The BDS question at US universities

Why won’t US educators condemn Israeli militarism?

Palestinians walk past a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem [Getty]
Palestinians walk past a sign painted on a wall in the West Bank biblical town of Bethlehem [Getty]

The flagship campus of the University of California, Berkeley, is suffering from an unprecedented deficit and is reeling from a sex assault scandal involving dozens of victims. The chancellor at UC Davis was just placed on “investigatory leave” and probably won’t be returning after being accused of nepotism, lying to her superiors and trying to scrub the internet of her past mistakes.

Pensions and healthcare provision continues to be reduced for incoming faculty and staff, while fewer and fewer Californian students who meet admissions criteria are being accepted.

Is ‘BDS’ a threat to Israel?

The UC system, the world’s greatest public university, which for most of existence was free – no, Bernie Sanders didn’t come up with the idea of free college – is suffering from a host of self-inflicted wounds.

And yet, when the president, Janet Napolitano, and the chancellors of the 10 campuses finally came together to speak publicly with one voice it was not to address any of these crises, but rather to write an open letter to the American Anthropological Association urging it to vote down an ongoing BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – resolution put forward by its membership.

Under pressure

That the letter was written under pressure from someone outside is strongly suggested by the fact that the assembled brain trust couldn’t even come up with the correct name of the association – they called it the “American Association of Anthropologists”.

ALSO READ: Game changer – 10 years of BDS

A public records request should be placed to determine who these outside actors are who could focus unprecedented attention by the UC leadership on the vote of an academic society at a time when more and more women are coming forward with stories of sexual harassment and assault.

In most every public discussion, petition, student body vote or related occasions involving BDS, the sentiment has been decidedly in favour of it.

As important, however, the letter claims the authority to declare what the “University of California believes”, even though there has been no official discussion of the issue of BDS, never mind a vote by our Academic Senate, that would demonstrate what in fact the majority of university faculty, staff and students believe.

Indeed, in most every public discussion, petition, student body vote or related occasions involving BDS, the sentiment has been decidedly in favour of it.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that UC does not speak with one voice against BDS, the entire system leadership is putting pressure on one of the most respected learned societies in the United States to thwart it, an action which has already drawn condemnation as “intimidation” from senior faculty when the former Berkeley chancellor and executive vice chancellor attempted to interfere in the American Anthropological Association vote late last year.

What’s more, rather than engaging in an honest debate, the letter seriously distorts the nature and meaning of the BDS call under discussion by the American Anthropological Association and other professional organisations and, as important, claiming that it prevents collaboration between scholars, when it is explicitly stated that this is precisely not what the Boycott call does.

Even worse, there is no mention at all of the disastrous situation faced by Palestinians as the Occupation approaches its 50th anniversary, both broadly and specifically related to their rights to education – violations of which are routinely reported by the US State Department and leading Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organisations, documenting them in fine detail.

Israeli soldiers block Palestinian BDS protesters from advancing near a southern West Bank village [EPA]Israeli soldiers block Palestinian BDS protesters from advancing near a southern West Bank village [EPA]

‘Foreign policy issue’

How then, could 11 extremely smart people describe the world’s longest and most intense occupation as merely a “foreign policy issue”, as if it was a trade dispute between World Trade Organization members?

How could they write a letter expressing such concern over a well-established protest strategy with a long and proven history (the South African version included a personal rather than institutional boycott)?

How many of the 11 signatories have ever spent time in the occupied territories learning about the occupation first hand or even read through the extensive report of the American Anthropological Association on the occupation that is guiding the vote?

How many Israeli anthropologists, increasing numbers of whom support BDS against their own universities, did they speak to before deciding on our behalf that BDS is so harmful that they had to write an unprecedented joint letter to stop it?

ALSO READ: Israel lobby’s attack on academic freedom

The UC letter to the American Anthropological Association might seem like insider’s baseball but in fact it reveals both just how much power ultra-Zionist supporters have over UC and how that power diverts precious collective attention away from issues that actually affect the UC community in dramatic ways.


The president and chancellors warn against the “potentially harmful impacts” of a boycott, while saying nothing about the actual harmful realities of the occupation the boycott tries to call attention to.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration is about to give Israel yet another “largest aid package in history” based largely around taxpayer-funded US weapons that will inevitably be used not merely to deny Palestinians their right to education, but to steal their land and kill them in increasing numbers.

One would imagine that as educators, our leadership would condemn such militarism, if only because the billions of dollars the Israeli military will get is so desperately needed by students in California and across the country.

Let’s be clear: the merits of the BDS strategies certainly warrant discussion and debate. But this letter engages in neither; choosing instead to make what are essentially partisan political pronouncements based on assumptions that do not bear even the slightest scrutiny. If this is the best the combined wisdom of our academic leadership can do, UC is in sad shape indeed.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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