Jun. 15, 2019
On many of the university campuses in North America, the letters BDS carry an almost magical quality. They stand for “boycott, divestment and sanctions,” but they also convey something else, a self-righteous stance that’s freely available to all students who care to take advantage of it. They can join their campus anti-Israel organization, possibly an offshoot of the 200-member Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). If they are Jewish they may find themselves applauded for their ability to think freely outside ethnic constraints.
They can then go to meetings where the alleged sins of Israel are discussed and deplored, and where they can share opinions with like-minded members. Parents and teachers will praise them for their commendable engagement with world affairs.
BDS membership probably enhances their status on campus. Members can call for moral improvements in the policies of Israel, particularly policies affecting Palestinians. The student members usually know little about Palestinians and may never have met one. They know only that Palestinians are widely considered victims, which is evidence enough for most students. So they can call for boycotting Israel’s products, divesting of stocks in Israel, and sanctioning Israel’s activities around the world.
BDS is treated with a stately sort of reverence. Unlike most activities in universities, it’s rarely criticized. Sometimes a year passes without a word said or written against it. But this summer that easy tolerance appears to be changing. Anti-BDS criticism is appearing, in book form or magazine essays. Members may soon realize that BDS is more than a hobby or an extramural activity. It deals with political realities that shape human lives. It deserves to be examined seriously.
An emphatic critic of BDS is Cary Nelson, who recently served six years as president of the American Association of University Professors. He’s written a sharply controversial book: Israel Denial: Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Faculty Campaign Against the Jewish State (Indiana University Press).
Nelson takes a skeptical view of BDS. Many BDS people say their goal is to rebuke Israel and persuade it to improve the treatment of Palestinians. Nelson, having examined the words of BDS leaders in depth, believes they are in fact working toward the collapse of Israel.
As David Mikics writes in a review, “Fiercely anti-Zionist students have become a fixture on American college campuses.” They depend on professors for their doctrine, and the professors are spreading disinformation. An example is Jasbir Puar, the Rutgers professor who won an award from the National Women’s Studies Association, which officially endorses BDS. Puar denounces “the dark and destructive assemblage that swirls around the Jewish state.”
Steven Salaita is a self-confessed despiser of Israel who unleashed a storm of hate-filled tweets before and after the last Gaza War in 2014, and was then denied a campus appointment at the University of Illinois — a decision Nelson endorses, since Salaita in his books as well as his social media posts is a proud hate-monger who disdains the academic virtues of civil debate. Salaita wants to ban Zionists from the left. Should a university hire someone like Salaita, Nelson asks, who would promote discrimination on campus? Nelson also believes that Judith Butler, like other BDS advocates, rejects “Israel’s cultural institutions and its right to exist.”
The new criticism of BDS and its associated organizations also shows up in Commentary magazine, which traditionally concentrates on Jewish issues. A recent article by Christine Rosen cites Linda Sarsour, a leader of the Women’s March, for her tweet: “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.” Another Commentary article, by Gilead Ini, quotes a member of Americans for Peace Now: “BDS’s prime motivation is not to end the occupation at all; rather, it is to end Israel.”
Other voices have been heard, even louder and harsher. Jason D. Hill, a professor of philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago, recently wrote an open letter to the attorney general in Washington, arguing that BDS branches, prolific on U.S. campuses, advocate “a reign of verbal terror, and physical and psychological violence against anyone who dares to be pro-Israel.”
Hill said they represent an assault against Western civilization and U.S. interests “and should properly be considered a national security threat.”
BDS represents itself as a reasonable set of options. Now, according to one of its recent North American critics, it’s a national security threat. It seems likely it will soon emerge as an international issue, open to real debate and rigorous fact-checking.