Anti-Zionism on Campus

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Anti-Zionism on Campus
Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS (Studies in Antisemitism). Published by Indiana University Press, 2018. $46.00 pp.456

The demonization and delegitimization of Israel and bigotry directed toward Jewish faculty, staff, and students is increasing at dramatic rates on university and college campuses.

In these supposedly intellectual spaces, virulently anti-Israel “scholars” and student-activists connected to, and supportive of, the global BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement regularly:

In dozens of posts we’ve highlighted this negative impact of BDS and its anti-Israel activism on contemporary academia in the U.S. and around the world. In our posts we’ve especially pointed out how this movement, and its associated student organizations and faculty promoters, is against peace and willing to destroy academic freedom and campus free speech in order to achieve its goals.

Now a new collection of essays, Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS, co-edited by professors Andrew Pessin (Connecticut College) and Doron S. Ben-Atar (Fordham University), documents just how bad things have become on many American, Canadian, UK, and Australian, and South African campuses.

Below I provide an overview of the book; highlight its three main takeaways; and note some of its key recommendations for changing the campus climate for Jews. Posts from Legal Insurrection are cited throughout Anti-Zionism on Campus, so I also note those in a separate section below. A statement by co-editor Andrew Pessin is also included at the end of the post. All page numbers appearing in parentheses refer to pages in the book.


Overview of Pessin and Ben-Atar, eds., Anti-Zionism on Campus

This 438-page book, with contributions from 24 faculty and staff and 7 students who teach and study at 31 different private and public universities and colleges, shows exactly what it’s like to be on the “front lines” of what “seems to be turning into an all-out assault on Jewish identity on campuses.”

Published this month by the prestigious Indiana University Press for its Studies in Antisemitism series, the book is primarily geared for those who have little familiarity with BDS or the ways in which students (and even faculty) who believe that Jews have a right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland are being silenced, marginalized, and targeted with vicious smear campaigns.

But even those who know how large the campus problem is should read it.

Some of the chilling, disturbing, and highly personal case studies of intimidation and harassment included in the volume will probably be new even to those well-versed in how unhinged anti-Israel hostility is corrupting the academy on just about every level—from scholarship and the production of knowledge to teaching and the free exchange of ideas. For example, I didn’t know about:

  • Ronnie Fraser’s multi-year travails with the UCU, the British teachers’ trade union;
  • Larissa Klazinga’s “two year odyssey” defending progressive Zionism at Rhodes University;
  • Denise Nussbaum’s ostracism and demotions at Mt. San Jacinto College in Southern California after she challenged the virulent anti-Israel programming of its campus chapter of Amnesty International; or
  • Dan Avnon’s rejection from a fellowship at the University of Sydney’s Center for Peace Studies “just because he is an Israeli.”

Those engaged in formulating effective strategies for combating campus anti-Israelism and its insidious champions, will also find useful the essays by leading anti-BDS scholars and activists.

Anti-Zionism on Campus meticulously documents how anti-Israelists promote their cause on college and university campuses, and the deleterious effect that they have had on the campus environment over the past 15 or so years. In particular, the book shows how this hostility often spills over into straightforward antisemitism.

It includes heart-breaking accounts written by undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, UCLA, Stanford University, Oberlin College, CUNY’s John Jay College, Brown University and the University of Missouri. They each recount their own painful experiences during their college years, especially how toxic anti-Israel BDS campaigns tried to turn their Jewishness into a source of shame—“an inescapably innate sin and stain” (p. 7).

The bulk of the book (24 of its 33 chapters) though deals with faculty-on-faculty abuse.

The book shows how pro-BDS activism on the part of faculty corrodes scholarship, teaching, and basic collegiality and civility without which an institution cannot run. At least on some campuses, it’s turning intellectual arenas allegedly devoted to the free exchange of ideas in the pursuit of knowledge into ideologically-driven activist training grounds that suppress all dissent.

Central Themes

Four key themes emerge from the collection of essays.

  1. The anti-Israel BDS movement on campus targets individual faculty, staff, and students for harm—and isn’t only directed toward Israel’s institutions of higher learning.

One of the enduring falsehoods peddled by pro-BDS campus proponents is that the campaign to boycott Israel’s universities and colleges isn’t aimed at individual faculty or students and so doesn’t cause them any harm.

Nearly every chapter in Anti-Zionism on Campus shows exactly how absurd this claim is. The book offers a litany of devastating personal experiences.

Chapter authors describe being professionally harmed by BDS smear campaigns and subjected to emotional and psychological duress—in some cases seriously so. Even in instances where there were no long-term consequences for careers or reputations, the contributors write that the venomous attacks they experienced left their mark (p. 159).

Many of the smear campaigns revolved around anti-Israel faculty and/or students—sometimes joined by administrators and always amplified by social media—taking criticism of their programming, courses, or writings as evidence of censorship and speech suppression, rather than as academically appropriate critique (pp. 71, 111, 207, 312). As Pessin remarked in a recent interview:

What they essentially want is unlimited freedom of speech to slander and defame Israel and pro-Israel faculty and students, while rejecting the freedom of speech of others to respond to them.”

In this regard, it’s important to note that the vast majority of the contributors to this book are not on the conservative side of the political spectrum when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—or any other political issue. Most self-define in their chapters as progressive, supportive of the Palestinian cause, and highly critical of Israeli policy. Collectively, they show that just being a Zionist Jew or an Israeli is enough to become “radioactive” (pp. 84, 88-89), to be targeted by anti-Israel “self-righteous moralists” and to be “put through the wringer (p. 87).

  1. Anti-Israelism on campus frequently blurs into antisemitism, creating a hostile learning and work environment for Jewish faculty, staff, and students.

The connection between anti-Israel expression and antisemitism on campus seems obvious—when Israelis are dehumanized and Israel is demonized, held to standards applied to no other country on the planet, it’s not all that surprising that this hate also begins to manifest itself towards the Jewish community on campus, and not just towards Israel.

As Canadian retired political scientist Julien Bauer claims, “Many people who combine blind support for anything Palestinians (including Hamas) and hostility to Israel are at ease with antisemitic tirades” (p. 64).

Taken as a whole, the chapters in Anti-Zionism on Campus underscore just how far pro-BDS faculty are willing to go to in order to engage in a type of morality play, where Israel shifts into a uniquely evil and demonic category vis-à-vis the absolute goodness of the Palestinians. These days, as the book demonstrates, abrogating liberal ideals and the bedrock principles of the academy, including free speech and open intellectual inquiry, apparently isn’t too high a price to pay for the opportunity to signal one’s own virtue.

  1. BDS and the anti-Israel movement on campus constitute attacks on the very norms and values of the university.

Anti-Zionism on Campus maintains that anti-Israel hostility isn’t just a threat to Israel or even just to Israeli academics—but poses a danger to “our ability to operate as an intellectual community” (pp. 4-5).

In terms of undermining campus civility and collegiality, the various chapter authors discuss the divisive nature of these BDS campaigns. Jubilee Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign notes that “With surprising frequency, people are willing to sever personal relationships over their differences about Israel” (p. 197).

But particularly important to underscore is how pro-BDS faculty undermine the norms that govern scholarship—including marshalling facts and evidence to substantiate claims, and carefully reasoned argument.

Over the last eight years, Richard Millett documents that he has heard on UK campuses

Israelis compared to the German citizens who failed to confront their Nazi government at the time, and constant Holocaust minimization in the form of comparing the Palestinian and Bedouin of today to the Jews in Nazi Germany” (p. 185).

Ernest Sternberg at the University of Buffalo also offers some breathtaking examples of “slanderous claims about Israel and Israeli Jews” made by various guest speakers to his campus (pp. 333-347).

They weren’t “ordinary” claims to be addressed through evidence and reason but “solidarity-building rituals of execration” (p. 333). For instance, at one “evening of hate” a guest speaker claimed that Israelis want to be like Nazis, so they name their kids Ari which is “short for Aryan” (in fact, Ari is the diminutive for the Hebrew name Aryeh which means lion). Sternberg puts it well:

The assertion that Jews would name a child Aryan or would want to become Aryans is imbecilic. Yet there it is. A professor invites a professor to say such things on an American campus, a distinguished professor uses State University of New York money to cosponsor the event, and students applaud” (p. 335).

  1. Faculty, staff, and students who challenge the anti-Israel orthodoxy on their campuses often stand alone—most members of the campus community won’t provide public support.

As I argued in a prior op-ed, successfully confronting anti-Israel boycotters ultimately depends on whether individual faculty and staff are willing and able to take a stand. Outside anti-BDS groups and organizations can’t take the place of academics and staff members who need to put aside their research and other work-related commitments for a period of time in order to take on the challenges of ‘campus politics’, Syracuse U Pro-BDS Faculty Issue Call to ‘Resist’ Events Co-hosted with Israeli Institutions.

Anti-Zionism on Campus reinforces this central point. Nearly ever chapter attests to the fact that in confronting anti-Israel BDS activism on their campus, Jewish faculty, staff, and students had to expend enormous amounts of time and energy.

In many of the personal stories recounted, they also stood alone as they were increasingly cast as campus pariahs. With few exceptions, the chapter authors tell how administrators either failed to provide timely and meaningful support or (unbelievably!) actually enabled the BDS harassers and “fed the assault” on their characters.

Basically, Anti-Zionism on Campus highlights a shocking degree of incompetence as well as cowardice and even sometimes complicity on the part of university administrations.

As for fellow colleagues, nearly all the book’s contributors remarked that they would privately get some encouragement and that very close colleagues often remained loyal friends. But for the most part even close friends on campus were just too fearful for their own careers and professional prospects to offer up any public support when it came to these politically-motivated witch hunts and character assassinations (pp. 64, 72, 197).

Tellingly, this was true of Jewish faculty too.

In case after case, other Jews on campus simply refused to join in the effort to combat the anti-Israel campus atmosphere—even though they would benefit from the situation being turned around, a situation that reflects free-riding and the classic dilemma of collective action.

Luckily, for most of the chapter authors there’s been a somewhat happy ending. Most of those who were falsely accused and smeared were eventually exonerated. Some faculty tell about moving on to new and rewarding jobs or to having found new allies (p. 82).

But many of the chapter authors also confess that they feel a lingering disappointment because of the lack of support they received from colleagues and university administrators. In most cases described in the book, there’s also an expressed frustration that no disciplinary action was ever taken against the students and/or faculty who sought to bully and defame them and other Israel-friendly members of the campus community.

Most state that they’ve been left “battered and scarred” by their ordeals (p. 23).

Recommendations for Combating Anti-Israelism on Campus

Anti-Zionism on Campus doesn’t only accurately diagnosis the problem on campus when it comes to the anti-Israel BDS attack against civility and collegial engagement, free speech, and rigorous scholarship. Its contributors also suggest a host of remedies.

To their credit, neither the co-editors nor any of the chapter authors argue in favor of banning pro-BDS organizations, like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), from campus or having their speech suppressed. On the contrary, the contributors write that while antisemitism should be swiftly and forcefully called out and condemned (the “lies should be countered”), campus hate speech shouldn’t be restricted or punished (pp. 2, 146).

Pessin, for example, takes issue with Fordham University’s recent decision to bar SJP from forming:

while I deeply respect the courage of that decision, I’m not sure in the end it was the right decision…they should let the group form, but then closely observe its activities (as they observe all student groups) to be sure that it operates within appropriate academic and community norms.”

Instead of censorship, Pessin recommends an equal playing field, where faculty and students can “criticize Israel all they want” as long as they don’t also work to “suppress the other side of the story, to pretend there is no other side, to silence those who see the other side” (p. 404).

Other suggestions for dealing with anti-Israel activism on campus and remedying the sorry state of affairs include:

  1. ensure that the curriculum as a whole is representative of viewpoint diversity on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (rather than micromanaging specific courses)—p. 198
  2. adopt the U.S. State Department’s or IHRA’s definition of antisemitism and work to increase the OCR’s protections of those who use Title VI on behalf of Jewish students—pp. 118, 310.
  3. develop academic programs in Israel Studies and teach “dozens and dozens of courses” about Israel—pp. 143, 146.
  4. always expose and dispute the “over-the-top” anti-Israel claims—p. 160.
  5. when faced with a smear campaign by “exaggerators, fantasists, and conspiracy theorists” never “apologize, retract, or delete” and be sure to quickly and widely disseminate your side of the story—pp. 160, 277.
  6. encourage campus administrations to form task forces for new social media so that they can effectively counter smear campaigns launched against their faculty—p. 250.
  7. get a lawyer and “be ready to sue”—p. 278.

References to Legal Insurrection Posts

The contributors to Pessin and Ben-Atar’s co-edited volume raise plenty of accusations against their pro-BDS tormenters. None of the charges are false because they’re all copiously sourced.

From chapter to chapter there’s a staggering amount of evidentiary material that’s brought to bear to prove just how harassing and intimidating BDS activism really is, and its negative impact on the lives of those it targets. Anti-Zionism on Campus contains 611 footnotes providing readers with the documents (and, where available, the hyperlinks) used to make their case.

In so doing, articles from Legal Insurrection are utilized throughout the book (by my count there are some 26 citations to LI posts).

There are a number of references to Prof. Jacobson’s coverage of the disruption of a University of Texas academic event in 2015 sponsored by its Institute for Israel Studies and featuring a Stanford University faculty member:

Other LI posts about the campus atmosphere at Vassar College are also referenced by several of the chapter contributors:

In the final chapter of the book (“Concluding Thoughts”), co-editor Andrew Pessin devotes the volume’s last two pages to Prof. Jacobson’s inability to find a single Vassar faculty member, from among the 39 professors there who signed a pro-BDS letter, willing to “accept the challenge” to publicly debate him.

When Prof. Jacobson eventually did give a lecture in 2014 at Vassar, “The Case for Israel and Academic Freedom”, only a small number of faculty and students attended (most of the audience was community members), and one professor who declined the debate invitation actually said that Jacobson should be boycotted.

It’s not hard to see why Pessin would close Anti-Zionism on Campus with this “anecdote” about Jacobson’s Vassar experience. As Pessin notes, it

perhaps perfectly expresses the current situation on our campuses, for those who do not hate Israel—and I think it too offers a ray of hope, in these dark times, for those who believe in the fundamental values of the university.”

Here are the other LI posts that are also cited in the book:

Statement from Co-editor Andrew Pessin

Like the other faculty, staff and students who recount their (in many cases harrowing) personal experiences confronting BDS and campus anti-Israelism on their campuses, co-editors Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar also have horror stories to tell.

For Ben-Atar, a Professor of History and then a member of Forham’s American Studies program, the story dates back to 2013 when at a faculty meeting he objected to a decision to pass a pro-BDS resolution.

He soon found himself the subject of a “Kafkaesque campaign” of vilification and intimidation launched by faculty and students. Some within the administration failed to support his right to articulate his opinion on BDS, and he was investigated for a range of “secret” and ever-shifting charges (pp. 66-74).

In the case of Pessin, a philosophy professor who now also serves as the Campus Bureau Editor for the Algemeiner, the problem started back in 2014 when he wrote a Facebook post critical of Hamas and was subsequently subjected to a horrible smear campaign that ended up engulfing him and his family for months. Like other authors in the book, Pessin saw close colleagues turn against him; he also received death threats.

The campus administration failed to offer help or meaningful support and actually egged-on the hysteria and the condemnations. Eventually, Pessin became so distraught that he had to take a medical leave of absence.

I reached out to Pessin to find out more about why he decided to work on this project and the impact that he and his co-editor hope that the book will have. Here’s his reply, which I received via email:

When you look at what’s been happening on campuses in the past few years, and even the past few months, it’s clear: Jewish students (and faculty), in particular those who believe that Jews have the right to self-determination in their ancestral homeland, are being shouted down, targeted for abuse, marginalized, and ostracized, and even—physically assaulted.This is not the 1930s in Europe. This is happening here, in 2018, in the United States and Canada and elsewhere—week in, week out, getting louder, scarier, more violent. Not only does it amount to an offensive onslaught against Jewish identity, but as it goes on it will produce the next generation of thought leaders whose minds are thoroughly poisoned against the Jewish state. Jewish groups have thankfully mobilized, begun to speak up and to speak out, but the campus problem is large, we are generally outnumbered, and we’re all a little late to the game. There are many good organizations you should support in this battle, but the first step is information: people must know what’s going on, and try to understand it, in order to formulate effective strategies for responding to it.And that is why we produced our book.It’s a start, and only a start. The hope of course is that it will motivate more concerned citizens—not merely Jews but anyone concerned about Israel and even anyone concerned about the state of the university today—to learn more, to stand up, to speak up, and refuse to be shouted down.”


Anti-Zionism on Campus is a tour de force. It accurately exposes the depth of anti-Israel bias on campuses (primarily in the U.S., but with several insightful chapters also focusing on the British, Australian, Canadian, and South African campus climate). It also underscores the high price and personal risk that comes with taking on this rising tide of anti-Zionism.

It’s hard to select a single chapter which I would say makes the strongest impression—all of them are well-written and meticulously researched and documented. But if I had to choose one to highlight, it would be Judea Pearl’s (pp. 224-235).

Pearl is the father of journalist Daniel Pearl who was brutally murdered on account of his Jewishness by jihadists in Pakistan back in 2002, Daniel Pearl was murdered 15 years ago today.

He doesn’t research or teach on the Middle East. But he’s a Jew whose Zionism is deeply integral to his sense of self, and his writing on BDS is “particularly decisive” in this volume and elsewhere (see for example hereand here).

In his chapter, Pearl persuasively reinforces the book’s key claim about BDS:

a racist movement that shows no respect for truth or other people’s identity can hardly be expected to respect the sanctity of academic freedom” (p. 224).

Bottom line: Many anti-Israel faculty and students who advocate for the academic boycott of Israel are contributing to a nasty atmosphere for Jews on their campuses. Administrators, trustees, alumni, parents and others who care about fostering learning environments supportive of the Jewish campus community and open to robust intellectual inquiry should take note of Anti-Zionism on Campus.

[Featured Image: Video The True Face of BDS]

Miriam F. Elman is an Associate Professor of Political Science and the Inaugural Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 65 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @MiriamElman

Anti-Zionism on Campus

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Miriam F.  Elman

Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University, where she was recently appointed the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence. Elman serves as the director of the International and Intra-state Conflict Studies research team in the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC) and is an advisory committee member of the Jewish Studies and the Middle Eastern Studies Programs.

Read all stories by Miriam F.  Elman