Addressing BDS in the American Academy

Center for Israel Studies Event Explores Complexities of Jewish Identity on Campus 

On November 8, Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies presented two scholars in conversation about anti-Israel activities in the world of academia at its 2017 Joseph and Faye Glatt Program on Israel and the Rule of Law Lecture.

Titled “Israel, BDS and Campus Life: A Discussion of the Complexities of Jewish Identity in the American Academy,” the event featured Connecticut College Professor of Philosophy Dr. Andrew Pessin and Fordham University Professor of History Dr. Daron Ben-Atar, who also examine the topic in their upcoming book, Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS (University of Indiana Press, 2018).

Professors Andrew Pessin (Connecticut College) Daron Ben-Atar (Fordham University)
Professors Andrew Pessin (Connecticut College) and Daron Ben-Atar (Fordham University)

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement—otherwise known as BDS—aims to pressure the State of Israel to reconcile with Palestinians through financial, academic and artistic boycotts, and is widely criticized by many for its harsh and often anti-Semitic tactics. “BDS is about isolating and shunning one country’s scholars due to profound disagreement with the nation’s politics,” said Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president of academic affairs at YU, in her introduction of the program. “We hope that our universities will be places of principled disagreement. This is our demonstration of the value of academic discourse and the pursuit of academic justice.”

Pessin and Ben-Atar shared their experiences speaking up for Israel on campus and the consequences that ensued. After a Facebook post was taken out of context by a student in his class, Pessin was accused of racism against Palestinians and condoning mass extermination. He was the target of several coordinated opinion pieces published in the Connecticut College student newspaper and the clash sparked an international controversy, including threats leveled at Pessin and his family.

However, he added, the situation on most campuses is not as bleak as it might seem. Pessin noted that there are more pro-Israel events than negative ones at academic institutions and the vast majority of colleges don’t experience any anti-Israel activity at all. According to Pessin, activities aimed at demonizing Israel occur most often at schools with large Jewish populations: “There is tremendous pressure on Jewish students in many of these institutions to either be silent, not stand up, not speak up, or worse, join the other side.”

While anti-Semitism and BDS are not issues YU students face on campus, Dr. Steven Fine, the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History and director of the Center for Israel Studies, felt that the event was essential for the YU community. “Our students go into the world, they become part of it and are ambassadors of our institution and our culture,” Fine said. “For us to be part of, and play an important role in, the broader world, we need to understand it and what it’s experiencing.”