The BDS Disinformation Campaign in the Modern Language Association

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In this comprehensive essay, Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, responds to a report by members of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) visit to Palestine in June 2016, which details an assault on Israel’s legitimacy, policies, and right to exist, without accepting any responsibility to distribute contrary views or evidence. Nelson suggests that rather than indulging the BDS movement in its relentless hostility toward and effort to isolate Israel and Israelis, MLA members should be encouraged to promote initiatives to improve the situation for Israelis and Palestinians .


In December 2016, as part of the lead up to the following month’s expected MLA Delegate Assembly vote on a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities, six MLA members issued ‘A Report on MLA Members’ Visit to Palestine, June 2016’, a document that merits a detailed response since its broad implications will be of concern to those both within and outside the academic community. Their report addresses numerous subjects of general interest, among them the status of academic freedom in the West Bank, a subject covered in my December 2016 report in the academic journal Telos, as well as the experience of Arab Israeli citizens who study in Israel itself. The Telos essay, ‘Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities,’ which could be consulted in tandem with the present paper, demonstrates that the major threat to academic freedom in the West Bank is not Israel but rather actions by Palestinian political and paramilitary groups, including Fatah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, along with the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself. These two documents, which respond to the boycott initiative in the MLA, correspond roughly to the appropriate geographical and political divisions; the Telos essay concentrates on the West Bank and Gaza, whereas this essay concentrates on Israel ‘proper’. [1]

Two of the authors of ‘A Report on MLA Members’ Visit to Palestine, June 2016’ had earlier submitted a resolution to the MLA urging the organisation to endorse an academic boycott of all Israeli universities, supplemented with 19 pages of commentary, analysis, and 114 links to supporting documents — a text unfortunately not made available to MLA members until 15 December.[2]Rather than fact check what they found online, they assumed (incorrectly) that every anti-Israel NGO is a reliable source of information. The narrative the authors present in the 19-page resolution document is remarkable. It opens by citing the AAUP classic 1940 definition of academic freedom without mentioning the inconvenient fact that the AAUP has been opposed to all academic boycotts, including boycotts of Israeli universities, since it first addressed the issue a decade ago. Purporting to review conditions in the West Bank and Gaza,[3] nowhere does it even mention Hamas or the PA. Israel’s actions during the second intifada (2000-04), Operation Cast Lead (2008-09), and Operation Protective Edge (2014) are condemned, but no references to suicide bombings or Hamas rocket attacks occur.[4] Indeed the resolution’s authors feel no need to account for or debate Israel’s motives, and thus they live in a mental universe where Israel has no reason for anything it does. Israel in their view is nothing more than a thoroughly militarised society whose aims and intentions are unreservedly hostile. As a colleague in California remarked, ‘You would think from this document that the state of Israel has embarked on a fifty year program of marauding around the Middle East for the sole purpose and sole motivation of causing needless suffering and destruction’.

Since their authorship overlaps, the aims and arguments of the two pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) documents are unsurprisingly in harmony, and there are passages in common. The travel report, however, is sometimes more revealing about its authors’ attitudes, assumptions, motivations, and bases for conclusions. The expanded resolution is more impersonal. In responding to the travel report’s more personal voice here, I sometimes speak in my own voice as well. Here are the major points in what follows:

  1. The MLA distributed a detailed assault on Israel’s legitimacy, policies, and right to exist, without accepting any responsibility to distribute contrary views or evidence. Its elected representatives were to be given an opportunity for brief oral comments pro and con before voting on a resolution endorsing academic boycotts of Israel. They were to have only prosecutorial document in hand.
  2. Unlike the present essay, the resolution proposal was not adequately fact checked. It is rife with errors. It claims falsely that Arab Israelis cannot enter college until age 21; it asserts falsely that Arab Israeli children are barred from attending kindergarten until age five, while Jewish children begin at age three. It inaccurately reports that Arab Israeli college students are not eligible for financial aid. It manufactures a claim that Arab Israelis are not full citizens. And it repeatedly displays astonishing ignorance, as with the surprising news that the Druze are Christians.
  3. The report alleges that Arab Israeli student political speech is wantonly and pervasively suppressed, ignoring the protections for political speech embodied in Israeli law. We give a detailed account of how an Israeli university provides for and protects those speech rights.
  4. The report repeats the canard that academic boycotts only target institutions, not individuals, then goes to recommend ways to deny Israelis and sympathetic faculty and students elsewhere their academic freedom.
  5. The boycott proposal falsely implies that all Israeli higher education institutions are involved in military research. Not only is that not true, but the accusation ignores the fact that academic freedom gives faculty members the right to do the research they choose. It eliminates any distinction between research on offensive and defensive systems. The report then proceeds to condemn even research on products designed for civilian use if soldiers use them as well.
  6. The authors of the proposal demand that Israeli universities take collective, institutional stands on government policy and political issues — ignoring the basic principal that doing so would undermine the rights all members of the higher education community have to take their own political positions without institutional coercion. Universities are to remain politically neutral communities.


Part of the problem is that MLA has never before dealt with such a comprehensive indictment of a nation and its people. Having served a four-year term on the organisation’s Executive Council and regularly witnessed its reliance on staff advice, I can guess that the staff recommendation — often robotically bureaucratic[5] — prevailed: a resolution’s proposers present the evidence they choose. End of story. In the past that has been partly correctible: the 2014 BDS  resolution addressed a narrow claim that Israel blocks foreign faculty from teaching on the West Bank. Supporters presented four examples. We stood up at the 2014 meeting and cited the evidence that three of the four faculties hadtaught at Palestinian universities in the West Bank. But we cannot counter this year’s long, two-part poisonous dossier in that way. When we worked hard to share counter-evidence with the whole organisation in 2014, MLA’s executive director used every means to prevent us from doing so, up to and including threats of legal action.

Now we face what amounts to a claim that Israel’s only raison d’etre as a nation is the torture of the Palestinian people. The two BDS documents present a Manichean narrative of a battle between good and evil, with six million Israeli Jews on the wrong side of the conflict. Business as usual for the organisation is not an adequate response. For the MLA even to have an official organisation-wide debate about whether Israel is a morally abhorrent nation — a topic with no direct bearing on American higher education — already undercuts the mission defined by the organisation’s charter and alienates many of its members. MLA’s rules tragically mean that a mere 10 per cent of the members could be sufficient to make hostility to Israel the organisation’s official policy.[6]

The fact that the resolution merely endorses and calls for an academic boycott, rather than actually initiating one, will make no difference in how the resolution will be received worldwide. If the resolution is approved by the Delegate Assembly, forwarded to the entire membership by the Executive Council, and then approved in a vote in spring 2017, the MLA will have become an arm of the BDS movement, a transformation enabled by two mendacious documents.

MLA’s leadership felt no responsibility to supplement these extraordinarily deceptive pieces of propaganda, or to invite anyone else to do so. Do they suppose that a group of specialists in Shakespearian drama or the teaching of French is necessarily well informed about the history of Zionism or the Hamas charter? Instead, documents aimed unashamedly at indoctrination have been distributed to 25,000 or so MLA members, and their elected representatives in the Delegate Assembly, have been charged with voting on that basis. Does the MLA have no greater sense of professional or historical responsibility? Does the leadership feel no need to revise its procedures when faced with this potential debacle? Does the leadership have no shame? Given that passage of the resolution would give the MLA a narrow political, rather than scholarly, identity, would the organisation’s eligibility to receive funding from either the National Endowment for the Humanities or nongovernmental tax-exempt educational foundations survive the resolution’s adoption by the organisation as a whole? What will it say to the world about the state of the humanities if the membership eventually endorses a resolution grounded in unrelieved bias?

As I will attempt to show, the ‘evidence’ marshalled by MLA’s BDS advocates suggests the need for a far more comprehensive solution than the symbolic project of an academic boycott can offer. In seeking to tie the MLA’s members to a much wider and deeper critique, they engage the organisation in a far more aggressive agenda than they admit. As the letter calling for the boycott resolution and gathering personal endorsements declares, ‘We express our dismay at the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on a daily basis in the territories controlled by Israel.’ If you believe that about Israel, why would you settle merely for a boycott of its universities?


The travel report’s main strategy is to win people over emotionally, then to advance conclusions that are often either unsupported by the narrative that precedes them or addressed to entirely unrelated domains. The authors open with their return to Ben Gurion airport, following, they advise, ‘the circuitous journey from Ramallah to Tel Aviv that Palestinian vehicles are obliged to follow’ (1). Small point, perhaps, but none of the routes from Ramallah to Jerusalem are overly burdensome, though more so for some than others. The distinction is between routes predominantly used by Israeli citizens (Jewish or Arab) and those more likely to be used by West Bank Palestinians when crossing the border into Israel. Jewish and Palestinian drivers alike have a reasonably direct route from Jerusalem to Ben Gurion airport.

More telling is their account of being pulled over near the airport where the Arab driver had to pull down his pants as part of a security inspection. I have no evidence to dispute their story, but I know many Israelis who have never heard of anything comparable. I have more than once hired Arab drivers both for the day and for trips to the airport, the latter when leaving from both West and East Jerusalem, without experiencing any such difficulties. Like all vehicles, we pulled over and dropped the window for a brief inspection, and then proceeded on our way. The authors of the report, who inform us that ‘underwear would be a persistent theme during our time in Israel and the Occupied Territories,’ (1) want us to believe such humiliations are entirely routine. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they do not mention that Ben Gurion Airport would be a routine site of carnage were it not for Israel’s security precautions.[7] That checkpoints can, however, be frustrating or humiliating is true; as Israelis themselves have argued, some practices require reform, though boycotting Haifa or Tel Aviv University will not accomplish that.

In this case at least, the authors claim eyewitness testimony. Elsewhere they rely almost exclusively on either anecdotal evidence or undocumented claims. Thus, they tell us falsely, as though it is an undisputed fact, that Arab Israelis ‘must delay entering the universities until they are 21’ (6).[8] It is certainly not difficult to meet Arab Israeli students at universities who are younger than that, or to meet Arab Israeli families planning to send their children to college after graduating high school. There is no such rule in Israel’s higher education admission requirements. Perhaps the authors are confused by the fact that most Israeli Jews do their required military service before attending college and thus begin their studies at age 21.[9] Several medical school and health professional programmes in Israel do not admit students younger than 20 years of age, be it Jews or Arabs, because of professional considerations (emotional maturity etc.), but that limitation (itself debated in Israel) applies only to very specific programs and applies regardless of ethnicity.[10]

That error is supplemented by what is arguably a more absurd claim that ‘Jewish students can enter kindergarten at three, Palestinians [Arab Israelis] only at five’ (6). Perhaps the authors of the report misunderstood what they were told. Perhaps they were simply gullible and did not require further support to tell us what they were eager to believe. In any case it is misleading at best to disseminate inadequately researched and frankly false claims. The authors could easily have found out that, after the widely publicised 2011 social justice demonstrations in Israel, the Trachtenberg committee decided to expand freechild care and education down to age three in Israel. This includes all sectors of Israeli citizens, Arab and Jewish, as well as primary day-care in East Jerusalem.[11]

The confusion about education in Israel is compounded by the authors’ flawed account of rigidly separate elementary and secondary systems for Arab and Jewish students. In fact, no one forces an Arab Israeli to attend an Arab-speaking school. Local demographics determine which schools are nearby. In cities with large mixed populations there are public schools with both Arab and Jewish students. A number of schools are bilingual, among them the six run by Hand in Hand. If an Arab Israeli lives in a predominantly Hebrew-speaking neighbourhood, he or she would go to a Hebrew-speaking school unless the parents choose otherwise. That said, there are underfunded Arab Israeli schools that require more resources. Indeed the Israeli Ministry of Justice has ruledagainst any such unequal funding practices. Israeli universities have done their part by instituting Arab Israeli student recruitment and retention programmes, not an obvious boycott-worthy offense. But it would be a mistake to assume every Arab school is inferior. The high school that won first place in a 2015 competition was an Arab high school from the Galilee area in the north. In terms of raw numbers, Ministry of Education data shows that the number of Arab students attending kindergarten increased 33 per cent from 2004-5 to 2016, and the number attending high school increased by 59 per cent in the same time period.

The continuing efforts by universities have already borne fruit. As Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics documents, overall enrolment by Arab students has doubled over a decade, from 5.2 per cent of the student population in 2004-5 to 10.5 per cent in 2014-15. But these results are not the end of the story. Israeli colleges and universities are committed to increasing Arab enrolment still more; indeed this is an area where current success creates an environment where greater success is possible, as increasingly larger Arab student bodies make the campus environment more welcoming. Some fields are particularly strong; in medicine, Arab students represent 22 per cent of those enrolled. And Arab students are generally well represented in MLA fields like literary studies. Predictably, the BDS resolution document gives no recognition to the work Israeli universities are doing to maximise Arab enrolment and retention and simply decries the fact that ‘Arab students comprise only 10 per cent of Bachelor’s Degree graduates’ (R9).

The problem with disparities in primary and secondary school funding in Israel partly mirrors the same long-standing problem in the US: reliance on local funding. Some education funding in Israel is national, but disparities in the local portion are dramatic. There is a comprehensive, up-to-date April 2016 report on Israel from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that makes the point: ‘Schools in the Arab education stream tend to be underfunded, as they are often located in less affluent areas. According to national data, more affluent local governments can provide up to 10-20 times higher funding per student for schools than less affluent local governments.’ There is also a general report from the Ministry of Education from 2013 that makes it clear that the ministry sees closing the resulting performance gaps as part of its mission.[12] Once again, inadequate research, some of which could have been corrected by Google searches, undermines the report’s validity.

The travel report from BDS’s MLA members is riddled with factual errors. Some represent confused misrepresentations of Israeli law, including the claim that Arab citizens of Israel ‘lack full “democratic” rights,’ that ‘they are citizens but not “nationals” of a state where nationality rather than citizenship determines access to privileges and rights’ (6). Israel’s citizenship law, Hok Ha-Ezrachut, is the law that defines citizenship in Israel. It is sometimes translated into English as ‘Nationality Law’. In this sense ‘citizen’ and ‘national’ are used interchangeably. There was an ethnicity/nationality section on the Israeli ID card, removed years ago, which was there for census purposes. It affected no rights under the nationality law. No group is considered more ‘Israeli’ than another under the law. The distinction the authors of the report attribute to Israeli law does not exist. There is discrimination against Arab citizens in housing and other areas, and it must be fought more aggressively, but it is not legally based.[13] Even the recent — and highly controversial — Basic Law proposing to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jews made no effort to assign Jews special privileges or rights.

Other errors amount to slander, such as the claim that financial aid is not available to Arab Israeli students (7). They complain that army veterans receive educational benefits (as they do in the US), but overall in Israel financial aid for higher education is tied more to family size than army service: a Muslim applicant with more than three siblings will get more aid than someone with one sibling who just dedicated three prime years of his/her life to army service. Veterans in the US also receive educational benefits, though military service is more pervasive in Israel. On the other hand, compensation during military service in Israel is well below a living wage. The authors might also have been able to discover that, in both the strategic 2011-2016 and 2017-2021 five-year budgets for the Israel higher education system by the Planning & Budget Committee of the Council for Higher Education, there is a generous allocation for the promotion of higher education among  Arab Israelis: scholarships, special preparatory programmes, academic-social support to prevent attrition, and other provisions.

The authors also do not seem to be aware that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) are not composed exclusively of Jews. Many Druze and Bedouins serve in the army and some Muslim Arab Israelis do too. A friend reported that the medic in her unit was a Muslim from a village near Hadera. He felt that it was important to do his part in keeping Israel secure. One might note as well that the current IDF Surgeon General is Druze, a graduate of Ben-Gurion University’s medical school.

They go on to complain that ‘university admission exams’ are only given in Hebrew, but the Psychometric Entrance Tests (PET) can be taken in multiple languages — Arabic, French, Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, or combined Hebrew/English.[14] Hebrew is the chief language of instruction in major universities, so students take a proficiency exam, but that is a different matter. Both Arabic and Hebrew remain official languages, and many Arab Israelis are comfortable, if not fluent, in Hebrew, a situation that helps bridge differences. One cannot suppose how the MLA group got the idea they should complain that ‘even Arabic language courses are taught in Hebrew’ (6); except in full immersion programmes, beginning level language courses may be taught in the common language of the students until they reach a certain level of proficiency; after that, all language courses are normally taught in the target language, as in any language programme around the world. And then there are worrisome mistakes that suggest a broad lack of relevant cultural knowledge, such as the authors’ apparent belief that Druze are Christians. The unique Druze faith grows out of a tradition that incorporates and reinterprets elements of numerous philosophies and religious beliefs. As an essay in Legal Insurrection commenting on the MLA campaign observes, ‘There is some debate among scholars whether the Druze are Arab, much less Arab Palestinians. There is also some debate about what exactly the tenets of the Druze religion are (given that it is an esoteric faith), and whether it should be counted as part of Islam. But there is absolutely no question that the Druze are not Christian. This mistake, in a report by academics, is profoundly embarrassing.’

After promising to detail ‘the concrete conditions under which Palestinian academics, students and university administrators function,’ (3) the authors say Arab Israeli ‘faculty at Israeli institutions report open discrimination in research funding and assistance,’ (7) but there are numerous examples of Arab Israeli academics carrying out funded research projects at Israeli universities. What they claim in the way of discrimination would require coordinated collusion by faculty and administrative committees reviewing research proposals. But Israeli universities, like their US counterparts, are set up to award funding based on the merit of the proposals submitted, not on the basis of the ethnicity of the applicant. Of course faculty members worldwide believe it is fundamentally unjust to turn down any proposal they submit. The authors of the report predictably are unwilling to consider such possibilities.

The assertion that ‘the vast majority of Palestinian academics have called for this boycott’ (3) is not supported with evidence. Some Arab academics in Israel have called for it, but most have remained silent on the matter. A number of West Bank Palestinian faculties have sent letters to academics in other countries calling for a boycott, but those have not been mass documents accompanied by the hundreds of signatures that would be required to support the ‘vast majority’ claim.

In other cases the authors cherry pick insignificant evidence and wilfully exaggerate its importance. A good example is when they warn that ‘there is talk of removing funding from any university that has faculty who support BDS’ (20). That suggestion came from one Knesset member. It had no consequences. There has been no known follow-up to his remarks. This is part of the report’s authors’ general pattern of giving a sinister cast to what they are told. In order to paint a picture of a campus under unremitting armed assault, they tell us that Palestine Technical University (PTU) at Tulkarem, ‘the campus most affected by Israeli military presence,’ endured ‘85 incursions by the Israeli military’ in 2015 (9); but that statistic is achievable only by counting every time an IDF vehicle entered the city limits. Events at Tulkarem merit serious, contextualised, detailed documentation and analysis, not opportunistic reporting. In the eyes of this group, Palestinian universities overall are constantly imperilled and in danger of having their educational missions curtailed, but Palestinians have in fact created a very successful university system since 1967, one that has made a high level of educational attainment possible for their people.

These and other errors and distortions are supplemented by ill-considered complaints that effectively dilute the case for academic boycotts by putting the authors’ bad judgment on display.[15] Can one, for example, really consider the frequent presence of young Israeli students in uniform on campus a form of oppression, especially when these occasional students in army uniform (who may be on furlough to take a course) are seen calmly eating at the cafeteria together with Muslim students, or studying next to each other at the library and other public spaces of Israeli universities? By contrast, at Palestinian universities, Israeli Jews are generally not tolerated as visitors and certainly do not attend as students. One option, if the presence of students in army uniform seems alienating, is to strike up conversations with them, testing the possibility that they are fellow human beings.[16]

Whose fault is it if Birzeit University faculty, victims of their own anti-normalisation ideology, lose the opportunity to compete for European Union research funding because their institution prohibits collaborative research with Israelis, which is an EU funding requirement? Is the denial of funding for proposed conferences on genocide that focus on and give credence to the false claim that Israel has genocidal designs on Palestinians an abridgement of academic freedom, as the authors seem to think? Israeli universities do support the respectable academic field of genocide studies, most recently including one hosted at Hebrew University in the summer of 2016 organised by the International Society for the Study of Genocide. No university is required to sponsor — and no faculty committee should endorse — pseudo academic events designed to falsify history and promote hatred. It’s likely that Holocaust denial events wouldn’t receive funding either, though one can attend them in Iran.


The authors of the two documents construct an image of students both in Israel and in the West Bank as victims of massive, relentless political repression. Although you wouldn’t know it from their narratives, the political entity responsible for protecting or interdicting campus political speech in the West Bank is the PA. The PA’s proper concern is over occasions when political speech becomes incitement to violence. That is much the same criterion applicable in Israel, and the criterion applicable in the US as well, though the prevalence of successful incitement is far greater throughout the Middle East. As one Israeli dean put it to me: ‘If I do something wrong, people get hurt.’ The IDF ordinarily intervenes in Palestinian campuses when incitement escalates into recruitment, including recruitment of students to participate in Hamas terrorist cells.[17] As I point out in Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities, a paper that deals with the situation in the West Bank, one is not in Kansas anymore.

Israel’s 2007 Student Rights Law governs Israeli institutions and covers not only privacy rights and other matters but also addresses political speech: ‘All students have the right to organise and demonstrate over any topic or issue, including issues related to students and their rights, in accordance with the rules that each institution sets in its regulations.’ It also guarantees classroom freedoms: ‘Without prejudice to the rights granted by law, all students have the right to express their opinions, positions and worldview regarding the content of the study material and the values conveyed in it. This clause does not limit an institution’s right to organise the process of expressing one’s opinions, positions or worldviews in order to guarantee the proper functioning of the educational process.’

Each campus also has some version of a public activities code that supplements the Israeli law with specifics tailored to the individual campus. The local code is subject to judicial review. Student groups, including political parties, submit applications to get events approved. The point, then, is that political speech on Israeli campuses is governed by law, regulation, and procedure, not arbitrary authority. Students who organise and stage events without approval are subject to disciplinary action. When student political parties object to decisions, they can (and do) appeal to the courts. They also have recourse to the media and to sympathetic NGOs, both of which are more than willing to contest administrative decisions.

Do administrators always make the right decision? Of course not. Are such decisions sometimes controversial? Certainly. It is very difficult in a volatile setting to be certain when political passions may erupt in physical conflict. It is more difficult still to judge individual cases from across the ocean. Given the purpose of the event and the prior history of the speaker or speakers proposed, one can sometimes anticipate language on the border of incitement; then it is complex and difficult to decide whether to permit or forbid an event to take place. If the dean of students is charged with making the decision, he or she will typically consult with others to obtain advice and seek a consensus. Student deans from across Israel meet every 4-6 weeks to compare notes and share experiences.

While I have spoken with faculty and administrators from most Israeli universities, there is good reason to focus on the University of Haifa, where I am an affiliated faculty member. Haifa has a high percentage of Arab Israeli students — just under 30 per cent — amounting to 3,000 students, which means the variety of Israeli political opinion is well replicated there. The overall Arab Israeli population is about 20 per cent of the country. There are 8-10 student political parties on campus, including 3-4 Arab groups.

Haifa’s local code expressly permits the campus administration to cancel events or deny students the right to hold them only when the event presents an imminent danger to safety and security. The administration has 24 hours to approve or disallow a political display, like a literature table in a public space, and 48 hours to approve or disallow a political event. The time constraints on a response are designed to maximise the opportunity for free expression in response to real time events, while also providing a mechanism to give campus time to provide for public security.

Haifa has a large public square, where non-political events can be held. The independent, elected student union that stages events there is by definition apolitical. But there is a second, smaller public square where political displays can be set up and another space, overlooking the ocean, where political demonstrations can be held. The BDS travel report asserts that all Israeli universities routinely allow ‘for the disruption of their [Arab students’] observation of the Nakba’ (13), but that is not accurate. In the case of Nakba Day at Haifa, a controversial occasion commemorated annually on campus in May, it was decided to hold the event in an auditorium to provide better security. Students opposed to Nakba Day are not allowed entry and cannot protest either in the auditorium or outside the designated hall, but they can have their say in the open space for political demonstrations. The Nakba Day event, typically drawing 50-60 Arab Israeli students, is thus protected as permitted political speech, and those students involved feel safe in exercising their rights. Some Arab Israelis place the Nakba, when some 700,000 Arabs fled Israel in 1948, at the core of their historical identities, whereas some Israelis see its commemoration as a rejection of Israel’s creation as a state and a homeland for the Jewish people. Hence the potential for conflict and physical confrontation. Haifa’s solution is to allow both groups an opportunity to voice their convictions without risking confrontation. Haifa also has an active Jewish-Arab Research Center to promote dialogue, so the campus takes the need to encourage mutual understanding seriously, as well. And of course there is continual dialogue between Jewish and Arab students in class.

A few years ago both Haifa and other universities denied a request for an event that was to include Mohamed Kena’ne as a speaker. Based on his past record, they felt the risk was too high. The rules at Haifa prohibit barring an individual speaker within a broader proposal, so the event as a whole was disallowed. When Haifa banned students from waving the Palestinian flag during political protests in 2013 the decision was widely debated in the press.


Once again, MLA’s boycott advocates brazenly offer the single most deceptive and discredited canard about academic boycotts in defence of their resolution — that ‘this academic boycott is a targeted measure directed at institutions and not at individuals’ (R 16). Of course universities are not unpopulated shells; they are living institutions made up of the students, faculty, and staff who work there, building their professional identities around the institution, taking advantage of its opportunities, and making it their base for personal and group outreach across the world. Almost alone among academic boycott advocates, movement founder Omar Barghouti freely admits that academic boycotts do damage individual people; he just thinks they are worth the cost.

It was clear as early as 2002 in Britain that academic boycott proposals would also encourage and empower faculty hostile to Israel to create their own custom-designed boycotts, damaging students and faculty as they see fit.[18] In a videoreleased in 2016, boycott advocate Gayatri Spivak actually applauded this freedom to innovate by instituting your own personal boycott standards and rules. The MLA resolution assures us, as if the resulting chaos is a virtue, that ‘individual MLA members will continue to follow their own conscience when making their own decision whether to honour the boycott as individual scholars’ (R 17). In ‘Response to MLA Member’s Queries Re The Academic Boycott,’ the resolution’s organisers emphasise the point: ‘The institutional endorsement of the boycott will empower individuals to honour the boycott.’

The decisive development came in July 2014, when the Ramallah-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) issued its revised Guidelines for Academic Boycotts that reiterated the familiar reassurance that only institutions are targeted, but allowed for ‘common sense’ boycotts of individuals as an exception. The guidelines, quickly endorsed by BDS worldwide, then went on to list all the ways ‘common sense’ boycotts could go after individuals. Academic boycotts, they point out as one of several examples, entail refusing to write letters of recommendation for students who want to study in Israel, since that would amount to cooperating with an Israeli university. Apparently students are not to take being turned down personally. Nor are Israeli faculty to take it personally when US or Canadian journals refuse to publish their articles. I won’t list all the ways academic boycotts undermine student and faculty academic rights, since those have been amply described elsewhere, except to quote some of the specific actions MLA’s boycott advocates endorse in their ‘Queries’:

Not to accept formal positions from or enrol in Israeli institutions; Not to attend or organise a conference in concert with an Israeli institution; Not to attend or organise an international conference held in Israel; Not to review dissertations or submit professional advancement documents to Israeli institutions on behalf of individual Israeli scholars; Discourage students from participating in Study Abroad programs at Israeli institutions.

The movement’s continued reliance on the discredited and deplorable claim that none of this affects individuals needs to be noted here.[19] BDS advocates remarkably continue to point to the Guidelines as evidence that academic boycotts target only institutions. Worse still, MLA members are already beginning to carry out personal assaults on Jewish or other faculty doing research on Israeli writers, encouraged by the prior history of boycott promotion in the organisation. Only this year a young American faculty member published a book on a renowned Israeli poet. Within weeks, five MLA members wrote to her to say they would boycott the book and encourage others to do so to in punishment for its Israeli subject.


The authors of the travel report make much of the justified anger and frustration that Palestinian students and faculty experience at what can sometimes be very long delays at West Bank checkpoints.[20] It is worth distinguishing between the checkpoints established to monitor travel through the security barrier into Israel and those in the interior of the West Bank, the latter partly serving to assure security for those Israeli settlements that would presumably be removed as part of a final status agreement.[21] We need to remember what the authors of the report fail to mention: that a history of Palestinian violence preceded and accompanied the creation of the checkpoint system — from the Fedayeen who entered Israel within its 1948 borders in the 1950’s to murder Israelis in their homes, continuing through the suicide bombings of the second intifada to the knife, car, and gun assaults of 2015-2016. Discounting Israel’s security needs based on Western assumptions about the nature of violence in our own countries is irresponsible.

As part of the 1998 Wye River Memorandum negotiations, Palestinians requested the collection and scanning of biometric data to ease border crossings and reduce contact with Israeli soldiers for Palestinian workers.[22] A group of retired Israeli IDF officers and senior security officials have since recommended that biometric data be used in special fast lanes (like those at US airports) to be established for Palestinians approved for travel so they can pass through checkpoints rapidly. The same system could be used at permanent West Bank checkpoints, and US citizens who support such a plan could work through political organisations — which MLA is not — to help establish it. Hewlett-Packard (HP) is the company that developed the biometric data collection and scanning software, a technology designed to make Palestinians’ lives easier, but for which HP is regularly excoriated by the BDS movement. Even now some checkpoints provide efficient transit, but the system can be improved and expanded. It has also been suggested that the biometric data eventually be shared with both Jordan and the PA to facilitate international travel.[23]

That said, the authors of the BDS report treat the problems with movement through the checkpoints as violations of academic freedom, which they are not. They are a general security and human rights issue that affects students and faculty among others, but blunting student and faculty academic freedom is not the object of the checkpoints.

Movement in the West Bank would also improve were Israel to begin transferring to the Palestinians the narrow corridors of Israeli-controlled Area C that presently divide Areas A and B, the portions of the West Bank under Palestinian authority, into multiple fragments. The fragmented map was established as part of the Oslo Accords. Those Israeli-controlled corridors constitute only 1 per cent of West Bank territory, so the amount of land at issue is limited.

BDS has been unwilling to advocate for specific policy changes like these, instead preferring the wholly indirect and frankly irrelevant gesture of promoting university boycotts. The boycott movement, ironically, is typically endorsed only by disciplines that have no extensive collaborative research projects with Israeli faculty. Meanwhile, the Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields that do the most ambitious research with Israeli universities have shown little interest in boycotting anyone.


The authors of the BDS report struggle to link Israeli universities with the military occupation of the West Bank, since their educational enterprise has no direct bearing on it. Indeed universities are broadly integrated with the economic, social, and political systems of their respective countries. Their graduates go on to fill positions in government, industry, the military, and social services. They vote on legislation and enforce or adjudicate laws. In that broad sense colleges and universities can be counted as indirectly complicit in everything a country does, but that is no reason to single them out for a boycott campaign. Universities everywhere, including those in Israel, the US, and Europe possess only relative autonomy from the nation state. But it is that relative autonomy that facilitates academic freedom and the ability of faculty and students to advocate against government policy. There are some nation states in the Middle East where that relative autonomy is either so compromised or attenuated as to be virtually non-existent, but Israel is not one of them. One may speak of the ‘absolute integration of . . . universities with the security administration’ in Iran, but not, as their report does, in Israel.

The report’s main direct accusation is that universities are involved in ‘the development of weapons and technology used to displace and terrorise Palestinian populations’ (12). They cite an ‘Alternative Information Center’ report as evidence, but that report is not exclusively devoted to weapons R&D or even warfare-related research. It refers to such subjects as hydraulic studies, demographic studies, and tactical studies. Meanwhile, the international character of the arms industry means that universities in many countries, including in the US, contribute to R&D for the weapons Israel has used in wars that were often defensive. Unlike the US where many top universities are involved in military research and play a major role it, in Israel, most, but indeed not all, defence research is conducted at Israel’s defence industries like Rafael, Israel Aerospace Industry, and others.

There is, moreover, a huge difference between the impact of Israeli military research on Gaza and the West Bank. Since 2007 Gaza has been controlled by Hamas, based on a charter committed to military and terrorist action aimed at eliminating the Jewish state. Israel has responded militarily to Hamas’s rocket attacks, most recently in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. One may fairly discuss whether the responses have been ethical in the light of the rules of war or proportionate to Hamas’s actions, but not whether a country has a right to eliminate ongoing rocket attacks on its civilians.[24] Despite the BDS movement’s regular refusal to do so, these issues can only be responsibly conceptualised comparatively. Israel has used a number of defensive and offensive systems in Gaza itself and on its border, but the offensive systems generally have no relevance to the West Bank.

Surveillance, detection, and communication technology, on the other hand, is widely used in Israel and elsewhere, and both university and corporate research contribute to its development worldwide. The report makes the hyperbolic claim that ‘there are no areas where Palestinians are free from surveillance,’ (10) seeking to invoke an Orwellian world in which every kitchen and bathroom is overseen by Big Brother’s seeing eye. The claim tugs at our humanistic values to provoke a sympathetic and angry response. But the simple truth is that West Bank surveillance of both settlers and Palestinians is a non-violent way to interdict and prevent violence, a benefit to Israelis and Palestinians alike. That the settlers should not be there does not change the fact that the minority inclined to violence against Palestinians should be prevented from following through on their impulses. Both the IDF and the PA work hard to prevent violence and collaborate to do so. The authors cite contributions to surveillance technology as evidence of the contaminating interdependence of and collaboration between universities and the military, whereas it often saves lives and contributes toward peace.

Before addressing the character of university-based military research in Israel or elsewhere, moreover, faculty, students, and administrators need to understand the principles that govern it in democratic societies, principles that the BDS report does not cite or give any evidence of understanding. Of course we should not expect these principles to apply in institutions like the Islamic University of Gaza, in countries that are not true democracies like Russia, or in theocracies like Iran. But they are honoured in Israel.

Military research can be done on behalf of either defence agencies or corporations. The main distinction is whether it is publishable, confidential, or classified. Some universities in the US permit classified research to be done on campus and some do not. Within that limit, democratic societies, including both Israel and the US, agree that academic freedom supports the faculty right to do such research if individuals or groups choose to do so. Faculty members who do military research both here and abroad tend to be outspoken in insisting that their right to choose research projects is protected by academic freedom. It can be misleading to say that the university itself does military research when the research in both Israel and the US is the product of and governed by a contract with either an individual faculty member or a group of faculty. In that case it is more accurate to say that ‘Professor Smith’ does the research than to attribute it to the institution as a whole. It is thus not rational or justifiable to boycott a university because of the research one or more faculty members might choose to do.[25]

Given the substantial amount of funding available for military research in the US and elsewhere, it is likely that some faculty become involved in it for financial, rather than ideological or political reasons. In a country like Israel that has faced military aggression from its neighbours for years, however, faculty members may do military research because they want to help defend both the country and its citizens.

In democracies the rights to publish research results are generally governed by the contracts faculty sign, although universities may review contracts that entail the use of campus facilities to make certain applicable regulations are honoured. Some universities in the US opt not to do any unpublishable or classified research on campus. In the US, if a sufficient number of faculty members want to do classified research, the institution may seek funds to establish a separate research facility elsewhere, preferably with its own financial and governance arrangements. One of the most famous of these research institutes in the US is UC Berkeley’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which began doing nuclear weapons research in 1952.

All funded research, confidential or not, should be governed by ethical and professional principles that are embodied in contracts reviewed by a faculty committee. Recognising that neither the commitment to, nor understanding of, those principles is universal, the AAUP authorised me to review practices nationwide, gather the results, and issue a series of recommendations. The resulting 368-page book, Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships (2014) was co-authored by myself and Jennifer Washburn. Its 56 principles cover both military and non-military research.

The key claim in both BDS documents prepared for the MLA is that Israeli higher education is so thoroughly integrated with the country’s military that the two are virtually inseparable. This claim rests not only on assumptions that are false but also on the application of sweeping standards that, so far as I know, have never been applied to any other country on earth. The only concern that the AAUP has historically raised about military research in American colleges and universities is whether it is classified. The BDS advocates imply falsely that such research in Israel is universal, but in fact faculty at most Israeli institutions of higher education do not engage in classified military research.

This is when the report’s singularly anti-Israel standard becomes both blatant and a bit irrational. MLA’s BDS allies would like to condemn any Israeli research affecting products used by the military, even if it is devoted to products sold to the public worldwide. If Technion University develops better camera lenses, shoe laces, or laundry detergent used both by the average soldier and by people worldwide, then these folks think both Technion and every other Israeli college and university should be boycotted. By that standard every one of the 3,500 colleges and universities in the US, save those that do no product research of any kind, likely merits boycotting. The standard quoted approvingly in the MLA resolution document is university contributions to ‘generic technologies with military applications,’ (R 11) which embraces every university in the world that does medical research. Would battlefield medical innovations discovered in the Sinai and perfected by Israeli universities — innovations that go on to save lives in Philadelphia — implicate us all? They even fault university-based demographic studies because they can be used in ways the authors decry (R 10).

One may also question whether university-based research on defensive military systems merits condemnation, even if it is classified. Would one want to boycott a university if it helped develop or refine the Iron Dome system? Had it not been in place and successful, there would have been Israeli civilian casualties from Hamas rockets. Israel’s military response to the rocket attacks would have occurred sooner, been more fierce, and almost certainly have caused more casualties among Palestinians. Research on cyber security helps the military, but it also might be handy in protecting your credit card numbers. David Lloyd, the most prominent BDS leader among the authors, and the others would also have us troubled that graduates of Technion and other universities go on to develop ‘contractual ties to the biggest Israeli weapons research companies’ (R 11).

This background information should inform our attitude toward military research in Israeli universities. Academic boycotts are never justified, but the conditions in a given country deserve analysis and understanding. Given Israel’s status in the region, it is a more complex and contextual matter than a simple emotional rejection of weapons systems or wartime deaths can adequately address. Painting all Israeli colleges and universities with the same brush, as academic boycott proposals do, moreover, is also fundamentally unprofessional and unfair.

That said, one needs to address the implicit analytic and conceptual system at work in the supporting rationale for what purports to document connections between Israeli higher education and the military. The claimed connections listed include: direct research on military weapons; research on civilian products or technologies also used by the military; all social science and humanities research that might contribute to military understanding and analysis; university education that gives students any knowledge or skills that might enhance their capabilities while in military service; the future employment choices by college graduates that link them to the defence industry or to the university itself; and so forth. We are well beyond the direct research and teaching relationships that can make universities part of the military-industrial complex. This web of connections in the end brings us the arguably pointless claim that Israeli universities are identical with Israeli society, a society the resolution’s advocates condemn tout court. They imply that Israel’s tentacles reach everywhere in Palestine, and the resultant injustice is intolerable. We have heard such claims before, and we know the cures employed in the past. BDS founder Omar Barghouti has offered a modest saving solution: “Euthanasia for the Jewish state.” Thus, the MLA effort is not just about boycotting universities.


Echoing an international BDS demand that Israeli universities take official, institutional positions against Israel’s policies in the occupied territories as a condition for lifting an academic boycott, MLA’s BDS advocates fault them for ‘institutional complicity and silence that contribute to the disruption of Palestinian’s [sic] education’ and complain that ‘no university or university department in Israel has ever formally opposed the occupation or called for its end’ (12).

While one can understand PACBI demanding that universities take collective institutional positions on political issues, it is not excusable for US academics to do so. PACBI’s ‘call for solidarity’ is not sufficient warrant for Canadian and US academics to set aside the principles that govern their professional lives and impose a political litmus test on universities, one that could shape the public identities of an institution’s community members. North American academic BDS proponents notably do not demand that their own institutions take political positions; apparently they think that principle does not apply to Israel.

US students and faculty are free both as individuals and as groups to take political positions. They expect to do so without the coercive and preemptive effect of doing so under the shadow of official institutional or departmental political stands. Indeed the academic freedom of students and faculty in the US and in Israel can only be protected by institutional neutrality over national political policy. Institutions can only protect and defend community members’ academic freedom to make political statements if the institutions remain neutral. One needs to add that US institutions of higher education maintain their political neutrality not only out of principle but also because taking political positions as institutions would threaten their non-profit tax status as educational institutions. US law would provide for still more severe penalties in times of declared war. Certainly US faculty understand these matters. Yet the BDS advocates among them have apparently decided that these principles do not apply to Israeli universities. It is particularly cynical for the report’s authors to complain about the lack of formal Israeli departmental opposition to the occupation when it is well known that some department faculties, among them the political science department at Ben-Gurion University, are pervasively opposed to it. Because Ben-Gurion University is institutionally neutral, it was able to defend its faculty against shameful political efforts to sanction them or close the department down.


The authors of the report eventually acknowledge that a fundamental purpose of the boycott campaign is to prevent Israeli universities from contributing to ‘the appearance of a liberal, democratic society’; they worry that the public image of Israeli higher education will aid ‘the normalisation of what is, for Palestinians, an apartheid state’ (21). The boycott is thus a disruptive project designed to distract attention from the high quality of Israeli universities and the research they produce, to withhold ‘the prestige their recognition confers,’ (21) and to brand universities as agents of the occupation even though that is not the case. In the same way that they treat the evidence of Israel’s vibrant gay community, evidence that Israeli higher education is a bastion of freedom is for BDS proponents a distraction from the true dark, repressive character of Israeli society and state.

In the end it doesn’t really matter that the authors do not prove their case against Israeli higher education. It does not matter that the claim of pervasive discrimination against Israel’s Arab students is contradicted by the evidence with statistics showing increasing percentages of Arab enrolment. One can visit campuses to witness something else: on BA graduation day at the University of Haifa, the campus is filled with Arab families, from villages, towns, and cities like Haifa and Nazareth, proud of the achievements of their children who have graduated from a solid academic institution. The accounts of Palestinian victimhood the report offers are designed to play on readers’ sympathies so as to win endorsement of claims the report fails in fact to prove. Israeli higher education is guilty by association with the Jewish state.

The report quotes one Israeli student saying of universities that ‘only their complicity with and silence about the occupation gives the universities the right to be liberal’ (19). In other words, acknowledging the occupation would empty universities of any of the liberal pretensions of a free society. Their fragile existence is sustained only by a comprehensive omerta (the Mafia’s vow of silence) about reality. In conversations with Israeli students and faculty, notably, it is difficult to find the principle of omerta being observed. I have yet to discover them being silent about anything. On the contrary, Israeli universities are hotbeds of vibrant political debate, including extensive criticism of some of the disputed policies of the State. Indeed many (arguably most) Israeli faculty have a similar political profile to that of US faculty, including voting for a more left-wing party.

This argument, in any case, is staged to set us up for the next claim about complicity —our own: “The de facto complicity of US academic organisations with the occupation’ (21) by way of our assistance in granting Israeli universities ‘integration in the global academic community’ (22). How do we do that? By sustaining joint degree or study abroad programs with Israeli universities; by evaluating the research proposals or tenure applications of Israeli faculty; by inviting Israeli faculty to speak at Western universities or at international conferences; and by building ‘normalising’ relationships with Jewish faculty in Israel. Of course the authors of the report themselves violated the BDS anti-normalisation agenda when they talked with Israelis on their trip. Perhaps refusing to talk with Israelis before writing their report would have constituted premature anti-normalisation.[26]

They go on to say that ‘any policy that defends academic freedom as it currently exists in Israel and Palestine maintains a de facto denial of it to Palestinians’ (22). We are in increasingly dangerous conceptual territory here. Applying this undefined and untheorised concept of ‘de facto’ complicity creates endless opportunities for exaggerated, undemonstrated, and unwarranted accusations and claims of responsibility. And that leaves open the equally difficult challenge of how to relieve ourselves of any such de facto burden. BDS would like to persuade us all that the triumphant and impotent endorsement of an academic boycott of Israeli universities would magically transport us beyond guilt and responsibility.

The nature of any such complicity needs not only to be clarified and specified but also to be conceived comparatively, the latter being a requirement the BDS movement rejects tout court. We are not to compare Israeli government violence with Syrian government violence. We are not to compare Israeli academic freedom with Egyptian academic freedom. We are not to compare the number of Palestinian deaths in Operation Protective Edge with the number of Palestinian deaths in the Syrian civil war. We are not to compare the post-secondary educational attainment of West Bank Palestinians with those available in any Arab country. And we are not to compare Israeli universities with their counterparts in Britain and America regarding evidence of their so called ‘involvement’ and ‘complicity’ in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Although I referred above to the BDS travel document as a ‘report,’ following its self-designation, it really has more the character of an indictment. Six MLA members took a trip in search of evidence to support their opposition to Israel, and they shared the fruits of that project with us. No doubt they are well aware of competing arguments and evidence, but they chose to exclude these. All of the citations in their reports are to documents expressly critical of or hostile to Israel. They sought to prepare the prosecution’s case only. Most importantly, they do so in an organisation that does not give an equal opportunity for anyone to make the case for the defence, there being no organised opportunity to circulate a paper like this.

The authors of the report confess themselves to be ‘broadly sympathetic to the BDS movement,’ (4) but Rebecca Comay, Margaret Ferguson, David Lloyd, Julie Rak, and David Simpson sell themselves short. Active leadership qualifies them for a higher status. David Lloyd has been a BDS spokesperson in several academic organisations. Margaret Ferguson promoted BDS as MLA president. And their individual writings display more intense rhetoric than the reports. When they summarise the perspective of their reports, they tell us ‘it is always a question about the degrees of discrimination Palestinian academics experience, not about whether or not they face discrimination’ (5). The glass is never half full. So it is not surprising that an 11 December 2016 David Simpson post on the MLA website blithely blusters that ‘there is no significant freedom for Palestinians, either in Israel or in the West Bank’. To the degree their ‘report’ is based on anonymous stories of individual humiliations, it cannot be refuted. On the other hand, the factual errors in the document cast doubt on everything else. And I believe that its key underlying assumption — that Israel is the primary violator of Palestinian academic freedom — is false. I have tried to present an objective account of that issue in my Telos essay.

Finally, I should emphasise the growing international consensus among some quarters in Israel and the US that Gaza needs urgent relief and that West Bank Palestinians need practical improvements in their lives that would give them economic and political hope. I summarise those recommendations in my Six Broadsides for Peace in Palestine.[27] One might wish that MLA members could be encouraged to promote those initiatives both as individuals and as participants in groups devoted to promoting peace, rather than indulging the BDS movement in its relentless hostility toward and effort to isolate Israel and Israelis.

Of course the country that would become the home of the Jews was preemptively isolated and othered by a thousand years of Western history before Israel even existed. The relevance of that history has only increased as we have seen no organised outrage from BDS activists about either ISIS’s barbarism or the targeted slaughter of civilians in Syria by both Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s government. More Palestinians have died in Syria in the last five years than died in Palestine in the hundred years since the Balfour declaration.[28] The regional comparisons consistently dismissed by BDS advocates do not negate concerns about Israeli government policies. But they should give us pause when we look in the mirror; at the very least they should complicate the moral fervour BDS advocates in several academic associations have brought to debates about academic boycotts of Israel.


[1] Without attempting to list names, I want to thank all the academics both here and abroad who shared their knowledge and thereby helped to enrich this report.

[2] References to the travel report are identified internally by page number; references to the 19-page resolution are identified internally with the letter ‘R’. One can imagine the MLA leadership writing something like, ‘given the complexity of the issues involved, the large number of publications referenced, and the fact all materials were submitted to us against an October 1 deadline, we have decided to place the resolutions and their supporting documentation online on November 1, 2016’. That of course would have required something other than a rote, programmed response. Of course several members of MLA’s executive council are public supporters of academic boycotts of Israel. As of December 28, three executive council members (Emily Apter, Lenora Hanson, and David Palumbo-Liu) had signed a public petition endorsing the boycott resolution, while one (David Tse-chien Pan) signed the MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights petition opposing the boycott resolution (

[3] The BDS resolution implies that Israel controls all of Gaza’s borders (R 2) and cites a report from B’Tselem in support, but B’Tselem of course makes it clear that Egypt is on Gaza’s southern border and controls it, including the Rafah crossing, a major point of exit from and entry to Gaza. The resolution entirely ignores the fact that Israel’s borders with Gaza on the north and east are borders with a hostile entity equipped with offensive weapons and committed to Israel’s destruction. It treats as uncontested a claim that Gaza remains an occupied territory, even though Israel withdrew its forces in 2005. Since Israel’s safety and survival requires it to police Gaza’s Mediterranean Sea border to the west (a blockade determined to be legal by the UN’s Palmer Report) — lest Hamas import still more dangerous offensive weapons — Israel does share responsibility to help meet the Gaza population’s humanitarian needs. That task is complicated by Hamas’s continuing practice of diverting aid to military ends like building underground attack tunnels.

[4] The only mention of terrorism in the narrative accompanying the resolution occurs when its authors decry examples of people ‘accusing professors and students of terrorist sympathies and “Jew hatred”‘. (R 17).

[5] If readers feel this critique is unwarranted, they may consider an example from the last full BDS debate in the MLA. When the program for the 2014 MLA annual meeting appeared online, a number of members were surprised to see several pro-BDS sessions scheduled. We hadn’t anticipated that, so we wrote the executive director to ask if one session opposed to academic boycotts could be added to the programme in the interest of intellectual and professional integrity — even though the program submission deadline had passed. We were told rules were rules and turned down, so we arranged to rent a room for a session in a nearby hotel. Months later we ran into the same problem at the American Anthropological Association (AAA). There the executive director recognised that it was in the AAA’s best interest to give members at least some access to competing arguments and added an official session for us even though the deadline had passed and the programme was already online. Bureaucrats often feel they are protected by inflexibility, but broader interests may take precedence in such politically contested arenas.

[6] When the MLA approved votes opposing the Vietnam and Iraq wars, two critical conditions were met: first, they represented a broad consensus within the organisation in opposition to the wars themselves, not just the votes of an agitated, obsessed minority; second, the massive government spending on both wars directed government funds away from social programmes, including education. Higher education and the MLA thus had an economic stake in the issue. Foreign aid to Israel does not threaten federal spending on higher education.

[7] One should remember that Ben Gurion airport (known as Lod until being renamed in 1972) has been the site of terrorist attacks. Israeli security has prevented hijackings, but terrorists on incoming flights have twice caused major assaults. The worst of these occurred in May 1972, when three members of the Japanese Red Army sprayed machine gun fire into the passenger arrival area, killed 24 and injuring 80.

[8] The phrase I quote from the report could have begun one word earlier, in which case my sentence would have read as follows: ‘Thus they tell us falsely, as though it is an undisputed fact, that “Palestinians must delay entering the universities until they are 21”’. They use the term ‘Palestinians’ here, whereas I use ‘Arab Israelis’. There is a debate in Israel about which term should be used to describe Arab citizens in Israel, and the authors of the report honour the political preference for calling them Palestinians. But that produces several results in their report: first, it serves their purpose in blurring the geographical and political distinction between Israel and the West Bank; second it allows them to imply that Arab citizens in Israel face the same difficulties as Palestinians on the West Bank; and third, it creates quite pointless confusion in their argument. In this case, they obviously do not want to suggest that Palestinian universities bar admission until age 21. I opt for the two different terms for the sake of clarity.

[9] A news story describing Technion University’s successful recruitment and retention programme — that raised the percentage of Arab students from 7 per cent in 2004 to 20 per cent in 2016 — mentions that ‘Arab students are usually 3-4 years younger than their Jewish peers because they likely didn’t serve in the military’. See ‘At Israel’s MIT, education, not affirmative action, triples Arab enrollment’ (Haaretz, December 16, 2016), available online at

[10] An exception applies to students in the academic reserve track. As Stuart A. Cohen reports in Israel and Its Army: From Cohesion to Confusion, ‘As early as 1950, the IDF initiated the atudah akadema’it (“academic reserve”), a special service track for a small number of academically gifted recruits, who have already gained university places on the basis of their matriculation grades. Modelled on the ROTC programs developed in the US, the atudah akadema’itallows successful applicants, generally no more than a few hundred each year, to combine their mandatory conscript service with studies toward an undergraduate degree, principally by completing much of their training during university vacations. In return for this benefit, and for having the IDF pay their university fees, participants in the programme contract to “sign on” for three additional years of duty as IDF professionals after graduation’ (New York: Routledge, 2008).

[11] It is worth asking how these six MLA members might have gotten this kindergarten claim wrong, whether from a misinformed or malicious source or through the application of their own bias. One may only guess, but here is one possibility: the state had been arranging transportation to kindergarten only for children age five and above, Jewish or Arab. Parents were responsible for transportation for younger children. State services more recently decided to make special provision for unrecognised Bedouin communities in the south and provided small vehicles with booster seats to transport children ages three-four. For relevant national education policies see The transportation problem had been highlighted in a January 2015 report from Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel ( This is a good example of how policy can be reformed by open debate in a free society, even without biased or misleading MLA advocacy.

[12] For some historical background see ‘The State of Public Preschool Education in Israel,’ a 2012 report from the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel:

[13] While it does not affect citizenship, religious affiliation does shape some social options in Israel. If you are recognised as Jewish, Muslim, or Christian, it means that matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, burial, and the like are under the jurisdiction of the relevant religious authorities. These rules can be very restrictive. As a result, increasingly more Israelis (mainly non-religious Jews) are choosing not to go through religious establishments in these matters—having secular or non-orthodox marriage ceremonies, and arranging divorce settlements by legal rather than religious bodies. This is perfectly legal, but not recognised by the religious authorities.

[14] See on the issue of tests.

[15] It is possible that some additional errors can be ascribed to poor copyediting and fact checking, like the complaint about ‘the establishment of Israeli universities in Occupied Territories of the West Bank’ (12). A university in Israel is an institution that can grant doctoral degrees. There is only one such Israeli institution on the West Bank, the highly controversial Ariel University. Although the Israeli government supported upgrading Ariel from a college to a university, a change approved in 2012, the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities condemned the move, and Ariel’s chief administrator is still not a member of the president’s group. Once again, should the universities west of the green line be boycotted for something they condemn?

[16] Among the many issues that should not have risen to the level of a complaint is the observation that at military recruitment fairs hosted on campus ‘Palestinian students and faculty will walk by crowds of colleagues or fellow students actively seeking to participate in the occupation—and sometimes in the destruction of the Palestinians’ hometowns’ (13). Setting aside the possibility that proving the last claim might require mind reading, this is hardly a reason to boycott Israeli universities unless one sets out to boycott American universities that have ROTC programs or hold recruitment fairs as well.

[17] I question the wisdom of IDF campus incursions on the West Bank in ‘Academic Freedom in Palestinian Universities’.

[18] The historical errors begin with the common fiction that the BDS movement began with a 2005 ‘call’ from Palestinian society. In 2016 prominent BDS activist Ilan Pappé finally admitted this it isn’t true. As David Hirsh writes, ‘British anti-Israel activists started the boycott campaign and they persuaded people in Palestine to issue the “call”. . . . The pretence is politically important because it positions Palestinians as being the initiators of the “call” and people outside the region as passive responders to the voice of “the oppressed.”‘ As people outside the BDS movement have pointed out for years, the boycott movement began in Britain in 2002. See ‘Ilan Pappe admits that BDS was not initiated by a “call” from Palestinian Civil Society’ (August 28, 2016), available online at

[19] See, for example, my ‘The new assault on Israeli academia (and us),’ Fathom(Spring 2014), available online at The issue is addressed repeatedly in Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm, eds. The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel (NY: MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights / Distributed by Wayne State University Press, 2015).

[20] Recognising both that young soldiers can make judgment errors and that the application of official policy needs public surveillance, the Israeli organisation Machsom Watch, or Checkpoint Watch, formed by a group of Israeli women, monitors and documents the conduct of soldiers and policemen at checkpoints in the West Bank.

[21] Checkpoints, more broadly, are a persistent presence in Israel ‘proper’ as well, though with different connotations. You encounter them in parking lots, shopping malls, train and bus stations, and other public spaces. During the Second Intifada they were placed at the entrance to coffee shops, and are still present in the entrance to train and bus stations.

[22] Although BDS repeatedly argues that Hewlett-Packard should be condemned and boycotted as a company that ‘profits from the occupation,’ many BDS websites actually acknowledge that biometric scanning was in the Wye agreement. See, for example: http//

[23] See two June 2016 reports: Security First: Changing the Rules of the Game(, issued by Commanders for Israel’s Security, and A Security System for the Two-State Solution (, from Washington, D.C.’s Center for a New American Security. The detailed recommendations occur in the second report, but the reports were coordinated and designed to complement one another.

[24] For a concise summary of the military concept of proportionality, along with suggestions for further reading on the subject, see Cary Nelson, Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel (NY and Bloomington: Co-publication of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights & Indiana University Press), pp. 271-276.

[25] The 19-page resolution includes specific examples of university military research that need to be backed up with further research. Thus, for example, they report that Tel Aviv University ‘housed the Operational Theory Research Institute, headed by Brigadier Generals Shimon Naveh and Dov Tamari, which pioneered the IDF’s urban warfare strategy that led to the massive destruction of civilian housing and essential infrastructure in Jenin and Nablus in 2002’ (R 12). The institute no longer exists, but it is not clear that it was ever part of Tel Aviv University. Even the citation they give for this ( says that the institute was at the National Security College in Glilot (p.11). Here is an interview with Naveh talking about his theory and the institute (OTRI):

[26] I apologise for what amounts to an inside joke, though not an entirely cheerful one. I write as the author or editor of several books about the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil war. As many progressive faculty members know, some 3,000 Americans volunteered to fight in defence of the democratically elected Spanish government. That war is generally regarded as the first phase of the international struggle against fascism, a struggle the US finally joined during World War II. During the McCarthy period of the 1950s, those US volunteers were persecuted as ‘premature’ anti-fascists.

[27] See

[28] We have yet really to ask ourselves why deaths in Gaza matter to the international left and deaths in Syria do not. They certainly have not been comparably galvanised into action. It is highly unlikely that contradictory attitudes toward race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality play no role in this unacknowledged value system. It’s a question we are willing to ask in other contexts: what lives do we value and why?

The BDS Disinformation Campaign in the Modern Language Association

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