenda, rests on assumptions that supporters of Israel will not match the boycotters tactics. For years, I’ve heard people say we should turn the tables on the divestors and try to get our schools, religious institutions and cities to publically denounce Israel’s foes. But are we really ready to treat the civic organizations we care about as tools for our own political ends? Are we ready to shred propriety and turn the classrooms, workplaces, houses of worship or homes into battlefields just to embarrass people we disagree with?

It is to our credit that we have not stooped to the vile tactics used by those whose only life purpose seems to be to denounce the Jewish state and its supporters, regardless of the consequences for peace, for Jews, for Palestinians or for civic harmony. Yet now that there is a determined effort to shut down dissenting voices on campuses through tactics that include threats and intimidation (while all the time claiming that the anti-Israel views they are currently shouting at the top of their lungs are somehow being “stifled” by an all-powerful Jewish cabal), we have to ask ourselves: what are we going to do about it?