Last week, activists at CUNY’s Doctoral Students’ Council, a group representing more than 4,700 graduate students at the university, embarked on an effort to pass a resolution supporting the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and calling for divestment from Israeli companies. The vote was never prominently publicized, but supporters of the measure were notified via an email that has since leaked. No materials explaining the rationale for the vote were distributed, a decision a DSC representative chalked up to an effort to be environmentally friendly. And finally, the vote was scheduled for this Friday evening, making it very difficult for any students who are observant Jews to voice their opinions.
Such measures are the opposite of the free and open discussion that academia is supposed to foster. And sadly, they’re growing more prevalent on college campuses: last year, NYU professor Lisa Duggan took similar measures, keeping an anti-Israeli seminar secret from all but her ideological cohort, and anti-Israeli activists at Cornell scheduled a vote to boycott Israel for the Passover vacation, a major hurdle for Jewish students.
Instead of getting mad at the mockery the DCS is making of unfettered inquiry, robust debate, and every other value that academia is supposed to foster, I decided to read the actual resolution. It begins by explaining the rationale for the measure, arguing that “Palestinian civil society has issued a call for a campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel as long as it violates international law and Palestinian rights.”
It hardly takes a scholar to know that Palestinian civil society—like Israeli civil society, or American civil society—is not a monolith, certainly not one issuing calls to action. Instead, it is diverse, lively, and considerably more open to debates than its self-proclaimed supporters in CUNY. To the extent that any one body speaks for the Palestinian people, it is the quasi-democratically elected Palestinian Authority. Its head, Mahmoud Abbas, has clearly stated that his government did not support a boycott against Israel; earlier this summer, the Palestinian police gave teeth to Abbas’s statement by arresting several pro-Palestinian BDS activists.
The know-nothings at CUNY get Israeli society just as wrong. “Israeli universities,” the resolution continues, “declared they ‘embrace and support’ the efforts of the Israeli Defense Forces” in Operation Protective Edge, and were therefore worthy of censure. Despite putting the bit about embracing and supporting the army in quotation marks, the statement never provides any citation. Of course, they cannot: like universities everywhere, Israeli institutions of higher learning do not speak unanimously, and if they did it’s highly unlikely that they’d choose to do so in support of a military operation. My own alma mater, for example, Tel Aviv University, held a symposium in late August to discuss the war “in a completely open manner, without censorship and without consensus.” One of the speakers was Dr. Raif Zarik, who runs the university’s Minerva Center for Humanities and who argued that Israel had no moral right to a normal, peaceful life so long as it oppressed the Palestinians.
This is hardly an embrace, and it is hardly an anomaly—throughout the war, scores of Israeli academics organized demonstrations, held seminars, and wrote op-eds to protest what they saw as a disastrous and brutal attack on Palestinian civilians in Gaza. And, contrary to the DCS’s unsubstantiated and utterly overblown claim, they were not “publicly shamed, or worse.” Israel being a vibrant democracy, these critical voices were often taken to task, sometime heatedly, but no more than is the case in every normal society rallying around the flag in a time of war.
A resolution, of course, is not a piece of scholarship. But it is still an act pursued under the auspices of academia by people who serve as teaching assistants and adjuncts and members of the faculty. The truly disturbing thing, then, isn’t how far the BDS organizers at CUNY were willing to go to rig the vote; it’s that their actual statement betrays such profound intellectual dishonesty, such utter lack of context and subtlety, and such willful disregard for key, meaningful facts. For all of these reasons, the organizers of the DCS anti-Israel vote are a disgrace to any academic institution that takes its mission seriously. It’s even more of a pity that these abusers of academic freedom are paid for by the people of New York.
But it’s almost Shabbat, and I’d hate to end this post on an acrimonious note. Instead, and in the spirit of magnanimity, I’d like to offer the tireless BDS activists of the CUNY DCS some good advice: five of the suppliers making anything from the iPhone’s glass to its touchscreen controller are Israeli companies. The personal is political: on your way to the Friday evening anti-Israel vote, there’s no better way to show that you’re true to your convictions than giving your phones to people who aren’t as troubled as you are by Israeli innovation.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.