Academic BDS a growing threat, campus activist says

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin

The academic boycott of Israel is gaining ground, not so much as a result of student activism, but because a growing number of faculty members openly endorse and promote the campaign, says the director of an organization that investigates anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses. 

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the Amcha Initiative, which she co-founded in 2011, warned while in Montreal recently that the academic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is, at root, anti-Semitic, and support from North American academics is contributing to the legitimization of the eradication of Israel.

“We are facing a threat, [and] the end game is the elimination of the Jewish state. The notion of academic freedom has somehow become an excuse to hide anti-Semitism or political activism,” said Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

“The boycotters have infiltrated our campuses and sought in the name of academic freedom to stifle all criticism of their behaviour – and they have been largely successful.” 

University administrations are unwilling to enforce university policies, or even state or federal laws, including those against political indoctrination or discrimination or harassment. Pro-Israel Jewish students, she said, often find themselves in a hostile environment.

“The effect is that the academic mission of universities is being corrupted – political advocacy is winning out over education.” 

The academic boycott may take the form of opposition to Israeli academics or universities participating in campus events or publishing in academic journals, to institutional co-operation, and even to student exchanges, she said, as well as calling for divesting university holdings in Israeli businesses or companies that do business with Israel.

This anti-Israel sentiment also can be felt in the classrooms, in what and how these faculty members teach their students, she added.

The campaign was launched in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian organizations that included Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, she said.

Rossman-Benjamin spoke at McGill University as part of a lecture series sponsored by the New York-based Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy. Although she’s American, she obtained her undergraduate degree in English at McGill and graduate degree at Concordia University.

Her research focuses on the United States, but she noted that the number of BDS-supporting academics is increasing in Canada as well. She cited an organization called Faculty for Palestine, which has more than 500 members at over 40 universities.

At a private meeting with members of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, Rossman-Benjamin shared the findings of a study Amcha recently undertook to better know the boycotters.

It looked at 938 faculty members at 316 U.S. colleges, including all the major ones, who have signed on to one or more calls for an Israel boycott.

Amcha found that the vast majority (86 per cent) teach in the humanities or social sciences. Only seven per cent were in engineering and four per cent in the arts.

Of those in the humanities and social sciences, the largest proportion (21 per cent) was primarily affiliated with English departments, followed by ethnic or identity studies (10 per cent), history (seven per cent), gender studies (seven per cent). Only three per cent were in Middle East studies.

She estimates that a significant number of the 938, perhaps 20 per cent, are Jewish.

The connection between English and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seemed remote, until Rossman-Benjamin delved deeper.

Of the 143 English faculty members under study, she found four recurring themes in their areas of expertise – in descending order: race or ethnicity; gender or sexual identity; empire, such as colonialism or post-colonialism; and class theory, socio-economic or political.

Fully 92 per cent were engaged in one or more of these interests, she said, compared to 38 per cent of English faculty members as whole.

“I propose that all four of these areas deal in ideological paradigms that pit the oppressed against the oppressor… Israel then fits as the oppressor and the Palestinians as the oppressed.”

All are tied to social movements that demand political action, she said, and these faculty members are “more likely to be applauded than condemned by their colleagues.”

Rossman-Benjamin believes the only solution to stemming BDS on campus is concerted pressure on university administrations from organizations, parents, donors and the public at large as taxpayers. Legal action should also be considered, she said, if government funds are being misused as, she believes, they sometimes are.

She said Amcha (which means “the people” in Hebrew) has a full-time staff of just two, relies solely on private donations, and is not supported by any Jewish organization. It has worked with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Zionist Organization of America and Hillel, she said.