January 16, 2019

The Zionist Dilemma on College Campuses

Of all the challenges that confront those of us who identify ourselves as Zionists, perhaps none is so poignant and so heartbreaking as the fact that “Zionism” has become a fighting word on the college campus, the very place where open-mindedness should be enshrined as a core value.

That’s the focus of “Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech and BDS,” edited by Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar, a new title in the Anti-Semitism Series of the Indiana University Press. Pessin, a philosophy professor at Connecticut College, and Ben-Atar, a playwright and history professor at Fordham University, have collected more than 30 contributions from scholars and students who have studied and experienced the dilemma they write about.

“Those in the academy who support Israel, or who merely don’t despise Israel, are finding it increasingly difficult to speak up without risk of verbal attack, social and professional ostracization, setbacks to their careers, and sometimes even physical threats,” Pessin and Ben-Atar write. “As a result, the Israel-friendly (or merely non-anti-Israel) voice on campuses around the world and in the global ‘republic of letters’ is rapidly being silenced. The implications of this phenomenon, not only for Jews but also, we believe, for free speech, for the academy, and for Western values in general, are chilling.”

They alert the reader to a parade of horribles: “Protests and disruptions confront not only Israel-related campus events but also Jewish events, including talks by famous people about their Jewish heritage, campus Shabbat dinners, and Hillel student meetings,” the editors sum up. “More and more, individuals are being targeted, smeared, falsely accused of saying or doing objectionable things, shamed, singled out for public condemnation and rage, and subject to hateful and threatening messages.”

Each chapter is a case study, detailed and nuanced, of a particular incident of anti-Zionist excess. For example, Jeffrey Kopstein, describes the scene when some 50 protesters stormed the screening of an Israeli film for an audience of 10 students at UC Irvine, screaming, “Long Live the Intifada,” first trying to break into the room and then blocking the door in order to trap the audience inside. A pro-Israel advocacy group “decided to double down and rescreen the film on campus with a much larger community and official presence,” including 30 uniformed officers, bomb-sniffing dogs, physical barriers, and strict security protocols.” The second screening was not disrupted, but Kopstein — a UC Irvine political science professor who witnessed the various anti-Zionist incidents that took place at the campus — laments that the necessity for elevated security was “[h]ardly the description of an atmosphere conducive to non-politicized learning.” 

His dilemma — the painful effort to balance freedom of speech and academic integrity — is a theme that runs throughout the collection. Another veteran of campus confrontation is UCLA emeritus professor Judea Pearl, who writes about the invitation he received to participate in a campus debate about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, sponsored by the Los Angeles Review of Books. 

“[S]hould I bestow academic credibility onto an ideology that accuses me of crimes as ridiculous as ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and colonialism when I do research at my alma mater, the Technion, in Israel?” he writes. “It would be like hosting a balanced debate between supporters and detractors of the Flat Earth Society or, God forbid, the Americans for the Restoration of Slavery.” 

Pearl, a world-renowned computer scientist and the father of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl, decided to participate in the debate in the hope of proving the BDS movement to be wrong on the strength of argument and evidence, the tools of authentic scholarship. His chapter summarizes the case he made against BDS, but he widens the focus to propose how colleges should deal with the excesses of anti-Zionism: “Selective neutrality should be the instrument with which the university administration distinguishes those who contribute to the respectful campus climate and productive discourse from those who disrupt such a climate.” And he concludes with a one-sentence prescription for achieving peace in the Middle East: “Two states for two peoples, equally legitimate and equally indigenous.”

“When Palestinian leadership gathers the courage to utter the magical words “equally indigenous,’ ” he concludes, “peace will become unstoppable — not even BDS will be able to stop it.”

My alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, is the focus of a chapter by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. As a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies, she was the target of what she calls “a sustained campaign of harassment, intimidation, and defamation” that was carried out by anti-Israel activists, including one of her own former students. When Rossman-Benjamin tried to invoke the protection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the student claimed that the civil rights investigation “is actually being used to stifle Palestinian-related speech on campus,” and her adversaries complained that her civil rights complaint “violated the First Amendment rights of Muslim, Arab, and pro-Palestinian students” and “created a ‘hostile environment’ for them.” All of her claims were ultimately dismissed by the authorities.

“My story may be extreme,” she insists, “but it is not unique.”

What is to be done? The whole point of “Anti-Zionism on Campus” is that it takes courage to speak out in defense of Israel on campus today. “[C]ampus anti-Israelists are in it for the long haul,” writes Pessin in an epilogue titled “Inconclusive, Unscientific Postscript: On the Purpose of the University, and a Ray of Hope.” He continues: “It remains unclear whether those who do not believe that Israel is an unqualified abomination will be able to stay in it for the long haul as well. It is a hard battle to fight, and the personal costs are great.”

His words are intended to inspire — and, perhaps, to shame — the reader to speak up for his or her convictions in the face of anti-Zionism wherever it is found. When compared with what others have already given to the cause of the Jewish state, and what the citizens of Israel continue to give, it is not much to ask of anyone who proudly calls himself or herself a Zionist.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.