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.
“What kind of fascist?” he was said to have mused.
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.
(Andy Bachman is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn.)