Effort by faculty members to promote academic boycotts of Israel in American universities pose a serious threat to the wellbeing of Jewish students, and raise questions about the misuse of classrooms to promote an anti-Zionist political agenda, a campus watchdog group has warned.
In a new report published on Tuesday, the AMCHA Initiative explored why the presence of faculty members who publicly expressed support for academic boycotts of Israel is — according to the group’s past findings — associated with increased incidents of anti-Jewish hostility on university campuses.
AMCHA’s latest research determined that the more faculty boycotters a department had, “the greater the number of outside [boycott, divestment and sanctions] proponents brought to campus by that department.”
Of the nearly 1,000 pro-BDS faculty members included in the AMCHA study, 70 percent were found to be affiliated with either ethnic, gender or Middle East studies departments, programs, centers or institutes.
Ethnic, gender and Middle East studies departments with at least one faculty boycotter were also respectively 10, 12,and five times more likely to sponsor events with pro-BDS speakers than similar departments without faculty boycotters, according to AMCHA.
The study noted “a very strong association” between the number of pro-BDS speakers invited to campus and the frequency of anti-Zionist expression among students, which in turn was strongly linked to “acts of anti-Jewish hostility, suggesting that one way BDS supporting speaker-events contribute to campus antisemitism is by promoting anti-Zionist expression by students.”
Universities with gender, ethnic and Middle East studies academic units that sponsored pro-BDS speakers were twice more likely to have instances of student anti-Zionist expression than schools that did not host those speakers.
In turn, universities with instances of student anti-Zionist expression — including advocacy of BDS — were seven times “more likely to have incidents that targeted Jewish students for harm” than those without such incidents, AMCHA noted.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, AMCHA’s co-founder and director, told The Algemeiner that “there really is clearly a sort of politically-motivated bias involved in the sponsorship of departmentally-sponsored events.”
She said she hoped the report would prompt faculty members to ask, “Are departmentally-sponsored events that include the promotion of an academic boycott of Israel OK? Are they protected by academic freedom? Are they a form of political indoctrination and, if so, what’s to be done about that by [the] academic senates?”
“We want some clarity,” Rossman-Benjamin emphasized. “We think that faculty would do well to have guidelines for their fellow faculty about what is acceptable in these cases. But it can only come from faculty, or else it’s not the appropriate source.”
If faculty members fail to issue such ground rules, or if an egregious violation of university policy takes place, it may be the role of university administrators to step in, she added.
“We do believe that there are aspects of the academic boycotts which, if they were implemented, would really violate both university policy and potentially the law,” Rossman-Benjamin said. “I think that administrators have to be vigilant about that.”
She noted that the University of California’s Board of Regents forbids educators from using the classroom “for political indoctrination.”
If a faculty member would “refuse to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to go on the Israel abroad program, if they were to work to sabotage their colleagues’ collaborations with Israeli universities in substantive ways, if they were to refuse to review graduate students’ work because they’re Israeli or were doing work at an Israeli university — there are ways in which implementing this boycott actually does violate [faculty members’] contractual obligations,” she pointed out. “When that happens, the administration needs to say, ‘You’ve violated your contract … and you need to stop this or you will be disciplined.’”
Rossman-Benjamin also raised concerns that academic boycotts were dissimilar from other boycotts of Israel, whether economic or cultural, “because there is almost inevitably blowback from an academic boycott onto the very students and faculty at the university where that boycott is being implemented.”
“An academic boycott of Israel substantively affects and harms students and faculty at the very universities in America” where they are being implemented by faculty members, she said.
Even the act of advocating for boycotts — without implementing them — “is connected to real harms to Jewish students on campus, like assault, and suppression of speech, and destruction of property, and discrimination, and harassment,” Rossman-Benjamin added.
If BDS advocates “can’t actually engage in an academic boycott without hurting the students and faculty on their own campuses,” she observed, “then there’s something horrible about that boycott and absolutely illegitimate.”