The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement more commonly known as BDS is the new abbreviation stalking American campuses. But at least for the University of Pennsylvania, the immediate crisis has presumably passed. The BDS Conference arrived and left the campus without untoward incidents.
Passions were inflamed and rhetoric heated up, but University President Amy Gutmann and Chair of the Board of Trustees, David L. Cohen, announced they would not be moved by the call to boycott Israeli educational institutions or divest the university of its securities in companies that do business with the Jewish State even as they wrapped the decision to host the conference as a commitment to academic freedom.
Does this mean the Conference failed in its proclaimed strategy of mobilizing the campus around a set of actions to end what they call Israel's occupation of Arab lands? With its stated objectives rejected even before the conference began, one might be tempted to dismiss this movement as marginal despite the relatively large numbers of students and faculty attending its workshops and lectures. And its calls for one state of Palestine presumably in accordance with what was proclaimed as a clear and universal consensus on international law might be described as either utopian or wildly out of touch with reality and most especially, with the terms of the rulings so glibly but selectively cited.
While the notion of a single Palestine is not new and has been rejected not simply by most Israelis but also by almost all officials trying to broker an agreement, it has been resurrected to provide a common stock of references and allusions primarily to delegitimize the idea of the Jewish state as illustrated now by the forthcoming conference at Harvard University entitled "One State Conference: Israel/Palestine and the One State Solution."
Radically recasting the language conventionally deployed to talk about Israel and the conflict, BDS leaders remove words that might engender a favorable view of Israel or promote the kinds of compromises that take Israel's interests as seriously as those proclaimed by the Palestinians. How can one be reconciled to a Jewish state that is described – wrongly – as practicing apartheid?
Long forgotten are the original beliefs that brought many progressive academicians to their support for a Jewish state as a refuge for the persecuted and as a model for humanity to repair some of the defects of past societies. In presenting their one state of Palestine, advocates are not asking people to measure how far Israel has strayed from its own original promises, but rather to discard past judgments about the national rights of the Jewish people as wrong-headed the legacy of an unjust imperial order thoroughly discredited but not yet totally destroyed.
For academic supporters of Palestine, Israel has become shorthand for all manner of evils. The language and imagery of the Holocaust is invoked not to remind people of what happened to Jews when they had no power but rather to focus attention on Palestinians as the rightful subjects of collective suffering. Moreover, equating the Holocaust with the Nakba (the phrase Palestinians use to describe the catastrophe of Israel's creation) is aimed at making Palestinian suffering motivate political action and provoke outrage at Israel as the alleged source of Palestinian distress.
This distorted view that the Palestinians are the true victims of the Holocaust, now suffering under the hands of what Palestinians call the "victim's victim," has become one of the more pervasive false "facts" commonly found on North American campuses.
The Holocaust imagery conjures up the misguided notion that the Jewish state was part of a compensatory deal struck to pay for the genocidal murder of European Jewry and thus is derived the false conclusion the state can be disestablished for the sake of redeeming the Palestinians, another abused people. Never mind that the analogy makes no historical sense; it is not created for the sake of clarity but rather for the purpose of hinting at some hidden correspondence to justify radicalizing the vocabulary deployed to discuss the conflict that would warrant a strong indictment against Israel as the emblem of evil.
To listen to some of these so-called appeals to conscience by the academicians supportive of the boycott movement is to conjure up an Israel as a Nazi-like state. But to hear what they say echoed in classes on campuses across the country allows views once labeled extreme that call for the destruction of Israel, not by might and not by power but by bad analogies and misguided adjectives to become part of the mainstream.
The University of Pennsylvania may properly congratulate itself for protecting academic freedom, but it should be honest enough to acknowledge its failure to sustain any recognizable standard of academic integrity. Now will Harvard and other institutions that host such one-sided debates continue to masquerade their advocacy as scholarship?
Donna Robinson Divine is a Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College and a Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) board member. Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).