NEW YORK — Eight years ago a group of Muslim students shouted down Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, as he delivered a speech on US-Israel relations at University of California.
Flash forward to last Friday night at the University of Virginia. Pro-Palestinian students disrupted a number of Israel Defense Force reservists participating on a panel “Building Bridges.”
Whether it’s eight years or eight days ago, when pro-Israel speakers come to campus it’s almost a sure bet those aligned with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) will show up to boo, hiss and intimidate, said Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California. He was speaking last Monday night during a conversation hosted by The American Society of the University of Haifa.
“The name of the game is shouting down Israeli, Jewish and pro-Israeli speakers. [After the event] I was told, ‘Mr. President, free speech is for marginalized people, not for privileged people.’ And that is the problem,” Yudof said during the panel discussion with Ron Robin, president of the University of Haifa.
Started in 2005, the BDS movement has grown into a global campaign determined to promote various forms of boycott against Israel. While trying to emulate the 1980s campaigns against South African apartheid, the movement uses anti-Semitic rhetoric, and frequently targets Jewish students, Israeli guest speakers, or pro-Israel speakers on college campuses in North America and Europe.
Yudof and Robin sat inside the richly paneled library of Manhattan’s Lotos Club, one of the oldest literary clubs in the nation — an appropriate setting for a discussion about BDS and free speech.
Healthy campuses ought to be places of debate, even heated debate, Yudof said. Yet, at a time when phrases such as “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and “intersectionality” have entered the lexicon, there are some university students who believe the freedom to speak only applies to a few, he said.
“It’s demoralizing, particularly for Jewish students. They hear how Jews control the media, Jews control Congress. So it’s anti-Semitic. It would be how Nazis in the 1930s talked, or the mayor of Vienna at the time,” Yudof said.
“There is a clear double standard. They [BDS] don’t worry about how gay people are treated, how Turkey treats its minorities, how the Chinese act in Tibet,” he said.
He added that there is a consensus among some university presidents and chancellors that “Jewish students are too white, too privileged and not needy,” and therefore don’t need protection.
There is some data supporting these arguments. According to a 2017 Amcha report, students aligned with BDS do get support from faculty.
According to the report, while the BDS movement has not made significant inroads regarding actual boycotts, it has succeeded in suppressing Israel advocacy on campus in favor of having BDS-supporting speakers.
For example, ethnic studies departments with one or more faculty aligned with BDS were 10 times as likely to sponsor an event with a BDS-supporting speaker. Gender studies departments with one or more faculty boycotters were 12 times more likely to sponsor events with BDS-supporting speakers, according to the report.
This kind of faculty support helps fuel the BDS movement, Robin said.
“No doubt about it. There is very little room for debate, especially at the graduate level. There is a dogmatic approach that allows for very little critical thinking,” Robin said.
Born in Tel Aviv and raised in South Africa, Robin taught at University of Haifa for 20 years. He was on the faculty at New York University before becoming senior vice provost for global faculty development there, and returned to University of Haifa as president in 2015.
As Yudof and Robin spoke, a fire crackled in the hearth and lamps bathed the room in warm, soft light. The cozy surroundings contrasted the cold picture the two men painted.
Other trends have also reinforced the BDS movement — namely the idea of intersectionality, Yudof said.
“It used to mean that people had diverse identities. It meant you could be Jewish, you could be gay, you could be hirsute challenged — as I am. Now it means all forms of oppression are related. That a killing in Missouri is somehow linked to violence in Israel,” he said.
It’s no accident that an anti-Trump rally at the University of Chicago will show an Israeli flag painted red to simulate blood, he said.
Nevertheless, as a constitutional lawyer, while Yudof opposes BDS he supports free speech, and doesn’t see two as mutually exclusive. He said Jews are concerned about anti-Semitism on campus, as well as the lack of tolerance of people who disagree with them. People do not need to agree with Israel to see the problems of BDS, he said.
In 2009, Time Magazine listed Yudof as one of the 10 best college presidents in the United States. Today he chairs the advisory board of the Academic Engagement Network. The group addresses anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities as they arise, and counteracts the BDS movement.
Both men agreed something must be done to introduce a more intelligent conversation on campus and shift campuses from the ideological enclaves they have become.
Fight BDS by illuminating specious arguments
While neither Robin nor Yudof think the numerous legislative efforts against BDS are effective (24 states in the US now have anti-BDS legislation) they do think BDS can be fought.
“The best argumentation against BDS is to show by example, to show how specious their argument is,” Robin said.
Yudof estimated that only about 40% of pro-BDS resolutions have been voted in by student governments — largely due to the hard work of Israel advocates.
“It is like running someone for governor, and that’s what it takes,” said Yudof. “For a long time we used the word organizing, now we’re organizing. The way these things are won is completely through politics.”
Robin used University of Haifa as an example. In the past several years the number of minority students on campus — Muslim, Christian and Druze — has grown to over 30 percent.
“That means the university campus is a main place Arab and Jews interact with each other on a level playing field,” he said, adding it is a place where robust debate can occur.
Corroborating his point, he said the Palestinian Students Scholarship Fund partners with the university. And while Robin said the campus has had issues — there was an incident where Arab Israeli students created fliers equating the founding of Israel with ethnic cleansing — they are promptly dealt with as they arise.
“I told them they cannot use that language. They could talk about aspects of Israeli society they view as colonial, they could be critical,” said Robin.
“The University is a microcosm of Israeli society,” Robin said. “Tolerance, acceptance, and the free exchange of ideas fostered throughout our campus can serve as a model for change across the world and is the best antidote in fighting BDS.”