MONTREAL — The issue of faculty members who try to win over students to their anti-Israel views is a growing concern at Canadian and other North American universities, according to a panel of academics discussing the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign at an international conference held at Concordia University.
A working definition of “abuse of the podium” should be drawn up in order to confront professors and other teaching staff who promote BDS in their classes, said Noah Shack, director of Canadian Academics for Peace in the Middle East, during a session of the 31st annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS) on June 1.
Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an anti-BDS activist, said there are faculty members who “cross the line” from stating their political positions to advocating and even trying to recruit students to the BDS cause.
But Nelson and fellow panelist Gabriel Brahm, an English professor at Northern Michigan University, differed dramatically on how best to counter the BDS movement in the academic world.
Brahm, who has publicly battled with such anti-Zionist academics as Judith Butler and Steven Salaita, maintained that the best way is “to go on the attack,” while Nelson argued “our weapon is truth and rationality.”
Brahm denounced anti-Zionism in strong terms, calling it “intellectual terrorism” and accusing its proponents of having an “Israel fetish, a lurid obsession.”
“Let’s face it, BDS is anti-Semitic to the core,” said Brahm, and its ultimate goal is the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.
“Israel is imagined to be the cosmic evil, the linchpin of all injustice on earth,” he said, and, therefore, must be destroyed on moral grounds.
Nelson said those who support Israel should not descend to the BDS activists’ level of debate.
“BDS uses anything to push their agenda, whether true or not. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We can win some [those on neither side] over by rationality,” he said.
“If we go on the attack, we give them just what they want. Stick to the facts; that should be our only response.”
Howard Adelman, professor emeritus of philosophy at York University, said the BDS position is “inherently contradictory,” even “delusional,” and rational discourse with its proponents is likely not possible. The ultimate aim, he believes, is the elimination of Israel.
Shack, who is also the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs’ deputy director of research and academic affairs, said BDS in Canada has been contained to “the fringe” and has little impact on public opinion.
Collaboration between Israeli and Canadian universities continues, in fact, to grow, he said.
The pro-BDS resolutions that are adopted by student governments do not reflect the attitudes of the great majority of students or university administrations, Shack said.
However, pro-Israel students are the victims of “intimidation,” especially on social media, and “little can be done about it.” (In comments to The CJN after the conference, Shack clarified that while university administrators can deal with intimidation on their own campuses, online bullying falls outside their mandate.)
Shack told the panel discussion that he thinks those opposed to BDS would do best to employ a “nuanced, fact-based, non-polemical” approach that appeals to the core values of academic freedom and civil discourse.
Trent University business administration professor Asaf Zohar warned that anti-BDS faculty must be careful not to abuse their position either.
“When there was a movement to rescind Trent’s BDS resolution, a lot of students came to me for advice. I was extremely wary. I simply tried to clarify the facts,” he said.
This was one of 80 working sessions at the three-day meeting, attended by about 300 scholars from many countries.