Royce Hall at UCLA

BDS debate at UCLA breaks no new ground


campus debate on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on May 22 at UCLA offered little in the way of new ideas or understanding, as representatives on each side held to their well-established positions.

An audience of about 100 students and adults listened and made clear their sentiments — with cheers and boos — as professors Judea Pearl and Saree Makdisi were the featured speakers for their respective sides.

Both stated personal connections to their positions at the two-hour event, organized and moderated by the UCLA Debate Union.

Although the debate was devoid of references to President Donald Trump’s trip to Israel and lacked formal consequences for the BDS campaign at UCLA, it did provide a view into how American universities have become both training ground and battleground for advocacy on Middle East issues.

While Makdisi, who is of Palestinian descent, took most of the speaking time for the pro-BDS side, Pearl shared his time with Philippe Assouline, a doctoral student who teaches an Israeli history course at the university.

“Jewish students are being forced to choose between pride in their people — due pride — and acceptance on campus,” Assouline said in the anti-BDS side’s opening remarks.

Pearl, a computer-science professor and father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl called the BDS movement a “slander machine” with “small character,” and argued that its unwillingness to compromise impeded the peace process.

“Rejectionism is the main obstacle to the two-state solution,” Pearl said. “No country can come to life that seeks the elimination of its neighbors.”

The BDS movement originated in 2005 as a broad international boycott on Israeli products and has gained the most traction on American college campuses, particularly on University of California (UC) campuses. It has been a defining political issue at UCLA in recent years as student government elections have become a proxy war for supporters of Israel and Palestine beyond the school.

The movement aims to force Israel to accede to various demands for Palestinian human rights, including Israel’s withdrawal from West Bank settlements and the dismantling of the security barrier at the Green Line.

In November 2014, UCLA’s undergraduate student government became the fifth UC campus to pass a resolution in favor of BDS. The motion called for the school to divest any endowment funds from companies that do business with the Israeli government or military.

“BDS is moral because it’s a time-honored, effective and nonviolent method for people of goodwill to contest the injustice of states that have proven themselves unresponsive to other modes of persuasion,” said Makdisi, who teaches English literature. He presented a history of Palestinians’ expulsion from their homes in 1948 and asserted that Israeli leaders, anticipating the forthcoming refugee crisis, uprooted them anyway.

He also suggested that there is no such thing as an Israeli nationality, countering Pearl’s argument that Israelis and Palestinians are “equally indigenous” and therefore equally deserve statehood.

The debate provided an opportunity for new voices to join the fray. A pair of students on each side served as the undercards, displaying a range of experience and methodology as they laid the groundwork for the professors, who were given nine minutes each to the students’ seven.

There was plenty for the engaged but divided crowd to cheer and scoff at. The loudest reaction of the night was a chorus of long groans and derisive laughter as Makdisi asked in his closing argument, “You hear the language of, ‘Oh, my God, the Arabs will outnumber us,’ and ‘Oh, my God, the Jews will become a minority.’ What’s so bad about being a minority?”

The Debate Union’s faculty adviser, who was moderating the debate, asked for order to allow Makdisi to continue. 

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