Boycott Israel Faculty caught up in BDS dispute

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This week’s cover story is part of a multipart series examining the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in California: how it operates, how it is being opposed and what it represents.

Students liked Connecticut College philosophy professor Andrew Pessin. Earning a 4.2 ranking out of a possible 5 at ratemyprofessors.com, Pessin drew praise from students, who called him passionate and helpful; one declared him the best teacher at the institution.

Then Gaza happened.

At the height of last summer’s eight-week war between Israel and Hamas, Pessin, who is Jewish and an outspoken supporter of Israel, wrote a Facebook post, comparing Hamas to “a rabid pit bull.”

Six months later, one of Pessin’s students, who also belonged to Students for Justice in Palestine, complained, calling the message racist. Pessin quickly deleted the post, which he insisted referred only to Hamas, not all Palestinians. And he apologized.

Not good enough. Academic colleagues jumped in, with the history department condemning Pessin’s “speech filled with bigotry and hate.” Administrators at the liberal arts college canceled classes and required all 1,900 students to attend a one-day racism workshop. Pessin has since been on medical leave, reportedly due to stress.

Meanwhile, U.C. Irvine history professor Mark LeVine, also posting on Facebook last year, wrote: “F— all of you who want to make arguments about civility and how Israel wants peace. There is only one criticism of Israel that is relevant: It is a state grown, funded, and feeding off the destruction of another people. It is not legitimate. It must be dismantled, the same way that the other racist, psychopathic states across the region must be dismantled.”

No classes at U.C. Irvine were canceled after that outburst. LeVine remains a popular instructor at U.C. Irvine, Pessin an outcast at his.

Pessin’s case may be extreme, but he is not the only academic to find today’s campus environment hostile to Israel.

Angry student rallies, die-ins on the quad and student divestment measures grab headlines. But professionals who monitor this activity claim instructors, academic departments and professional associations also play key roles in promoting BDS, or boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. In some cases, they punish colleagues who refuse to toe the line.

Andrew Pessin

These observers say faculty who take a harshly critical view of Israel dominate Middle East studies departments. There have been reports of professors shutting down opposing views in the classroom and using their positions as a platform to promote BDS, including calling for boycotts of Israeli academics and universities.

“Until recently it was easy to show that [BDS] was morally and politically outside the pale of reasonable discourse,” said Kenneth Marcus, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which combats anti-Semitism at the university level. “BDS advocates and [academic] associations are creating the impression that it is now appropriate to debate whether Israel should be boycotted.”

In the last 18 months, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the 5,000-member American Studies Association and others have passed resolutions endorsing boycotts of Israeli universities.

One academic association with outsize influence is the Middle East Studies Association, which boasts 2,700 individual members and 60 affiliated institutions. Last year MESA passed a resolution affirming BDS as a “legitimate form of nonviolent political action” and stating that members have the right to endorse BDS, though MESA itself did not go that far.

At the moment, there is no boycott resolution on the agenda of MESA’s 2015 conference, which takes place next month in Denver, but that doesn’t mean one won’t come up. Given MESA’s influence on how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taught at the university level, passage of a boycott of Israeli universities would send shock waves through academia.

Nathan Brown

Asaf Romirowsky, executive director for the pro-Israel Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, would not be surprised if MESA votes to boycott. He calls it a “hotbed of anti-Israel invective.”

“Israel has become a litmus test for the left,” Romirowsky told J. “It’s a critical point to judge one’s liberalism. It’s pervasive in the humanities, specifically in the areas of race, class and gender, to have individuals who abandoned scholarship in place of activism. Many people I know have left MESA, feeling [it] crossed the line.”

Noam Stillman, an emeritus professor of Judaic history at the University of Oklahoma, hasn’t left MESA yet, but he will before the end of the year. He wants to stick around long enough to vote “no” on any boycott measure that might come up at the conference next month. After that he will sever his ties, joining noted academics such as Jacob Lassner, emeritus professor of Jewish civilization at Northwestern University, who have quit MESA in disgust.

Stillman calls MESA an “extremely unfriendly place for anyone who has anything to do with Israel other than to criticize it as an apartheid, racist state.

“The Syrian Studies Association does not boycott Syria. I wouldn’t boycott Saudi Arabia, even though I don’t agree with many of its policies. That’s not my job as an academic.”

Over his 45 years in academia, Stillman said he has seen the climate on campus worsen for professors sympathetic to Israel. He recently asked an Israeli-born Jewish colleague to speak in opposition to boycott at a MESA meeting.

“He said, ‘You can do that because you’re an endowed chair,’” Stillman recounted. “’I can’t.’ He made it very clear he felt it would endanger his tenure.”

The atmosphere can be tense for professors who feel sympathy for Israel.

“In a highly politicized Middle East studies department, professors report they feel intimidated and afraid,” said Brett Cohen, executive director of campus affairs for StandWithUs. “If you’re not tenured and looking to become tenured, you have to be extremely careful.”

Jill Schneiderman

MESA president and George Washington University professor Nathan Brown defends his organization, saying it has “taken no official position on a boycott” and “has criticized attempts to boycott or blacklist individuals. Advocates of the boycott within MESA say that they do not seek to have the boycott apply to individuals, only to institutions.”

Brown added that MESA has had “many Jewish members and has included Israeli academics and those who study or discuss Israel.”

One of those is Robert O. Freedman, a political science professor at Baltimore Hebrew University and a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Freedman has been a member of MESA since 1973. He is also a founder and former president of the Association of Israel Studies, a MESA-affiliated organization. Freedman told J. he has always found MESA to be “very supportive,” especially during annual conferences, where AIS presents panel discussions.

Next month, the panel topic will be Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy post-election. Presenters include academics from Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv Universities. Freedman expects a packed room.

“The [AIS] would obviously have to leave [MESA] if there was a BDS resolution because it conflicts with the charter,” he said. “We cannot be part of an organization that discriminates. I made my voice loud and clear last year, and we’ll see what happens.”

Though MESA has not voted to boycott, Romirowsky said other professional associations that have done so haven’t followed through on the resolutions. That may be due, in part, to the backlash.

After the American Studies Association passed its resolution with a two-thirds majority in December 2013, the backlash came fast and furious. More than 250 university presidents condemned the vote, with some institutions, including Brandeis, Penn State and Bard College, terminating their ASA memberships.

Just as no university has divested from Israel despite the passage of dozens of divestment bills by student senates, no university has instituted an academic boycott of Israel, either.

Sam Edelman

But this does not detract from the symbolic importance of what the BDS movement is trying to accomplish: changing the tenor of campus discourse.

At a U.C. Berkeley speaking engagement last month, international BDS co-founder and leader Omar Barghouti said one of the movement’s greatest achievements has been its influence on American academic institutions, its successful efforts “to make it no longer taboo to have the words ‘Israel’ and ‘boycott’ uttered in the same sentence.”

That is a sentence Fordham University history professor Doron Ben-Atar finds utterly offensive.

The Israeli-born tenured professor once belonged to the American Studies Association but quit several years ago when it became what he calls “a radical country club of people planning to overthrow capitalism.”

Strong words from a man closely identified with the Israeli left and a loud critic of many Israeli policies. Nevertheless, when the ASA voted to boycott Israel two years ago, he’d had enough. Ben-Atar wrote emails, circulated articles and conferred with colleagues, demanding Fordham cut ties with the ASA for what he called “anti-Semitic bigotry.”

He received a subsequent shock when an unnamed colleague charged him with “religious discrimination.” He later learned that the director of the American studies program filed the complaint, stating that Ben-Atar had “verbally harassed and discriminated against the professor by inferring she was anti-Semitic.”

By July 2014, an administrative inquiry concluded that Ben-Atar’s statements did “not rise to the level of religious discrimination.”

“They picked on me maybe because I believe BDS is first and foremost a modern expression of anti-Semitism,” Ben-Atar told J. “Picking up on the injustices of one state, the Jewish state, as opposed to all the others, is moral narcissism, in which you get to feel superior by expressing yourself in a way that makes you look good but is of no consequence to you.”

Though he downplays the reach and scope of the American Studies Association and its boycott, Ben-Atar concedes the BDS movement has succeeded in changing the atmosphere on many campuses and “making it so that Jews feel unsafe and uncomfortable.”

“If I were a junior faculty member,” he mused, “I would be terrified to utter a word [about Israel]. I would just stay out of it and throw out the party line in public. It’s not that they disagree with your opinion. It’s that they think you support evil.”

Joel Beinin

Marc Dollinger said life these days at San Francisco State University, where he teaches Jewish studies, is “as boring as you can imagine.” And he likes it that way.

It hasn’t always been so. From ethnic studies professor Rabab Abdulhadi’s meeting with convicted Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank last year, to a 2014 video showing a knife-wielding Palestinian student rhapsodizing about killing Israelis, the university has seen its share of anti-Zionist activity.

But lately the campus has been quieter.

Dollinger, who is Jewish and a supporter of Israel, has witnessed many campus flareups over Israel and Palestine, including calls for boycott and divestment, as well as activist professors, and has reached some conclusions about the nature of academia.

It comes down to two very different perspectives on the purpose of a university.

The traditional view considers it a “dispassionate center for inquiry,” he contended. “Students get all sorts of different perspectives in order to form their own opinions. The job of the professor is to teach critical thinking, and not to tell the students exactly what to think.”

However, the prevailing view found in Middle East studies, ethnic studies and the humanities couldn’t be further afield, according to Dollinger: “If one believes the world is based on power relationships based on gender, race and class, then one must use one’s tenure and classroom to right injustice.”

Joel Beinin, a Stanford University Middle East history professor well known for his harsh critique of Israel and Zionism, does not expect his students to mirror his views.

“I don’t use my position to influence my students to adopt any particular point of view on Israel/Palestine. Period!” he told J. “They are free to draw any conclusions they like from the courses I teach that address the conflict. And I always tell them that if they adopt a point of view in their papers or oral comments in class that differs from what they perceive mine to be (they don’t always get it right), that will improve their grade for that reason alone.”

Indeed, documented reports of students complaining about anti-Israel bias in the classroom have dropped markedly in the last two years, according to Cohen of StandWithUs. He attributes that in part to self-selection: Students who don’t want an earful of anti-Zionist rhetoric simply avoid classes taught by professors known to harbor those views.

Cohen of StandWithUs believes most professors, even those with critical views of Israel, hold the classroom “as a sacred space, thankfully, and at least address bias where it’s perceived, outside of a few radicals.”

Sam Edelman, an emeritus professor of communications at California State University at Chico, has studied anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist activity on college campuses for years. He serves as executive director of the Academic Council for Israel, which opposes BDS, provides resources to students and faculty, and promotes what it calls on its website the “balanced teaching of Middle East history.”

He traces much of the current attitude of hostility toward Israel to a revolution that took place in Middle East studies three decades ago. Basically it boils down to an epic battle royal between the views of two scholars, Bernard Lewis and Edward Said, who frequently engaged in ideological debates.

Lewis, 99, a London-born Princeton professor of Near Eastern studies, has written extensively about Islam and Arab culture, offering a pointed critique of both. He contends that Islam itself, or a serious misreading of its tenets, provided the root cause of Middle East turmoil.

Said, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian American professor at Columbia University who died in 2003, sharply shifted the direction of Middle East studies with his seminal 1978 book “Orientalism,” providing the intellectual ballast for opposition to Zionism.

Rather than Muslim Arabs bringing misery on themselves, Said theorized, blame should be laid at the feet of Western colonialists, principally the Zionist enterprise that invaded Palestine, displacing indigenous Arabs.

“The impact of Said’s theories had a wide-ranging impact on Middle East studies,” Edelman said. “Said’s work is massively flawed, and much of what he wrote was based on a fantasy vision of the Middle East. You see Said’s ideas popping up in the arts, humanities, sociology, anthropology, political science and history.”

Kenneth Marcus sees that play out today in classrooms across the country. “Edward Said is in many ways the father of contemporary academic anti-Israelism,” he said. “He is also one of the intellectuals who most forcefully argued that it’s impossible to be politically neutral toward the Middle East in the classroom.”

Activists opposing BDS, especially on the issue of academic boycotts, believe they are making strides. In addition to the drop in the number of student complaints about professors, a flagrantly anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist courses has been dropped this year at the University of Missouri due to disinterest. Another, taught at U.C. Riverside and called “Palestine & Israel: Settler-Colonialism and Apartheid,” was offered last spring.

But as Pessin learned at Connecticut College, direct hostility, even bullying tactics toward anyone who expresses support for Israel, are becoming normative on many campuses.

One egregious example took place last March at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. When professors Rachel Friedman and Jill Schneiderman announced they would lead a two-week student trip to Israel’s Jordan Valley to study water issues, they were met with a torrent of protest.

Student protesters lined up in front of the classroom, ululating and urging students to drop the class. Later, Vassar’s Committee on Inclusion and Excellence, which is composed of faculty, organized an open forum to discuss the “ethics of the travel trip.”

According to published accounts of the event, more than 200 people showed up. The forum moderator, Vassar English professor Kiese Laymon, told the crowd he wanted the dialogue to be about activism and “not to be guided by cardboard notions of civility.”

And that’s what happened.

A majority of attendees proceeded to heckle, finger-snap, laugh at and drown out anyone who dared speak up for the trip or for Israel. In her blog, Schneiderman called it “not an open forum, a trial.” There were no consequences for the bullying behavior, she said, but the trip did go ahead as planned.

Romirowsky of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East believes BDS has reached a tipping point.

“You are seeing the pro-Israel community coming to terms with the fact that BDS is a real danger,” he said. “Groups are speaking out, and are more organized and effective. The messaging is better.”

His organization, which has chapters in more than 30 universities in North America, Europe and Israel, is expanding, having recently added new chapters at the University of San Diego and the University of Washington in Seattle.

“Faculty members are speaking out, which is positive,” he added. “It’s not easy to do. Professors are as marginalized as students if they hold a certain line on Israel. So we empower them. We have people left, right and center, but all agree Israel has a right to exist and BDS is not the right way to frame the conversation.”

As an example of faculty banding together to push back against BDS in academia, U.C. Irvine emeritus professor Al Sokolow last spring launched Davis Faculty for Israel, which has nearly 40 professors on its rolls.

“What set us off were several examples of BDS advocacy on campus,” Sokolow told J. in April, “starting in 2014 [when] Middle East studies, together with other interdisciplinary programs, sponsored a panel on BDS that was completely one-sided. It occurred to us that academic units, whether departments or an interdisciplinary, should not engage in overt political advocacy. That’s not their mission.”

On a grander scale, nine years ago a group of Middle East scholars unhappy with the direction of MESA broke off to form the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, which states as its goals “promoting the highest standards of research and teaching in [Middle East] studies” and “protecting academic freedom and promoting the search for truth.” It is chaired by Bernard Lewis, the controversial Princeton scholar.

Meanwhile, Romirowsky is keeping his eye on MESA for signs of a new boycott resolution, as well as the 11,000-member American Anthropological Association, which formed a task force to look into a boycott. He fears votes to boycott Israel by those two bodies could have far-reaching impact.

“What would it mean for Israeli members,” Romirowsky wondered. “What will it mean for careers, grants, scholarships, visiting professorships, research, all the collaboration that exists?”

Edelman thinks the Jewish and pro-Israel communities have to do even more to counter the BDS movement’s efforts to shut down academic cooperation with Israeli universities, researchers and scholars.

“We need to stop putting names on buildings” he said, “and start bringing faculty to Israel and make sure we get more Israeli faculty to speak on campuses here. This is a case where we have everything in place except the money. We have a willing faculty, programs and outlines ready to go. There has not been a concerted effort on part of the American Jewish establishment to fund and organize faculty to fight [BDS].”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.