AMCHA’s valiant defence of Israel

Global anti-Semitism is on the rise. Ground zero for the propagation of anti-Semitism is the university. On campuses everywhere, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement is allegedly directed at Israel, not Jews. But to rational observers, the disclaimer has become increasingly untenable.

Hammering multiple nails into the canard’s coffin is a new book of essays on the impact of the campus Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, edited by Cary Nelson and Gabriel Noah Brahm. I had the recent pleasure of meeting and listening to Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, one of the book’s contributing writers, at a seminar sponsored by the Canadian Institute for Jewish research in Montreal. Rossman-Benjamin is an academic at the University of California at Santa Cruz (a hotbed of anti-Israel hysteria), and has been battling BDS activism for a number of years via a group she founded called AMCHA. This is not an acronym—rather it is the Hebrew word that means “ordinary people” or simply “the people.”

Rossman-Benjamin’s chapter, “Interrogating the Academic Boycotters of Israel on American Campuses,” takes for its focus the demographics of faculty BDS activists or endorsers. She arrives at some interesting findings. Of the 938 boycotting-bent faculty, only 7% are affiliated with engineering and natural science departments. A full 86% are in the humanities and social sciences. The most widely represented department is English Literature, and not, as I would have expected, departments of Middle Eastern Studies (whose members are certainly well represented proportionately, but numerically pale beside the numbers in English Lit).

What explains the stats? Rossman-Benjamin writes:

Predominantly hailing from the humanities and social sciences, many of the academic boycotters are involved with the study of Race, Gender, Class or Empire, and seem to be motivated by ideologies which divide the world into oppressed and oppressor and are linked to social movements which pursue social justice for the oppressed by combatting the perceived oppressor, in this case Israel. One possibility is that all four areas represent ideological paradigms…making it a short ideological leap to seeing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the same binary terms.

Rossman-Benjamin has no wish to deprive faculty members of their right to freedom of speech. She is, however, troubled by the problem that arises when free speech transmogrifies into a fanaticism so febrile that it becomes coercive, or stifles alternate views in the classroom, or turns discussion into intimidation. This is happening on many campuses across North America, and predictably on every campus where there is a strong Jewish presence. In Canada, the tension is worst at York, Ryerson, and the University of Toronto (OISE in particular) and Montreal’s Concordia and McGill Universities, not by coincidence those universities with the highest concentration of Jewish students.

Compounding the discomfort for pro-Israel, or even neutral Jewish students is the fact that an enormous disproportion of BDS-supportive faculty are themselves Jews. It is by now apparent to all observers of the BDS phenomenon that anti-Zionism is to left-wing Jews what abortion on demand is to feminists: the litmus test that divides the political faithful from the infidels. Although all left-wing professors feel bound to hew to the party line on the “oppressor” state of Israel, Jewish faculty bestir themselves most frantically to disassociate themselves from any hint of pro-Zionist sympathy. Which also means that they must remain shtumm in the face of the overt anti-Semitism they frequently encounter in some of their fellow activists.

The upstart AMCHA—a David to the collective faculty Goliath—makes a point of naming and shaming professors who have been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or probably even anti-Semitic rhetoric.” Recently 40 professors that the group ‘outed” on this issue took great umbrage at the report in which they were named, a comprehensive review of attitudes regarding Israel demonstrated by some 200 professors who signed an online petition calling for an academic boycott of Israeli scholars during this summer’s Gaza incursion.

They should not be outraged. Why shouldn’t students who wish to be taught by unbiased profs be made aware of their prejudice so they can avoid them? Though there is no true analogue to what Jewish students face on campus, imagine if there were professors engaged in a movement against homosexuality? Wouldn’t gay students have a right to be advised about that?

No pro-Israel student, for example, would wish to study with UC Riverside Professor and academic boycott founder David Lloyd, cited by Rossman-Benjamin. As part of his course curriculum, Lloyd invited Omar Barghouti to speak to his students. Barghouti is a high-profile BDS leader and an overt anti-Semite, who has publicly voiced his desire to “euthanize the Zionist project.” The talk was funded and sponsored by the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, along with the Department of ethnic Studies, a third of whose faculty have endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, including the department chair. Students in eight courses were required to attend and listen to Barghouti’s talk, which “consisted of anti-Israel propaganda laced with classic anti-Semite tropes used to promote the academic boycott of Israel.” This is not academic freedom. This is anti-Semitism tout court, tricked out in the vestments of academic respectability.

When asked why they never target other, objectively evil movements, such as ISIS, for condemnation, BDS people will respond, self-righteously, “one has to start somewhere.” But in fact, condemnation always starts and ends with Israel alone. Any attempt to condemn the objective evil of any entity other than Israel is instantly shot down. In October, for example, Britain’s National Union of Students (NUS), which has never considered the possible blowback for Jews of their anti-Israel activism, voted against condemning Islamic State after a Black Students Officer opposed the motion because “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for…blatant Islamophobia.”

Strangely, the dreaded Islamophobia, over which so many hands are wrung, never seems to achieve liftoff, while anti-Semitism grows by leaps and bounds. In fact, FBI statistics indicate that acts of anti-Semitism occur with eight times the regularity of anti-Muslim incidents. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, the number of anti-Semitic incidents on campus tripled. The BDS movement is surely largely responsible for that escalation. Does anyone care? Not so you’d notice.

Rossman-Benjamin cites the conditions that permit anti-Semitism to flourish: the vagueness of academic freedom; the unwillingness of administrations to enforce existing university policies (“hostile environments” for gays, blacks, natives, and women are vigorously policed, for Jews ignored); and the common practice of humanities and social science departments to encourage political activism by incorporating the pursuit of “social justice” into their mission statements.

For years, would-be defenders of Israel on campus were the proverbial deer in the headlights of well-organized exterminationist anti-Israel rage. It is good to see that paralysis dissipating, and a strengthening campaign under way by groups like AMCHA and many others to push back against the lies and the hatred. In our current political and cultural climate, the Goliath of Judeophobia cannot be brought down by a single well-aimed stone. We need many more Davids in the fight to restore the moral integrity of our universities. May their numbers increase.