Faculty Initiatives on Israel Help to Shift the Campus Climate

August 8, 2018

On-campus BDS campaigns in 2017-18 were notable for their extremist rhetoric and isolating actions. Everything from a coalition of pro-boycott groups refusing to collaborate with Jewish and pro-Israel organizations at NYU, to a demand from pro-BDS students at SUNY Stony Brook that the campus Hillel be removed and replaced by a “proper Jewish organization…that doesn’t support Israel,” to a mob of pro-BDS protesters shutting down a student government meeting at UCSB. There is little indication that this upcoming year will see any downturn in this poisonous discourse – indeed, a Stanford University student recently stepped down as a resident assistant after threatening to “physically fight [Z]ionists” on campus.

Organizations combating BDS have a difficult road ahead in responding to these campaigns. “Fighting fire with fire” is often a divisive, exhausting and even traumatic process for many students, and might also lead to the perception among the vast majority of students who are indifferent to these issues on campus that the pro-Israel side is morally equivalent to its opponents. On the other hand, allowing campaigns filled with ugly rhetoric, double standards, and unsubstantiated claims about Israel to go unanswered would be to give pro-BDS activists an undeserved victory.

One way of transcending this dilemma is to leverage the role of supportive faculty. Unlike undergraduate students, who generally experience campus life for only four or five years, faculty have institutional knowledge, ties to administrators and other stakeholders, and, in many cases, academic expertise in relevant fields. Faculty can mentor pro-Israel students, advise on strategy and tactics and develop innovative educational programming. They can help students become more effective advocates, and shift perceptions of Israel through education, research, and dialogue. The knowledge, experience, and general role of faculty give them the unique ability to positively impact the campus climate in the longer term, beyond the momentary drama created by a divestment vote in student government or a hostile speaker invited by a pro-BDS group.

Indeed, faculty members affiliated with the Academic Engagement Network (AEN) have been doing exactly this for the last few years. With the assistance of AEN’s resources, they developed coursework on various aspects of Israeli history, politics, and society. They hosted speakers on topics ranging from the history of the BDS movement to contemporary Israeli film, leading to increased engagement and interest among students and faculty. They wrote op-eds in response to student BDS campaigns, highlighting the factual inaccuracies in the claims made by BDS supporters and emphasizing the pernicious impact of BDS on the campus climate.

They are also using the occasion of Israel’s 70th year of statehood to develop innovative programs showcasing Israel’s achievements, diversity, and complexity. In Spring 2018, AEN members hosted a talk on Israeli politics and the U.S.-Israel relationship by a former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report at Ball State University; a lecture on national identity in Israeli art from the pre-Statehood period at USC by Dalia Manor, director and chief curator of the Negev Museum of Art and Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures; and a dialogue between two thought leaders, liberal and conservative, on current events in Israel at Ursinus College. More ambitious events are planned for the upcoming academic year, including a convening of over 30 Israel Studies scholars in a two-day-long program on modern Israel at Michigan State University, an exhibit featuring original historical artifacts from the era of the founding of Israel at UCLA, and a one-day symposium on Israel-India relations at Northeastern Illinois University.

All of these programs give students, faculty, and the broader community the opportunity to engage with Israel in innovative and academically rigorous ways. Particularly in a time of ugly, polarized discourse, there could be no greater rebuke to the BDS movement and its goals.

Raeefa Shams is Senior Communications Associate at the Academic Engagement Network, an organization of over 600 faculty members who oppose the BDS movement, support freedom of speech, and promote robust discussion of Israel on campus. She is based in Washington, DC.

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