To the extent that Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement supporters can claim their effort to isolate Israel is a success, they note how it has integrated itself within in academic circles. In her 2018 book, Boycott, for example, Susaina Maira, a leader of the academic wing of the movement, insists that “a host of . . . academic associations” participate in the effort to make a pariah state of Israel.
In fact, as a list maintained by Maira’s own organization demonstrates, the academic organizations that have adopted BDS are few, small, and radical. Some “host.” When you are forced to include a single department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on your short list of “academic associations supporting boycott,” you’re reaching.
In reality, BDS’s momentum has stalled. The campaign hasn’t attracted a U.S. scholarly organization since it snagged the National Women’s Studies Association in 2015. Meanwhile, they lost big at the American Historical Association in 2016. The Modern Language Association grew so tired of BDS propagandists that they passed an anti-BDS resolution in 2017. BDS even lost in anthropology–among our most politically lopsided disciplines—when the American Anthropological Association narrowly defeated a boycott resolution three years ago.
This year, BDS lost the Society for the Study of Social Problems, an organization committed to the pursuit of “social justice” with no compunction about passing resolutions on subject matters outside its members’ range of expertise. The BDS resolution failed at the same time that one in support of the Green New Deal passed!
At this past weekend’s annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA), yet another BDS effort was turned back. As a sign of the relative weakness of BDS in the political science field, activists targeted only Foundations of Political Theory, one of 49 “sections” within APSA. A proposed pro-BDS resolution wanted Foundations to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” which COMMENTARY readers will know is really a call to get rid of the Jewish state.
If the activists had their way, a discussion this year would have paved the way for a vote next year. As in other BDS pushes, the only literature distributed through official channels was pro-BDS. What was billed as a “critical exchange” consisted of six essays in favor of BDS, introduced by two pro-BDS scholars. Perhaps they quarreled over what to wear when you boycott Israel.
But even at this early stage, opposition was sufficient to turn the resolution back.
What this latest lopsided BDS defeat suggests is that the professional integrity of academics and their unwillingness to let their organizations be used as propaganda outlets remains in tolerable health.
One shouldn’t be complacent. Anti-BDS organizations including the Academic Engagement Network, which kept members informed of and produced a superb letter against this pro-BDS resolution, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East deserve thanks. So do the political theorists who opposed this proposal and lobbied against it. Foundations of Political Theory is a small organization, many of whose members pay little attention to it. Pro-BDS activists could have won the day were it not for the hard and smart work of these organizations and individuals.
Remember that the next time you’re tempted to give up on our colleges and universities as lost.