by Dr. Ellen Wald
Last year, a tiny academic organization, the Association for Asian American Studies, voted in favor of a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Last month, a relatively small academic organization, the American Studies Association (ASA), adopted a similar resolution. This month, one of the largest academic organizations in the humanities, the Modern Language Association (MLA), voted in favor of a resolution calling on the State Department to condemn Israel for supposedly restricting academics from traveling to the West Bank and debated, but did not vote on, a resolution expressing solidarity with the ASA and condemning “the attacks on the ASA” for its boycott.
In a rare moment of unity, both BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) supporters and their critics left satisfied with their accomplishments at the MLA’s annual meeting. MLA members active in the BDS movement believe they have made significant progress and that a full-fledged boycott resolution will be adopted next year. Meanwhile, the professors and organizations that oppose the BDS movement have been misguidedly patting themselves on the back for keeping the MLA from voting in favor of anything more serious.
It is dangerous to mistake the outcome of the MLA vote as a victory against BDS, and doing so reflects a limited understanding of the perverse bigotry and dishonesty of the BDS movement and the true nature of such radicalism in academia. Rather than basking in the number of universities that came out against the ASA’s academic boycott and in favor of “academic freedom,” Jewish and pro-Israel groups should be preparing themselves for a long, protracted confrontation with academia that has been building for years. Unfortunately, it is likely to become a much more intense fight before any real victory can be claimed.
The real problem with campaigns like those initiated by the BDS movement is not these boycotts themselves or the meaningless resolutions that academic organizations debate and pass. BDS supporters in academia do not actually believe that boycotting Israeli scholars and institutions will directly affect the State of Israel on an international level. They seek to vilify Israel and Jews in scholarship and education. The goal is to make it acceptable and common to teach about Israel the same way students are taught about Nazism, Pol Pot, and the Jim Crow South. It must be continuously repeated that the true basis for their complaint seems to be old-fashioned anti-Semitism. We known this because the BDS movement is unable to explain why it singles out Israel, and Israel alone, for vilification.
First, it is vital to recognize the extent to which we are losing the battle in the classrooms in an array of disciplines, many of which have nothing to do with the Middle East or the history of Israel. In fact, BDS supporters are much closer to their goal than non-academics realize. The MLA panel called “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” should provide a much needed wake-up. The MLA’s annual conference is not a gathering of specialized scholars to present works-in-progress. It is a major gathering where hundreds of graduate students interview for a chance at the elusive tenure track jobs, hopeful scholars pitch new books to publishers, emerging trends in scholarship are featured, and education policies are debated. The fact that a mainstream conference hosted a panel with the sole purpose of vilifying Israel already demonstrates the influence exerted by the BDS movement in the humanities. The existence of this panel alone discourages any dissent amongst already cautious academics, particularly amongst those seeking jobs or tenure.
Vilification of Israel begins, however, in the college classroom where students of the humanities and social sciences are introduced to ideas like “settler colonialism,” “cultural imperialism,” “post-colonial theory,” and “western neo-imperialism.” These methodological tenets, derived from the work of scholars like Edward Said, Michel Foucault, and Antonio Gramsci, blame so-called imperial powers (mostly Western) for physical, mental, cultural, economic, intellectual, environmental, and political wrongs done to indigenous (mostly non-Western) peoples. These post-modern methodologies have completely captured the intellectual development of subjects like area studies, women and gender studies, ethnic studies, global studies, and development studies, and are de rigueur in more traditional departments such as history, English, comparative literature, politics, and anthropology.
In the bubble we call higher education, the intellectual world-view and the political world-view are one, and this methodology is easily transformed into radical political ideologies that cultivate movements like BDS. Professors prime students for BDS ideology by employing neo-colonial analyses in their courses. They introduce the demonization of the West and Israel through these post-modern methodologies. An example is BDS supporter Samer Ali who has inelegantly stated that “most states … didn’t have the right to exist because of genocide/forced labor at their founding such as those in the Americas and Israel is among them because of its massacres of indigenous populations.” By attaching their opinion of Israel to these en-vogue post-modern methodologies, academics are able to attack Israel from almost anywhere in the university course catalogue. For a student, the indoctrination can be as simple as taking a course on the literature of indigenous peoples or the economic development of the “global south” (i.e. Third World).
The instruction continues in the professor’s office, where students looking for guidance, follow their teachers’ directions to textbooks, articles, and sources deeply biased against Jews and Israel. Undergraduates lack the techniques to recognize the biases these scholars promote, especially when the professor intentionally neglects to even balance these sources with those from another perspective. The result is a generation of students who consider Hanan Ashrawi an unbiased source of information on the Oslo negotiations and believe that the Dreyfus Affair was the only expression of anti-Semitism in the nineteenth century, both real examples I have witnessed.
It gets worse. Secondary schools pick up the scholarship produced under this rubric. Teachers with little expertise in the Middle East, deliberately or unknowingly, use sources with biased information. They attend seminars from Middle East Studies outreach centers at universities that are often funded by Saudi Arabia and headed by BDS supporters (like Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies) and bring back textbooks, lesson plans, and curricula that not only misstate facts, but teach students the same biases coming out of the academy, such as the books published by James Gelvin, a professor at UCLA and another BDS supporter.
This dishonest and hateful scholarship and education seeps into policy and the media. Honesty in education is vital, not only for the sake of a good education, but for the sake of preserving a proud national conscience and a responsible citizenry. Therefore, rather than celebrate a stalemate at the MLA, it is time to acknowledge the extent of academic bias and damaged caused by it. This issue should concern not only supporters of Israel, but also those who support academic honesty, oppose bigotry, and are concerned about the future of our civic society.
Dr. Ellen Wald
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