the stencil says "my heroes have always killed colonizers"
A stencil at a Nov. 14, 2013 event at San Francisco State University reads "My heroes have always killed colonizers." (Photo/file)

Academics who boycott Israel hurt their own students and colleagues

What do attempts to implement an academic boycott of Israel look like? You may be surprised.

In 2009, as the University of California was getting ready to reinstate its UC Education Abroad Program in Israel, 130 faculty members in the UC system signed a letter, organized by a founding member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), demanding that university leaders not reinstate it; the program had been temporarily suspended in 2002 after the U.S. State Department placed Israel on its travel advisory list for safety reasons.

Similarly, in 2011, as California State University was taking steps to reinstate its study abroad program in Israel, 85 CSU faculty members signed a letter, organized by another USACBI founder, calling for the program to not be reinstated; it also had been curtailed in 2002.

In 2012, several Cornell University professors wanted to quash a joint institute of applied sciences between their own U.S. colleagues and scholars at Israel’s Technion University.

And 14 months ago, 14 faculty members at Syracuse University encouraged the campus community to resist academic partnerships with Israel and censured a Conflict and Collaboration program at their university because Tel Aviv University was one of the partners.

While the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel — which coordinates the academic boycott of Israel as part of the larger, anti-Israel boycott, divestment, sanctions movement — would like you to think its target is Israeli universities and scholars, faculty who implement PACBI’s boycott are actually subverting the educational opportunities and academic freedom of their own U.S. colleagues and students.

Unpeeling the onion reveals that PACBI’s guidelines specify that American faculty “boycott and/or work towards the cancellation or annulment“ of any school activity that involves Israeli academic institutions or their representatives. Faculty boycotters are encouraged and expected to shut down study abroad programs in Israel; refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wishing to go on a study abroad trip to Israel; scuttle American colleagues’ research projects with Israeli universities and scholars; and cancel events with Israeli leaders or scholars organized by U.S. students or faculty.

Unfortunately, the negative impact of faculty boycotters on U.S. campuses is not limited to restricting the educational opportunities and academic freedom of their own colleagues and students.

Studies of anti-Semitic activity on U.S. campuses have found a very strong relationship between the number of pro-boycott faculty members and acts of anti-Jewish hostility on campus. Schools with faculty boycotters were between four and seven times more likely to have incidents of anti-Jewish hostility, such as assault, harassment, destruction of property and suppression of speech.

The research revealed that the more faculty boycotters on a campus, the more anti-Semitic acts. This association was replicated in three distinct studies spanning two years.

Last month, our organization took a closer look at why and how this is happening.

Investigating more than 500 academic units affiliated with ethnic, gender, and Middle East studies in schools throughout the country, our research revealed that departments with one or more faculty boycotters were five to 12 times more likely to sponsor events with pro-BDS speakers, and that schools which sponsored these events were twice as likely to have acts of aggression against Jewish students. These pro-BDS speaker events were also strongly linked to student anti-Zionist expression, which was associated with a seven-fold increase in acts of anti-Jewish hostility.

The results indicate that some faculty members bring their anti-Israel, pro-BDS advocacy to campus through their department’s sponsorship of pro-BDS speaker events. These department-sponsored events undoubtedly confer academic legitimacy on politically motivated, anti-Zionist expression and activism, and encourage students to adopt similar anti-Israel perspectives and engage in similar anti-Zionist expression. Faculty and student anti-Zionist expression and BDS promotion, in turn, contribute to a campus climate that is hostile to Jewish and pro-Israel students.

This comes as no surprise, since such anti-Jewish hostility is an inevitable consequence, and likely a deliberate intention, of the academic boycott of Israel — for its goal is to actively suppress pro-Israel views and silence pro-Israel members of the campus community.

As academics, we are not suggesting that anti-Israel events or BDS speakers be prohibited from speaking at department-sponsored events, as academic freedom makes them permissible.

Furthermore, debate and disagreement on the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other issues certainly belong on the college campus.

However, we are seriously concerned about the increasing tendency for some units or even some entire university departments to become dedicated to anti-Zionist and pro-BDS advocacy. That trend can’t help but have a destructive impact on Jewish students and faculty, as well as on the quality of education a campus can provide.

This new research must change the way faculty view and understand BDS advocacy. It demonstrates very clearly that faculty promotion of an academic boycott of Israel is unlike other advocacy on campus. It poses a serious threat to Jewish students on U.S. campuses.

These new and frightening revelations must spark a frank and meaningful conversation among faculty, administrators and university stakeholders.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a co-founder of the Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses. She was a lecturer in Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz from 1996 to 2016.

Leila Beckwith
Leila Beckwith

Leila Beckwith is a professor emeritus at UCLA and a scientist, researcher and statistician. She is a founding member of Amcha Initiative, a nonprofit that combats anti-Semitism at colleges and universities across the U.S.