March madness is no longer limited to the basketball court. This month, American campuses are being invaded by the latest form of college hazing: Israeli Apartheid Week. Jewish students are made to walk past displays that distort their history, defame their national homeland and shame their religious heritage, while those on campus who are not complicit in the ritual try to ignore their humiliation.
The annual campaign boasts a remarkable world-wide growth over the past dozen years. It now claims participation by 150 universities and cities, and this year has already struck the U.K. (Feb. 22-28) and Europe (Feb. 29-March 7). In the first week of March, Israeli Apartheid Week came to Columbia University, with the Students for Justice in Palestine erecting an “apartheid” wall on campus (“Our revenge will be the laughter of our children” read one slogan). The Israeli Apartheid Week website lists colleges across the country where events will be held. The month will close out with an observance at Rutgers University.
The displays representing Israel’s alleged suppression of Palestinian Arabs are part of a much larger anti-Jewish front whose academic spearhead is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. That effort stems from the original 1945 Arab League boycott calling on all Arab institutions and individuals “to refuse to deal in, distribute, or consume Zionist products or manufactured goods.”
Whereas student agitation-propaganda is driven by Arab-Muslim-leftist coalitions like the pro-Palestinian group at Columbia, the BDS movement is largely a faculty initiative, centered in the fields of Middle East Studies and swaths of the humanities and social sciences. These groups adapt aggression against Israel to the tropes and tactics of “progressive” protest movements.
After decades of enduring this abuse, some American Jews lately have organized to try to stop its spread. The Academic Council for Israel and Academic Engagement Network have joined existing faculty groups like the Amcha Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to challenge the most egregious cases of harassment against supporters of Israel.
One such case, drawing the attention of the Brandeis Center, involves Connecticut College and Andrew Pessin, a philosophy professor who had the temerity to criticize Hamas terrorists in 2014. A campus-wide smear campaign tarring him as a racist ensued, and the administration criticized him rather than his attackers; he has yet to return to teaching.
At the student level, the Israel on Campus Coalition tries to coordinate groups and individuals responding to anti-Israel activities by providing “pro-active, pro-Israel” information and initiatives. However welcome and necessary, these initiatives cannot on their own arrest the campaign of defamation, any more than Jews were ever able to stop the organization of politics against them.
The agents of anti-Semitism are anti-Semites, and unless they become the object of scrutiny, the belligerents will achieve their goal. Blaming Israel for the suffering of Palestinian Arabs is first and foremost a strategy of deflection, intended to divert attention from dysfunction in Arab and Muslim societies. So it does. Where are the campus rallies for women’s rights in Islam, relief efforts for Syrian refugees, vigils for Christian victims of Islamic State? Where is the outrage of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists at the destruction by radical Muslims of ancient monuments and of indigenous societies that are presumably theirs to defend?
University administrations and faculties have been complicit in allowing anti-Jewish politics to subsume other forms of racism and to flourish in their place. Administrators hypocritically invoke free speech in defense of faculty members who provide an ostensibly “academic” rationale for opposition to Israel. By now, entire disciplines use their academic conferences to attack the Jewish state. Campus anti-Israel coalitions exploit freedom of speech and assembly to assail the only Middle Eastern country that guarantees those freedoms. When will educators confront and expose this degenerate corruption of their institutions and their calling?
Israel is in every exemplary sense a “startup nation,” but touting its positive qualities cannot win against the tactics of Israeli Apartheid Week and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The current U.S. election campaign has made plain the greater power of negative campaigning over even the best-articulated positive ideas. Anti-Semitism is the ultimate negative campaign. It flourishes because onlookers who think they have no stake in the conflict choose not to face down the belligerents and because we have not seriously sought an antidote. If Western society had paid the same minuscule attention to infectious diseases as it does to pandemics of anti-Semitism, tens of millions would still be dying of cholera and bubonic plague.
Ms. Wisse, a former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007) and “No Joke: Making Jewish Humor” (Princeton, 2013).