Experts disagree about who first observed, “academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low,” but when it comes to the ongoing student debates about divestment in companies doing business with Israel, the sentence is only half true. The conflicts have been remarkably emotional and acrimonious, but the stakes are so high that I recently wrote University of California (UC) President Janet Napolitano urging her to become personally involved.
As the nation’s former Homeland Security Secretary, President Napolitano should recognize that it would be a grave mistake to dismiss recent divestment votes on five of the 10 UC campuses as just symbolic expressions of misplaced youthful idealism.
Organizers of the so-called “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement, or “BDS,” ostensibly seek the economic isolation of Israel through divestment of university assets in companies doing business with Israel, boycotts of Israeli companies and universities, and sanctions against trading with Israel. Their stated aims are an end to what they call the Israeli “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along with recognition of the right of return of all 5 million “Palestinian refugees” to Israel.
While relatively few are aware of the issue, divestment advocates have been at work on the UC campuses for several years, with an important and insidious motive: to poison the minds of the next generation of American decision-makers against America’s only reliable ally in the Middle East. In this, we cannot permit them to succeed.
Vicious politics? You bet. One former UC San Diego (UCSD) student government president has written that she watched the perennial UCSD disputes over divestment unfold “like annual disasters.” Last year’s vote by the governing body of the UCSD Associated Students had to be conducted by secret ballot due to concerns about the safety and security of the elected student representatives.
Nationwide, debates on various student divestment resolutions have been notable for their frequent use of virulent epithets like “Kike” and “dirty Jew.” At least one student has reported receiving death threats.
A university is a place where all ideas -- even bad ones -- should be freely and passionately discussed. It is in academia that we first learn how to analyze competing ideologies and to discern fact from fiction.
This isn’t harmless student debate, however, but rather a highly organized, well-funded, global campaign of propaganda and disinformation. The Facebook page of one pro-Palestinian BDS organization, the “official” page of the BDS National Committee, has over 27,000 “likes” worldwide and its Twitter feed has nearly 20,000 followers.
On campuses across the United States, BDS advocates routinely employ ludicrous hyperbole that begins with comparisons to South African apartheid and takes off from there. Israel, students are told, is a rogue nation like Iran and North Korea, guilty of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” against the Palestinian people and an “illegal occupation” of Palestinian territory.
It is a non-stop barrage of shrill, anti-Israeli bombast that frequently crosses the line into anti-Semitism -- and it is long past time for mature, responsible and knowledgeable voices to set the record straight.
In my letter to Napolitano I cited the long history of the UC system in fostering academic partnerships and international programs in building better understanding of Israeli history and culture. I urged her to become personally engaged in the discussion, and to expand UC programs that enable students to see the marvels of this unique nation, and the contrast between Israel’s freedom and the stultifying atmosphere of its neighbors.
It is critical for Israel’s defenders to be heard, whether we are students, faculty, alumni, donors or simply concerned members of the community. Considering all that is at stake in the perceptions and opinions of an emerging new generation, we cannot leave it to the students alone to make our case.
Not only must we correct the false premises at the core of the BDS movement, we must expose its real motive, which is the isolation -- and ultimate destruction -- of the Israeli state.
We must be as relentless as our adversaries, who are like pit bull puppies attached to a pants leg -- they are just as tenacious, but their teeth are much sharper.
DR. HERB LONDON is President of the London Center for Public Policy Research and is co-author, with Jed Babbin, of “The BDS War Against Israel: The Orwellian Campaign to Destroy Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.”