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Don’t censor BDS, expose it for what it is

By Andy Bachman

NEW YORK (JTA) — During the Vietnam War protests at the University of Wisconsin, students were said to have gathered on the front lawn of noted historian George Mosse, imploring him to stop supporting the university’s policy of allowing the ROTC on campus. To some students, this alignment with the machinery of war was a “fascist policy,” and they charged their teacher with the same label.

“A fascist,” he was said to have mused. “Which kind?”

Classic Mosse: He engaged his students with wit, turning questions back to them, sending them back to books to examine their claims with “critical thinking.”

Twenty years later, when I was a student and protests against Israel were taking place on campus, Mosse was equally engaged. He did not talk policy, but he made us think about context, perspective and cogency of argument. He also was fascinated by the personalities leading the debates on both sides. What historical forces made them into the students they had come to be?

This arose one winter when the infamous anti-Semitic leader Louis Farrakhan came to campus. Someone wanted an apology from the university for hosting the speech in the field house; as a student leader, I argued one should attend the talk, hear what he has to say. That way, I figured, it would make the argument over his words more interesting and earn some respect from the other side for listening, however misguided or hateful the speech.

Watching the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions debate rear its head at Brooklyn College, a year after successfully beating it back at the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn, brings to mind these experiences. As someone who takes it as axiomatic that the BDS movement doesn’t have a formidable leg to stand on (on a recent trip to Israel, I visited Palestinian friends in Jericho and bought the BDS-forbidden Ahava products at the Ahava Jericho Wall concession stand, above which flew the Palestinian flag; we got good date honey, too) one could have predicted the sandstorm that would ensue once the Brooklyn College political science department co-sponsored a forum on BDS.

While there remain legitimate educational reasons to debate Israeli policy with regard to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, BDS and Brooklyn College became yet another occasion to trudge out the cottage industry of American Jewish politics and all its requisite, manifest claims and questions: Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic? Is opposing Zionism anti-Semitic? Does the strongest nation in the Middle East even care about what goes on at one end of Flatbush while dealing with a nuclear threat from Iran, unstable borders with Syria, an elected parliamentary government not yet in formation, and an unresolved conflict with Palestinians wherein neither side currently has the will to sit down, negotiate and compromise?

Seltzer makers? Hand lotion? Please.

Quick: Ask yourself whose voice you heard in the media about Brooklyn College and BDS? Can you name a historian? Political scientist? A teacher of any kind? Or can you only remember the politicians, community leaders, agitators and activists who weighed in, staking out ground for the greater battle over whether or not Israel should exist?

Some have said that Brooklyn College never should have allowed the program to take place in the first place; that a city-funded university ought not spend taxpayer dollars on a program about a movement that does not actually seek a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than the demographic dissolution of the Jewish state; and that since BDS advocates a binational state and seeks to delegitimize Jewish national aspirations, it’s an inherently bigoted if not anti-Semitic front.

I don’t agree.

Rather, I take issue with the political science department’s tactics. The department should have insisted that the program take place with a serious scholarly approach rather than the show trial that went on, complete with competing claims about intimidation and students being removed from the premises. The teachers should have taught, questioned, prodded and used the lecture hall to lift the discussion to the valued place higher education aspires to occupy.

Oops. There’s that word, occupy. Which is precisely the point. The objection should not be about a university sponsoring a forum on whether boycott is an effective practice for political change. The objection should be that under the guise of “academic freedom,” the agenda for a reasonable debate about difficult issues was hijacked by intellectually weak and tendentious argument.

If I were a Brooklyn College student, I’d demand a more demanding debate, more scholarship from a scholarly department. Academic freedom doesn’t mean saying whatever you want without someone pushing back in the classroom. It can also entail requiring that students learn something, be pushed to new cognitive territory, have their orthodoxies tested and maybe even shattered before being made anew — all for the sake of a higher historical truth that the university, since its inception, is meant to offer.

BDS is insidious and stupid. It’s also wildly ineffective. The university shouldn’t censor it by not addressing it; it should bring the movement under the light of examination and expose it for what it is: an attempt by the weak to bring down the strongest nation in the Middle East that, besides being surrounded by enemies, has a population under its military control that is yearning for a state of its own. Sometimes the most basic facts are more conveniently ignored. So when one-sided programming becomes a spectacle, all we learn is how to shout louder.

At a debate over the meaning of the Vietnam War and increasing violence on campus, George Mosse said to his opponent and friend Harvey Goldberg, “You were so respectable. You thought you could make a revolution without consequences. Well, any revolution has to step over bodies, didn’t you know?”

The Israel and BDS debate needs more candor, more argument and more exposure. Brooklyn College only got it half right. Students and a jaded public lost out. Israelis and Palestinians hardly noticed.

2 Responses to “Don’t censor BDS, expose it for what it is”

  1. Sam Diener
    March 18, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    Dear Andy Bachman,

    I don’t agree with insulting political opponents, much less carelessly throwing around a label like “fascist.” Yet, you seem to be implicitly promoting the idea that maintaining ROTC on campus is a matter of academic freedom. If I misunderstood your intention in bringing up this example, I apologize.

    If an entity came to the campus and said they wanted to fund the training of college students to use weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, would you support the university approving this deal? ROTC does both. (Not all ROTC students learn to fire or maintain nuclear weapons, but some do, including some who I’ve met). If you would support such a deal, would you support the creation of a group, opposed to the first one, similarly training another group of students to kill? If not, wouldn’t this be a violation of academic freedom?

    I believe training students to kill (for any side) is antithetical to any humane academic purpose, and engaging in research in how to kill people more effectively violates any ethical research guidelines worth the electrons with which they’re written. ROTC programs violate these standards and have no ethical place on college campuses.

    When you quoted Mosse again, in your conclusion, I grew even more confused as to what you’re trying to say. Mosse is clearly wrong, historically, if he’s saying that revolutions require killing, as the many nonviolent revolutions of the past several decades attest (see, for example,, and But I genuinely don’t understand what you’re trying to say with this quotation in any case. Are you trying to say that nonviolent revolutions are impossible so you support violent revolutions? Are you trying to say that all revolutions are violent so you oppose them? Are you trying to say that engaging in a debate over BDS will inevitably end up with dead bodies? I doubt you’re saying any of the above, but then why seemingly approvingly quote the line? And what does this falsely ahistorical claim about the inevitability of violence in revolutions have to do with either ROTC or BDS?

    I am glad you are calling for “more candor, more argument and more exposure.” Let’s engage in these difficult dialogues.

    In Peace,
    Sam Diener

  2. JeffB
    March 28, 2014 at 6:17 pm #

    @Andy —

    I like the approach of allowing BDS on campus and allowing debate. BDS has deep inherent contradictions that come out quickly in a debate. For example

    Israel is weak and incompetent vs. Israel is so militarily powerful it was never in any danger in ’48 / ’67 / ’73…

    The contradictions between the anti-colonial movement which explicitly argues for racial entitlement and the human rights movement which argues against it.

    Americans are turning against Israel and Israel is soon doomed by BDS vs. Zionists control congress, the media, the business sector…


    The whole thing does fall apart fast. And the solutions are unworkable. What BDS is really good at is hurting the feelings of Jewish students and to some extent intimidating them. I think for a lot of BDSers the anger at Jews is the message. And that’s a tough debate to have.

    Arguably it is a lot like what the brave African Americans who go on FOXNews have to deal with. They have to deal with really kinda nutsy attacks on “black culture” that aren’t really supported by facts but by emotions against blacks in the first place. And of course just as FOXNews wants to define racism so narrowly that the Klan wouldn’t qualify, BDS wants to define anti-Semitism so narrowly that Hitler and Father Coughlin wouldn’t qualify.

    So debate is good. And obviously it is going to happen. And obviously it should happen. At the same time I think there is nothing wrong with Jews demanding civility. As much as possible I think they should try and raise the bar to get civility back into this debate. Certainly the Zionist side is often so shrill they haven’t helped the cause of civility but at this point BDS appears to be an attack on mainstream Jewish kids at many campuses not just a battle of isolated activists.

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