BDS? Beneath the Dignity of Scholars

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With the start of the academic year just around the corner, it is time for us to prepare ourselves for the Boycotts, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) controversy that has hit many campuses and academic bodies.

In 2005, the BDS movement was founded by a group calling themselves “Palestinian Civil Society” to voice their perspectives on the issues confronting Palestinians in and around Israel. By 2013, their efforts to publicize those perspectives through electronic media succeeded in convincing the American Studies Association and other American academic organizations to “honor their call.” Since then, a whirlwind of debate has ensued around the ASA’s decision to participate in an academic boycott of Israel, yet some fundamental questions remain: (1) What list of criteria did the ASA apply in their decision to “act in solidarity” with the BDS movement? (2) Did they conduct a study of several countries faced with social and political turmoil before deciding to take action against Israel?

As we anticipate a highly charged BDS movement this fall given the backdrop of the war between Gaza and Israel and an alarming increase in global anti Semitism, it is imperative that we answer these questions.  At a time when we are realizing the global nature of our work, members of the academic community would do well to pause and think before taking such drastic action as boycotting our colleagues in other nations or joining a political movement as divisive as BDS.

In addition to my concern about the unanswered questions resulting from the ASA’s lack of transparency regarding their political action, I am dismayed by the ASA’s willingness to adopt the language constructed by the BDS movement, which is the language of political rhetoric, lacking the nuance and sophistication that I would expect from my colleagues in academia. The most troubling example is the juxtaposition of the words Israel and apartheid, a politically inspired use of inflammatory rhetoric for the uninformed, but clear enough in its historical context to give pause to well meaning scholars.

As I can personally attest as a South African immigrant to the United States, who witnessed the horrors of apartheid and its subsequent dismantling, and as someone who has traveled to Israel fourteen times, the analogy is simply inaccurate. The word itself is an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness”, driven by the racist ideology of the Nationalist government, whose purposes were to oppress the country’s black majority and rob their land for its gold and diamonds. Apartheid denied black South Africans basic human rights including the right to vote, to choose where to live, to move about freely, to access education, and to live in physical safety. The conflict between Jews and Palestinians in Israel is worthy of our attention, but it is political, not racial, and not designed to deny an indigenous population its basic human rights. Palestinians living in Israel are full citizens of the State. There are twelve Palestinians in the Israeli parliament, and there are Palestinians on Israel’s supreme court, professors in Israeli universities, doctors in Israel’s world-famous Hadassah hospital, and teachers in public schools that serve both Arab and Jewish children. The Palestinians living in Gaza and the disputed territory known as the West Bank are the tragic result of an endless cycle of conflict between Israel and its surrounding Arab neighbors, between Israel and Palestinian leaders, and the result of corruption and oppression among the Palestinians’ fractured leadership. Their human suffering is apparent. The myriad causes of that suffering are much more complex and not comprehensible through simplistic sloganeering. It is not analogous to apartheid and, in spite of the fact that some notable South Africans support its use, I believe that the ASA and all those who are considering joining this movement do an injustice to those who suffered and fought for a democratic South Africa by exploiting the term for their own goals.

Finally, I take issue with the ASA’s lack of historical and sociological perspective and their subsequent omission of a specific desired outcome. For example, they address “Israel’s (illegal) wall built on occupied Palestinian territory” in a totally decontextualized and simplified way, ignoring the fact that Israel constructed the barrier after years of suicide/mass murder bombings killing more than 500 Israeli civilians in restaurants, teenage night clubs, and synagogues. While the presence of the wall remains highly controversial among Israelis—and does, notably, track very close to the 1967 lines– it has reduced the number of mass murders of Israeli civilians by approximately 96%, which was its intent. It was not constructed as an act of expansion or aggression, but rather, as an act of self-defense against an onslaught of terrorism.

The ASA also justifies their academic boycott by describing the Israeli universities as centers of weapons technology, dismissing the fact that Israel relies on its military technology to defend itself against a barrage of attacks by the surrounding Arab nations or that Israeli researchers are responsible for computer technology, agricultural innovations and medical breakthroughs that benefit us all.

As we approach a new academic year, those who want to make meaningful contributions to a lasting peace in Israel and to help the Palestinian people should reject the BDS propaganda machine, and, instead, find ways to contribute their skills and knowledge to those noble causes, much like many of our counterparts at Israel’s universities are doing. They could, for example, travel to the region to meet with Israel’s Jewish and Palestinian lawmakers, or join Israel’s social justice organizations such as the New Israel Fund. They might also consider helping Palestinian communities develop a sense of self-determination so that they can begin to organize themselves against oppressive regimes such as Hamas, which uses their money to construct tunnels of terror rather than to construct schools and hospitals. I can assure them that if they choose to pursue any of these avenues, they will not be arrested or shot by Israeli authorities – unlike what they would have experienced in apartheid South Africa.

Melissa Landa, PhD is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. Her interests include inter-cultural competence and equity in education, the globalization of American education, and the complexity of human identity. She is also the director of a UMD education abroad program to Israel, which explores the educational and acculturation experiences of the country’s 123,000 immigrants from Ethiopia.  This essay was written for SPME

BDS? Beneath the Dignity of Scholars

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