Student viewpoint on BDS doesn’t consider all sides

As a Vassar alumnus, class of 1978, I have been interested in the American Studies Association’s (ASA) attempt to boycott Israeli academic institutions and Vassar’s response to it. I am not alone; Members of my class have written to the President and Dean of Faculty to thank them for publicly denouncing the boycott and have expressed their views against the boycott and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in The Miscellany News. I am writing to express my dismay over Naomi Dann’s and Nicole Massad’s pro-academic boycott opinion article, as I was struck both by the article’s dogmatic tone and by its distortion of facts (“Vassar Ignores Values Behind ASA Boycott,” 02.13.14).

Dann and Massad call the boycott against Israeli academic institutions a form of non-violent resistance. Putting aside, for the moment, the fallacy on which this “resistance” is based (that Israel is some sort of pariah nation that deserves isolation), the ASA academic boycott represents a gross double standard. Is it not absurd to think of Vassar and other American colleges and universities being boycotted over our nation’s invasion of Iraq or its actions during the Vietnam War? Universities must remain free of undue pressure and allow for an open exchange of thoughts and ideas both on campuses and elsewhere.

A boycott only stifles academic discourse and negatively affects the lives of individual professors and students. Dann’s and Massad’s contention that Vassar’s denunciation of the ASA boycott has impinged on their academic freedom is melodramatic and clearly wrong. Vassar, long a pillar of intellectual freedom, would not silence independent thought. Evidence of this very fact is that Dann and Massad were freely able to publish their piece condemning Vassar’s position in The Miscellany News.

But perhaps of greater importance is identifying the true “values” of the academic boycott that Dann and Massad claim Vassar is ignoring. For this, one must examine how the boycott of Israeli academic institutions originated. Dann and Massad state that the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel” is a member of the BDS National Committee and “was launched in 2004 by a group of Palestinian academics and intellectuals to challenge Israel’s apartheid system and colonial oppression of the Palestinian people.” While the terms “apartheid” and “colonial oppression” to describe Israel are wrong and inflammatory, the writers are correct that the academic boycott is part of the BDS movement.

Let there be no doubt as to the real aims and values of the BDS movement with which Dann and Massad align themselves. As Roger Cohen, a journalist who is often highly critical of Israel, recently wrote in The New York Times, the BDS movement’s ultimate goal is “the end of Israel as a Jewish State.” Omar Barghouti, one of the founders of the BDS movement, proclaimed, “The two-state solution for the Palestinian–Israel conflict is really dead.” Ahmed Moor, another BDS leader, said “…nothing resembling the ‘two-state solution’ will ever come into being. Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself.” Still another BDS leader, As‘ad Abu Khalil, said, “Justice and freedom for the Palestinians are incompatible with existence of the State of Israel.” These quotes say it all.

The BDS desire for a one-state solution that would destroy the only Jewish state in the world is not one shared by the majority of the Israeli and Palestinian populations. To the contrary, most Israelis and Palestinians favor the two-state solution which U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to help negotiate (although, as of this writing, the PLO does not want to have to publicly acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish homeland). In fact, not only does Palestinian President Abbas favor the two-state solution, but he has publicly opposed the BDS movement.

Dann and Massad are also wrong in portraying Israeli academic institutions as oppressing Palestinians and other Arabs. While Israel continues to make progress toward full educational equality for Arabs, it is worth noting that already 20 percent of the students at Haifa University are Arabs, as is 10 percent of its faculty, and the percentages have been increasing. Mais Ali-Saleh, MD, a Muslim Arab woman, was celebrated as the valedictorian of last year’s medical school class at The Technion, Israel’s equivalent to MIT. She has suggested that rather than boycott Israeli institutions, Western universities should strengthen ties with Palestinian ones.

Indeed, BDS co-founder Barghouti is a graduate student at Tel Aviv University (an irony lost on BDS followers). The intellectual freedom enjoyed at Israeli universities should be compared to the values that are being promoted at schools like the Islamic University in Gaza, where all the Hamas leadership has studied and where the Qassam rockets were developed; over 6000 of such rockets were fired at Israel since 2001, killing many Israeli civilians. Sheik Rayyan, a board member of and senior lecturer at Islamic University, taught suicide bombing as a course there and recruited his own 14-year-old son, who participated in a suicide attack in 2001 to murder Jews.

I find it disingenuous that Dann and Massad write, “Rather than vilify the [academic] boycott as anti-Semitic, it is important to recognize that there is support for the boycott among Israeli academics and citizens, as well as [among] American Jews.” They do not speak for me, and I doubt, though Dann is President of the Vassar Jewish Union, that she speaks for all Jews at Vassar.

It is certainly one thing to criticize specific actions that Israel’s government takes. It is quite another to join in a boycott that paints Israel as a gross human rights violator and worthy of being shunned when it is the only Middle East nation that provides full equality for women, gays and other minorities, allows the free practice of all religions, has a free and robust press and does not imprison dissidents for their political views. As Israeli artist, playwright and professor, Dahn Hiuni, has said, “To those who would distinguish between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, I retort there is no difference: To be anti-Israel is to be anti-Jewish. Israel is the Jewish state.”

The BDS movement, of which the academic boycott is a part, is immoral. Its founders may be coy about their antisemitism, but they are open about their calls for the destruction of Israel. In vilifying Israel, BDS finds itself front and center on every neo-Nazi, Holocaust-denying and overtly anti-Semitic website.

Fortunately, Vassar, along with 247 other colleges and universities, denounced the ASA boycott of Israel. I welcome this exchange of ideas and thank Vassar and The Miscellany News for allowing the debate to go forward.


—Jim Raker ’78 was a biology pre-med major. He practices internal medicine in Brunswick, Maine.

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