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How to Debate BDS on Campus

By Kenneth Stern

I highly recommend this book discussed in my new Times of Israel blog post These excerpts from my post focus on BDS: 

Jonathan Marks’s “Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education shows what higher education can be at its best. But his subtitle has it wrong. Marks may be a conservative, and he may want to sway his fellow conservatives the most, but his argument is universal, and that’s the beauty of it. [. . .] 

[Marks’s book] has a chapter on the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Marks presents it as a “case study,” and acknowledges he’s a partisan. He views the arguments for BDS as “propaganda,” ones that are unreasonable and which treat universities “as part of an ‘academic-military-prison-industrial complex,’ against which it is at war.” “When you think you’re in a state of emergency, high-flown talk of becoming reasonable people is a distraction, or perhaps the oppressor’s disguise,” he writes. 

. . . But even though he argues BDS is unreasonable Marks knows that it is still, on campus, an idea. He warns that universities and colleges “should be wary of BDS. . . . But they shouldn’t squash it or its ideals. . . . Communities of inquiry should be distinguished by their reluctance to shut down even obnoxious and radical challengers.”

And that’s the point. Political partisans sometimes fail to appreciate the campus as a special institution that deserves to run by its own set of rules because of its unique mission – to teach young people how to think, not what to think. Marks is spot on when he writes, “When I have my pro-Israel hat on, outside the college setting, I try to win the argument, even to demoralize my anti-Israel opponents. In a college setting, one should, when confronted with a challenging argument, confront it where it’s strongest.” 

[. . .]  He cautions not to fight fire with fire, bemoaning Canary Mission, a “shameful” project to deny future employment to students who do such things as retweet pro-BDS statements. “If we can’t, without suppressing viewpoints, compete with propagandists, we may as well fold our tents,” he says. After all, “the mission of universities is to educate, not destroy students, and so those who care about universities will do the work of exposing anti-Semitism in such a way as to do as little harm to students as possible. . . I think I speak for most professors, including the pro-Israel ones, when I say that, rare cases aside, when you go after my students, I’m inclined to go after you.” 

But he doesn’t just throw up his hands. He circles back to the assertion that universities are “communities of reasonable people . . . The way one opposes BDS should honor that aspiration.” He chronicles how an anti-Israel resolution was defeated at the American Historical Association, by the hard work of academics who documented, with footnotes, how those promoting the resolution had offered a distorted case, while they argued that historians should recognize the “limits of [their] ability as historians . . . to reach a judgment about the facts in dispute.”

He ends the chapter with a story from his own campus, where he co-taught a course on Zionism, which “included Zionists and those who had serious doubts about Zionism.” Throughout the semester “they were compelled to look at the same evidence together and hold each other’s arguments up to scrutiny.” In other words, they learned because they were “treated as reasonable.

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In a related vein, click here for the recording of my March 4th Zoom conversation with Greg Lukianoff, entitled “What’s the relationship between ‘cancel culture’ and hate?” Please feel free to share the recording with others who might be interested.

I also highly recommend Greg’s book (co-authored with Jonathan Haidt): “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.”  For more information on Greg’s organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), consult its website. 

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