Last Tuesday, Professor William Jacobson (’81) of Cornell Law School gave a lecture on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and academic freedom.
Jacobson’s lecture encompassed the historical and legal perspective of the BDS movement. He began with his experience studying in the Soviet Union, then progressed to the modern movement and how it restricts academic and economic freedom, eventually harming the international community.
Jacobson studied in the Soviet Union while he was a student at Hamilton College. Under Stalin, the Soviets killed millions, sent political and social dissenters to prison camps in Siberia, xenophobically deported entire populations, invaded sovereign nations, and restricted academia to the party line. Despite these atrocities and political hostility, domestic colleges and universities continued to promote academic freedom and exchange of ideas with Communist professors (all approved by the KGB, of course).
The recent movement to create a systematic academic boycott of Israel creates yet another highly polarizing issue, simplifying our international relationship into a demonizing, one-sided caricature of Israel. Jacobson remarked that he had never before seen such academic restriction. Only through interaction with diverse perspectives can we promote peace and understanding, if not acceptance.
The BDS movement began as a highly organized international movement in 1945 when the Arab League approved a boycott against Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine, several years before the establishment of Israel. This boycott extended to businesses and corporations in non-Arab nations that did business with Israel, which included Coca-Cola, Ford, and Toyota.
The United States responded with anti-boycott legislation, fining companies (like McDonald’s) that cooperated with the Arab League. The boycott lost influence, and nations ended the boycott from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.
Jacobson then described the modern BDS movement, which began at the 2001 Durbin Conference in South Africa. Initially an “anti-racism” conference, it quickly degenerated into an anti-Semitic cesspool that equated Zionism to racism and labeled Israel as an apartheid state. Delegates from the United States and Israel promptly withdrew from the conference. In 2011, fourteen Western nations opted not to attend the latest iteration of the conference, Durbin III in New York City.
The BDS movement presents itself as an organic, grassroots movement—a boycott from “civil society.” It was, however, highly planned and organized.
The modern BDS movement not only promotes the economic exclusion of Israel, but seeks to ban study abroad opportunities, joint research, lectures and addresses, and even Israeli and Palestinian interaction and, where they come together to discuss their narratives and promote understanding between factions.
This kind of academic restriction ultimately damages students and faculty in the United States and abroad. These sanctions effectively restrict thought and collaboration, allowing the faculties to determine with whom and what their students can interact.
Most modern BDS movements may not be anti-Semitic in intent, but the movement as a whole has its origins in anti-Semitism. This begs the question: Why Israel?
To claim they are a colonial-settler national power would be hypocritical, especially for accusers in the United States, such as the American Studies Association. Any professor working at an American institution should promptly resign if they truly supported the “imperialism” line of BDS movement.
Jacobson concluded by stating the movement clearly does not promote peace or a two-state solution, since it has anti-Semitic roots and its ultimate goal is the end of the Jewish State.
He then opened the event to questions from the audience.
Who benefits from the BDS movement? The Palestinians and other Arab nations certainly will not, since they benefit economically from trading with Israel. When the boycott was in effect, the Arab nations ultimately suffered. The real benefactors are the international non-governmental organizations make money off of the BDS bureaucracy.
Apart from the academic restrictions, the BDS movement promotes several laughable causes. Take, for example, student groups’ boycott of Sabra hummus in the name of justice for Palestinians. Sabra, a U.S. based company mostly owned by PepsiCo, uses U.S. based farms and resources and is marginally connected to Israel through investors and charity.
The people promoting BDS against Israel are, for the moment, simply making noise and stirring up fear. Any university that officially creates BDS sanctions would create a monumental academic and legal backlash. Support for the BDS movement is still troubling, as the next generation of students and professors, goaded on by organizations like the American Studies Association, may be more inclined to radical views restricting academic freedom.
Thanks to the Hamilton Israel Public Affairs Committee (HIPAC) for hosting Professor Jacobson and the event