The Free Palestine movement has long been a popular, go-to movement for activism on many U.S. college campuses. Its sister Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement captured headlines in December, when the American Studies Association (ASA) voted by a two-thirds majority to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
In the wake of the vote that many, including 134 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, called a disregard for academic freedom—members of the Jewish community began to ask why their voice was not represented before or during the conference.
So when the Modern Language Association announced that a resolution condemning Israel’s rejections of travel visas for a small number of academics traveling to the West Bank and Gaza would be considered at its annual conference in Chicago earlier this month, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), an organization dedicated to promoting Israel among students and professors on college campuses, began preparing a counter-offensive.
The ICC petitioned the MLA to allow it to host an event for those opposed to the resolution, but was denied. Seeing that there were many professors looking to speak against the resolution, whose voices wouldn’t be heard over the official panel’s pro-BDS members, the ICC organized another panel discussion—near, but not officially part of the MLA convention.
“In this case, rather than operating behind the scenes, we were very sensitive to the fact that there were many MLA members who were opposed to the resolution and who felt that they were being shut out of the debate. They felt that the conversation was actually far broader than the programming at the MLA [conference] as it stood,” said Jacob Baime, the ICC’s executive director.
“Everyone instantly sees how discriminatory and opposed to academic freedom they [academic boycotts] are, so we were on the right side of academic freedom in this case and it’s very easy to make that a persuasive argument,” Baime said.
The MLA delegate assembly voted 60-53 to proceed with the resolution, which will now be considered by the executive committee before being voted on by the 5,000 members of the organization this spring.
Baime and others believe that the narrow, seven-vote margin was a direct result of their counter panel, which was able to balance the BDS message in the press.
“We essentially fought them to a draw on that resolution,” he said.
Another resolution, urging the MLA to officially support ASA’s boycott, proposed on an emergency basis a day before the assembly’s meeting, failed to even reach the floor for consideration.
While in the planning stages, opposition to the ICC’s action came not only from the BDS movement but from groups within the Jewish community, who felt that such aggressive counter-activism was not in the interest of the pro-Israel community as a whole.
Though Baime would not comment on who or which organizations opposed the ICC’s tactics, the counter-panel was a departure from the usual opposition of Jewish organizations to the BDS.
Traditional counteroffensives put on by pro-Israel groups have usually been after the fact and usually extend to providing fact sheets to attendees with bullet points of why they are wrong. Working behind the scenes to affect an outcome such as a BDS vote has also been part of the preferred strategy.
In what may be a significant, generational shift in pro-Israel activism, where the traditional groups valued access, the newer ones present a greater public profile on a case by case basis, which includes directly challenging the fever pitch of BDS activists.
“There is deepening awareness in the pro-Israel and Jewish world that the media environment has fundamentally changed. Not only do things move faster but everything can now become international news, from niche local issues to esoteric academic grandstanding,” said Omri Ceren, senior advisor for strategy at The Israel Project, a pro-Israel group.
“Working effectively in that environment requires a robust infrastructure capable of handling everything from real-time response to long-term strategizing, and that is only now being built within and across pro-Israel and Jewish institutions. One of the reasons why the response to the ASA and MLA was so effective was because it was done with an understanding of these new media realities,” Ceren said.
“From my perspective, the opposition views these as political fights,” Baime said. “And we’ve got to try to approach them from a political standpoint — with deliberate strategy and tactics that are appropriate to the conditions that our detractors are creating.”
The ICC’s agility proved to be their advantage; the group needed only two weeks to organize the counter-panel. Their focus on campus activism provides them with an early warning network that allows them to better predict when and where BDS action is likely to take place.
“I think we have to be creative, humble and constantly challenge our assumptions,” Baime said. “What works in one situation may not work in another situation; rather than being wedded to specific tactics, we should be wedded to a strategic approach.”