WASHINGTON — Founders of a new and exhaustive informational website hope that their project will provide a powerful tool to beat back the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement’s inroads on college campuses — and it may just break some records along the way.
Offering a deluge of information on Jewish identity, Israeli studies and –yes — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the professors behind the project hope that it will provide a key to stemming the tide of BDS arguments in higher education, and even help to forward their goal of a two-state solution.
The website, Israel and the Academy, debuted Thursday as the latest initiative by a group of senior American academics, mostly affiliated with the anti-boycott MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights. The faculty members, many of whom have been on the front lines of the struggle against the academic boycott of Israel for the better part of a decade, envisioned a website that would provide all of the informational resources necessary to counterbalance — and at times challenge — BDS activity on campuses.
The idea of a clearinghouse website was first floated in May 2015, when a group of some 15 faculty members met to determine their next course of action.
“BDS over the past few years has ramped up its activities so much more aggressively, that many more associations — I think a dozen of them — have been involved in those debates. It kind of became clear that we should be talking to one another,” explained Professor Cary Nelson, one of the leading voices against BDS in US academic circles.
“The group was unanimous in feeling that the thing we really most needed was a rich website that people from communities, universities, government offices and anywhere else could go to for a repository of information that they would need to engage in these struggles,” he explained.
At the same time, Nelson said, the scholars also wanted “to do something significant around pedagogy over Jewish culture, history, Israeli culture and history, so it kind of dawned on us that the BDS stuff and the pedagogy stuff could be accomplished through the same website, so we could get two of our goals done that way.”
The website’s advisory board constitutes about two dozen academics, who reached out to friends and colleagues asking for essays and especially syllabi to be shared on the new platform.
Although the initial process was slow, the results were massive. The website now will include over 450 syllabi, making it the largest resource of its type — offering free-access syllabi — in the world, according to the founders.
“Other versions of syllabi banks are much smaller, and are also behind paywalls. You have to be a member of some association to see them,” Nelson said. This resource will contain syllabi on topics ranging from the binding of Isaac as a foundational motif in Jewish thought, to synagogue architecture through the ages.
It is free and open to the public, which Nelson says “has a different impact because we’re not limiting it to reaching people who want to join the Jewish studies association. We want people to be able to see this who don’t know much about the field.”
Scholars were also asked to self-select their best and most interesting publications and put them on the website as well.
In addition to countering anti-Semitism through expanding knowledge of Jewish and Israeli topics, the website seeks to provide valuable information for people combating BDS in their own institutions. The site has short-form fliers with quick-access information to be distributed during organizational or campus-wide debates, listing what Nelson describes as “very concise arguments about what the problems are with BDS.”
The site’s editors also selected 10 campuses — eight in the US, one in Canada and one in Germany — that have had BDS struggles in recent years and put up a dossier of documents from each campus debate
They have put up similar dossiers of documents from BDS debates held in academic professional organizations, such as Nelson’s own Modern Language Association, which is expected to revisit its rejection of a BDS vote during its annual meeting this January.
But in true academic style, the short-form materials are backed up by much more in-depth resources, including a set of essays critiquing BDS and packets of essays and information for book-length studies on particular subjects including “pinkwashing,” apartheid and the two-state solution.
The project, Nelson says, has an “intellectual commitment” to the two-state solution.
“You could spend at least two moths reading everything that is there about the two-state solution,” Nelson detailed. “There are the equivalent of multiple books about the ideas around the two-state solution.”
“The intellectual commitment of this project is that the only way that you can really preserve a Jewish state is with a Jewish majority, and to do that you’ve got to divest yourself of most of the West Bank and you need a two-state solution, and whether there really was a Palestinian people in 1948, there is one now. It’s evolved, it’s happened, you’re stuck with it, and you don’t want to have those people be second-class citizens so you’ve got to find a way to break this logjam about the two-state solution.”
Nelson hopes that the website itself can act as a catalyst. “The information that is on this website can tell you how to do that, because Israelis and Palestinians have been working on it the last few years and they’ve made real progress,” he suggested. “Its not people in government — its ex-commanders in the IDF, Palestinians who have been involved in many cases in their security services.”